Thursday, September 28, 2023

No joy in Mudville

Somewhere men are laughing 
And somewhere children shout
But there is no joy in Mudville—
Mighty Casey has struck out                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    —Ernest Thayer, "Casey at the Bat"

Jessa and I are recently returned from Minnesota, specifically from the North Shore of Lake Superior, which serves to concentrate raptors during the autumn migration: flying more or less due south from all across Canada, upon encountering Gitchi Gami they turn southwest rather than risk the long over-water crossing, hence the spectacular numbers seen nearby at Hawk Ridge in Duluth.

We were here on the "Scandinavian Riviera" not just to see but to trap hawks, as guests of Minnesota falconer Frank Taylor. Frank runs a federal banding station between Duluth and Knife River, driving up from the Twin Cities each weekend during the migration, but he also maintains a trapping blind for falconers on his own land ("Hawk Harbor") nearby.

Upon arriving late Saturday afternoon, I phoned Frank and he directed us to the banding station hidden in the treeline at the west end of his neighbours' hayfield. As we walked up, a jack merlin shot across directly in front of us and was caught in Frank's dho-gazza. Introductions were hasty, as Frank banded the little jack and recorded the band number, along with measurements of wing chord and tail length, before handing him to Jess for a photo opportunity and release.

Not long afterward, with all three of us properly ensconced in the blind, another merlin came in and hit the net. With details recorded and new jewelry in place, she was handed off to me, our picture made, and then she too was sent on her way.

[All photos above by Frank Taylor.]

As it turned out, however, these were the only hawks Jessa and I got our hands on for the few days we were there. On Monday morning, Frank having generously stayed to lend a hand, we lured in both a sharp-shinned hawk and a jack merlin—I was in the market for either—but neither hit the net hard enough to collapse it. ("Bounce-outs", in Frank's parlance.) Several other sharpies saw the net at the last instant and checked off, using their incredible maneuverability to switch from horizontal to vertical flight in an instant. Still another sharpie, which appeared from the woods behind us, was inspecting our setup from a birch tree at the edge of the clearing and probably would have made a run at the pigeon if a FedEx truck hadn't come bouncing noisily down the road at that very moment.

We learned the landmarks, learned the patterns—accipiters tending to come early in the day, and merlins late—and got better at flying the pigeon. But by Monday afternoon, it was clear that our luck was about to get even worse. The winds, initially light, were increasing; worse, they were out of the southeast, which is to say directly off the lake, which has a tendency to push the hawks further inland. And a warming trend meant that fewer hawks would feel any urgency to travel. The few we did see Monday afternoon and Tuesday were riding thermals, both far out and high up, and showed little inclination to come down for our pigeon, however well presented.

[Rigging a pigeon; photo by Mark.]

[Jessica and Mark in the blind; photo by Frank.]

[The view from inside; photo by Jessica.]

Our last chance came on Wednesday morning, shortly before we had to leave. I was glassing when I caught sight of a sharpie, already inbound; Jess had flown the pigeon on spec a few minutes earlier and must have pulled this hawk from what looked like an empty sky. I got her working the pigeon again, and she did so with skill and confidence earned over the previous days, the sharpie clearly locked on target. In the end, though, the little hawk, like the others, got to within inches of the dho-gazza and abruptly pitched up, over the net and gone.

I'd be lying if I said I wasn't disappointed, but to my surprise—and certainly Jessa's—neither was I despondent. We'd had a good visit (more Minnesota photos to come), Frank had been a kind and gracious host, and I couldn't say we hadn't had our chances. Besides, this had always been a possibility. While taking a break from writing this post, I happened to run across a passage which goes to show how little changes over time and from place to place. This is James Edmund Harting, on meeting Adrien Möllen in Valkenswaard, Holland, October 1877:

...he looked every inch a falconer. We met as old friends, although we had never seen each other before; but each had heard of the other's love of hawks, and that was quite enough to put us at once on the best of terms. He had been out since six in the morning on the look-out for passage hawks, but none had appeared, and he had returned empty-handed. The wind was in the wrong quarter, and until that changed he did not expect any luck.