Friday, June 14, 2024

The Four Winds

Last week, as Jessa and I were driving by the Nebraska State Capitol building here in Lincoln, we caught a glimpse of two adult peregrines near the tower. And just two days ago, on the 12th, three eyas peregrines—two falcons and a tiercel—were pulled from the eighteenth-floor nestbox, banded, and pronounced to be in excellent health: especially good news, as this represents the first successful nesting at the Capitol since 2016. 

Back in 2007, I set out to document the development of a clutch of four, and as you'll see I expressed concern even then about having too little time. I'll try to get down there to see these new birds once they've fledged, but I doubt I'll have the time or energy for ongoing observations. So I'm taking this opportunity to reprint from Flatwater Falconry my article on the 2007 clutch.


SATURDAY, JUNE 23

The Journal Star reports that the Capitol peregrines' four young have fledged. They've also been named: Boreas, Notus, Eurus, and Zephyrus; the Greek names for the four winds. I like the concept, but personally I would have chosen a Native language—Otoe, Pawnee, or perhaps Lakota—rather than Greek. Oh, well.

The Capitol eyrie produced one young in 2005 (Pioneer) and three last year (Sterling, Willa, and Bess). Four is a big clutch for peregrines, with two or three being the norm. Maybe the Capitol pair are trying to keep up with the prolific peregrines on the Woodmen Tower in Omaha.

The Four Winds (I can't keep the Greek names in my head) hatched around May 7-8, were banded May 24, and probably fledged about a week ago. I'm behind the curve; it's time to start watching.

When I was an apprentice in Athens, Georgia, I used to drive two hours or more—usually more, as I recall—to watch peregrine eyries in the North Carolina mountains. Whiteside Mountain near the town of Highlands was my "home" eyrie; sometimes I'd spend the whole day there, returning after dark with my skin red and my contact lenses dry and sticky after hours in the sun and the hot breeze.

My time will be limited—there's work, chores around the house, and several rounds of company coming—but it's going to be nice watching peregrines ten minutes from my house.

WEDNESDAY, JUNE 27

As expected, the airspace around the Capitol is busy early this morning. All six peregrines—the Four Winds and their parents—are visible for a time. The adult tiercel is here only a short while, then flies off to the north, presumably hunting.  The adult falcon spends more time close to home, often flying around with her offspring. She is missing a tail feather just to the right of the deck feather, and is easily identified even without binoculars when she fans her tail. Not that there's much chance of confusing her with the fledglings, anyway. Their flight is still noticeably floppy compared with that of the adults.

The Capitol grounds are bounded by H and K Streets running east-west, 14th and 16th Streets running north-south. And today, at least, the three juvenile falcons appear not to stray beyond those boundaries. The juvie tiercel, though, occasionally disappears off to the north. No surprise there; tiercels are usually a day or two ahead of their sisters in terms of development.

I return in the evening with my daughter. Again, all four fledglings are present, with the adults coming and going. While the three young falcons fly around together, the juvie tiercel is doing his own thing. He perches on the pedestal at the foot of the Sower, next to the aerial-hazard light, then launches into the wind. For a few moments, he kites, playing with lift and gravity, adjusting his glide angle to match the force of the wind. Eventually, the delicate balance tips one way or the other and, the spell broken, he circles back to the pedestal, or sometimes to the golden dome itself, to begin the game anew. It's an impressive display of low-speed flight by a bird known for its high-speed performance, and I tear myself away only because Ellie's patience is more limited than mine. (Though probably greater than mine at age eight.)

On the way home, a bonus: we take Vine Street home, and as we approach the red light at 27th Street, an adult peregrine flies low over the intersection and then the Imperial Palace restaurant. There are usually lots of pigeons on this stretch of 27th, so I look twice to be sure, but it's definitely a peregrine. Of course, the pigeons are explanation enough for the peregrine's presence. Szechuan and Mandarin are not the only takeout food available in the neighborhood...

THURSDAY, JUNE 28

This morning I'm joined by Mitchell Renteria. The scene is similar to yesterday morning's, although the three young females are already ranging out a bit more.

At my suggestion, we take the tiny elevator to the Capitol's 14th floor observation deck. Here we get only brief glimpses of the peregrines, but at close range, and Mitchell gets at least one photo of a peregrine in the narrow slot straight above our heads. We also pick up one light, feathery casting and some discarded feathers. Not all are identifiable, but I recognize mourning dove, pigeon, grackle, and possibly robin. Evidently the ledge just above and behind the observation deck is a popular dining and resting area.

From the observation deck, we also observe a trio of tiercel kestrels—two juvies and the haggard—perching on ladders on the flat roof of the Capitol's outer ring. The adult "spike" is hunting large insects on the roof, but we don't see any hunting flights by the young birds.

I return later in the day, this time with my wife. Most of the flights we see are leisurely, but both Susan and I take notice when the adult falcon leaves the Capitol building on the double-quick. A turkey vulture has trespassed on the peregrines' airspace, and the falcon makes several short stoops, escorting it safely away from her eyrie. Later, with both adults gone, another vulture flies through the area. This time, one of the juveniles flies out to meet it, but after one pass turns back to the Capitol without having had any effect; the scavenger continues on without altering either course or altitude.

SATURDAY, JUNE 30

When I arrive this morning, I find one of the young peregrines perched on a construction crane on the west side of the Capitol grounds. It remains there until it is flushed by a pack of joggers passing directly underneath.

After a long lull, I find the juvie tiercel perched on the blue-green roof of the Windstream building, north of the Capitol. He preens for a while, then flies to another part of the same roof, where the adult tiercel (unseen from my original vantage point) is eating part of a pigeon—one wing is still attached, making the identification possible. The adult relinquishes the pigeon carcass to the fledgling, who begins eating. 

Ten minutes later, the young tiercel is joined by one of his sisters. He lets her pull bites from the carcass, but wisely refuses to let go when she attempts to pull it away. She takes a few more bites, but after about twenty minutes flies off—apparently not very hungry after all.

A family group of kestrels, presumably including the same birds we saw yesterday, is also present, spending most of their time in the oak trees near the southwest corner. For the time being, they are safe around their larger cousins. Like many raptors, adult peregrines usually don't hunt in the immediate vicinity of the eyrie. Sparing the immediate neighbors, the theory goes, leaves more birds for the developing young to chase later. When that happens, the kestrels had better keep their eyes on the skies...

MONDAY, JULY 2

I arrive downtown later than usual, about 8:45 am, and find no peregrines, so I drive a slow reconnaissance lap around the Capitol. The timing is impeccable. Waiting at a red light at 14th and K Streets, I see the adult tiercel flying straight at me. Carrying prey!—a morning dove, I think. Two fledglings materialize behind the adult, screaming loudly. As they close the gap, right between the steeples of First Baptist and St. Mary's, the tiercel drops the dove and without missing a beat one of the young birds snatches it out of the air, then disappears over the Catholic church. A perfect food transfer.

When the light turns green I turn the corner, park quickly, and walk north along 14th Street. Finding a parking deck, I climb the stair to the top, where I find a decent view of the surrounding rooftops but no peregrines. I backtrack to the Capitol and again ascend to the observation deck. From there, I see one of the juvies perched on the roof of the state office building, but it's not the one with the food.

I do, however, find evidence of the peregrines' diet: new feathers (all mourning dove), a leg bone which could be either dove or pigeon but considering the feathers is probably dove, two still-damp pellets, and fresh mutes. I also find a few small peregrine feathers, white barred with black, obviously preened out by one of the haggards. The ledges over the south- and west-facing observation decks are still the place to be.

Again I see a kestrel hunting on the roof below, this time a "sheila". But the last thing I see before leaving is this: grackles scatter as something climbs the marble steps on the Capitol's north side. I struggle to believe my eyes, but it's an opossum. It's broad daylight, almost 9:30 now, and an opossum is climbing the steps and marching straight toward the Capitol door. Is he seeking redress from the government? (Too many roads! The toll on my people...) Or is he just looking—belatedly—for a place to nap the day away, amidst the landscaping or possibly under a pile of construction supplies?

TUESDAY, JULY 3

A routine morning. Several birds, but no drama. I do find fresh leavings on the observation deck, including fresh, tacky mutes and the dried, discarded gizzard of a seed- eating bird. I strongly suspect another morning dove has been whacked.

Peregrines don't usually specialize as much as some wild goshawks do, but they often have preferences that reflect more than strictly prey availability. A few years ago I asked Game and Parks biologist John Dinan, who had been up to the nest box, if the Capitol pair was doing their part to control Lincoln's pigeon population. He said that although there were some pigeon feathers in and around the nest, they were greatly outnumbered by songbird feathers. "It's really colorful up there." He noted that the tiercel apparently had a specific liking for black-billed cuckoos—"cuckoo feathers all over the place." I had always thought of cuckoos as typical of southeastern woodlands, and never would have guessed they were common around here.

Donna Vorce stops by en route to the UK for a falconry festival. She's flying out of Lincoln to Chicago O'Hare, and from there to Heathrow. Her visit is a great excuse to go downtown again, even in the heat of the day. Actually, it's not so bad high above the city, nice and breezy on the observation deck, and although our time is short we do get one good, eye-level view of a peregrine winging past.

WEDNESDAY, JULY 4

I make a quick stop at the Capitol on the way home from work. See kestrels but no peregrines. No new feathers on the 14th floor, no droppings. I've been expecting this: from my days working hacksites, I know that the young peregrines only stay oriented to the immediate vicinity of the nest for a short period of time. As their flying skills develop, they range farther and farther away from the eyrie, spending more time perched in other locations and eventually roosting elsewhere as well. Eventually, of course, their attachment to their natal location dissolves entirely (or the parents make them unwelcome) and they disperse. This usually happens after they are killing on their own. The Four Winds are not ready for that yet—they're still dependent on the adults—but they are apparently not roosting on the Capitol now.

FRIDAY, JULY 6

The new rendezvous site (or at least a new rendezvous site) is the blue-green wedding- cake tower of the Windstream building. I've seen the peregrines here before, but when I arrive this morning it's clear that this is headquarters for the flying circus act. At least three of the juvies are present, and spend fifteen minutes or so alternately perching on the tower and chasing each other around it.

During one of the lulls, I get my spotting scope out of the car and train it on one of the falcons to watch her preen. Nothing new about this; although I usually use my binoculars, I often have the scope along as well for closer looks at perched birds. This time, though, the scope has drawn attention. "Sir, would you mind if I asked what it is you're photographing or telescoping?" It's a uniformed officer from Capitol Security, a branch of the State Patrol, and while I know some people who would get huffy about their rights to use a public place, answering the question comes more naturally to me. When I tell the officer I'm watching peregrine falcons, he speaks into his radio: "Uh, yeah, your supposition was correct." Just that falcon fanatic again. I'm content to be classified as not a suspicious character; the officer leaves, and I resume my watch, but the peregrines soon depart for points westward, and after a while I decide to pack it in before it gets too bloody hot.

SUNDAY, JULY 8

Susan and Ellie are in Tennessee for the week, and I'm way behind on yard work, so I alter my schedule: I'll pull weeds in the morning and watch the peregrines in the cool of the evening. 

I arrive to find two kestrels on the crane on the west side of the Capitol and three peregrines on the Windstream tower. They do not much of anything for a while, then one drops almost straight down off the tower and disappears behind a building. This is the first time I've seen any of the young peregrines go anything like vertical; even in their playful dogfighting, there's been nothing more aggressive than a short, slanting cut. In level flight, their wing beats are much crisper than they were a week and a half ago, and now at least one of them has the confidence for a true stoop. They're flying like real peregrines now.

After the first bird's vertical departure, the other two peregrines leave one at a time in level flight toward the west. I can't be absolutely certain—I leave before it's completely dark—but I would guess that they're not roosting at the Windstream building, either.

MONDAY, JULY 9

Another evening visit; this time I stay in my car, listening to the radio, parked in a spot with a great view of the Windstream building. One peregrine is already present; shortly after my arrival, the bird flies a quick sortie and returns with a second peregrine. For the next half-hour, I watch the peregrines' desultory preening and the cycling of the traffic lights on M street. At least I have a soundtrack now.

A male kestrel buzzes the two peregrines and takes a perch on an antenna above them. After a few minutes with no reaction, he flies down to the edge of the tower, on their level but at the opposite end. A third peregrine arrives from the south, is chased by one of the two already present, and then both return to perch near the one who stayed.

Finally, one of the peregrines (looking for some excitement?) flies toward the kestrel, who quite reasonably flees. The chase goes around the tower a few times, but it doesn't seem all that serious. Then suddenly it does: the kestrel's wings go double-quick and he starts a long, slanting stoop northward toward the Capitol, with the peregrine following quickly in his wake. Seeing this, the other two peregrines also bail off the tower and join the chase. Within a second or two, all four birds are out of sight behind the state office building. 

When none of the birds reappear, I drive in that direction looking for them. I find one of the peregrines perched on the Assurity Life building, but it leaves after a few minutes.

TUESDAY, JULY 10

Just as I arrive downtown, a peregrine flies from the Windstream tower headed southeast. And that's it for the next hour; at 9:30, with Venus and a few of the brighter stars making an appearance, I decide to call it a night. 

On the way home, I notice with a slight start that the Capitol building is lit up. How could I have forgotten that? And suddenly I remember something else John Dinan told me, something about these particular peregrines taking advantage of the lighting and becoming partly nocturnal, possibly even hunting after dark. Maybe the Capitol isn't as abandoned as I think.

Changing course, I park on Goodhue Boulevard (formerly 15th Street, now renamed for the Capitol's architect) next to the Governor's Mansion, with a full-on view of the Capitol's south side. And sure enough, there is activity—not a lot, nothing dramatic, but at least one young peregrine and one adult are present. Their flights, illuminated by floodlights on the ground, are beautiful against the deepening blue of the night sky. When they cross in front of the building, their shadows loom large but gradually shrink until shadow meets bird landing on the marble ledges.

THURSDAY, JULY 12

It's almost 10 pm and I'm about five minutes from leaving when it happens: one of the young peregrines—I'd guess the tiercel, but it's hard to judge the size of a single bird perched on a huge building—drops from its niche on the southeast corner of the Capitol, stoops about a hundred feet, then levels out toward 16th Street and plucks a bat out of midair. Very cool. I expect the bird to bring its catch back to the Capitol, but watch through binoculars as it fades into the darkness. Probably doesn't want to share...

EPILOGUE

From my previous experience releasing peregrines in Montana and Georgia, and from everything I've read about peregrines, I know that the young birds' attachment to their eyrie and the surrounding area will dissipate quickly, now that they are beginning to kill for themselves. What I don't expect is how quickly that will become true for myself as well. I never expected to see the young peregrines make a kill; now that I have, even if the kill was just a bat flown down in the floodlights, I find myself visiting less often and for shorter periods, my attention increasingly drawn elsewhere. The young peregrines, if they were ever aware of my presence, were utterly unaffected by it. Soon they will be independent of their parents as well, free to succeed or to fail. They will scatter to the four winds and find their own way.


ANOTHER EPILOGUE

The adult peregrines, who perhaps received short shrift in my original write-up, were a falcon named Ally (hatched in Winnipeg, 2004) and a tiercel known only by his marker band, 19/K (a 2001 bird from Des Moines). The first peregrines ever to nest successfully at the Capitol, they raised ten broods totalling 23 eyasses between 2005 and 2016. They remained in residence, but evidently infertile, through 2020. The following year only a subadult peregrine was present, Ally having sustained a non-releasable injury and 19/K presumably having died.

Of their 23 offspring, at least six are known to have survived and become breeders elsewhere. Among them: Boreas, the 2007 tiercel, who set up shop with another Lincoln bird (Nemaha, 2009) in Topeka. He always did have the look of a winner...

Thursday, June 6, 2024

D-Day begins on the Platte ("The man who won the war")

...until, in God's good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the Old.

—Winston Churchill 

[The New World stepping forth: men of the U.S. 1st Infantry Division storming Omaha Beach in Normandy, 6 June 1944. Photo by Chief Photographer's Mate Robert F. Sargent, USCG.]


Andrew Jackson Higgins was born in Columbus, Nebraska, and grew up in Omaha. His service with both infantry and engineer units in the Nebraska National Guard was to prove fateful: manoeuvres on the Platte River gave him experience with shallow-draft boats.

Higgins later moved down South—first Mobile, then New Orleans—where he made his living importing and exporting lumber. Having of necessity acquired a fleet of ships, he established a shipyard and further developed his personal interest in boat- and shipbuilding. Higgins Lumber & Export Co. eventually went out of business, but by then he had a boatbuilding business, Higgins Industries.

[This statue of Higgins depicts him, appropriately enough, in businessman's uniform: double-breasted suit and quarter-brogues.]



The Higgins Industries Eureka boat, designed to run in shallow Gulf Coast waterways and featuring a recessed propeller, was to become the prototype of the LCPL (landing craft, personnel, large), the LCPR (landing craft, personnel, ramped), and eventually the LCVP (landing craft, vehicle, personnel).

All three of these boats were used for amphibious operations throughout the Second World War in both the European and Pacific theatres, but the LCVP was produced in the greatest numbers and is the one most familiarly known as the "Higgins boat". Despite its widespread use, its fame is associated mainly with D-day, 6 June 1944, for it was the Higgins boat that made the Normandy landings by American, British, and Canadian forces possible.

Andrew Higgins ... is the man who won the war for us. ... If Higgins had not designed and built those LCVPs, we never could have landed over an open beach. The whole strategy of the war would have been different.

—General Dwight D. Eisenhower





[The LCVP's full-width retractable ramp allowed for the rapid deployment of troops and vehicles.]


[The LCVP was powered by a Gray Marine 6-71 diesel engine, an adaptation of the General Motors Detroit Diesel 6-71 bus and tractor engine. This one was donated by Vic Brandl, a Nebraskan who served as a Higgins boat operator in the Pacific theatre.]



Higgins built over twenty thousand boats for the war effort, including not just landing craft but PT boats and an airborne lifeboat, as well as other materiel. And his commitment to human dignity went beyond fighting German and Italian fascism and Japanese imperialism: Higgins' factories represented the first fully-integrated workforce in New Orleans, with black and white men and women working side-by-side on the same pay scale.


The park in Columbus where I took the accompanying photos is one of several memorials to Higgins, but for those of us living in the free world, Christopher Wren's epitaph applies equally well to Andrew Jackson Higgins: Si monumentum requiris, circumspice.


Saturday, May 11, 2024

Night game

Yesterday had already been a good day. Jessa and I erected a pole in the back garden to hang additional hummingbird and oriole feeders, and while out there saw not just Baltimore orioles but also one or more Swainson's thrushes and a rose-breasted grosbeak. The orioles, we believe, are the pair that nested in the neighbourhood last year, and we're within the breeding range for rose-breasted grosbeaks as well, so we hope to see him again. Swainson's thrush is just a migrant here, so whether our four sightings represented multiple individuals or one bird spending the entire day here, he, she, or they were on passage and we take the visit(s) to our garden as a compliment on the habitat we've restored.

While we were working, though, Jessa mentioned that a solar storm was predicted and that the northern lights might be visible in our part of Nebraska. We had been disappointed once before; an aurora predicted last July prompted a drive well up into South Dakota, and while we enjoyed a stopover at Sioux Falls (photos from which, it now occurs to me, we never got around to posting), the lights were a no-show. We decided it was worth another attempt, especially in light of a shorter drive. Accordingly, we set ourselves an early bedtime and an alarm for half-twelve in the morning.

By one o'clock this morning, we were on the road from Lincoln north to Ceresco when it occurred to me that perhaps we should have driven west toward Aurora just for the sake of storytelling. ("I saw the aurora borealis in Aurora, Nebraska" reads the imaginary T-shirt.) As it turned out, west would have worked.

We were expecting a small patch of colour low on the northern horizon, and I was beginning to wonder if it would be discernable against the glare of oncoming headlights, when we both noticed what could have been the glow of city lights, not due north but off to the northwest in the direction of Valparaiso—if Val was a major metropolitan area and not a village of some six hundred people. We continued on to a wildlife management area up near the county line and parked to find that the glow had expanded from the northwest to fill the entire northern half of the sky. 

As we watched, the display grew further, from 180° to a full 270° of sky: lesser or greater areas of mauve confined to the northwest, wide curtains of green everywhere else, nowhere bright enough to hide the brightest stars but certainly enough to wash them out, and the whole in rippling motion as the solar wind blew across the ionosphere. We tried briefly, but couldn't get our camera to focus on the vast shimmering nothing, which is just as well. The experience was in that motion, and in the cool night air, and in the soundtrack: the constant brek-ek-ek of the chorus frogs, the occasional plaintive cry of a killdeer, and just once, the deep who's-awake call of a distant great horned owl rolling across the acres of marsh and grassland where we stood.

In Native culture, at least among the lacrosse-playing peoples, the northern lights are held to be a celestial stickball game, departed spirits continuing their ballplay for the edification of the Creator. And as I watched, I could see why, the tempo continually changing—now the steady flow of the passing game, then a brief lull as someone held the ball, occasionally the frenzy of a fast break—and given how much of the sky was in play, this was not the modern 110-yard field circumscribed by chalk endlines and sidelines, but an old, traditional ballground, miles long, with obstacles but no hard boundaries—not 10-on-10 but everyone on the field, the contestants uncountable, whole tribes in pursuit until someone with a supreme effort wins possession of the ball and with unfailing aim sends it rocketing into the post. They're all there: Thirsts-For-Stone, He Who Stands On Both Sides, Dr. W.G. Beers, the great Jim Brown, my Uncle Dave, who played for Perry Hall and who later took me to my first lacrosse game (the North-South All-Star game at UMBC). And while I'm in no hurry, I'll be glad to take the field when it's my turn to glow in the northern skies. 

* * *

UPDATE: Okay, so "it's just as well" may have been a bit of sour grapes. Below, by kind permission of my co-worker Crystal Schroer, are photos of the aurora taken northwest of Kearney. Five-second exposures on a smartphone. Now why didn't we think of that? (Answer: we may not be as smart as Crystal's phone...)



Tuesday, May 7, 2024

Don't drive angry

Somewhere in Tennessee, Jessa back behind the camera, and a semi-cooperative Marmota monax in front. A critter of many names: groundhog, woodchuck, whistlepig...

"Westley, what about the ROUSes?"

"Rodents Of Unusual Size? I don't think they exist."



This one was intermittently gathering leaves, probably for nest-building purposes. 




"You like the guys with the prominent upper teeth?"




Saturday, May 4, 2024

Falls of the Cullasaja

We've visited and posted several of these before, but not all, and never in context to one another, so I thought here we'd combine several waterfalls into one post, starting at Highlands, NC and moving downstream, where the Cullasaja River parallels US Highway 64. (That is to say, where US-64 follows the river.) All photos by yours truly this time.

The Cullasaja begins at Sequoyah Dam and Falls at the edge of town. The dam was built (1927) at the site of the falls but did not completely obliterate it, so we're left with a blend of the natural and the man-made.







Bridal Veil Falls is not technically on the Cullasaja but on a tributary creek; immediately below the falls, it flows through a culvert under the highway and then empties into the river. 


[Fiona, our trusty '16 Crosstrek, at Bridal Veil.]



Next downstream is Dry Falls. We've photographed it to better advantage on other occasions; the trail behind the falls was closed this time, and it was a rainy day, so I encourage you to view our earlier visits; use the "waterfalls" link at the bottom of this post.






The locked gate did not, however, keep us from our standing appointment with dusky salamanders, and even with access limited there's really no such thing as a bad view at Dry Falls.




In the warmer months, Quarry Falls is often used by locals and visitors alike as a water slide, hence its alternate name of Bust-Your-Butt Falls. We were here in March, and content to stay as dry as the rain would allow.



This is also a popular area for fishing; the Cullasaja and its tributaries are home to rainbows and brown trout, but most importantly the native char, southern Appalachian brook trout. (I've pursued them myself, not on the Cullasaja but nearby.)





[Fiona again.]


Perhaps the prettiest waterfall on the river—it's so hard to pick a favourite, though—is the least accessible, Cullasaja Falls. To get close requires a steep hike down from the highway, and to the best of my knowledge there's no well-established trail. There's a good view from the road, but we rarely even get to see it for more than a second or two because the pull-off is too small for more than one or maybe two cars. We got lucky on this recent trip, though.