Thursday, November 28, 2013

Tracing of sparrow

We had a dusting of snow last week, one of the small things for which both Stekoa and I are thankful. Another (for me, at least) is the return of our little flock of juncos, and the tracks they leave by the back porch.

Happy Thanksgiving to one and all.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

All wet

The Nebraska Falconers' Association autumn field meet was this past weekend, but Jessica and I missed most of it, rolling in well after dark on Saturday. What's more, we (inadvertently) left the camera at home, so we missed the opportunity to document what little hawking remained on Sunday morning.

The weekend, already somewhat odd, came to a bizzare close with Stekoa's turn. We flew in a small woodlot right across the road from the Schneidereits' little guest house; half an hour earlier, Daniel Parker's redtail had caught a rabbit (her first, although she had previously taken a fox squirrel and, improbably, a bluebird in flight!) in the same area. Evidently that was the only one above ground on this gusty day, for a half-dozen beaters and two dogs produced no other bunnies from the trees, and Stekoa seemed reluctant to follow us across the open, windswept landscape to another spot. So we worked an adjacent cattail marsh, releasing huge plumes of cattail fluff with every move, while Stekoa watched from the edge of the woods. He made several flights on voles, finally catching a large one and carrying it back to a sturdy limb.

Having eaten the vole, he watched us for a few moments, then launched from his perch overhead into a long slanting attack on unseen quarry, disappearing in the vicinity of a structure marked by two or three rusted steel arches which from a distance I took to be the framework of a now-defunct greenhouse. When I ran over, I found not a greenhouse but a cistern of stagnant water, perhaps thirty feet across and who knows how deep; the waterline was at least eight feet down the sheer concrete walls, and Stekoa floated amidst a carpet of duckweed which covered nearly the entire surface, while a vole ran around the rim just above waterline.

It was immediately apparent what had happened: the vole was evidently light enough to tread on the duckweed, which to Stekoa must have looked like a nice even lawn; expecting to pound the vole into the turf, he instead plunged into the chilly water. He was thoroughly soaked, his wet flight feathers little more than quillls incapable of generating lift, and coated liberally with tiny leaflets of duckweed.

I began to strip down, prepared to go in after the hawk, but fortunately cooler heads prevailed, and the party quickly began engineering a better solution. Several too-short limbs were brought over and discarded before someone fetched what was almost a tree in its own right; several of us lowered it down to Stekoa, he grabbed on, and we raised him up until I was able to coax him to the fist. While someone gathered up the gear and clothing I had left next to the cistern, another friend and I hurried over to the guesthouse and hosed Stekoa off, trading clean water for stagnant and rendering him somewhat less green.

I tried to feed Stekoa, but whether from shock or hypothermia, he was unable to balance well on the fist, so I returned him to his travel box, started the car and put on the heater; by the time we had packed and loaded, the interior was like a sauna. We stopped half an hour down the road to find him still quite wet but nicely recovered and with a good appetite; upon returning home, I moved his box in the house so he could dry thoroughly overnight. Fully recovered, I hope to fly him again tomorrow afternoon.

(Thanks to everyone involved in Stekoa's rescue—I know Donna, Eric & Anita, Daniel, and Rick all had a hand in it; if I've missed anyone, I hope the omission will be attributed to the chaos of the moment and my focus on Stekoa's immediate welfare.)

Sunday, November 3, 2013

"Le Chanson de l'Emerillon"

A Sunday morning in the Farrell-Churchill household. I'm washing up the dishes, Jessica is drinking coffee from Café du Monde, and she starts humming a French tune, one to which most Americans know only the first line: "Alouette, gentille alouette..."

"That's a hawking song, you know."

"Really? What does it mean?"

"Well, alouette means lark..."


"...and it's sort of a love song by the merlin to its traditional quarry."

"I don't like where this is going."

J'ai passé six années de français, mais j'ai oublié le plupart. [I took six years of French, but I've forgotten most of it. I keep this one sentence handy just in case.] This much, however, I can manage.

Le Chanson de l'Emerillon, as presented in John Loft's A Merlin For Me

Alouette, gentille alouette,
Alouette, je te plumerai.
Je te plumerai la tête,
Ah! la tête, ah! la tête,
Alouette, alouette, ah!

Alouette, gentille alouette,
Alouette, je te plumerai.
Je te plumerai le bec,
Ah! le bec, ah! le bec,
Alouette, alouette, ah!

Alouette, gentille alouette,
Alouette, je te plumerai.
Je te plumerai les ailes,
Ah! les ailes, ah! les ailes,
Alouette, alouette, ah!

Translated (for accuracy, not for meter):

The Song of the Merlin

Skylark, nice skylark,
Skylark, I will pluck you.
I will pluck your head,
Ah! your head, ah! your head,
Skylark, skylark, ah!

Skylark, nice skylark,
Skylark, I will pluck you.
I will pluck your beak,
Ah! your beak, ah! your beak,
Skylark, skylark, ah!

Skylark, nice skylark,
Skylark, I will pluck you.
I will pluck your wings,
Ah! your wings, ah! your wings,
Skylark, skylark, ah!

(For meter, I'd switch up the first lines to read:

I will pluck you, oh yes I will pluck you,
I will pluck you, pretty little lark.

Any falconer who's flown small hawks at birds, incidentally, will recognize the validity of the head-beak-wings sequence.)

Jessica again: "You're going to teach that to our kids, aren't you?"

"Sure, why not?"

"That's a terrible song!"

"Hey, don't blame me; you're the one who's part French."

Sunday, October 20, 2013


Thanks to a late moult and a late autumn, we're not hunting yet, but I have started the process of reclaiming Stekoa, and that includes some weathering time out of the mews.

These last few days, that means utilising my anniversary present from Jess, a new block made by Daniel Parker from northeast Nebraska. Daniel is a first-year apprentice, but already making fine block perches, several of which have been purchased by falconers in the U.K. This one in black walnut is, I believe, his sixth block, and I'm very pleased to have it. (Thank you, Jessa!) If anyone reading this is in the market, I'll be glad to put you in touch.

Monday, September 2, 2013

A homecoming

"But you have retired, Holmes. We heard of you as living the life of a hermit among your bees and your books in a small farm upon the South Downs."

"Exactly, Watson. Here is the fruit of my leisured ease, the magnum opus of my latter years!" He picked up the volume from the table and read out the whole title, Practical Handbook of Bee Culture, with Some Observations upon the Segregation of the Queen. "Alone I did it. Behold the fruit of pensive nights and laborious days when I watched the little working gangs as once I watched the criminal world of London."

—"His Last Bow"

No "leisured ease" for me, no farm on the South Downs, and it's doubtful I'd ever have the patience for such observations as Mr. Holmes would make, but I'm proud to share this distinction with him, however tenuous my claim may be: I am now a beekeeper.

Jessica has a certain fear of bees, but nevertheless acquiesced to my purchase of an empty hive this spring. Since then, it had remained empty: lacking either the funds or the time to acquire bees from another beekeeper or a pest-removals firm, we took a passive "if-you-build-it-they-will-come" approach. And this past Tuesday, a swarm of bees found us.

[These mobile-phone videos won't win any awards for clarity, but should suffice to give an idea of the activity level at the hive.]

Most people think of "a swarm of bees" as inherently aggressive, but in fact swarming bees are pretty mellow. As Jess said, "Of course they're happy—they're house-hunting!" After two days of intense activity, the hive seems to have settled down to a steady coming and going, and we're looking forward to being their landlords. Come next year, if all goes well, we'll be harvesting plenty of very local honey for our tea.

[They may be blurry bees, but they're our blurry bees!]

UPDATE: Well, they were our blurry bees. A few weeks after they arrived, activity at the hive dwindled and then ceased, the bees apparently having decamped. Easy come, easy go; we'll try again in the spring.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The gratitude of every home...

Why do I say all this? Not, assuredly, to boast; not, assuredly, to give the slightest countenance to complacency. The dangers we face are still enormous, but so are our advantages and resources. I recount them because the people have a right to know that there are solid grounds for the confidence which we feel, and that we have good reason to believe ourselves capable, as I said in a very dark hour two months ago, of continuing the war if necessary alone, if necessary for years.

The gratitude of every home in our Island, in our Empire, and indeed throughout the world, except in the abodes of the guilty, goes out to the British airmen who, undaunted by odds, unwearied in their constant challenge and mortal danger, are turning the tide of the World War by their prowess and by their devotion. Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.

—Winston Churchill, 20 August 1940

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Sphinx moth

Occasionally, while putting a new post together, I run across old material that never made it to the blog.This is a sphinx moth we found in the front yard while gardening last summer.

Sphinx moths are often called "hummingbird moths"—they're roughly the same size and feed in a similar manner, sipping nectar from flowers while hovering, and so are sometimes mistaken for hummers—but up close, this one reminds me of an owl.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

More Sandhills pics

Again, photos by Jessica Farrell-Churchill

Monday, August 12, 2013

The water that runs deep enough to actually paddle

Well, Jessica finally got her river trip. Almost exactly a month after our ill-fated attempt at the Platte River, we joined Linda Cox and her company of friends and family on the Niobrara River. [Previous trips here and here.] A good time was had by all, which is to say there's not much of a story this time 'round. Jessica had the camera this time, at least until the battery went flat, so here are a few shots from our trip.


Home sweet home on the banks of Minnechaduza Creek.

In camp: there's a fungus among us.

Prairie above Fort Falls.

Fort Falls proper

Clear, cold water from Fort Falls emptying into the Niobrara, running muddy after a couple of thunderstorms.

Grasses and wapato (arrowhead) at river's edge.

Berry Bridge and Berry Falls.

Minor (unnamed?) waterfall, cold and good to drink.

Two views of Smith Falls Bridge, which was originally located many miles downstream near Verdigre, Nebraska. Built in 1910, it spanned the mouth of Verdigre Creek, which empties into the Niobrara. It was disassembled in 1917 and then rebuilt, again near Verdigre, in 1922. The bridge was decommissioned and again disassembled in 1993. In 1995, it was moved to Smith Falls SRA and reassembled, although narrowed from the original 15 feet intended for vehicular traffic to 10 for strictly pedestrian use.

Wet meadow near Smith Falls.

Creek below Smith Falls.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Nebraska Sandhills wildflowers

All photos by Jessica Farrell-Churchill.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Ornate box turtles

On a recent road trip in the Nebraska Sandhills, we found several of these gorgeous little ornate box turtles, Terrapene ornatus ornatus. Vivid enough up top, they are even more so below.

This one, though somewhat shy, peeks out from a half-closed shell. The ability to close up all the way, of course, is why Terrapene are known as box turtles, and ornatus represents a box such as Peter Carl Fabergé might have imagined.

This photograph (all of these are Jessa's, by the way) gives a hint as to how the pattern, so striking in the hand, serves as camouflage in their prairie habitat.

They are somewhat more conspicuous, and infinitely more vulnerable, when making their way across a blacktop highway, which is where we saw most of ours. We stopped to relocate each one we saw. "He who saves a single life saves the world entire."