Wednesday, December 31, 2008

"A Long December"

This one by Counting Crows captures some of the melancholy and regret that can characterize this time of year, but not without an element of hope as well: "And there's reason to believe that maybe this year will be better than the last..."

[Skip ahead to about 1:20 for the start of the song.]

A happy New Year and peace to all.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Three for the bookshelf or coffee table

I've been reading three relatively new large-format bird books lately, and offer this comparative review. (Almost too late for holiday shopping, I know, but it's a free service.)

First up is On Feathered Wings: Birds in Flight by Richard Ettlinger. This is primarily a photographic collection, purporting to be the first composed entirely of avian flight photos. The pictures are by the author and six other contributors, including Colorado falconer/photographer Rob Palmer. (I met Rob at a NAFA meet a few years ago, even drove him around briefly, and while I doubt he could pick me out of a lineup after such a short meeting, he struck me as a genuinely nice as well as talented fellow.) The book is unevenly divided into four sections: "Killers on the Wing" is the longest, followed by "Wings Along the Shore", "Wings of the Wetlands", and finally the abbreviated "Songbirds on the Wing"—eleven plates in this section, eight of which are photographs of swallows (certainly better than my efforts in that area). I'll confine my commentary primarily to the section on raptors.

As promised in the introduction, many of the photographs are "impossible" shots, or would be to ordinary mortal photographers: well-composed, crisply-focused, dramatic images of hawks and owls in flight. Some were taken at well-known migration points; several others are of falconry birds, either explicitly identified as "captives" or depicting commonly-trained birds outside of their natural ranges (e.g., Harris' hawk in Utah). In none of these latter shots, however, are the standard articles of falconry "furniture"—jesses, bells, telemetry transmitters—visible, so I assume that these have been digitally excised.

Also in the introduction, Ettlinger describes the book's images as "proving anew that a picture can be worth more than a thousand words, that text is an unnecessary embellishment." If only he had taken his own hint... I could overlook statements like "Birds are the only vertebrates able to get away by flying and to live pretty much every part of their lives in the air" (he's never heard of bats?) and assertions that birds mate in mid-air (true, possibly, of swifts, but not of most birds). But descriptions of peregrines "dive-bombing straight down at 200 miles per hour, skewering the victim in their beaks [italics mine], and spiriting it off..." are less excusable, considering that one of his collaborators is an experienced falconer. Ettlinger also presents some erroneous (or, at the least, highly unorthodox) taxonomic theory as fact: Beneath an exquisite Rob Palmer photograph of a stooping American kestrel, he claims that "The black ear patches on the sides of the head and the extensively gray wings of the male...reveal that this North American falcon species is not a true kestrel, but rather a hobby." The aplomado falcon might qualify as a New World hobby, but the AK's affinities are squarely with the kestrels. As for the description of bald eagles as "nearly deaf", I'll keep an open mind, but I'm skeptical.

Bottom line: On Feathered Wings is a visual treat, but the text should be taken with a large grain of salt—or skipped altogether.

Our second book, narrower in scope but more substantial in execution, is Paul Bannick's The Owl and the Woodpecker: Encounters with North America's Most Iconic Birds. I'm not as far into this one, but Bannick seems to be reasonably solid on natural history despite a relatively recent introduction to bird studies: his main interest was amphibians until a chance encounter with a saw-whet owl set him on a new path, and he set out to document and study all of North America's owls and woodpeckers. This pairing is never completely explained, but he does note that both are indicator species, and that about half of North American owl species are dependent on the work of woodpeckers for nesting locations.

The book's chapters are organized by geographic range and habitat type, starting on the Pacific Coast and moving counter-clockwise all the way to boreal forest and Arctic tundra. The appearance and behavior of owl and woodpecker species typical of each habitat are discussed, along with notes on population status and conservation measures that might be undertaken to benefit the region and its avifauna. Bannick's excellent photography can be found on nearly every page; in addition to intimate depictions of his target species and sometimes their neighbors, he has a good eye for landscapes, and his portraits of each habitat could be considered almost definitive.

Unlike Ettlinger, Bannick provides a bibliography for those interested in further research. A nice bonus is a CD collection of owl and woodpecker recordings (both calls and drumming in the case of the woodpeckers) by Martyn Stewart. Even without the CD, I would recommend The Owl and the Woodpecker to anyone interested in either or both of these groups; with it, this book constitutes one of the best bargains I've encountered at the bookstore recently.

The last book in the collection is the most narrowly focused, and succeeds for that reason and others. Owls of the United States and Canada: A Complete Guide to Their Biology and Behavior, by Wayne Lynch, was published last year by the Johns Hopkins University Press—which should be indication enough that this is a definitive work. Like Paul Bannick, Lynch is a gifted photographer as well as a writer, and all but one of the photos in the book stem from his own fieldwork. Here, however, the text does not take a backseat to the photography; Lynch goes into much greater ecological detail while still maintaining a readable and often personal style. Lynch's own anecdotes are supplemented with frequent reference to the work of other ornithologists, and he appends the substantial bibliography expected in an academic book.

The book is organized topically. Many readers will find "Son et Lumière", the chapter on owls' sensory adaptations, the most surprising and enlightening. Owls are often assumed to have hearing and vision far superior to that of humans, but the research findings related by Lynch indicate that human auditory capabilities closely match those of owls, and while the average owl has more acute vision than the average human, there is enough overlap that some visually gifted humans (think Chuck Yeager) may have the edge over individual owls. Where owls really seem to shine is in the area of spatial memory: Those species that live in the darkest, most densely wooded or spatially complex environments are the most territorial, and often very catholic or flexible with regard to diet—in lean times, it's easier for them to switch to secondary or tertiary prey than it is for them to move to a new, unfamiliar location. This "nocturnal syndrome", correlating wooded habitats with strong territoriality, long tenancy, and flexible diet, has obvious implications for rehabilitators releasing owls that have recovered from injury or illness.

While I suspect that The Owl and the Woodpecker will outsell Lynch's Owls of the United States and Canada, the latter will be the first choice of serious raptorphiles. But they are complementary works, and if resources allow, why not read them both?

[Related post: a photo-essay on eastern screech-owls can be found here.]

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Final act of defiance

This is one of those wordplays that will make you smack yourself on the forehead: "Why didn't I think of that?" Dan Piraro, creator of Bizarro (and BizarroBlog), did think of it. And then published it in newspapers across the country. Just in case yours isn't one of them...well, here you go.

Friday, December 12, 2008

"I Love the World" (a.k.a. "Boom De Ah Dah")

Susie's been playing this when she's at the computer, and singing it around the house when she's not, and now it's stuck in my head. So here you go...may as well get stuck in yours.


Thursday, December 11, 2008

Keep an eye on that Pomeranian

From WXII, Channel 12 in Winston-Salem, comes this story about a small dog being carried off (and then dropped) by a raptor. As usual when the non-specialist media venture off the pavement, some skepticism is called for. For example: "[Veterinarian Mitchell] Spindell says that large birds like this red-shouldered hawk can do a lot of damage in the blink of an eye." Okay, so he just happens to have a red-shouldered hawk handy, which I suppose made the camera crew's day, but the implication that a redshoulder could have carried off even a toy Pomeranian is a bit of a stretch. A redtail, maybe, or a great horned owl (even in the daytime), but a redshoulder?

Reminds me, of course, of one of Gary Larson's best:

HT remchick, my best source for strange news out of North Carolina.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Smokepole hunting

My brother Greg, who has never hunted before, just took his first white-tailed deer during Maryland's black-powder season. Not with one of those modern in-line jobbies, either: his thunderstick is an 1861 Springfield rifle, firing a .58-caliber Minié round. That's a big chunk of lead, and I wasn't surprised to hear his doe dropped where she stood. One deer, one shot.

This particular Springfield pulls double duty. It's more often fired, sans Minié ball, at bluecoats when Greg re-enacts with the 13th Virginia. He is the adjutant for the Confederate Military Forces Society; in addition to dressing up and playing soldier (often for the education of kids at living-history events), the CMF raise funds for battlefield and flag preservation.

Greg's deer tag allows him to take two does and a buck, so there may be more pictures to follow. Meanwhile, Greg, congratulations! (And save me some venison.)

Update: Two corrections from Greg. First of all, he took his doe during the regular firearm season, during which he can also hunt with his muzzleloader. Secondly, he has to take two does and a buck before he's eligible for an extra buck stamp—but he can take as many as ten does.

I think the Maryland DNR may be getting serious about thinning the herd; the issues, as usual, are carrying capacity (too many deer overbrowse their habitat, leading to drastic fluctuations in deer populations and adverse effects on other wildlife) and human-deer conflicts (especially vehicle-deer collisions). Successful hunters who may not actually need eleven or twelve deer are encouraged to participate in Farmers and Hunters Feeding the Hungry, a program that puts venison where it's needed most.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Right enough for chickens

Circumstances made me miss both the NFA field meet three weeks ago and the NAFA field meet underway right now, but I did get to spend the last few days hawking with Art Graves. He moved to the Nebraska Sandhills nineteen years ago for the express purpose of hawking grouse, specifically greater prairie-chickens and sharp-tailed grouse. Chickens are far more common than sharps where Art lives, and so make up the majority of his flights. He flies gyr x peregrine tiercels, and maintains very high standards for himself and his birds. For Art, a good flight means not just a high pitch (a thousand feet or so) and a vertical stoop ending in an explosion of grouse feathers, but his hawk attaining that pitch by pumping all the way up, without missing a single wingbeat. His current bird, Jimi, has already killed several prairie-chickens this year, but lately has displayed a tendency to set his wings on occasion; this, along with a reduced pitch, is slowly driving Art mad. As I said, he maintains very high standards.

We set out early yesterday to find prairie-chickens. They roost and loiter in grassy cover, but often feed in cropland, so Art concentrates on pivot-irrigated fields—mostly corn in this area, but occasionally soybeans or wheat—where grouse congregate in the mornings and evenings to feed. (Grouse-hawking takes a lot of space. Art is a bit of a homebody for a grouse hawker, rarely venturing away from his local hawking grounds even for a field meet. He estimates that he has access to about 40,000 acres, which he scouts on a regular basis; even so, he occasionally has trouble finding "flyable" birds.) Cruising past a recently-harvested cornfield in his big Toyota pickup just after sunrise, Art caught a glimpse of what might have been a bird hunkered down in the stubble. Easing to a stop in the road, he sighted down the rows with a Nikon spotting scope and confirmed it was a not a pheasant (best avoided because of pheasants' tendency to put back in after the flush, thereby lowering a gamehawk's pitch over time) but a prairie-chicken. He tossed out a blaze-orange hat to mark the spot, put the Toyota in reverse, and backed up several hundred yards to a low spot in the road where we could put on Jimi's telemetry transmitter, unhood him and release him without flushing the chicken prematurely.

Once unhooded, Jimi roused and quickly left the fist, flying in a businesslike manner in the cold morning air. (Even a half-Arctic hawk is adversely affected by warm weather.) He usually follows Art's truck well, a big plus when there's a lot of ground to cover between the release point and the quarry, so Art jumped back into the driver's seat and drove off-road until we were even with the hat. Getting out and looking up to find Jimi before we walked in for the flush, we saw only empty sky. Art pulled out the telemetry receiver, hoping it would reveal Jimi as just a speck directly overhead, but instead the signal was on the horizon in the direction we'd come from. After a few minutes, Jimi came skimming in low, apparently having chased a flock of pigeons or some other "check" he'd spotted while we were taking off in the Toyota. He landed expectantly in the stubble and waited for Art to produce some food. Instead, a frustrated Art presented an ungarnished fist and announced, "We're doing this again."

With Jimi again hooded and secured in the back of the truck, we set out for one of Art's most reliable spots, which he calls "the beanfield" despite the fact that it's been planted in corn for almost fifteen years. A few chickens were flying into the field as we arrived, but driving into the field, we spotted trouble in several forms. A dozen or more chickens were perched in the top of a tall cottonwood nearby; these will often draw the hawk's attention at the outset, but they fly off as soon as the hawk takes to the air, resulting in a long, fruitless and possibly hazardous tailchase. A few more chickens flushed from the corn stubble as we drove, but flew directly uphill and put in dangerously close to a fence. Finally, Art spotted a prairie falcon perched atop a pole on the near horizon. Wild prairie falcons are magnificent birds, and Art has an appreciation for them of course, but they are also a nemesis of sorts since they distract his hawks from their intended quarry; just the previous evening, we had watched Jimi expend most of his energy in a long chase across the sky to engage a prairie in a bit of aerial dogfighting before coming back (at a lower pitch) for a flock of chickens that were no longer there. Not again—we left the beanfield in search of another, more feasible slip.

We found one going down a narrow, rutted dirt track through grassland. Several chickens flushed as we turned in, rocking side to side in their distinctive pattern of quick wingbeats alternating with a brief glide. They flew more or less parallel to the track, and finally put in just on the far side of a round-topped hill about a quarter-mile away. This time, after releasing Jimi, Art stood on the running board of the Toyota to keep an eye on him as I drove toward the birds, hoping not to bounce Art off the truck.

When we eased to a stop and ran at a crouch to the top of the round hill, Jimi was directly overhead, and although he had briefly set his wings he was once again pumping his way upward; Art seemed almost satisfied with the situation. Then, just before we could crest the hill and flush the flock we had seen put in, a single prairie-chicken flushed wide from the slope below and to our right. Jimi folded and stooped, and despite the imperfect positioning managed to catch up to the fleeing chicken and deliver an audible hit.

For the benefit of those who have not seen them in action, I should point out that prairie grouse, especially prairie-chickens, are incredibly tough birds, infrequently brought to bag; with their armor-plated carapace (rap with your knuckles on a prairie-chicken's back and you'll encounter what amounts to a turtle shell covered in loose feathers) and will to survive, they can absorb a hard hit from a stooping falcon, bounce off the ground, and still keep flying strong—in falconer's parlance, they "take a lot of killing". So we weren't surprised to see this flight devolve into a long tailchase, which usually isn't successful even with the speed of a gyr hybrid. But then Art saw, through his binoculars, Jimi pitch up again and slam downward.

Art was concerned about where the flight had ended up, so we quickly jumped into the Toyota and drove almost recklessly to that general area: a barbed-wire fence paralleled a section road under a string of power poles, one of which turned out to have a ferruginous hawk perched on top. Inexplicably but fortunately, the ferrug either hadn't seen the conclusion of the flight or hadn't bothered to take advantage of the situation, and lumbered off as we drove up. A brief search with telemetry guided us to Jimi pluming the dead chicken amidst grass and sage in the roadside ditch, just a foot or so from the barbed wire. The absence of feathers on the wire, and an abundance of them on the slope above the ditch, indicated that Jimi had pounded the chicken into the ground just as it cleared the fence—a lucky thing, as the fence could easily have killed them both. Further examination showed how Jimi had been able to catch up to the grouse: the initial hit had taken most of the secondary feathers out of its right wing, leaving it under-powered and vulnerable.

For Art, it was an imperfect flight: Jimi could have been higher, shouldn't have set his wings, might have been able to kill one outright on the initial stoop had we been able to get a perfect flush beneath him. But it was good enough to kill a chicken in decent if not picture-perfect style; even more importantly, what could have been a tragic aftermath to the tailchase was averted. Given the number of variables and complications involved in grouse hawking—including (to list just a few) the hawk's weight and condition, both physical and mental; the temperature; wind speed and direction; cloud ceiling; geographic and temporal distribution of feeding and roosting sites for grouse, not to mention the mobility of the grouse themselves; presence or absence of stationary hazards like power lines and fences, as well as mobile ones like prairie falcons and eagles—it's too much to expect that any day's hunt will be perfect. If things didn't go perfectly yesterday, at least they went right enough.

And to the victor go the spoils.

"Alice's Restaurant Massacree"

Someone had to post this for Thanksgiving...may as well be me.

I had the distinct pleasure of seeing Arlo perform this on his "Alice's Restaurant" tour a few years ago. Other highlights included, of course, "City of New Orleans" and a spooky rendition of "House of the Rising Sun".

The historical background on the Massacree is here for anyone who might be interested.

Back later with some falconry...

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

photoblogging: snow in the highlands

Driving into western Maryland yesterday, I encountered altitude-effect snow: Snow showers at Sideling Hill, Big Savage Mountain, Meadow Mountain, rain in between. But on the western side of the continental divide, the snow had fallen in earnest.

In Bawlamerese: "Watch out for them deers, hon." Always a good idea, but especially in the snow.

Snow on pine boughs along Garrett Highway.

The Youghiogheny River near Oakland.

Goldenrod, also on the Yock.

The right tool for the job.

Every third or fourth car in the western Maryland mountains, it seems, is a Subaru. If only everyone would drive one... While I had dinner with friends/family in Oakland, darkness fell and the snow started again with a vengeance, swirling around as if a snowglobe had been given a violent shake. Not wanting to get stuck in Oakland—with another 24 hours of snow expected—I declined an offer of lodging and headed back up to I-68 and then I-79. As the weather worsened, hundreds of drivers in West Virginia and Pennsylvania parked along the interstate—not just on the shoulder, but in both lanes; wherever the mood struck them, apparently. Road conditions called for caution, but not for giving up. I carefully picked my way among cars, 18-wheelers, and more than a few Jeeps and eventually reached Washington, PA.

Sleep was bliss.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Sign of the times

This doesn't look like the work of an organized movement, but at least someone in Maryland has figured out the equation:

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Paul G. Churchill, 1945-2008

Today is Veterans' Day, an especially poignant one for me as I am just now starting to come to grips with the loss of my dad, Capt. Paul G. Churchill, USAF, who passed away on Friday.

My dad was a member of the Pershing Rifles military fraternity and the Reserve Officers' Training Corps at the University of Maryland. He was heavily involved in the Pershing Rifles' acclaimed drill team, and also served as unit chaplain. (Among his other duties, he would occasionally "bless" a ham sandwich for his friend David Skillman, who was widely but incorrectly assumed to be Jewish.) He married his college sweetheart, Jo Ann Grammer, at the University chapel, and I was born in January 1967. Upon his graduation later that year, Dad was commissioned into the U.S. Air Force. Subsequent postings included Texas and Indiana, where my brother Greg was born. Then, in 1970, he was sent to Vietnam, assigned to the 8th Aerial Port Squadron at Tan Son Nhut Air Base near Saigon.

Vietnam, the Un-War: Where the unable lead the unwilling to do the unnecessary for the ungrateful.

—unknown graffitist at Tan Son Nhut

War has been described as "long periods of boredom interrupted by brief moments of terror", and that description would be apt for my dad's tour in Southeast Asia. He endured hot, humid weather; semi-regular rocket attacks; and a brief, accidental visit to an apparent Viet Cong depot (a story I may tell later). Then, of course, there was the separation from his young family.

Much of his time off-duty was spent keeping up contact any way he could. He recorded and mailed cassette tapes as well as letters and postcards. (Many of the latter I still have). Often, after a duty shift, he would wait in line at the comm office for hours to place a five-minute radio-relay telephone call to my mom. There was always someone else on the line, a necessity which made any sort of intimacy difficult, and the connection was not always good. Once, after several requests to "Please repeat, over," an airman at the relay station broke his silence to clarify what had been said: "She said she loves you, sir." Dad said the sentiment lost a lot in translation.

Otherwise, off-duty hours were spent in Saigon; at the officers' club, where a Filipino cover band might give Creedence Clearwater Revival or the Beatles a cruel battering; or just hanging out at the BOQ. Occasionally, there would be parties with the Australian contingent—the Yanks provided the steaks, the Aussies the beer, which represented a welcome change. Normally, the only beer available was Black Label; rumor had it that soldiers at a forward operating base once cheered the downing of a C-7 Caribou because its cargo consisted entirely of Black Label beer.

Sometime in 1970, Dad's idealism was challenged when he was ordered to supervise the loading, without paperwork, of a suspiciously unmarked black plane—his first direct contact with the reality of the secret war in Cambodia. (This would have been before the overt Cambodian Incursion, and probably represented either a ground component to the "secret war" or a preliminary operation by special-ops forces in advance of the Incursion.) His cynicism increased when he had to ship home the body of a friend killed in combat.

Dad was proud of his military service, but considered his time in Vietnam a wasted year. I'm not so sure about that. The war itself may have been a mistake, but I believe his essential decency made him a force for good and an ambassador for the American people. At a time when many servicemen treated Vietnamese people with suspicion and contempt, and ethnic slurs were applied to enemies and allies alike, Dad saw himself as a guest in Vietnam and treated its citizens accordingly. He and some friends stocked a refrigerator in the operations office with Coca-Cola and put up a sign: "Cokes 25 cents, or 10 dong for our Vietnamese friends." (I may have the conversion backwards; it might have been 10 cents and 25 dong.) This simple gesture earned him the respect and friendship of the Vietnamese civilians working there, and set an example for the men of his command.

For a recent birthday, our family gave Dad a Pendleton blanket entitled "Grateful Nation" in recognition of his service to country. In my mind, this includes not just his time in the Air Force (even after Vietnam, he kept his name on the rolls of the inactive reserves in case he was needed in uniform once again) but also his subsequent career as a teacher and his life as a true family man. As my brother and I today began the long and difficult task of sorting through his belongings—a task that could take months, as Dad was both a collector and a packrat; I once told him that when I thought about clearing out his house, I prayed I would go first—this was one of the first items I secured. Another: the Akubra hat with RAAF insignia given to Dad by an Australian officer in Vietnam in a gesture of friendship and solidarity.

If you have the chance, or can make a chance, thank a veteran today. Or anytime. I'll likely be on hiatus a few more days at least, but I'll get back online when I can. Peace to all.

Update: More on Dad from The Baker Street Blog, The Baltimore Sun, and The Carroll County Times.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008


The eagle says it all in this cartoon by Bob Englehart at the Hartford Courant. Congratulations to President-elect Barack Obama, and to us all.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Laying low

Here's to them that shoot and miss.

—old falconer's toast

Looks like another day for football and politics: Stekoa caught a rabbit yesterday, and I took the opportunity to feed him up and spend the day mostly indoors. The gun season for pheasant and quail opened last weekend, but hunter success was relatively low due to a late harvest—many gamebirds are still in standing corn and soybean fields—and with sunshine and temps in the 70s expected this weekend, I suspect many of the fair-weather shooters will be in the field for another try.

I should point out that it's specifically the fair-weather shooters I fear. Any bird-hunter still at it in December or January is obviously dedicated, probably knows what he or she is shooting at, and hopefully has enough ecological sense not to see hawks as a threat to gamebird populations. But the eighty to ninety percent of small-game permit holders who venture afield only in the early season make me fear not just for Stekoa's safety but also for my own. Hunter-safety education has reduced the number of fools who shoot at movement or even sound without positively identifying their targets, but it hasn't eliminated them. My caution, not to say paranoia, was reinforced when a pheasant hunter got Dick Cheneyed just last weekend near Valparaiso. And hawks always catch hell during the early season, as evidenced by surging admissions at Raptor Recovery Nebraska (which obviously account for only a small percentage of the hawks shot).

This time of year, I'll hunt early on a weekday, but no amount of blaze orange will convince me to risk a beautiful Saturday like this. So:

  • Air Force at Army. Guess I'll root for Air Force, though my dad was ROTC, not Academy, and couldn't possibly care less about football, anyway.... Hmmm, maybe I'll watch Kansas vs. Kansas State instead.
  • Florida vs. Georgia, which remains the world's largest outdoor cocktail party no matter what SEC officials may say or do. Go Dogs!
  • Tennessee at South Carolina, a chance for Vols fans everywhere to revile Steve Spurrier.
  • Nebraska at Oklahoma, a slightly-tarnished but still classic rivalry. Go Big Red!

Enjoy the weekend, and be safe.

Three days

Come writers and critics who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide, the chance won't come again
Don't speak too soon, for the wheel's still in spin
And there's no tellin' who that it's namin'
And the loser now will be later to win...
For the times they are a-changin'

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

All in due haste

Somebody has lit a fire under these guys to get this done in due haste.

—Jamie Rappaport Clark, executive director of Defenders of Wildlife, former director of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

In what appears to be a parting shot at any semblance of meaningful environmental protection, the Bush Administration is attempting to fast-track (really fast-track) the review of public comments on proposed changes to endangered-species rules.

The changes? Well, when considering the potential effects of federally-reviewed projects such as dams, power plants, etc. on endangered species, concerns about greenhouse gases would be dismissed a priori—and, if that's not incredible enough, the advice of federal biologists at the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service would not be sought. Whiskey...Tango...Foxtrot.

Now, it's reasonable to assume that a significant portion of the public commentary might be in opposition. Is that a problem for the administration? Not at all. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service proposes to bring in a team of 15 experts (speed-reading experts, apparently) to review all 200,000 or so comments in a 32-hour session. Do the math: 200,000 comments, divided by the 32 hours devoted to the task, divided by 60 minutes per hour, divided by 15 team members sharing the workload. Each of the 15 experts will need to read almost 7 comments per minute. That works out to not quite nine seconds per letter—and I don't mean letter as in character, but letter as in note, missive, epistle, some of which may be several pages long.

This is beyond cynical, even for the Bush White House. Apparently one or more of the Interior Department's many lawyers pointed out that Interior was required by law to read the comments—and so the administration will adhere to the letter of the law while flagrantly trampling on its spirit. Why bother actually discussing or thinking about public opinion (or, indeed, the public welfare) when you've already made up your mind to disregard it?

Read the AP article here if you are even slightly disinclined to believe any of this. An attempt to ignore global warming, by rule, and bypass or ignore biologists on endangered-species issues—and then to gloss over public outcry—does sound like parody from The Onion, but that's really what has been proposed.

Utterly disgraceful.

Monday, October 13, 2008

"If The Walls Could Talk"

Here's one for Christy, Andy, and other real and honorary Athenians: A new (to me, and probably to you) song from Guadalcanal Diary frontman Murray Attaway. (Never mind he's really from Marietta; he's an honorary Athenian, too.)

[When the video is done playing, you can access a video for "Litany" as well.]

Friday, October 10, 2008

Go Big Red

I get the call a couple of times a year: "A hawk flew inside the building, and now it can't find its way out." Usually it's a small bird-catching hawk that entered a structure in hot pursuit of some English sparrows, and I've trapped a number of sharp-shinned hawks, Cooper's hawks, and American kestrels from commercial locations such as a lumberyard, a metal-plating shop, a brick factory, a warehouse-style furniture store, a document-storage facility... Today's job was slightly different: the bird turned out to be a haggard red-tailed hawk, and the building was the Nebraska Cornhuskers' indoor training facility at, yes, the Hawks Championship Center (named for a major donor, not in anticipation of visiting raptors). Fortunately the football team has an away game this weekend, and so the field house was emptier and quieter today than usual.

The Hawks Center is huge, comparable to an aircraft hangar—well, of course there's a football field inside, which should help to define the scale. Five national-championship banners (1970, 1971, 1994, 1995, 1997) are displayed prominently at one end of the field house; another banner hanging from a catwalk commemorates dozens of Nebraska football conference championships dating back to when they played in the Missouri Valley Conference (but omits a few conference titles in the pre-Cornhuskers era when they took the field as the Bugeaters). Everything in there is red and white, with the exception of the green portions of the field itself and two John Deere "Gator" UTVs.

Why the redtail flew in I'm not sure—the sparrow-chasing scenario doesn't really fit—but she had been there three and a half days and the athletic department, to their credit, called Raptor Recovery Nebraska, who in turn called me. How the redtail got in was more obvious: Visible in the photo above (borrowed from are several large garage doors which open onto an outdoor practice field. Once inside, however, hawks have a tendency to stay in the upper reaches of a building, flying among the rafters and ignoring the garage doors as a potential exit. Which is why I get the call...

Artificial turf makes poor habitat for wildlife, and a sharpie, Cooper's, or kestrel would be nearing the starvation point after several days in a building with no food, but a redtail in good condition could conceivably go a week without eating in warm weather such as we've been enjoying (or experiencing, at any rate). Hoping for the best, I deployed a bal-chatri, loaded with two white mice and an English sparrow, at the 45-yard line between the hash marks, then hid myself behind an enormous stack of red gym mats and settled in to wait.

And wait.

And wait.

A hungry hawk would have slammed the trap right away, but nearly an hour passed before Big Red deigned to circle overhead. A few minutes later, she landed on the turf three yards away—not an estimate, thanks to the specifics of the location—and walked around the trap peering at its inmates. (A friend of mine, also a falconer, calls this the "kicking the tires" routine.) Eventually she hopped on top and began footing half-heartedly, then flew off dragging the trap, a middle toe caught by a single noose—which promptly broke. The trap, of course, flipped upside-down, so even if she hadn't been made trap-shy by her brief entanglement...well, let's just say it's hard to casually saunter up to a bal-chatri, turn it over, and continue on under the watchful eye of an adult hawk without her getting just a wee bit suspicious of the easy meal.

On, then, to Plan B.

I returned in the late afternoon with Ellie and a dark grey mouse, hoping that Big Red wouldn't make a connection between the suspicious, enclosed white mice and this more natural-looking offering. The facility manager opened one of the garage doors, we tethered the mouse near the cavernous opening, and once again settled in to wait.

And wait.

And wait.

Ellie's got a pretty good attention span for a nine-year-old, and enjoys hawk-craft to a degree, but eventually got bored and started asking when we could go home. I pointed out how lucky we were to get an insider's look at the NU facilities, and I reminded her that Big Red had been stuck inside for days, and therefore could make a much better case for boredom. Soon Ellie was rolling in the soft grass laughing at mock journal entries:

Day 4 of my captivity. Starting to hate the music here, but the weather remains consistent. Food appears at last—pallid and strangely uncooperative. I forgo eating, and instead fly to the other end of the building. Looks much the same from this perspective. I fly back, then turn and fly to the other end. Then turn and fly back...

Finally, though, the hawk forsakes her habitual perches at either end of the field house for a beam above mid-field. She seems interested in the grey mouse, but perhaps a bit suspicious. At least she's looking now... Suddenly she's stooping toward the mouse. But wait—she's landed short of it by about...five feet? This is well out of bounds, so it's harder to tell. At last she strides over to the mouse, pins it to the artificial turf with a bright-yellow, nicely-taloned foot, and goes to work with her beak.

As Big Red eats—and fortunately, she takes a leisurely approach—Ellie skirts the far sideline until she is directly opposite the hawk, framed in the sunlight streaming in through the garage door. Then she rushes the hawk, sixty-odd pounds of nine-year-old girl blitzing three pounds of hollow-boned, feather-clad raptor; Big Red decides to take the hint (and what's left of the mouse) and flies through the doorway, free at last. She finishes her repast atop a chain-link fence outside the Hawks Center and then, at my approach, flaps out over the North Bottoms neighborhood where two crows rise from the trees in protest as she resumes her life out of doors.

Go Big Red.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Autumn, by the bushel or by the peck

The greatest service which can be rendered any country is to add a useful plant to its culture.

—Thomas Jefferson

Sometime in the next week or so, we'll probably take a day trip down to Nebraska (by which I mean Nebraska City) to visit the Pendleton outlet and to lay in some apples and fresh-pressed cider from the orchards there. But we're not short on fruit at the moment: A friend from work sent me home a few days ago with a generous bag of heirloom apples from her family's small orchard. She couldn't tell me the variety—apparently her husband mislaid the diagram showing which trees are which—but they easily beat Granny Smiths for tartness. Ellie and I like a nice sour apple and, ignoring my friend's recommendation that they be used only for baking, we've been eating them at a good clip.

We haven't been the only beneficiaries, either. With the sudden bounty has come an uptick in the household Drosophila population. The fruit flies are a minor annoyance, but nothing more—except to our Siamese fighting fish (Betta splendens), who live in glass coffepots on the kitchen counter. For the bettas, the fruit flies are a boon equivalent to the apples for Ellie and me. When I catch the fruit flies loitering on the kitchen cabinets, I kill one or two with a tap of my finger, then step over to the coffeepots and let the water's surface tension draw the flies off my fingertip. The fish have figured out the routine by now, and as soon as I withdraw my finger, they float to the surface to suck down the flies.

The fox squirrels in the back yard, already starting to fatten up for the winter, get the apple cores. My redtail, Stekoa, would rather chase rabbits than squirrels—we'll be back at it soon—but it never hurts to propitiate the animal spirits anyway.

If there's a unifying theme to any of this, it's just that autumn is here, and I'm grateful.

[Pictured: Pendleton blanket based on a Cherokee basket. We'll need a basket at the orchard, right? And the colours are just right for the harvest theme.]

Friday, October 3, 2008

"Bone of Conciliation"

Henry Chappell at Home Range has written an excellent article for Orion magazine on an attempt at conciliation between Texans and the Comanche Nation.

The time for apology has long passed. The men guilty of planning and executing the ethnic cleansing of the Southern Plains are many generations gone. Though their descendants still enjoy the economic benefits of their ruthlessness, apologies seem hollow without amends, and what amends can be made for the near destruction of a culture?

RTWT. And may the spirits look kindly on everyone involved, especially the educators at Comanche Nation College and Texas Tech University.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008


As long as we're talking about conservation, today's Pearls Before Swine nails one of the bigger issues:

Pearls creator Stephan Pastis has the predator mindset down pat in this strip—just ask any falconer about bagged game, live-lures, or hawk-trapping:

And finally, one for Christy and other fans of the Athens music scene:

If your newspaper doesn't carry this strip, write a letter and beg them.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

All conservation is local

A few items of local interest:

The National Audubon Society, which manages the Spring Creek Prairie near Denton, has requested that portions of two dirt roads (total mileage: 1.1) along the edge of the property be vacated. This is, in my opinion, an entirely reasonable request. With over 98% of the original tallgrass prairie gone, we should do everything we can to save and enhance what is left. The county engineer, however, foresees a time when this portion of SW 86th Street might be needed for an arterial highway. A highway, here?!? I don't make it out to Spring Creek as often as I should—the last time, I think, was last summer, when Ellie and I participated in a butterfly count—but it's one of the best (and one of the very few) remaining tallgrass prairies in the Lincoln area. If we can't work around a gem like this, we've really screwed the pooch. Here are links to an article and an editorial from the Journal Star.

National Geographic photographer (and Lincoln resident) Joel Sartore—whose website I highly recommend, by the way—makes a good case in the Prairie Fire newspaper for saving the critically endangered Salt Creek tiger beetle, which is endemic to a constellation of small sites just north of Lincoln. This spring, the city of Lincoln was awarded grants for habitat conservation and restoration by the Nebraska Environmental Trust and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Still, there is a lot of local opposition (notably from those with commercial real-estate interests) to protecting "just a bug", even when it's explained that the beetle is emblematic of an entire unique ecosystem. Like Lincoln isn't expanding too rapidly already...

Moving slightly farther afield, and on a happier note, an easement agreement will preserve Pahuk Hill near Fremont, a site of both natural and cultural importance. Dave Sands, executive director of the Nebraska Land Trust, describes the location as "where the west begins" since this bluff represents the westernmost occurrence of several trees and other plant species. In addition, traditional healers of the Pawnee Indians long revered Pahaku (sometimes Anglicized as Pohocco) as the site of an animal lodge, where herbal medicines were revealed by animal spirits to the healers.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Monday, September 22, 2008

Survivor: Isla Nublar

I could survive for 1 minute, 6 seconds chained to a bunk bed with a velociraptor
Well, 1:06 according to this widget, anyway. But as I recall, the Velociraptor of the fossil record (as opposed to the Velociraptor of Jurassic Park) was somewhere between the size of a chicken and a turkey. Given a half-decent pair of boots, I think I might be able to take the little bastard, at least the single specimen posited in the scenario.

The critters in the movie, though called Velociraptor, are more like Deinonychus. Against Deinonychus, I don't think there's any way I last a minute-six.

[HT dr. hypercube at Diary of a Mad Natural Historian.]

Sunday, September 21, 2008

(Second) fastest dog in the West

What is it about dachshunds, especially miniature dachshunds, that compels people to announce "Look, a wiener dog!" to no one, and for no apparent reason? I don't care for the term, although I have no objection when my friend Rachel from New Zealand refers to Maxine and Anya as my "sausage dogs". But I put that quibble aside once a year for The Running of the Wieners, held in conjunction with German Heritage Days by the Platt-Duetsche Society of Grand Island.

Grand Island is Nebraska's third-largest city, but this is an exemplar of Nebraska's small-town festivals, many of which celebrate the immigrant (and, if you count wacipi or powwows, Native) cultures represented in the state. Lots of German immigrants settled in the Platte River Valley, so why not set up a biergarten and race dachshunds for fun?

[Ellie starting Anya]

The basic format is this: A series of qualifying heats in which up to eight dogs run (I think) a 40-yard dash; the fastest eight in each age class run a second and final race. There is also a costume contest, and a number of vendors sell doggie-related items in the Platt-Duetsche parking lot. But the main draw for us is just the chance to spend time with other dachshund enthusiasts, marvel at the variety of coats and colors, and watch kids enjoying the dogs.

Today marked the 8th annual Running of the Wieners, and our third. Maxine is an athletic dog and made the finals last year, so we weren't too surprised when she won her qualifying heat with a time of 4.3 seconds. She improved that time to 4.28 in the final, despite easing up at the finish line, and claimed second place only two-hundredths of a second behind the winner. Her motivation: I was standing at the finish line, tossing and cradling a ball in my lacrosse stick—the only thing Max enjoys more than hunting rabbits is chasing balls, especially lacrosse balls. If I had stepped back from the finish line, she would have charged full-speed the whole way and taken gold.

[Top to bottom:
  • Pre-race: Mark, Ellie, & Maxine
  • Ellie starting Max
  • Forget the trophy; this is my reward!]

Anya also took home a prize, a third-place "Judge's Choice" ribbon for her "Indiana Jones" costume. It was actually a fly-fishing vest and boonie hat, but Ellie doesn't seem to mind.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Not original equipment

I almost hate to admit it...but this is kind of cool.

For discussion and terrible, terrible puns, click here. HT Susie.

Friday, September 12, 2008

A quiet spectacle at twilight

About 7:45 this evening, I stepped outside into a misty rain to let the dogs out, and was treated to the sight of a few dozen nighthawks flying low overhead. It's not unusual to see nighthawks in the neighborhood in the summer, but a concentration like this only occurs during migration. The caprimulgids swept across the sky, coming from and going to all directions at once, barreling through on shallow, falcon-like wingbeats, occasionally pitching up and stalling, or changing direction so abruptly it seemed they might turn inside-out—all without benefit of an air-traffic controller. The beauty of their flight was enhanced by an unusual quiet: none of the nighthawks' typical buzzing calls, no traffic noise, no barking dogs (even Maxine & Anya seemed to respect the moment), and the two chimney swifts that joined in the chase for insects (apparently undeterred by the mist) withheld their usual chattering.

You should have been there.

You can be there: The migration is underway, and all you need is a little lucky timing and an excuse to step outside in the evening.


Thursday, September 4, 2008

Dolores Umbridge and the wolves

A bit of slightly lazy blogging today, in that I'm borrowing much of this from Defenders of Wildlife. I will point out first that I don't always see eye to eye with DoW. One action I did admire was their compensation program for ranchers in Yellowstone region who could document stock losses caused by wolf depredation. This innovative, straightforward measure did much to ameliorate tensions in and around Yellowstone. Moreover, they were on the right side of the issue—returning wolves to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem—while a few other conservation groups, notably the National Audubon Society, opposed the reintroduction on the grounds that 10(j) designation as a "non-essential experimental" population reduced legal protection for (purely hypothetical) wolves that might wander in from other parts of the country where they enjoyed full ESA protection. Unfortunately, DoW later fell into the same sort of thinking—"protecting" individual animals from a carefully-designed program that would have no negative effect on populations—when they opposed an extremely limited and highly regulated take of eyas peregrines in the western U.S. for falconry.

They're on the right side of this one, though. Like most conservation groups and, indeed, hunters worthy of the designation, they are opposed to aerial hunting of predators like wolves and bears. Unfortunately the Repulican nominee for vice-president, Sarah Palin, thinks aerial shoots (and bounties on wolves) are a great idea.

Here's some more information on her record as governor of Alaska, courtesy of Defenders of Wildlife:

Sarah Palin and the Environment

Governor Sarah Palin has an extreme anti-conservation record on issues ranging from global warming, energy and drilling to wildlife and habitat protection.

Aerial hunting of wolves and bears

Governor Palin is an active promoter of Alaska's aerial hunting program whereby wolves and bears are shot from the air or chased by airplanes to the point of exhaustion before the pilot lands the plane and a gunner shoots the animals point blank.

Palin offered a $150 bounty for wolves to entice hunters to kill more wolves in certain parts of the state, with hunters having to present a wolf's foreleg to collect the bounty.

She actively opposed a ballot measure campaign seeking to end the aerial hunting of wolves by private hunters and approved a $400,000 state-funded campaign aimed at swaying people's votes on the issue.

She also introduced legislation to make it easier to kill wolves and bears and which would have also removed the aerial hunting initiative from the ballot and block the ability of citizens to vote on the issue.

The Board of Game, which she appoints, has approved the killing of black bear sows with cubs as part of the program and expanded the aerial control programs.

The media is currently looking into reports that state officials implementing one of the aerial wolf killing programs illegally killed five-week old wolf pups just outside their dens.

Global Warming

As recently as August 2008, Governor Palin questioned whether man-made fossil fuel emissions are responsible for global warming, defying worldwide scientific consensus (Newsmax 8/29/08). And her drill-drill-drill approach to energy issues will do nothing to ease the causes of global warming, promote the use of clean, renewable energy sources, or break our addiction to foreign oil.

Endangered Species

Palin has repeatedly opposed the listing of endangered animals under the Endangered Species List despite overwhelming scientific evidence that such listings are warranted.

Polar Bear

The U.S. Geological Survey predicts that loss of summer sea ice - crucial habitat for polar bears - could lead to the demise of two-thirds of the world's polar bears by mid-century, including all of Alaska's polar bears. The Bush administration has proposed listing the polar bears as threatened under the ESA to help protect polar bear habitat from threats such as oil and gas development.

Governor Palin has actively opposed the listing of the polar bear despite the fact that Alaska's top marine mammal biologists agreed with the federal scientists who believed the bear should be listed. She wrote the Secretary of Interior urging him not to list the bear on the ground it might hurt the state's oil- and gas-dependent economy. After the bear was listed, she recently filed suit seeking to overturn the listing of polar bears.

Beluga Whales

Alaska's Cook Inlet beluga whales are a unique group of white whales whose numbers have dramatically declined in the past two decades due to pressures ranging from pollution to increased ship traffic. Governor Palin opposes the listing of the Cook Inlet beluga whales, citing the listing as a threat to oil and gas development, despite their genetic uniqueness and the fact that their numbers have decreased from 1,300 in the 1980s to about 350 today.


Palin is a strong supporter of drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a vital wilderness area. It is home to hundreds of thousands of caribou who use the refuge as a calving ground, more than one million migratory birds, and countless other wildlife. It's the most important onshore denning habitat for female polar bears. Senator McCain himself has repeatedly voted to protect this pristine wilderness area. Palin is also a supporter of drilling in Bristol Bay and other offshore sites despite the risks to sensitive marine wildlife in the area, including the endangered polar bear and Beluga whale.

Clean Water and Pebble Mine

Governor Palin actively campaigned against a state ballot measure this summer aimed at protecting Alaska's Bristol Bay. The mining industry seeks to develop a gold and copper mine in the area that would pollute the Bay's headwaters and threaten the spawning grounds for the largest remaining wild salmon run. The initiative would have prevented large-scale mining operations from dumping waste materials into salmon watersheds.

I already had concerns about Dolores Umbridge—excuse me, I mean Governor Palin—being a heartbeat away from the Oval Office. But while I can't say the above information surprises me, it does still shock me a little.

You can express your opposition to aerial hunting by purchasing this nifty pin from Wm. Spear Design in Anchorage. (I can't believe this is the first time the link has appeared at Flyover Country; I'm a huge fan of Bill's work.)

And you might also consider not voting for the McCain/Palin ticket this November.

(HT Julie for putting this on my radar.)

Sunday, August 31, 2008

In a nutshell

So here's the thing:

The guy has access to good information. Sometimes knowledgeable people, experts even, come to him...

Occasionally he might seek them out.

He might take his time, weigh the options...

But just when it seems he might be getting it...

He goes and makes the lame decision anyway.

(Gotta love the stylin' "Members Only" jacket, though.)

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Day for the ducks

From Ducks Unlimited:

As you read this, North America's most important waterfowl breeding habitat is being plowed under on a massive scale. Surging demand for food, federal mandates for corn-based ethanol production, and the new Farm Bill are encouraging cultivation of every available acre, including pristine native prairie and land formerly enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP).
. . .
And the loss of prairie breeding habitat is escalating. In 2007 alone, more than 850,000 acres of former CRP land in the Prairie Pothole Region (PPR) were converted back to cropland. In total, more than 4.3 million acres of CRP will expire in this region by 2012. Even worse for the future of waterfowl, however, is the ongoing loss of native prairie. The remaining 22 million acres of native grassland in the PPR produce the majority of the fall flight of waterfowl from the United States each year. Sadly, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Montana have lost more than 500,000 acres of native prairie since 2002, with almost 64,000 acres lost just last year. If current loss trends continue, an additional 3.3 million acres of native prairie will be lost in the next few years.

Native prairie is still being lost to cultivation in Nebraska as well. This would be bad enough if these acres were being farmed for food, but for ethanol?!? This is sheer lunacy—it's an unpopular position here in Nebraska where corn is king, but ethanol is not the answer to America's energy concerns. And destroying native prairie for the sake of ethanol is not just bad policy, it's a crime against humanity.

[Redhead drake: Photo by Bill Houghton, borrowed from the DU website]

Habitat destruction, the biggest threat to most wildlife and therefore to biodiversity, is not just something that happens in the far-away Amazon. It's right here, everywhere developers are building suburbs and everywhere farmers are plowing under native grasslands. So what to do?

Well, the good news is that habitat destruction is not always carried out by mustache-twirling villains. In fact, some agents of habitat destruction would prefer not to carry it out at all. Quoting again from DU:

Fortunately, many farmers and ranchers are ready to work with Ducks Unlimited to save this vital prairie waterfowl habitat. Right now, these landowners have offered to sell Ducks Unlimited grassland easements on more than 300,000 acres of wetland-rich native prairie in North Dakota and South Dakota. For a one-time payment of only $360 an acre, DU can purchase these easements and permanently protect this vital habitat forever. Presently, landowner demand for grassland easements far exceeds available funding.

Accordingly, DU has started a "Rescue the Duck Factory" fundraising campaign. This is a worthy cause, enough so to overlook the redundancy of "permanently protecting habitat forever". Cashflow being restricted on the home front, I've decided to give up one of my days off, sign up for an extra shift at work, and pledge the proceeds to DU.

I challenge anyone reading this to think of a way to dig deep and contribute: Sign up for some overtime. Forgo a night out, or a week's worth of Starbucks. Heck, if you happen to have the cash on hand, just sacrifice that. It's only money... Your reward? The chance to help some of your fellow Americans do the right thing, and autumn skies full of ducks and geese.

[Ducks unlimited—redhead drake and a big flight: Drawing by Ellie, shortly after her 7th birthday.]

Three cheers, by the way, for Rebecca at Operation Desert Dove, who just took a job with DU in California.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

That frozen concoction that helps me hang on

Jimmy Buffett can keep his frozen margaritas—I prefer mine poured on the rocks. For hot-weather refreshment when I need to keep my wits about me, my frozen concoction of choice is the snowball.

Now let me be clear: A snowball is not an Italian ice, and it's certainly not a snow cone. A snow cone is granulated ice with a small amount of flavoured syrup; a snowball is finely shaved ice with a large amount of flavoured syrup. Snowballs are popular in Maryland (the shaved-ice machine was invented in Baltimore), where they are nearly as iconic as steamed crabs and Natty Boh, but damn near unheard-of everywhere else (which is why I have to shoot down the snow cone comparison straight away).

I favoured watermelon snowballs as a kid, but have since adopted my late mom's choice: spearmint and chocolate. Mint-chocolate snowballs may not be visually appealing—as they melt, they turn a nasty brownish-olive color that reminds some people of a baby's diapers—but they are delicious, and I indulged in a couple while back home last week.

Normally, my return to Nebraska would be marked by snowball withdrawal, but it turns out that Lincoln has not one but two snowball stands. I was expecting a Baltimore connection, but according to the young man behind the counter, Snow Rush (reviews here and here) is owned by a family from Louisiana. Susie ordered Georgia peach, and I ordered spearmint (alas, no chocolate on the menu), and when they were served I was alarmed to see the ice piled high above the rim of the cup—like a snow cone. Fortunately, one taste proved we had the real thing: genuine, oh-so-refreshing snowballs. And even better, the counterman agreed to share my request for chocolate syrup with the owner.

Summer is, for me, kind of a drag. If I could aestivate like a ground squirrel, sleeping away the hottest weeks underground, I would. But snowballs can make even a hot summer's day bearable. A Maryland treat, in Nebraska, by way of Louisiana? Laissez les bon temps roulez!

[Update: I added links to two reviews, above. The Journal Star review credits a shaved-ice machine to a New Orleans grocer. This article at Wikipedia would seem to agree. Clearly further research is needed, but I did enjoy learning about other incarnations such as the granizado, piragua, and raspado.

Meanwhile, great article about the true Baltimore snowball here, courtesy of the City Paper. Sources interviewed for this article date snowball consumption in Charm City to the turn of the last century, well before the New Orleans machine was invented, but not necessarily disproving the Big Easy's claim to fame since the earliest snowballs were apparently hand-shaved. Anyway, RTWT for cultural significance. The references to Gino's, Wild Bill, Chessie, etc. really take me back. Guess I'll have to put on some Crack the Sky now. Video below: "Ice" (get it?) performed live in 1998.]

Monday, August 11, 2008

The bear candle

I’ll be mostly away from the computer for about a week, but here’s a story to tide you over... Last September, in their “All-Gear Issue”, Field & Stream ran a Bill Heavey article (“Always on Call”) about his visit to the Cabela’s call centers in Kearney and Grand Island. It included a few stories from phone reps; the best were the guy who wanted a refund on a broken fishing rod (he had been fishing for alligators) and the customer who kept ordering and then returning cuckoo clocks (his complaint was with the packaging: "Everybody knows that if you pack cuckoo clocks in cardboard, it makes the cuckoo louder"). I do some part-time work for Cabela’s, and the following is a transcript, as accurate as memory allows, of one of my favorite calls:

“Do y’all carry bear candles?”

“Excuse me?”

“You know, bear candles: they repel bears?”

“Uh, mosquitoes, yes. Bears, not so much.”

“Could you double-check?”

Pause. “Okay...” I should mention that I did not know at the time, and still don’t know, if my leg was being pulled. But if this was a joke, the caller deserves some kind of award for his acting skills. He played it very straight. In any case, I couldn’t imagine what kind of scent might repel bears. They are very serious about omnivory: they will eat almost anything, including plain candle wax. My search, predictably, came up empty, and I told the caller so.

“Okay, then, how about a spray?”

“Now there I can help you. We carry several...” I proceeded to tell him about what I considered the best option. “It’s basically a very heavy-duty pepper spray.”

“How far will that spray?”

“About thirty feet, maybe thirty-five.”

“Yeah, that sounds good. Now, if that gets in the kids’ eyes...will it hurt?”

I thought about saying, Well, that depends, sir. How tough are your kids? I mean, we’re talking about pepper spray here, enough to deter a bear. I settled for:

“Yes. A lot.”

Brief hesitation. “Okay, then, thank you very much.” And he rang off.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008


An excerpt from an article I wrote several years ago:

Although I haven't fished for years [that part is outdated], I did a lot growing up, mostly with my grandfather, and always in the company of ospreys. They are everywhere in the Chesapeake Bay country; on the bay's dozens of tributary creeks and rivers, a nest is almost always in sight. But I associate ospreys especially with the Pocomoke River on Maryland's Eastern Shore, where as a 5-year-old I caught my first fish, a middling-sized yellow perch.

The Pocomoke is a tidal river, its flow reversing daily with the pull of the moon. Its banks are forested with oak, sweetgum, and poplar, and when the trees shed and the leaves fall in, they stay in, drifting downstream and then back upstream—millions of leaves slowly decaying, staining the river a deep tannic brown, like an enormous cup of strong tea. The whole system is incredibly fertile, organic—sensuous—and the river teems with fish. Naturally, the river's bounty draws ospreys to soar overhead, occasionally pausing to hover on rapidly beating wings until they fold and plummet into the tea with outstretched talons.

Like the Nanticoke Indians who fished the river with us, and long before us, Pappy and I saw the fish hawks not as competitors but as teachers. Their example inspired, and hopefully elevated, our fishing; they made us truly appreciate each fish we landed, not just for its size but for its being. The ospreys are the undisputed masters of the river, and anyway they were there first, long before even the Nanticokes.

—from "The Presence of Greatness"

I was fortunate to grow up where I did; the Chesapeake Bay area was a refugium for ospreys in the 1960s and '70s, maintaining decent numbers even when populations elsewhere were crashing due to the effects of DDT and other organochlorine pesticides. Their numbers are even higher now, and they are easy to observe due to their fairly confiding habits. Not many raptors will nest in the open, just yards from human activity, but for years there was (there may still be) a pair of ospreys nesting on pilings immediately adjacent to a river ferry on the Eastern Shore—not tall pilings, either, but approximately eye-level to a car driving onto the ferry.

(Imagine my joy when Major League Lacrosse started up eight years ago with the Baltimore Bayhawks as one of its founding teams: My favorite sport, with my hometown team named after one of my favorite birds. Alas, as George Harrison noted, all things must pass... The Bayhawks are in Washington now, but I'm still a fan.)

Here in Nebraska, osprey sightings are more noteworthy. I usually see just one or two each spring and fall; the one I remember best was a few Septembers ago at Karl Linderholm's house. We were loading his Harris' hawk into the truck for an early-season hunt when an osprey flew low overhead carrying a fish in its talons: "packing a lunch", as the saying goes at hawkwatches.

The current issue of NEBRASKAland magazine features an osprey article by Bob Grier, which includes preliminary notes on a nest near Scottsbluff. The only fault with the online version is that the photos are rather small; the shot of the bird carrying the rainbow trout looks much more impressive on the magazine's cover.

Friday, July 18, 2008

More prairie-garden photos

Just pics this time...

Purple coneflower

Again with monarch...

...and red admiral

Royal catchfly


Wild bergamot


[For any new visitors, previous pictures can be found here and here.]