Saturday, December 26, 2009

Merlin update

Between work, bunny hawking, training the new bird, holiday preparation, and shoveling snow, there hasn't been much time for writing lately. I hope to get back to active blogging again soon, but for now a quick update on the new merlin.

Several years ago, when I first trapped Stekoa, I had been flying small hawks for several years: most recently a passage sharpie, prior to that a series of kestrels. The new redtail seemed huge, and I marked it down as a female. Evidently it had been a very good hunter, as it was in high condition—higher even than I had realized. By the time the hawk was at a workable weight, and my perception of size had readjusted, it was apparent that Stekoa was likely a tiercel.

Now it seems I've done the same thing in reverse: After several years away from micro-raptors, the new hawk seemed smaller than it actually was. Of course the initial weight ("trap weight") would have been meaningless, as the hawk had been stuck inside a building for a week without food, and for the first few weeks the only training attempted was basic manning and hooding; the first priority was simply to get the bird to eat as much and as frequently as possible without jeopardizing its health or making it overly fearful as hawks in excessively high condition can be. We've now moved on to actual training (calling to the fist and to the lure) and the merlin has been responding well in the 190-gram-plus range—much more typical of a columbarius merlin (female) than a jack. So Wakulla (named for a river in Florida near which many columbarius merlins are trapped on passage) will hereafter be referred to as she.

(For what it's worth, neither my friend Karl Linderholm nor the two Game & Parks biologists who assisted with the banding questioned the initial ID, and there's enough overlap in size that it's still not definite, but the etiquette here in the West dictates that a hawk of unknown gender is generally regarded as female.)

For various reasons, I've been in no hurry with Wakulla's training. Hawks in general, and merlins in particular, usually progress more quickly than their trainers are ready to admit, and consequently are somewhat overprepared by the time they're brought to the field. But as this is my first merlin, and considering that passage merlins are notorious for carrying prey (this can be a major vice, and can even lead to the loss of the hawk), I see no harm in overpreparation. Certainly a raptor as pugnacious as a merlin isn't going to forget how to chase birds! I'll continue my deliberate approach for now, but I am starting to look forward to seeing Wakulla extend herself in pursuit of quarry. I'll be sure to write more when that happens, so please stay tuned...

Sunday, November 29, 2009


From the good folks folks at Despair, Inc.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

A bird in the hand

The phone's been ringing off the hook lately with bird-in-a-building calls from Raptor Recovery Nebraska: a Cooper's hawk in the secured hallway of a shopping mall, a kestrel in a hospital under construction, a Cooper's hawk in a warehouse. Most of these rescues have been up in Omaha, and the drive has become tiresome (surprisingly, it took three days to get the Cooper's hawk at the mall), so when I got the call Wednesday afternoon about a hawk (species unknown) inside an Omaha printing facility, I was more resigned than overjoyed at the prospect of another trip up I-80.

Upon arrival, I met the general manager and we went in for a look around. He hadn't been able to give me a great description, but I was more or less expecting another Cooper's.

Instead I found, and immediately trapped, a passage jack merlin. [Photos by Mitchell Renteria (1 & 3) and myself (2 & 4)]

After all the miles I put on my car this fall without trapping a merlin, it's so nice to have this jack fall into my lap. This he did almost literally—having been inside for nearly a week, he hit the trap as soon as I set it down and turned my back, but before I had a chance to walk away. Razor thin, but otherwise in good shape, I have high hopes for the little guy.

And damned if that drive didn't seem easier this time around.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

NFA field meet, November '09—more photos

These shots courtesy of Mitchell Renteria. I'm really glad there are other (and better) photographers in the group, especially since I don't carry a camera when it's my bird in the air...

[Scott Backlund's redtail backlit atop a white pine]

[Stekoa in flight at Davis Creek]

[Donna Vorce's new redtail. She picked it up at Wal-Mart on the way to the meet. Seriously. She picked it up. At Wal-Mart.]

[Just hanging out: Maxine]

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

NFA field meet, November '09

Some notes and photos from the recent Nebraska Falconers' Association field meet in Burwell:

The meet started (for the early risers among us, anyway) in the pre-dawn quiet Saturday morning. We drove to a shortgrass prairie hillside where, as Eric Johnson advised us, sharp-tailed grouse lek in the spring and roost at almost any time of year. He pointed to the next ridge over and said that, due to subtle habitat differences, greater prairie-chickens were to be found there instead. (Rosehips on this hill for the sharps, a favored grass on the next ridge for the chickens.) Eric unhooded his gyr x peregrine hybrid, River, and after a short pause atop the truck, she took to the air.

[River's pre-flight routine]

Once she'd attained her pitch—five hundred feet or so this morning; Eric would prefer higher but River favors her gyrfalcon side and doesn't need much height to generate speed and power—Eric and I ran in for the flush, accompanied by Gunner, Eric's English setter. River stooped and hit a grouse, then stooped again after her pitch-up. We both agreed it had been a fatal hit, and found her on her kill under a lone cedar tree not too far from where the flight had begun. It turned out to be a prairie-chicken after all; the self-imposed segregation of sharps and chickens is incomplete, and hybrids are not uncommonly found.

[River and her chicken]

[Hero shot]

[Gunner cools off in a stock tank]

We flew bunny hawks in the afternoon. I had really been looking forward to an "easy" rabbit hunt in the Sandhills, where the cover tends to be more sparse than it is back home. What I got was a two-hour ordeal (maybe three) in heavy cover at Calamus Reservoir, as Stekoa followed cottontails running alternately through hillside cedars growing as dense as any southern Appalachian "rhododendron hell", impenetrable willow thickets growing at the edge of the lake, and enormous piles of driftwood bleached to silver by the relentless prairie sun. I would have gladly abandoned the hunt, but I had little hope of calling Stekoa down while he was seeing rabbits, and anyway Maxine and Anya were working so hard in the heat that they made me feel ashamed for even thinking of quitting. The crowd of beaters and onlookers was repeatedly split as we traversed the area, and eventually most of them set off to fly other hawks in a more congenial setting. Finally, after everyone but Donna Vorce had departed, Stekoa was induced to leave the cedar hell for a more open area of grassland dotted with individual cedars, adjacent to a small cattail marsh, and within a few minutes he had his rabbit.

[Wind circles on the beach at Calamus]

Karl Linderholm caught a rabbit with his Harris' hawk, Clarice, and first-year apprentice Nick Morris and his redtail took their first rabbit together. Scott Backlund bravely flew a new passage redtail, trapped just 18 days earlier, with a crowd of about twenty people in attendance. Surprisingly, only a single bunny was flushed for her, but she handled herself well and ought to be as steady a hawk as one could wish for. No rabbits were flushed for Clarice's brother Hannibal, flown by Bob Noble, and after three voles Bob decided to call it a day.


[Karl and Clarice with her rabbit]

Sunday was another early morning, this time with Anita Johnson and her hybrid tiercel, Riddick. Riddick is River's brother, but he seems more peregrine than gyr—when he was at about six hundred feet, another longwinger in the party commented on his nice pitch, to which Anita responded bluntly, "That's shit; wait 'til he gets there." "There" was something like eleven or twelve hundred feet, and when Riddick came down those of us who had lost visual contact were able to find him again by the ripping sound made by the air rushing through his wings. He hit a prairie-chicken and disappeared over a hill, but despite the cloud of feathers that went drifting over Eric and Karl, both Anita and I knew that the chicken would keep going and Riddick would soon be back. He did return, and once again mounted into the sky, but a wild prairie falcon came in and crabbed with him; by the time that interaction was over, Riddick was spent and Anita called him in to the lure.

[Riddick in morning light]

The meet was more or less over by breakfast, except for a small party of us who adjourned to Davis Creek Reservoir for a last bit of bunny hawking. The hills above the lake, with their sandy soil, are characterized by healthy cottontail populations, large stands of densely-growing switchgrass, and an abundance of holes the rabbits can use for escape cover when the switchgrass isn't enough. But eventually both hawks flown, Clarice and Stekoa, caught bunnies and we all headed for home.

[No longer with us: This church near Davis Creek, photographed last winter, has since fallen down. A lot has changed since last year...]

The can-do, make-do spirit is alive and well

In some parts of the world, when a knob breaks, a hotel owner sends someone to the hardware store for a new knob. In rural Nebraska, the hotel owner is just as likely to run to the hardware store for a pair of Vise-Grip pliers.

It may or may not be elegant, but it worked great all weekend. This pair looks old enough to be Nebraska-made; the Vise-Grip was invented and, until recently, manufactured in DeWitt. Rubbermaid bought the company in 2002; last year they closed the factory in DeWitt and outsourced production to China. Word is that the quality has suffered.

Thursday, November 5, 2009


In falconry lingo, "entering" refers to the introduction of a hawk to new quarry: A newly-trained redtail is said to be entered on rabbits after catching its first cottontail, a peregrine might be entered on ducks before taking on more difficult game like prairie grouse, and so forth. Falconers don't usually speak or even think of terms of "re-entering" an intermewed hawk; entering is a one-time event, rather like losing one's virginity.

But I have to admit that I was reconsidering the concept this season. Stekoa and I ventured back into the field a bit later than usual, owing to scheduling conflicts and the vagaries of this October's weather. And it was starting to feel as though my avian partner had forgotten all about rabbits: until yesterday, he was averaging five "miscellaneous" kills (mice, voles, snakes) per outing, and could easily have doubled that if I had had the patience. Flights at bunnies were few and far between, not to mention seemingly half-hearted. Why follow me and the dogs, why put in hard flights at rapidly fleeing cottontails, when so many delectable treats are to be had by simply dropping out of a cedar tree?

Yesterday, though, everything came together. The dogs and I flushed a couple of rabbits almost immediately, and Stekoa pulled fur on one before it escaped into standing corn. (The strange weather has also played havoc with the harvest.) Suddenly he was all business, following closely and, better yet, taking good high perches out in front of us. The dogs had a good day, too, Anya yipping up several scent trails—most of which also led into standing corn—and Maxine running full-tilt in several directions at once despite the uncomfortable warmth of the afternoon. After several good but unsuccessful flights in heavy cover, I got our party turned around back in the direction from which we had come: it was hot, I was tired even if Maxie wasn't, and I wanted to end the hunt on a high note rather than letting it descend into another moustravaganza. But, as so often happens, we found another rabbit and Stekoa caught it within sight of the car. Triumph, sure, but also relief.

Last night I mentioned to my daughter that (by our standards, at least) I hadn't seen her much lately: between work, hawking, and other responsibilities—including a couple of hawk-trapping assignments for Raptor Recovery—I haven't been able to take her to school in the mornings or pick her up in the afternoons. "That's okay, Dad," she said. "I'm glad you've been helping the hawks and getting out hunting. It's good for you."

Ellie and my wife, obviously, are both very supportive. They also know me very well. Susan says I'm at my most difficult just before hawking season, my short temper being symptomatic of inactivity, confinement, and repressed hunting urges. And Ellie's comment made me realize that I had not just been anxious to re-enter Stekoa on game. I needed to re-enter my life, to fully engage in the pursuits that bring me alive again after the long stultifying months of summer.

More soon...

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Damn damn damn damn damn

After a week or so of looking, and hundreds of miles on the new Subaru, I finally found a merlin this afternoon—in a favorable location for trapping, and just a few miles from home. I deployed a phai trap baited with a sparrow, then a short distance away dropped two more sparrows in a bal-chatri, and finally parked and settled in to wait.

Seemingly out of nowhere—actually from between two buildings—came a passage redtail intent on the sparrow fluttering in the phai. Almost immediately, a spike kestrel (no idea where he came from) made a slashing stoop at the redtail, but the bigger bird continued undeterred and took the sparrow, mauling the lightly-built (but fortunately weighted) phai in the process; she managed to carry the trap and weight over a chain-link fence before being grounded for good. Cursing, I sprinted around the fence to release the redtail as the kestrel departed for points unknown. The redtail was caught in a single noose, and once I'd draped her in my overshirt (good thing it was a cool day, as I have been wearing just T-shirts) it was easy enough to let her go—but what a show for the merlin.

I carried the mangled phai back to the car and drove off, hoping against hope the merlin might still hit the bal-chatri. To my surprise, she hadn't flown off straight away.

Instead, she scanned the area from her lightpole for ten minutes, and then flew away.

Friday, September 18, 2009

"Stand By Me"

The Ben E. King classic, as performed by musicians from around the world and mixed by Playing For Change.

I highly recommend the PFC website, which includes a couple of Bob Marley numbers, folk music, and at least one original song. HT Pauline Z.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Michael L. Cox, 1952-2009

Mike Cox passed away on Monday, following a yearlong battle with cancer. A brief and no doubt inadequate tribute follows:

Mike Cox was one of my best friends, and held the additional distinction of being the very first friend I made in Nebraska. When my wife Susan and I decided, in 1998, to move here—she had been offered a teaching post at the University of Nebraska—I went through back issues of Hawk Chalk to see how many falconers might be in Lincoln. Two names kept popping up: Mike Cox and Karl Linderholm. So I determined that, once we got settled in, I would give them a call. But I'm just introverted enough that I could have found excuses to put that off for weeks or months. Fortunately, on just our second day in town, fate intervened when a neighbor, seeing my tiercel redtail in his newly-erected mews, contacted Animal Control. This resulted in a further chain of calls to the local rehab organization, Nebraska Game & Parks, and finally Mike. Unaware of all this, I was stunned to receive a call from the very person I had intended (eventually) to call!

It turned out that Mike and Karl were the best of friends, and soon I was fortunate enough to find myself included in this relationship. For the next ten years, the three of us regularly drank beer together, played sand-court volleyball together, and of course hawked together. There were times when we seemed to drift apart—other than volleyball on Friday nights, we might go weeks without speaking during the summer, leading Karl's wife Lynne to observe, "It's like you guys give up your best friends for Lent!" But this was a symptom of familial comfort rather than any sort of discord: when we did reconnect, usually just before the start of hawking season, it was as though no time had passed. Both Karl and I considered ourselves tiospaye or extended family, having spent many evenings as well as the occasional Thanksgiving or Christmas with Mike and his wife Linda, either at their house or at their home away from home, Barry's Bar & Grill in downtown Lincoln. Conversation at these gatherings might range over an incredible diversity of topics, but naturally falconry was the one we returned to over and over again.

Mike had come to falconry in his twenties, having already excelled at taxidermy and karate. His first hawk was an imprinted redtail, a bird he might have kept to the end of his days had it not been shot from the road by a poacher. Karl came along a year into Mike's falconry career and, with few if any experienced falconers nearby, they taught themselves and each other the basics of practical gamehawking. They were both instrumental in getting Raptor Recovery Nebraska off the ground: when the Wachiska Audubon Society embarked on this project, they had plenty of enthusiasm but no hands-on experience with birds of prey; Mike and Karl put in many hours as volunteers, and eventually got the others up to speed.

Mike was a founding member of the Nebraska Falconers' Association and served several terms as its president. He flew a variety of hawks at both furred and feathered quarry, but eventually settled into his niche as a dedicated rabbit hawker. I just missed his goshawk phase, during which he flew several of these volatile accipiters; by the time I came on the scene, Mike had become infatuated with Harris' hawks—not because they're easy (although they certainly can be) and not because they're social (I never saw Mike fly his bird in a cast, and know of only one cursory attempt to do so), but because of their athleticism and intelligence. Despite a demanding full-time job at the Lincoln Journal Star (he eventually became the newspaper's production manager), he spent at least five days a week in the field, and preferred to hunt seven days a week if the weather permitted it. Never a game hog, Mike was long content to bring home a single rabbit per outing, but eventually switched to making multiple kills because he realized that his tiercel was hunting for exercise and enjoyment, not strictly for food. Doing right by his hawk was Mike's way, and one reason he simply couldn't fathom the motivations of pet-keepers: "I just want everyone to have as much fun as I do."

Have fun he did. I've already mentioned volleyball; Mike and Linda, along with several friends, started a recreational team that remains together to this day. They also started, in 1976, an annual pilgrimage to western Nebraska, where with a rotating assortment of friends and relatives they paddled the Niobrara River by float-tube, canoe, and more recently kayak. After their first kayak trip, Mike and Linda bought their own Daggers and began exploring several of the local lakes around which we hunt during the hawking season. Not that this was their only time on the water—summer evenings not dedicated to volleyball were generally spent in and around their backyard pool, which was the place to be on the Fourth of July. (It was at the pool that I recorded and later transcribed some of Mike's stories into articles for Flatwater Falconry, the Nebraska hawking journal.)

Last summer, Mike began experiencing a visual disturbance which he described as a glare in his field of vision, even when he was out of the sun. He ignored it, and after a few days it went away. Weeks later, he woke up to find the glare had returned, now bad enough that he couldn't read the morning paper. He went to the doctor's office, and from there to the hospital, where he was diagnosed with lung cancer. The cancer had metastasized; a brain tumor was responsible for the glare. Although Mike underwent both radiation and chemotherapy, the prognosis was never good.

Still, Mike and Linda were determined not to give up on life, and never gave in to bitterness—in fact, Mike accepted his fate more gracefully than many of his friends did. He gave his hawk away to friend Bob Noble because he himself couldn't ensure enough flying time (again, doing right by his hawk), and when I spoke hopefully about the possibility of Mike's getting Hannibal back after a year of treatment, he gently but matter-of-factly announced, "Mark, I don't expect to be here in a year." After years of good advice from Mike, this was a final piece of quiet wisdom: set aside denial, accept what is, and be at peace with it. In Mike's final months, he and Linda traveled, he continued to play volleyball when he could, and he even made the Niobrara trip this summer (two days after being released from the hospital following a seizure!). My daughter Ellie and I went on the Niobrara trip for the first time this year, and now I’m even more glad than ever that we were able to do so. Ellie, who was born during our first winter in Nebraska, had known Mike all her life—and, like me, will treasure every memory of her time with him.

Mike was one of life's good guys: a man who married his high-school sweetheart, who worked hard to support his family but always kept work and play in balance, who lived with integrity and generosity and humor. His family, his friends and colleagues at the paper, and of course the Nebraska falconry community will all miss him—the world will never again be quite the same. But, as Mike pointed out to me, life goes on, and he was okay with that. I'll do my best to be okay with it, too.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

The pink gun

For several years now, firearms manufacturers interested in expanding their female clientele have taken the sporting goods industry's traditional "shrink it and pink it" approach literally, offering both handguns and long guns in pink finishes.

A good friend of mine (who shall remain nameless for the purposes of this post) is considering a handgun. She's being encouraged by her boyfriend, who owns several of his own firearms in addition to the sidearm he was issued as a sheriff's deputy. But he won't "let her" get a pink gun. Is it just me, or does it sound like he's a bit insecure in his masculinity? Or perhaps in hers?

As the saying goes, guns don't kill people, ammunition kills people. Unless her rounds are going to be loaded with face powder instead of gunpowder, even a pink gun will spit out chunks of metal at a pretty impressive velocity. So, "Joey", let her make up her own mind.

Friday, September 4, 2009

International Vulture Awareness Day

When the vultures watching your civilization begin dropping is time to pause and wonder.

—Paul Brower

Tomorrow, September 5, has been designated as International Vulture Awareness Day. This was prompted primarily by the Asian vulture crisis, which has seen populations of several species—long-billed (Gyps indicus), slender-billed (G. tenuirostris), and Oriental white-backed (G. bengalensis) vultures—plummet to near-extinction.

The mystery of the birds' abrupt disappearance was solved in 2003 by researchers associated with The Peregrine Fund, who discovered that diclofenac, a widely-used NSAID (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug) given to livestock, caused kidney failure in vultures which fed on carcasses containing even minute amounts of the drug. India, Pakistan, and Nepal all banned diclofenac in 2006, but Gyps populations in southern Asia continue to decline. Presumably, this continued decline results from exposure to illegally-prescribed diclofenac, but inbreeding or other population-ecology effects in the wake of the initial crash may be a factor as well.

The loss of vultures in southern Asia has public-health and even religious implications. The affected species, like all vultures, play a critical role in disease prevention by removing carrion. In the absence of vultures, feral dogs have become the region's dominant scavengers; not only are dogs less efficient in a sanitation role, but the drastic increase in feral dog populations has led to an associated surge in human cases of rabies.

For centuries, vultures have also played a key role in "sky burials" practiced in Tibet, India, and, at least formerly, elsewhere in Asia—including Persia (Iran), where sky burials were an integral part of Zoroastrian practice before the hegemony of Islam. In both Zoroastrian and Tibetan Buddhist traditions, sky burial is considered not just a practical means of disposing of a body, but also an act of charity toward the scavengers. (The Tibetan term for sky burial, jhator, means "giving alms to the birds".)

Vulture populations elsewhere in the world have also declined, though not always as severely as in southern Asia. Here in North America, the California condor (Gymnogyps californianus) very nearly went extinct and is still an endangered, intensively-managed species. Recent research indicates that lead poisoning from spent ammunition (fragments can be found not only in unrecovered quarry but also in gutpiles left behind by hunters) has been a major cause of mortality in condors; logic would suggest that black vultures (Coragyps atratus) and turkey vultures (Cathartes aura) are subject to lead poisoning from the same source. (So are human hunters—which is an excellent argument for switching to non-toxic ammunition even where not required by law.)

Vultures are too often vilified—especially in the West—as dirty, cowardly, opportunistic in the most negative sense of the word. (Their image in South America is mixed but generally more positive than in the rest of the Western world: the Andean condor [Vultur gryphus] is the national bird of Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador, and Colombia, and appears on the coat of arms of each of these Andean nations. Both the Andean condor and the king vulture [Sarcoramphus papa] were significant in Native religions.) Considering what they are and what they do, including what they do for us—they are among the most graceful of the soaring birds, harbingers of spring in some regions, ecological indicators, sanitation workers, even messengers to the gods and transport to the hereafter—awareness of vultures may be too low a goal. We should strive for an appreciation of vultures.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Church of the Red Fox

After you got out of Washington, heading toward Baltimore, it got prettier and prettier as it got hillier and hillier. Thinking back, Maryland looked more like a classic slice of English countryside than a classic slice of English countryside actually looks today. It was horsy country, and nearly every big holding had literally miles of white rail fences, with neat paddocks and immaculate barns and outhouses….Maryland was one of our very earliest "civilized" states, I suppose, and the Englishmen who followed the Calverts had plenty of time—and not too many angry Injuns—to make it into a graceful replica of what they remembered back home in England.

—Robert Ruark, The Old Man and the Boy

Ruark's observation about the English nature of the Maryland countryside holds especially true for the Green Spring, Worthington, and Western Run Valleys of northern Baltimore County. This is fox country. Here, on Butler Road (part of the Horses and Hounds Scenic Byway) near Glyndon, Maryland, is the lovely St. John's Episcopal Church. Or, to give it its full name, St. John's Church in the Valley, Western Run Parish.

[Sundial on the stone wall surrounding the grounds.]

The parish was founded in 1800, having previously been part of St. Thomas' Parish just to the south at Garrison. Initially, services were held in a schoolhouse, but a church was begun in 1816 and consecrated in 1818. On Christmas Day in 1867, fire came to the St. John's campus: the stone rectory, built in 1842, was untouched, but the church itself burned to the ground; only the steeple bell and the cornerstone were salvaged. Undaunted, the rector made plans to rebuild; the cornerstone was re-laid in 1869 and the new church, a stone building in Gothic-revival style with a hundred-foot spire, was completed the following year.

[Pretty as only the Anglicans build 'em.]

"Since the church’s resurrection in 1869", according to a parish history, "the membership count and activity within its walls has swung from vibrant to moribund and back several times." The account goes on to say:

…by the turn of the century the number of registered communicants had dropped to 15, and by 1915 the church had, in effect, ceased to function. Shortly thereafter, however, it was brought back to life by the unlikely influence of the Greenspring Hunt Club which moved its base of operations to Glyndon, Maryland, close by the church grounds, in an effort to find more hospitable territory for its cross-country chases. Hunters and horsemen followed, revitalizing the countryside and the church parish simultaneously.

For many years, St. John's has held a Blessing of the Hounds after services on Thanksgiving morning. The Green Spring Valley Hounds (organised 1892) assemble in a field across Butler Road to receive a blessing of the foxhounds as well as the horses and riders, all congregants praying for a safe and successful hunt. As noted in a church bulletin, members of the hunt are still active at St. John's as well as active in preserving open land in Baltimore County—one reason this area has been able to retain its rural character despite its proximity to a major city and the resulting development pressures.

[Sorry, the animals have to stay out here.]

When I'm able to travel the week of Thanksgiving, it's usually to the North American Falconers' Association field meet, so it may be quite some time before I attend the Blessing of the Hounds at St. John's. But I'll try to remember to send a prayer, pagan though it may be, for the welfare of the hunt and their quarry. Long may the chase continue.

[Carved into a timber on the churchyard's front gate: "Enter into His gates with thanksgiving."]

Sunday, August 16, 2009

photoblogging: Inner Harbor

An afternoon at Baltimore's Inner Harbor with Susan and Ellie:

Downtown skyline.

Water taxi. A flotilla of these blue-marked boats efficiently move both residents and tourists around the harbor; they make for nicely inexpensive sightseeing.

Seven Foot Knoll Lighthouse. A screwpile light, it originally marked the southern approach to the Patapsco River (Baltimore Harbor is part of the Patapsco system) but was moved to Baltimore about 20 years ago; it is now part of the Baltimore Maritime Museum.

Sanitation boat—the marine equivalent of a street-sweeper. Flotsam is gathered in the wire basket at the bow.

We saw a few canoes and kayaks, but only this one rowboat. It looked like hard work, but I suppose everyone has their own idea of recreation.

One of several tugboats moored at City Pier.

The Mayor D'Alesandro, a Baltimore Fire Department boat stationed near Fort McHenry.

What so proudly we hailed. Fifteen stars and fifteen stripes.

The fishing fleet: double-crested cormorants at rest on pilings.

An osprey, one of several working the harbor.


Lost appetites

A friend of my dad's told me the following two stories yesterday:

Her ex-husband had worked at the USF&G Building in downtown Baltimore while Scarlett, the famous peregrine falcon, was in residence there. Apparently it was not uncommon for office workers in the building (especially newcomers) to return to their desks to eat, or abandon their lunches altogether, when the peregrines dined: one of the peregrines' favorite "butcher's blocks" or plucking perches was directly above the cafeteria window, and some people were put off by the blizzard of disjecta membra—feathers, gizzards, guts, feet—that fell past the window as Scarlett or her mate dismantled a pigeon.

[The USF&G Building, now the Legg Mason Building. It doesn't really lean; the Pisa effect results from my unsteady hand as I shot from a boat today.]

Another acquaintance of hers, a lifelong Baltimorean, happened to be present when a body was recovered from the Inner Harbor. As often happens, scavengers had found the body first—it was covered with dozens of blue crabs. They may be Baltimore's favorite seafood, but the lady never ate crab again.

(Happily, I have no such inhibitions.)

Thursday, August 13, 2009


Travel can be inspiring...or it can be merely exhausting. The kind we've done lately—commuting back and forth from Nebraska to the East Coast—is mostly the latter, which has had a negative impact on my blogging, but today I found minor inspiration in a highway sign. If the results are less than profound...well, let's just blame it on road-weariness, shall we?

I set out this morning from home: Lincoln, Nebraska. Rain falling in Lincoln ends up—either directly or by way of tributaries such as Oak Creek, Deadman's Run, Beal Slough, Haines Branch or any of several other streams—in Salt Creek (Lewis and Clark knew it as the Great Saline River), flowing northward to join the Platte River near Ashland. The Platte flows into the Missouri, which in turn flows into the Mississippi, which eventually runs past Red Stick and New Orleans before emptying into the Gulf of Mexico.

This evening I found myself at the headwaters of the Kaskaskia River, along I-74 just west of Champaign, Illinois. Beginning with runoff from the cornfields here, the Kaskaskia winds through the Illinois countryside (and its impoundment in two lakes) to its confluence with the Mississippi River—the French once had a redoubt there, known as Fort Kaskaskia—and so this water also reaches the Gulf of Mexico.

[To paraphrase Magritte: This is not the headwaters of the Kaskaskia River. This is a sign.]

[This unassuming pool of water is the first visible trace of the Kaskaskia. "8048", I believe, is the designation for the culvert under the Interstate from which the pool emerges.]

Tomorrow evening will find me in Oakland, Maryland, still west of the Continental Divide and therefore not part of the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Rain at my Aunt Shirley's place runs downhill to the Youghiogheny River, the Yock being a tributary of the Monongahela River. Where the British built Fort Prince George, the French replaced it with Fort Duquesne, and finally the British returned with Fort Pitt (now Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania), the Monongahela joins forces with the Allegheny River to form the Ohio; the Ohio, of course, flows into the Mississippi near Cairo, Illinois, where Union forces maintained Fort Defiance during the American Civil War. So Oakland rain, too, ends up in the Gulf of Mexico eventually.

We haven't even considered my old Montana stomping grounds—rain on the Eastern Front also goes to the Gulf—but, hydrologically speaking, this is a big neighborhood.

Most of us, most of the time, look at a map and see states, cities, major highways. But once upon a time, rivers were the highways. They had strategic as well as commercial importance. (Notice, for example, all the forts.) Americans up through the 19th century no doubt read maps in the context of river systems, a habit and skill we have mostly lost. We should get back in practice: It's still important to know where our water comes from, and where it goes—as well as what goes with it. A farmer growing corn in Illinois (or Nebraska, or western Maryland) lives both literally and figuratively upstream from the waterman in Texas or Louisiana; the chemical fog streaming from the wings of the bright-yellow crop duster I watched today will not necessarily stay on the field where it was sprayed. We're still connected by rivers, whether we pay attention to that fact or not.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Any man's death diminishes me

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were. Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee…

—John Donne

I learned yesterday (HT Chas at Southern Rockies Nature Blog) of the death of Winston Branko Churchill. I'd never met him or even heard of him, though it's likely we were very distant cousins; from what I've learned of him, I suspect I'd have liked him. Certainly we had some things in common: a love of nature, an uncomfortable relationship with modern society, a taste for good coffee. We were nearly the same age, both wore our hair long, both enjoyed sharing music with others as DJs.

Like most people, he seems to have been a set of contradictions, and can be interpreted in a sympathetic or unsympathetic light: Idealist. Failed business owner. Perfectionist. Druggie. Philosopher. Recluse. Even those who were close to him cannot agree on critical questions like whether, at the end, he chose to die or simply failed to stay alive.

There are no answers here. Clearly he had friends and family, people who cared about him, worried about him, used every resource at their disposal (including the In Search of Winston blog) to try to find him and help him—but no one knows if he would have been willing to accept help. He kept a journal, but after being buried in 20 feet of snow and then soaked in the spring thaw, it could not be read. And so we who remain, whether we knew Winston Branko Churchill or not, are left with only pictures from his camera and questions about his final days.

I hope he found what he was looking for.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

The water that runs

Mike & Linda Cox, with a rotating assortment of friends and family, have been tubing, canoeing, and kayaking the Niobrara River near Valentine, Nebraska annually since 1976. This week marked the first time I've gone along with them.

The Niobrara River Valley is known as a biological meeting place, with several different ecosystems converging there. Many eastern animals and plants occur there at the western edge of their range and vice versa; hybridization has been documented in numerous birds, including Baltimore/Bullock's orioles, indigo/lazuli buntings, and yellow-/red-shafted flickers, as well as butterflies. Additionally, the cooler recesses of the valley harbor relict populations of trees such as aspen and white birch, common here during the last Ice Age but now typical of high-altitude or high-latitude locations hundreds of miles distant. A 76-mile stretch of the Niobrara is designated as a National Wild & Scenic River and is administered by the National Park Service.

The name Niobrara means "running water", and early French trappers translated the name to l'eau qui court or "the water that runs". (By contrast, Nebraska is a variation on Niobrathka, or "flat water", in reference to the Platte River and other slow, braided rivers typical of the state, such as the Loup and the Elkhorn.) The water was certainly running on Tuesday, thanks to the heavy rainfall associated with Monday night's epic thunderstorms. (A flood on Valentine's Main Street totaled Linda's Chrysler Sebring while sparing my Outback; clear evidence for the Subaru's invincibility in my opinion, but Ellie disagrees.) We were able to explore a few channels usually not navigable even by kayak, and rarely scraped bottom even at known shoals.

On to some pictures:

The founders: Mike and Linda on the river

Ellie in the front of our kayak

Sandstone bluffs on the south side of the river

Fort Falls

Berry Falls

Smith Falls

Bridge at Smith Falls Campground

Ellie at water's edge

Pictures I didn't take but wish I had:
  • The flooded streets in Val. I got as wet pushing Linda's car on Main Street as I did the next day standing under Smith Falls.
  • Cornell Dam. Located on Ft. Niobrara NWR, just above the put-in site, this is the only dam on the river.
  • Deb Cox's keeshond, Queso, on her kayak. True to her heritage (Dutch barge dog), Queso looked perfectly at ease on the water; in fact, I can't remember the last time I met a dog so relaxed in any environment.
  • Ellie's first leech. She took it well.
This year's was a shortened trip, in deference to our late start and Mike's health. He's been undergoing both chemo and radiation therapy for cancer; considering he was in the hospital as recently as Sunday, 12 miles or so of paddling is pretty impressive. We'll try for a longer float next year; the scenery is best on the upper stretch (especially through the refuge) but the more challenging water is below Smith Falls.