Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Season's end

Officially, this is the last day of the hawking season, but I wrapped things up a couple of weeks ago as the weather got warm. (Not that it stayed warm...) The season ended well: instead of degenerating into a mouse hawk, as often happens this time of year, Stekoa remained focused on rabbits to the end. All we caught late in the season were bucks, no pregnant does, so no harm done to next season's population.

The last flight of the year was memorable, if not entirely visible. Stekoa took off in his "daddy was a goshawk" flight mode—he's very fast for a redtail—and disappeared, weaving into some fairly thick woods. Instead of the expected crash or squealing rabbit, though, there followed an unusual silence. When we caught up to him, he was in the creek, trying to drag his soaking wet, very dead rabbit up the steep, muddy bank. That cottontail went home on the roof rack instead of in my vest.

Below, a few "leftover" pictures from the season just past. The first two were taken by Pat Stull, the rest by me on a visit with Art Graves out in the Sandhills:

Maxine, Anya, and Stekoa

Stekoa on the fist

Jimi (gyr x peregrine hybrid)

Flint (gyr x saker hybrid)


Flint waits in the truck for a training flight to the kite

Readying the kite

Closeup of the reel

Sunrise on the grouse lek

Jimi on the wing

Jimi on a prairie-chicken

Friday, March 27, 2009

"La 2da Oracion" ("The 2nd Prayer")

Music from Cielo y Tierra (Earth and Sky) and Jon Anderson (the voice of Yes). Call it fusion, or world music, or whatever you like, it's the best thing I've heard all week.

HT Donna.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

The big chill

Chas Clifton over at Southern Rockies Nature Blog dug up an old (1997) Outside magazine article, written by Peter Stark, on hypothermia. As Chas notes, "Cheery stuff." For me, it brought back memories of what could have been a fatal incident—one that took place south of the Mason-Dixon line, incidentally.

About twenty years ago, I was working in the Baltimore area and my fiancée, Susan, was still an undergraduate at W&L. I made the roughly four-hour trip down to Lexington every second or third weekend, usually traveling light. One particular weekend started off warm, so I brought only the usual jeans (32" waist; I was skinny then, which was about to work against me) and short-sleeved T-shirts, but I stayed an extra night and a cold front moved in Sunday evening. When I departed early Monday morning, it was in the 20s; I scraped ice off the windows of my poorly-maintained '77 Nova, shivering in my T-shirt, and set out on the road.

I forget whether the heater itself was on the fritz, or whether the fan had stopped working, but whichever component had failed left me with no means to counteract the ambient temperature, the frigid vinyl of the seats, and the drafts coming in around the door seals. My shivering grew worse and worse, but I stubbornly kept driving—I had to get to work, and surely it would warm up as the sun got higher.

By the time I reached the exit for Stuarts Draft, maybe half an hour down the road (north is down the Valley), my teeth were chattering violently and I could barely hold the steering wheel steady. I finally figured out that I was hypothermic when, despite the shivering, I started to fall asleep at the wheel. Not good. And yet there was a part of me that wanted to give in, to close my eyes and relax, just for a few moments...but of course I was still driving 65 or 70 miles an hour and that would have been the last nap I ever took. I convinced myself to be afraid, turned around at Staunton, and drove back to Lexington talking to myself in order to stay awake.

I arrived back at Susan's apartment pale, nearly incoherent, and still shaking like a leaf on a tree. She and her roommates put me to bed, gave me hot tea, and called me in sick. By that afternoon, both the weather and I had warmed up, and I was able to make it back to Baltimore.

Still, that wasn't necessarily the end of it. Having had hypothermia once renders one more susceptible to the cold—and even knowing this, I still slip up on occasion. A few weeks ago, for example, I made the mistake of going to lacrosse practice dressed for current conditions and not foreseeable conditions. There was snow on the ground, but when practice started at five o'clock I was fine in shorts and a fleece pullover layered over a T-shirt. By 6:30 it was nearly dark, the temperature had dropped, and I was in bad shape: my cleats offered little protection in the snow, my lacrosse gloves (heavily padded on the back as a defense against opponents' checks but with no thermal insulation) were completely inadequate for the situation, and even the fleece was not enough to keep my core temperature up. I ducked out as soon as practice was over, turned on the Subaru's seat warmers and blasted the heat all the way home, took a hot shower that fogged the mirrors but still left me shivering, then bundled up in multiple layers before going to bed under three Pendleton blankets—but I didn't feel warm again until I woke up the next morning.

The moral of the story, if there is one, is this: Hypothermia can be sneaky. Northern climes, high altitude, and the dead of winter are easy enough to prepare for. It's the mid-latitude Marches and Octobers—the sudden cold snap, the unexpected soaking rain—that are likely to get you.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Daylight Saving Time and the tyranny of tradition

Ask any falconer about Daylight Saving Time and the response is likely to be a groan. It's not the concept, necessarily, but the implementation—it's applied to the wrong part of the year.

Blame it on Ben−or maybe not

The concept of Daylight Saving Time (DST for short) is often attributed to American publisher, inventor, and statesman Benjamin Franklin. (See, for example, this recent piece in Scientific American.) According to this version of the story, Franklin (himself a wealthy man) originated the concept as a thrift measure: by setting clocks forward, an hour of early-morning darkness could essentially be traded for an extra hour of daylight at the end of the day, thereby reducing demand for beeswax and other candle materials. In Franklin's own words, "A penny saved is a penny earned."

In reality, however, the operative proverb is "Early to bed, early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise"—what Franklin actually advocated, while on a diplomatic mission to France, was that Parisians should get more accomplished during daylight hours by rising earlier in the day, firing cannons and ringing church bells if necessary to implement his plan. The suggestion may have been tongue-in-cheek, but even so it's a poor diplomat who accuses the local inhabitants of laziness—which probably accounts for Franklin's publishing his comments anonymously.

The actual inventor and foremost advocate for DST was an Englishman named William Willett. He lobbied unsuccessfully for the adoption of DST from 1907 until his death in 1915. In the end, the First World War accomplished what Willett could not: British lawmakers enacted DST in 1916, but not until the Germans and their allies had beat them to it.

The United States, late arrivals to the war, were late in adopting DST as well: DST went into effect in 1918, and was dropped the following year. The Second World War saw a revival of DST, but once again it was discontinued at the end of the war. DST was observed sporadically on a local basis until 1966, when the Uniform Time Act made DST more or less standard; since then, there have been minor tweaks to the system as states have chosen to opt out (or back in) and various localities have changed time zones, but American society has come to accept DST as routine.

An answer in search of a problem

Several justifications are typically given for implementing DST, many of them easy to discredit. It is often claimed, for example, that DST is beneficial to agriculture, but in fact most farmers work by the sun and not by the clock. Health and safety benefits are also claimed, but in most cases the evidence is ambiguous—or benefits at one time of year are counterbalanced by deleterious effects at another time, resulting in an overall wash. For example, a recent (2008) study in Sweden found that the incidence of heart attacks rose immediately after the "spring forward" but fell by a comparable amount after the "fall back".

The strongest argument for DST, dating back to Franklin and Willett, has traditionally been energy savings. But, as Charles Q. Choi notes in the Scientific American article, recent analyses indicate that changing patterns in energy usage, including increased use of personal electronic devices (this means you, bloggers!), may have rendered this argument obsolete. When Indiana implemented statewide DST for the first time in 2006, the result was "a 1 percent overall rise in residential electricity use, costing the state an extra $9 million."

The enemy wears plaid

Not all of the economic arguments have to do with energy. Quoting Choi again, "Retailers, especially those involved with sports and recreation, have historically argued hardest for extending daylight time." Chief among these, it seems, are purveyors of golfing equipment: The National Golf Foundation estimated that an extension of DST could result in a $200-300 million increase in equipment sales and greens fees. (Choi quotes the figure as $400 million, but who's counting?)

Even my friends, it seems, are out to get me. Greg McManus, with whom I coach high-school lacrosse, e-mailed me a practice plan for this coming Monday: "Wow! We'll actually have an hour and a half practice from now on. Daylight savings rocks!" It's true that our first few practices have been cut short as dusk falls, but the days are rapidly getting longer even without the help of DST. Which leads us to...

A modest proposal

Instead of applying DST to spring and summer, when daylight is naturally longer, how about applying it to the winter months instead, when it might actually do some good?

The sports retailers lobbying for DST to start earlier in the spring and end later in the fall represent warm-weather sports, golf being the prime example. But surely falconers aren't the only field-sports enthusiasts who find weekday afternoons too fleeting during the depths of winter—couldn't gunners (and their lobbyists) make a case for DST reversal?

There are economic and public-health arguments to be made as well. For example, many people, particularly in northern latitudes, suffer from seasonal-affective disorder (SAD) as a result of light deprivation: For a good part of the year, they commute to work before the sun comes up, toil inside all day, then drive home again after dark. If DST were instituted in the winter months, they would have the benefit of afternoon sun. A decrease in SAD could save millions in mental-health care—enough to offset golf's losses?—and perhaps even save lives.

Someone is sure to ask, as someone always does, "What about the children?" Wintertime DST would mean darker mornings, and yes, the poor kiddies might have to wait for the school bus in the dark. I have no answer to this, other than to say that I always enjoyed waiting for the bus in the dark: that's when we were likeliest to see white-tailed deer, or red fox, or owls headed off to roost. Sometimes I suspect that my affinity for wildlife stems, in part, from these early-morning encounters when the world was quiet and dark—imagination and wonder flourish under those conditions.

I'm not going to tilt too hard at this particular windmill—for one thing, I don't have William Willett's energy or enthusiasm—but I thought I'd toss the idea out there for discussion. Ultimately, I think the mnemonic "Spring forward, fall back" is too powerfully ingrained to withstand reversal. Ah, well...another good idea undone by a slogan.

Don't forget to set your clocks forward tonight.

Maybe they're Camel Lights

Clearly, I'm not getting as much use from my Subaru as I might. My '98 Outback hauls, at most, a couple of hawks and a few dogs—miniature dachshunds, at that. But an unnamed Bedouin from the Negev Desert got two camels in his much smaller Subaru:

According to the article from Ynet News, the camels were being smuggled to the West Bank for slaughter as food. Photographer Amir Abu Jamma noted that "It is less expensive than lamb. For the price of four sheep, you can buy one camel." The real money quote, though, is this: "Once, goods used to be smuggled on camels. Now we are smuggling the camels themselves."

HT remchick, previously cited as "my best source for strange news out of North Carolina" (see previous posts here and here) but now apparently covering the Middle East as well.