Monday, March 31, 2008

Hardening of the arteries in North Carolina

I'm going to stay out of the politics, but had to do a quickie post on Raleigh's ban on (new) in-sink garbage disposals. (Catch up via Newsweek or NPR.) Kitchen grease—including cooking oil, bacon fat, and other essential elements of Southern cooking—is being blamed for sewage overflows, one of which reportedly "swallowed a Corvette" last year.

(When I first clicked the "Listen Now" link at NPR's website, the report was prefaced by a "non-commercial commercial" for Cargill. Apparently these get rotated, however, so you might miss out on this ironic juxtaposition. Best of luck... Also, bonus points for anyone who can find YouTube video of the Corvette's demise.)

Dale Crisp, Raleigh's public utilities director, is quoted as saying that "Grease clogs the lines like it does arteries, and our system is at the point where it's going to have a stroke." Wait a minute—you mean the food I eat might be bad for me?!?

Monday, March 24, 2008

Let the games begin

Well, it's more or less official now, and so I suppose it may as well be blog fodder: After coaching youth lacrosse for several seasons, yours truly has been named the assistant coach of Lincoln's new high school club lacrosse team.

This is a slightly odd position to be in. I'm basically a neighborhood pick-up player—at best. I grew up in Maryland, where virtually everyone has a stick and knows how to use it, and attended university with a proud Division I (and now Division III) history, but the closest I've been to "organized ball" is the year or so I spent scrimmaging with the Flying Rats at the University of Georgia—and we played not regulation lacrosse as most of the collegiate world knows it, but toli, the Choctaw double-stick version of America's oldest game.

[Pictured: "Little Brother of War", a Pendleton toli blanket designed by Choctaw artist Nancy Southerland-Holmes.]

The Flying Rats were started by a grad student in anthropology who grew up on the Choctaw rez near Philadelphia, Mississippi, where his mom taught school. He brought some kapucha (ball sticks) with him to UGA, enlisted a few more anthro students, and voilà—the first collegiate toli team was born. I came along quite a bit later, but while we did have some gifted athletes, the average Flying Rat was still more of a cultural enthusiast than a typical jock. To this day, I know more about Native lacrosse in its various permutations than I do about the high school or collegiate rulebook, let alone running drills, or set plays, or the relative merits of a standard 2-3-1 offense vs. an "invert" against a zone defense.

Needless to say, things will be interesting. We hold our first practice on April 1st, another on April 3rd, and then throw the kids to the wolves—I mean, begin competition with teams in the metro Omaha area—on the 5th. Wish us luck...

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Two great rabbit dogs

Not the dachshunds this time, but my best friends' dogs.

Karl Linderholm's beagle, Houlie. Pretty and sweet in one package—the canine Girl Next Door.

Mike Cox's Jack Russell terrier, Gypsy. She is—and I say this with affection—a tough little bitch, hard as nails and twice as sharp. Barbed wire? That can be run through; stitches later. Skunk? Let's rumble!

These photographs, courtesy of Mitchell Renteria, were among those taken for our International Falconer article, but didn't appear in the magazine. (I really thought Seth [Anthony, IF's editor] would use the shot of Gypsy's "battle damage", as it tied in nicely with the text.) I'm happy to give them a space here.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Straggling to a conclusion

Officially, we've got until the 31st, but the hawking season seems to be winding down here in Nebraska. Warmer weather and increasingly scarce rabbits have taken their toll on Stekoa's concentration; lately we seem to be going out more for exercise than with serious expectations of bringing home dinner. That's my perception, not Stekoa's—he's had some good flights on pheasants, though he hasn't held on to any this year, and when he's not chasing pheasants he's content to fill up on small rodents.

My good friend Karl Linderholm has already cut the bells off his female Harris' hawk, Clarice. She caught a pregnant rabbit a couple of days ago, which traditionally marks the end of Karl's season: We don't like catching pregnant rabbits any more than a farmer enjoys eating his seed corn. The third member of the Lincoln hawking trio, Mike Cox, will probably put Clarice's brother Hannibal up to moult soon as well.

Meanwhile, out in the Sandhills, Anita Johnson's tiercel gyr x peregrine hybrid, Riddick, finally caught his first sharp-tailed grouse. AJ has struggled with this bird: Although he started chasing sharps and prairie chickens early on, they are very difficult to bring to bag. Falconers usually take this in stride—the first season with an eyas longwing is essentially an extended training session, the foundation for future hunts—but some hawks can become frustrated by repeated failure. Riddick also had trouble keeping weight on, which affected his strength and climbing ability; AJ joked that he was afraid of heights—not something you'd want in a grouse hawk. But a few days ago, everything went right. A small flock of lekking sharptails flushed cleanly with Riddick waiting on high above, and he took one in good style.

[Photos courtesy of Eric & Anita Johnson:
  • The flush
  • Well-fed hawk and grinning falconer]

Anita did the exact right thing: fed him a huge crop of grouse ("He can't see his feet anymore") and called it a season. This can be a difficult thing to do. After tasting success, we naturally want more. This is intermittent reinforcement, and it's a powerful motivator—we use it to train our birds, so you'd think we'd be aware of its power, but all too often we make bad decisions in pursuit of another random reward. Kudos to AJ for her wise decision to end on a high note. Riddick's confidence should be boosted, and he can relax in the mews for several months with the thought: "I just killed a grouse!"

I'm still looking for closure as the season straggles to a conclusion. Stekoa, the dachsies, and I will make at least a few more trips to the field. If I'm very fortunate, here's how things will go: Maxine and Anya will flush a rabbit, Stekoa will catch it. It will be a male; no harm done to next year's bunnies. I will feed Stekoa a huge crop of rabbit, feed the dogs some as well, and call it a season. Later, I will smoke a pipe and say a prayer of thanksgiving for all the rabbits we caught this year. For all the mice and voles we caught this year. For all the pheasants we chased this year, even if we didn't catch any. For all the grouse I've seen chased, all the quail that flushed close enough to make me miss my sharpie, all the ducks and geese that make me dream of gyrs and peregrines in a season yet to come. For all my relations: mitakuye oyasin.

Congratulations, Lance Mackey!

Early this morning Lance Mackey and his team of Alaskan huskies won the 36th Iditarod, beating out Jeff King's team, due in part to a bit of the gamesmanship I referred to in an earlier post: Mackey decoyed King into taking a break.

Arriving at a checkpoint just a few minutes after Mackey, King found his competitor apparently set to stay a while: dogs bedded down on straw, gear unpacked, cooker lit, etc. Seeing that, the exhausted King also settled in and then took a nap. As soon as the snoring started, Mackey quietly departed the checkpoint, gaining about an hour on the eventual second-place finisher. (Satellite tracking, I'm happy to report, wouldn't have helped anyone here.)

I'll remind everyone that this is dogsled racing, not NASCAR. The race may have been won, but it's still far from over. A number of strong teams are still in the hunt for third place, and the race will continue until the last team reaches Nome and claims the Red Lantern. Often the most interesting stories come from the middle or back of the pack, so stay tuned to Eye on the Trail.

By the way, this makes two years in a row that Lance Mackey has won the Yukon Quest and the Iditarod back-to-back. Each race is over a thousand miles. I'd say more, but I'm having difficulty fathoming the accomplishment.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

photoblogging: Platte River Valley

Susan's sister Christy (a.k.a. remchick) is visiting us from North Carolina, and we spent most of today watching sandhill cranes and other wildlife in the Platte River Valley south of Grand Island. None of the crane pictures really turned out—our camera's zoom lens doesn't have much of a reach, and it's difficult to check the focus on a postage-stamp-sized image—but I thought I'd share a few others.

Without really meaning to, I shot a series of photos with a "home" theme. Seven hundred sixty-three people call Doniphan home...

...or over eight hundred, depending on which sign you believe.

This old cottonwood, I'm reasonably certain, is used as a nesting site by a pair of American kestrels.

Cliff swallows' mud nests under a Platte River bridge.

This Baltimore oriole nest is tightly-woven enough to have survived the winter more or less intact, but they'll build another this spring.

A pair of muskrat lodges.

Finally, a reminder of territorial conflict—the flip side of domesticity. This area was home for the Lakota before settlers like the Martin family showed up. I call this the "good shot" memorial.

The last few images are nothing to do with the home theme, just a few pictures that happened to turn out reasonably well. Top to bottom: lone redhead; geese on skim ice; still life with cattails.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

The good, the bad and the ugly

A study in contrasts:

Exhibit A, the good: This wonderful eagle-owl post at Fretmarks, with video from Finnish television of a football/soccer match delayed for about ten minutes by, yes, an eagle-owl. It seems that a pair of these giant birds nest on or very near the stadium, and have become very acclimated to human activity. The owl in the video displays no fear, no aggression—just curiosity about the goings-on at field level. Much to their credit, the players, officials, and fans mirror the owl's behaviour perfectly. No one panics, no one tries to chase the owl off the field; in fact, the fans start chanting and cheering for the owl. The prevailing attitude is one of patience and mutual respect.

Exhibit B, which is both the bad and the ugly: Professional golfer Tripp Isenhour faces charges of killing a red-shouldered hawk by hitting it with a golf ball. Apparently he was irked that the noisy hawk (Buteo lineatus can be quite vocal) forced a re-take while he was shooting video for a television program. He reportedly hit not one but several golf balls toward the hawk, finally landing a fatal shot.

I have no idea when the eagle-owl video was taken. The killing of the hawk occurred this past December. But both came to my attention today. Synchronicity?

This may call for the revision of some stereotypes. Obviously, not all European soccer fans are hooligans. And clearly, golf is not necessarily a sport for gentlemen.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Capitol peregrines

The latest edition of the NFA journal is finally done and ready to mail; members should have it within a few days. It includes a piece I wrote last summer on the peregrines at the state Capitol, with photographs by Mitchell Renteria. The photo below (also by Mitchell) probably wouldn't have been effective in small-format greyscale, and so didn't make the journal, but I like it for several reasons. One reason is that it hints at just how massive this building is (look for these vertical windows in the sketch below); small wonder that wild peregrines view it as an adequate substitute for a natural mountain cliff.

The article consists of frequent (though slightly irregular) observations of the peregrines and their neighbours through late June and early July—exactly the sort of thing that might have appeared here on Flyover Country had I been blogging last year. Enjoy the preview...

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Gentlemen, start your canines

Today marks the ceremonial start of the 36th Iditarod. (The actual competition begins tomorrow with the re-start in Willow.) A controversial innovation this year is a new (actually adapted) satellite tracking technology being carried by 20 teams that will enable race fans like yours truly to follow the race in something closely approaching real time. The catch? Many mushers are reluctant to be tracked so closely. Running speeds, rest locations, running-to-rest ratios, etc. are often closely-guarded secrets.

For example: Several teams opt to rest at the same checkpoint. Another musher close behind the group checks in, but declines to stop. Whoa, the leaders think, his team must really be strong right now. Better get moving. So they cut their rest short and pull up stakes, only to find their competitor camped out a few miles down the trail. By playing better chess, the musher who blew through the checkpoint obtains several advantages. He gets to camp at a quiet spot in the woods rather than a noisy, crowded checkpoint—and consequently has better-rested dogs. Meanwhile, he's forced (or at least encouraged) his competitors to limit their rest, so their dogs will tire more quickly—and they themselves are more likely to make mental mistakes further down the trail.

The intrusion of satellite technology, to a certain degree, threatens this kind of gamesmanship. With telemetry, a racer's strategy is more an open book.

I'm not a Luddite. (A Luddite with a blog?) I use radio telemetry myself. (Days like yesterday, I'm glad to have it.) But I'd be just as happy to wait for news, to enjoy the suspense, and to let race strategies unfold unseen in the wilds of Alaska. May the best man or woman—and, let's be honest, the dogs who deserve most of the credit—win.

BTW, I'm temporarily adding Eye on the Trail to the blogroll. Musher/writer Jon Little and photographer Jeff Schultz will be flying up and down the trail covering the race in all its aspects—sporting event, cultural event, window on the wonders of The Last Frontier.