The Annals of Country Life

Bird Watching with Alfred Hitchcock

September 25th, 2014 15 Comments

condors

 

One of the great things about living in a rural area is all the wildlife one can see.

I saw my first condor the other day. Well, “saw” is a relative term; technically, yes, I saw a condor, I think, but it was so far away that the only reason I even bothered to look through the binoculars was that it was being harassed by a raven, and by comparison the raven looked like a sparrow, size-wise. Also, I knew the condors were in the area because my friend Dan Bronson (http://hollywood-nobody.com) told me the condors were in this neck of the woods. Very much in his small corner of this neck of the woods.

For those of you who might live in other countries and not be up to speed on the California condor (gymnogyps californianus) it is the closest thing we have these days to a pterodactyl. It looks like a cross between a pterodactyl, a dyspeptic undertaker, and a B-52 bomber, only nowhere near as pretty as any of those. It is America’s largest bird, with a wingspan that can reach over nine feet, and for many years it teetered on the brink of extinction.

And right now would be a good time to point out that those of you who believe global warming is an unprecedented catastrophe caused by man’s rapacity and greed, a catastrophe that will destroy the world as we know it, you will all be pleased to know that global warming should be a definite asset to the condor. If I have my facts right, the ancestors of the California condor were once both common and widespread from the Pacific to the Atlantic, but their numbers (and physical size) became greatly reduced as a result of the last ice age.

Be that as it may, for the last thirty-five years the condor has been the subject of an intense effort to keep the species viable, and they were only released back into the wild in 1991, so seeing one is a big deal. That is, to see them through binoculars is a big deal. For Dan and his wife Sonja, it would be more accurate to describe it as a big ordeal.

That’s Sonja’s photograph above. That’s Dan and Sonja’s gazebo the condors are sitting on. Each condor weighs about twenty-five pounds. Each condor has a prodigious and powerful beak. Each condor has a (pick one) highly developed sense of humor, or a great deal of curiosity, or a catholic sense of taste. The result is that when they come to call, as they did at Dan and Sonja’s, they leave a trail of destruction, with damaged or missing roof tiles, screens torn out of the frames, and—most inexplicable of all—large quantities of caulking around the door frames missing, apparently ingested, but certainly no longer where Dan would like said caulking to be.

The handyman hasn’t gotten to Dan’s house yet, but it looks as if the damage with run to several hundred dollars at the very least.

And for those of you who think I’m just a tinfoil-hat-wearing-paranoid when I say that the NSA has its cameras in all our underwear, consider the following:

When Dan sent me the photograph, and mentioned the damage that had been done, he also asked me, as a hunter and wildlife lover/enthusiast, if he ought to call US Fish and Wildlife to see what he could do to discourage a return visit. I jokingly left him a phone message saying that I had contacted USFW on his behalf and that they had declared his home a condor refuge and were taking his house under eminent domain, and that he and Sonja would have to move. Dan had barely played his phone messages when USFW did in fact show up at his house, the real thing, not an imitation, but not because of me. It seems the tracking devices they put on the birds are so accurate that it is possible to pinpoint an individual’s location to within a matter of feet. Hence the young man who knocked on Dan and Sonja’s door.

Apparently the young man was very polite and helpful; not so helpful that he offered to reimburse the Bronson’s for the damage the birds had done, but helpful in offering suggestions for discouraging the birds’ from lingering, suggestions that included running around and waving your arms and yelling; or running around and banging pots and pans together; or squirting the birds with water. You know, all those things we really long to do and have so much time to do instead of, oh, earning a living.

Condor in flight

 

I would have liked very much to have witnessed Dan’s efforts to be inhospitable to the condors, but I got the next best thing. I happened to be talking to him on the phone the next day, as he wandered around his yard picking up bits of screening and roof tiles that were no longer on the roof, when the condors returned for another feast of caulking material, and the soliloquy that I heard went something like this:

“Yeah, it was really fantastic to see them, Jameson. It’s why I love living up here in these mountains so much. I mean they’re one of the rarest of all birds, so it’s something most people never get a chance to… Oh, wait. One of them is coming back… No it’s, it’s four of them. No! Five, six, seven, eight. There’re eight of them. One of them is flying right over my head, only a few feet over me. Wow! This is cool! It’s an immature one because it doesn’t have the white underwing markings… Oh, no! Oh, shit! It’s landing on the roof. They’re all landing all the goddamn roof. No! Hey! Get out of here! Go away! Go! I’ve got to get the hose. Sonja! Where’s the power nozzle? Go away! (pant, pant) God damn it! I haven’t got enough pressure. I can’t reach them. Sonja! Get some pots, get the lids and start banging them. Oh, no! Don’t do that! God damn it! Go away! Oh, shit! (pant, pant) I’ve got to get the ladder. I’ll call you back.”

Postscript: I just received an email from Dan, an email that is conspicuously lacking in his normal cheerful and chatty style, an email I can best describe as terse. There are now seventeen condors currently circling his house. Either his caulking tastes really good, or perhaps the birds know something he doesn’t, and he and Sonja ought to check their life insurance policies.

Share

Country Matters of the Pungent Variety

September 16th, 2014 15 Comments

skunk

 

I slept with the window open last night and some predator, almost certainly an owl, set off a skunk much too close to the house. The smell was enough to wake both my bride and me, and Darleen—burying her head under the covers—proclaimed bitterly that it smelled as if the owl had taken the skunk directly outside the bedroom window, possibly even in the bathroom. I was tempted to laugh at her, but I didn’t want to spend the rest of the night on the sofa. My poor little hothouse flower doesn’t know what a skunk smells like when it’s really up close and personal. As, for example, when it sprays you. I do.

While we were still living in Germany, my mother and father had an adventure right out of one of those macabre pre-World War Two books or movies like The Old Dark House, only with a happy ending. My sister and I were away at our respective schools and my parents took a vacation by themselves in England. Somewhere, on some desolate moor or common, on a dark and stormy night, their car died (a Jaguar, natch) and they had to hike across country through a driving rain to the only light they could see. It turned out to be an ominous and forbidding old stone farmhouse, but as soon as the door opened it became considerably less o. and f. The place belonged to a very affable farmer and his wife and five bullmastiffs who all took turns trying to lick my parents to death. The dogs, that is, not the farmer and his wife.

Both my parents loved dogs, but my father in particular thought life without a dog was like a meal without wine or a day without sunshine, and he had a special weakness for the bully-breeds, bulldogs, mastiffs, boxers, and here he was surrounded by five of the bulliest of the bully-breeds. Our beloved old one-eyed boxer had died only a year or so earlier, one of the bullmastiff bitches was pregnant, and the upshot was that long before any mechanic arrived to fix their temperamental car, money had changed hands. Six months later a bullmastiff puppy from the farmer’s “R” litter arrived at the Cologne airport.

Roger, for so the farmer had named him, was an affable, lazy old schmoo. He looked intimidating as hell, but in the normal course of events his attitude was, much like my father’s, “Wherever two or three are gathered together, let’s have a party!” When events became abnormal, however, he became a very different kind of dog. It only happened twice that I know of, but both times he lived up to the bullmastiff’s justly earned reputation as a guardian. For the most part, however, he was just a big old happy-go-lucky slob.

Bullmastiff

After he retired from the Foreign Service, my father became the director of a small museum out in the country in Virginia, Gunston Hall, the home of George Mason, the author of the Virginia Declaration of Rights which eventually became the model for our Constitution’s Bill of Rights, so many of which are so flagrantly ignored by today’s administration. One of my chores in those long ago days before security systems and alarms and electronic communication, was to walk Roger around the place late at night, just to make sure everything was safe and secure. Roger and I were ambling down a path not far from the house one very dark night, when suddenly he growled and started to run. Being a Bear of Little Brain, and thinking I was a lot tougher than I really was, I ran after him. I could hear, rather than see, him stop, so I skidded to a stop too, and then I heard a faint hissing sound.

Before I could even process what it might have been, the spray hit me. Hit both of us, actually. The only good thing was that I was so close to the skunk that he only got me from about the waist down. I had to throw away a pair of suede boots and a perfectly good pair of blue jeans. Poor Roger, on the other hand, hand to be repeatedly bathed, and even after all that he had to spend the night on the porch.

They are sweet dogs, bullmastiffs, but not prodigious intellects. One night later that same summer, my parents had long since gone to bed, Roger and I had already done our late-night patrol, and I decided to let him out into the fenced yard for one last leg-lift before I went to sleep. I was brushing my teeth when I heard something outside. It was Roger, engaging in a rematch with a skunk, but unfortunately, this skunk happened to be right by the air-conditioning intake, and a minute later, my father, my mother and I all flew out of the house in our pajamas, my father lighting up the night with a string of profanities that probably still drifts through the woods of Mason’s Neck like phantom fairy lights. It was weeks, and I mean literally weeks, before the smell eventually faded from the house enough that you could walk in there without your eyes watering.

You can see why I’m not terribly sympathetic to Darleen’s grumbling about distant smells drifting down the hill.

Share

Dry Times

June 11th, 2014 20 Comments

Button buck

It’s hard to know to what extent the rest of the country, or the world, is aware of the drought affecting much of the West, but it’s bad. It’s bad throughout all the Southwest, but especially in California. Like an old vaudeville routine, it begs the question: How bad is it?

Objectively, it is severe enough that there is something about it on the news practically every day. These reports feature colored maps with most of the Southwest in some shade of yellow or red, but with almost all of California shown in a dark and dirty shade of brown, a sort of über-red. A few days ago I drove down to the Central Valley, the salad, fruit, and nut bowl of the world, and the giant electronic billboards normally used to warn drivers to “Click It or Ticket,” or occasionally to post an Amber alert, were all lit up with warnings to conserve water. Some of the farmers down there are actually pulling out their citrus orchards: there isn’t enough water to keep the trees alive. The water in the Sacramento Delta that would normally grow oranges is being withheld for a tiny fish, called a smelt, that may or may not be endangered, depending on who you talk to, a decision made by environmentalists with swimming pools who play golf with politicians on manicured courses in Palm Springs.

Anecdotally, there are almost no cattle no speak of left in the mountains in this part of the state; the herds have all been sold off or shipped north. When I go out to clean the pastures, abnormally short and stunted grasses crack beneath my feet, and little puffs of dust rise up around my boots. Even the hardy, obnoxious, and ubiquitous mustard weed is dry and brittle.

But what really brought it home was something that happened the other day when Darleen and I were trimming branches on some of the trees around the house. I was taking advantage of being forced at wife-point to do chores, and I had turned the hose on very low to water two cottonwoods we planted many years ago as shade trees for the horses. Cottonwoods are tough, double-tough, capable of driving their roots deep into the ground for any kind of moisture, but even they need some help in times like these.

I was doing the heavy lifting, piling up the branches into the bed of my truck, tying them down, then off to the local dump. On the way back, after about the third or fourth trip, as I drove up my driveway, I saw one of those steel-cuts of a deer silhouetted in the shade under one of the cottonwoods. You know the kind of thing: yard art cut out of large sheets of metal in the form of deer or elk or horses or perhaps a cowboy leaning up against a wall, charming or tacky, depending on your point of view and on the skill of the artist doing the cutting.

But this one surprised the hell out of me, because I had never seen it before, and I wondered when Darleen had bought it, how she had gotten it home and hidden it without my seeing it, and how she had managed to get it set up under the trees. The damn things are heavy.

I kept driving closer, my brain addled by heat and work, staring at it, until, when I was only about twenty yards away, it raised its head. It was a very live button-buck (a fawn that is old enough to grow its first set of antlers) drinking out of the well around the base of the cottonwood.

I want to delineate the magnitude of this: It was at the height of the afternoon heat, a time when deer normally stay bedded down in the shade to avoid heat stress; the cottonwoods are at least a hundred yards from the edge of the hill behind the house, where the trees and boulders provide shade and shelter; the hill behind the house is south-facing, and in these mountains, only north-facing slopes have any springs or rivulets. Yet this little buck was so desperate for water that he had come a long way down a dry hill and crossed all that open space in bright sunlight just to get a drink. Not only that, but he was so desperately thirsty that when I stopped my truck only twenty yards away, he only looked at me briefly and then went right back to drinking. He drank steadily for about five minutes, occasionally changing his position relative to the water, but never again lifting his head, resolutely ignoring an idling pickup.

The late Roger Ott, a part Cherokee horse trainer, once told me that the plains Indians used to capture wild horses by the simple expedient of posting squaws at every known water hole. Then the young braves would start to chase the horses in relays. The wild horses of course would run away easily at first, but as the day went on the heat began to build they would need water. The squaws would chase them off the waterholes, and this would go on and on until finally the desperate and exhausted horses would stand in a nervous group, uncertain what to do. One of the braves would walk up with a water bag and give the dominant mare a sip, just a taste, of water from his hand, then turn and walk away. And that mare and rest of the band would all follow.

It’s a sign of how bad things are when animals become desperate enough to ignore their own survival instincts in order to follow an even greater imperative. I suspect we have many nocturnal visitors to the horse troughs down by the barn. And I pray our well holds up.

Share

Sumer Is Icumen in…

May 12th, 2014 8 Comments

Western tananger 011 (Small)

…Lhude sing cuccu!

Groweth sed, and bloweth med,

And springeth the wude nu –

Sing cuccu!

 

They didn’t have spell-check in 1226 when that was written, but it’s the spirit of the thing that counts. My spelling isn’t much better.

For many years we marked the beginning of spring in the mountains by the arrival of the orioles, specifically the Scott’s oriole, a bright lemon-yellow fellow, who used to nest in the trees around the house. Scott’s orioles are shy birds, and the exceptionally dense foliage of our Raywood ash trees provided them plenty of privacy.

But over the past several years, for unknown reasons, we haven’t seen any, so when Darleen spotted a flash of yellow in the bitterbrush on the hill behind the house, she was delighted, assuming it was the orioles coming back late from their winter tour through Mexico. “Visit the historic towns of Old Mexico! Marvel at the ruins of Aztec temples! Enjoy local cuisine and the hospitality of rural Mexico! See old friends again! Relax in four-star accommodations!”

But it wasn’t. It was a Western tanager, also bright lemon-yellow and black, but he wears a red hat that makes him look very flashy indeed, rather like the motley fool of medieval times. In 1226, say.

Western tanagers are not particularly uncommon around here, but they are a coniferous bird, preferring pine trees to oak trees, and bark-beetle depredation has taken a toll on the old pines on our property. Old pines are more susceptible to bark-beetles, especially when stressed by drought, and California has had more than its fair share of drought this year. The result is that we have had to have four large old pines taken down. They don’t look good when they die, and they become even more dangerous than they are when healthy. Even healthy pines will literally explode into flame from the heat of an advancing fire (I have seen this happen) and when they’re dead, they explode much more easily, putting them on a par with sage and mesquite for being a fire hazard.

So the only old pines left on the hill behind our house are very high up, and there aren’t many of them anyway at this relatively low elevation, and as tanagers nest exclusively in pines and spruces (to my knowledge) I was a little surprised to see them.

And “them” is the operative word. It’s a trifle difficult for an amateur to tell one gaudy male tanager from another, especially at a distance, but there appeared to be at least four and perhaps as many as six males. And, I presume, their spouses, but in contradistinction to the human world, it the males who draw your attention.

Western tananger 031 (Small)

And it was the bitterbrush that drew the birds. It’s hard to imagine anything called “bitterbrush” being palatable, but they were feasting with gusto, cramming berries into their mouths as fast as they could, building up their energy for nest building at higher elevations. I miss our orioles, who are energetic singers, as opposed to the relatively quiet tanagers, but it is always nice to see summer visitors, especially anything as beautiful as a tanager.

Share

The Annals of Country Life: Boxer, Bobcat, and Barbeque

February 15th, 2014 17 Comments

Tags: , ,

Bobcat two

The East is in the grip of yet another icy winter storm, but here in California were are not only experiencing the worst drought in years, but we are also experiencing the earliest spring I can remember. It’s only the second week in February and already the Flowering Pear trees in town are in bloom, while the Flowering Plums we planted in front of our house are pink with blossoms. The southern Sierras are noted for a relatively mild climate, but this is ridiculous. February?

Taking advantage of the mild weather, I was barbequing pork loins the other night under the watchful supervision of Pete the Beautiful Big Brave Brainy Bouncing Brindle Boxer. Supervising is what Pete does. After mature consideration and close observation, Pete has come to the conclusion that Darleen is not competent to do anything without his supervision, especially if it involves going somewhere in the car, and that while I am reasonably competent in the barbequing department, there is always the chance I might drop the plate. If you’re a Boxer, when it comes to food, hope springs eternal. Hope, and a marked tendency to lie about when or even if you last had a meal.

Pork has to be watched closely, so the two of us were outside doing the watching, when I saw a bobcat working his or her way through the tall grass on the hill behind the house. (Note I said I saw the bobcat; Pete doesn’t get easily distracted when watching barbequed meat.) The cat was only about thirty yards outside the fence walking slowly and steadily along, neither hunting nor hurrying. Since Pete and I had been talking, and I had been rattling the barbeque grill, opening and closing the top, turning the loins, and moving around on the patio, there is no way that cat couldn’t have been aware of us, barring hearing impairment and a visual handicap. He, or she, walked past the stumps of the dead pines I had to have cut down, across a wide open space, over a large boulder, never looking down at us, and only as he began to wind through some smaller boulders did my watchdog extraordinaire finally see him. Bobcat four

One of the wonderful things about Boxers is that they don’t get hysterical. They don’t frighten easily, or possibly at all, but they don’t bark unnecessarily either. In fact, the only way I could be certain Pete saw the bobcat (he wasn’t about to leave the barbeque) was that his entire energy changed and his eyes hardened. I know that may sound strange, but Boxers have marvelously expressive faces, and now his normal goofy eat-play-love expression was gone and he was back on active duty.

The two of us watched the bobcat pick his way through the rocks, across another open space, and when it finally passed the twelve o’clock position relative to us, Pete trotted out toward the far end of the fence. For the first time, the bobcat glanced down. He was clearly so completely terrified and caught off-guard by seeing a vicious, bloodthirsty man and a ferocious Boxer thirty yards below him that he had to sit down and scratch vigorously behind one ear to relieve his feelings. Then, with that curious mixture of languor and grace peculiar to cats, he jumped up onto a large flat boulder, reclined elegantly on his side looking down at us, and began a lengthy toilette, grooming himself carefully from ears to tail. Pete sat down in the gravel below him, the two of them watching each other, Pete with interest, the cat with magnificent unconcern.

Just then I saw Darleen through the window and signaled to her to bring the binoculars. She looked at the cat through binoculars and we talked in normal tones until the pork was done. Taking the meat off the grill and putting it on a plate finally drew Pete away from his observation post—after all, it’s all very well being a loyal watchdog and protector, but let’s not get our priorities skewed—and we all went inside. But what stayed with me, what especially delighted me, was the complete unconcern of the bobcat: man, wife, dog, barbeque, conversation, opening and closing of the door, none of it bothered him. I hope he stays close by. I hope he kills some of the damned ground squirrels that are coming out of my ears. Hell, I’ll happily barbeque some of them for him.

Share

The Annals of Country Life: The Wolf at the Door

February 5th, 2014 11 Comments

Wolf by Quinn

Long, long ago, when the world and I were both much younger, I went camping in Algonquin Provincial Park with a very pretty girl and my two dogs. It was in the beginning of the off-season, so while the weather was lovely, we had the place pretty much to ourselves; in fact, I don’t remember seeing another human being in the two days we were there.

We had cooked a meal, sat around the fire talking, and were just heading into our little tent for the night when suddenly a pack of wolves began to howl. It froze me in my tracks, and the effect on the dogs was amazing. One of them was a big, tough Briard, but even as their hackles went up and they both began to growl, I could tell they were terrified. To be honest, my hackles went up and I began to growl, with about the same degree of conviction and for much the same reason.

Wolf howling

I know now that the pack was probably about a mile away, or even more, and that it was probably just a normal pack of wolves, not the several hundred animals it sounded like, but at the time, all by ourselves, barely out of our teens (we were on our way back to college), unarmed, it was a—you should pardon the expression—hair-raising experience. For all four of us.

Since then, I have heard other wolves, seen fresh tracks while bird-hunting in northern Minnesota, visited with some semi-tame ones in a scientific compound where the wolves were part of a genetic testing program, and I have also grown up considerably and learned a good deal more about this most magnificent ancestor of my dogs and ancestor of the genetic tribal memory—for good or ill—that runs in each of us.

So it was with mixed feelings that I received link to an article in the Idaho Statesman with the following headline: “Lawmakers: $2M aimed to kill more than 500 wolves.” Putting aside the less than graceful headline, the lead paragraph succinctly sums it all up:

“Republicans promoting Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter’s proposed $2 million taxpayer-financed fund to kill wolves hope the cash helps reduce Idaho’s population of these canine predators by more than 500 animals, to just 150 wolves in 15 packs.”

Predictably, the so-called animal rights organization Defenders of Wildlife (an organization with only a “D” rating—as in A, B, C, D, and F—for spending only forty-three percent of its total expenses on its programs) denounced the proposed action.

“This is just another example of Idaho’s unwillingness to manage wolves as a wildlife species,” said Jonathan Proctor, a Defenders of Wildlife spokesman in Denver. “They’re singling out wolves for special persecution. The majority of Idahoans expect state managers to manage all wildlife appropriately and not exterminate them to the bare minimum they think they can get away with.”

Wolf snarling

In the spirit of full disclosure, I have no desire to hunt wolves. (I don’t even like to shoot the ubiquitous coyote, though I have done so at the specific request of ranchers.) And in the spirit of full disclosure, I have little regard for animal rights organizations, with their cuddly portrayal of a Disneyesque natural world and their use of emotion to trump both science and reality. But in this particular case, I happen to agree with Defenders of Wildlife. Not because I want to cuddle up with wolves in my tent, but because this makes less than zero economic sense. Let’s review the bidding.

Wolves in Idaho have drastically reduced both the resident deer and elk herds. The elk herds have been particularly hard hit. Elk hunting represents a significant economic boost to the economy in Idaho, and the wolves’ reduction of the herds has had a predictable effect on outfitters, with some of them simply closing their doors and looking for other lines of work.

The economy is hurting generally throughout America. When the economy is in the toilet, fewer people go hunting. When there are no elk to attract hunters, even those lucky people with extra cash go elsewhere where they can reasonably expect to find elk. State fish and game departments are funded largely by hunters and fishermen. State fish and game departments are responsible for managing fish and game in their respective states. Since the economy in Idaho is no better off than the American economy generally, and they no longer have the hunters coming into the state in the numbers they used to, their fish and game department is feeling the pinch.

Soooooo….. The Idaho state legislature puts two and two together and comes up with three. Instead of offering many more, and more liberal, wolf-hunting licenses and various inducements to encourage hunters to come to Idaho and spend the money that would put much needed revenue into the fish and game department’s coffers, the state legislature decides to spend the tax-payer’s money to achieve the same goal they are going to spend two million dollars on.

I know very well that hunters, even in large numbers, are very unlikely ever to take five hundred wolves in a single season, but it would reduce the wolf population while bringing in money, and hunting pressure has been shown to have an impact on the surviving animals, making them more wary around humans and consequently less likely to prey on domestic animals.

Wolf running

Didn’t the politicians in Idaho learn anything from the boneheads in California? Twenty years ago, voters in California, influenced by cuddly and emotional anti-hunting campaigns that had nothing to do with reality, banned mountain lion hunting over the objections of the scientists at the California Dept. of Fish and Game. Today, the very predictable result is: an out of control mountain lion population; increased (and historically unprecedented) confrontations between humans and the big cats; drastic reduction of deer numbers in some areas and (more importantly) of desert big horn numbers in the mountains east of San Diego, where the sheep had been re-introduced at the tax payer’s considerable expense; loss of revenue from mountain lion hunting fees, a loss that the most under-funded (California game wardens earn less than any other form of law enforcement in the state) fish and game department (relative to the population) in the nation could greatly use; and an increased expense for the tax payers because today professional hunters are paid (by the tax payer) to kill more mountain lions annually than were taken by hunters who paid for the privilege twenty years ago. Yep, that sure makes a lot of sense, by golly. They say that California leads the way for the rest of the nation. Is that supposed to be a good thing? Not if Idaho imitating the Golden State is an example.

Wolf Two by Quinn

Share

Steve Bodio on Golden Eagles

December 14th, 2013

7544503

I received an email from Steve Bodio about Golden eagles, in response to my post (“Golden Eagles Redux. Or Not.”), and he has been kind enough to let me reprint it here. He has the unique perspective of a falconer who knows what he is talking about. He also provided the magnificent photograph.

This is Steve:

I have a bit of a heretical stance about Golden eagles re wind farms– too complex for sound bites ( or just too ambivalent?) but closer to yours than the prohibitionists’ stance.

I dislike the amount of kills allowed for wind farms. But whether or not the population is harmed needs at least two questions answered. One is how many (golden) eagles there are; the other is what else takes them out of (breeding) circulation.

The first is never discussed except among biologists– it is as though certain enviros do not want to ever say anything optimistic. The number of bald eagles got brought low, partly by persistent pesticides, and now increases as it becomes ever more tolerant of human society. But the number of known Golden nests (or rather the reasonably accepted extrapolated number ) is AND MAY ALWAYS HAVE BEEN almost inconceivably high, so high I am not inclined to quote it without access to the actual data, except five figures of PAIRS in North America. (There are two nesting pairs I know of within ten miles of where I write these notes). This is never publicized, but you can track it down. The data is not from livestock or energy apologists, either. Remember, there is an untouched Arctic population, and ones in Labrador that seem to eat herons in breeding season. The golden is so adaptable that there is a Greek population that eats mostly TORTOISES. I doubt wind turbines will dent those numbers or scare them away.

The Texans used to shoot hundreds every year and it seems to have done little BIOLOGICAL harm. Now wind farms are allowed to kill several hundred a year, and Navajos and other Native Peoples are allowed not only unlimited hunting but utterly unlimited access to such species as red- tailed hawks, not to train but to sell feathers. Which works out in practice that every delinquent kid on a troubled reservation sees a hawk on a pole ands shoots it. Then probably sells it. While there are serious religious uses of eagles by the Pueblos, there is also an internal market, really illicit, in feathers for tribal dance outfits, competitive and lucrative- and some sympathetic judges have decided these commercial competitions are protected too. (Meanwhile one pueblo has modified its ceremonies to no longer kill eagles, and has hired a biologist to teach them how to keep them in a healthy way!)

Many activist types hate falconry as intolerable meddling with romantic symbols, but a falconer’s eagle is not even lost from the population– only “on loan” so to speak. The Kazakhs I rode with in Asia let them go to breed after ten years, and eagles commonly live to over 30. Until now falconers were a allowed a take of (I think) 6 wild caught golden eagles a year, only from areas in Wyoming and the Dakotas with proven sheep predation problems. Right now the government is inclined to end this benign “use”. I wish that moralists and humane activists would not go after the tiny portion of eagles allowed to falconers! If we allow a small kill harvest from the tribes, an unknown yet amount for wind farms, oil wells, roads and such, and want a healthy population… we HAVE to set fairly rigid quotas to be safe. But known numbers could easily allow a live take of up to six (or ten or whatever– except I don’t think that there will ever be that many eaglers), some of which would eventually even breed.

Meanwhile, in the warden- free lands of most reservations eagles still exist only because of apathy– there is no protection. Ranchers under 60 are more or less benign, and don’t shoot them (wolves are far more threatening in both reality and reputation), but some angry young rez kids kill every sitting bird they see, and sell the feathers no matter what, as a demonstration that they “own” them Some tribes have made clear falconers shouldn’t get any quota, because they are religious symbols! A bit of googling would show us the old regs, under which we existed and complained for decades, while Texans shot hundreds or maybe even thousands– see Don Scheuler’s Incident at Eagle Ranch) even thousands, were uninformed– they now seem almost as unimaginable as photos of the aerial dogfights with eagles when they were hunted from planes. But counter intuitively they were probably biologically harmless in that they didn’t– because they couldn’t– wipe out eagles. Morally though, making dead eagles a commodity for anyone looks worse to me than wind farms; commerce can drive extinction like stoking a fire.

Why not reasonable quotas for falconers’ birds? Fewer privileges for Indians, at least ones with no religious stake, as those don’t have the built- in cultural reverence? And less posturing from anti- wind people at least about eagles aka Charismatic Megafauna (the turbines may actually be worse for bats, group far more threatened than the golden eagle!)

Share

Golden Eagles Redux. Or Not.

December 7th, 2013

7381489

I just posted a blog about a Golden eagle trying to take my hat—or possibly my head—off as I teetered on a ladder cleaning my gutters. And now, in one of those coincidences that makes you think Jung really knew what he was talking about when he developed his theory of synchronicity, I stumbled across an article about wind farms that contained some disturbing news. California, where I live, has some of the largest wind farms in America (second only to Texas), notably in the Altamont Pass area near San Francisco, in Kern County in the central part of the state, and in the southern desert in Imperial County.

Wind energy is clean energy, and in addition to its minor contribution to America’s electrical energy needs (wind farms account for about four percent of all terawatts used) it is a feel-good industry. It’s not the most effective form of energy production, and it’s not the most aesthetically pleasing addition to the landscape, but driving past a wind farm it is easy to lull oneself into a sense that we’re making progress, that we’re on the verge of a cleaner, healthier, and safer world where wind and sun will eventually replace coal and fossil fuels and those nuclear power plants we all prefer not to live near as we boot-up our computers with electricity.

Cleaner, yes. Healthier? Safer? Well, that depends on whom it is supposed to be healthier and safer for.

The article I read was by someone named Rick Moran and was entitled Administration to Give Wind Farms Thirty Year Pass on Killing Bald Eagles. Following up on that provocative headline, I found the Audubon Society’s take on it was no less shrill: Interior Dept. Rule Greenlights Eagle Slaughter at Wind Farms. The Audubon news release was accompanied by a photograph of a Bald Eagle. I’m not sure why Mr. Moran and the Audubon Society singled out Bald Eagles, but it is a well-established fact that wind turbines are lethal to birds of all kinds, and birds of prey especially. Back in 2001, when there were far fewer—and for the most part smaller—wind farms with much smaller wind turbines, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service maintained that forty-thousand birds killed annually was probably an underestimate. In the Altamont Pass, the bird of prey most vulnerable to turbines is the Golden Eagle, drawn there by traditional migratory patterns and an abundance of small animals, primarily ground squirrels. Those wind turbines in the Altamont Pass area date back to the late seventies and early eighties, before Barack Obama even started shaving, yet now everyone seems to be excoriating the President’s administration for “slaughtering” eagles.

I’m afraid the bloom is off my rose when it comes to President Obama. The “Fast and Furious” debacle did it for me. Since I have already written about that, I have no intentions of laying the whole thing out again, but what it boiled down to was the President went on national television and said he knew nothing about the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms’ “Operation Fast and Furious,” and maintained he had not even heard of it until it became breaking news a few days earlier. Two weeks later he refused to release any White House emails or documents pertaining to “Fast and Furious,” invoking the right of executive privilege. Since executive privilege only applies to conversations and correspondence between the President (or a member of his staff speaking on his behalf) and some other party, we are left with only two options: either the President lied when said he knew nothing about it; or he broke the law by invoking executive privilege to protect someone else. Since then, we have had the shameful disgrace of Benghazi (immortalized by Hilary Clinton’s dismissal of the deaths of four Americans with the words, “What difference, at this point, does it make?”), the less than stellar debut of Obamacare, the President’s constitutionally questionable use of executive order, and host of lesser issues that have tarnished his reputation.

But on this issue of wind turbines, I happen to agree with him. The world and his wife and the little dog behind the stove are all screaming for America to break its dependence on foreign oil. But nobody wants more oil drilling. Fracking is demonized as being right up there with pederasty. Burning coal is equated with chain smoking on an airplane. Practically every green organization in the land is calling for (in some cases suing for) the dismantling of hydro-electric dams great and small. And hard to spell places names like Chernobyl and Fukushima kind of dampen one’s enthusiasm for living near a nuclear reactor. The people who scream the loudest against these energy sources use up a lot of kilowatts in their temperature-controlled offices screaming on their MacBooks and their i-phones while playing games on their i-pods. Something’s got to give if we all wish to continue living our lives in the ease and comfort we have all come to accept as a birthright. And just as we take these things for granted, so too more and more emerging nations and societies are going to want the same toys. How are we going to power all those critically important X-box games and smart devices?

Do I want eagles killed? Of course not. But the Audubon Society itself pointed out there are large swaths of the nation that are not migratory paths, and where wind farms could be placed with minimal danger to any avian species, and that in any event, greenhouse gas emissions have the potential to kill far more birds (not to mention people) than wind turbines.

Just for the record, as long as I’m ranting…

As someone who shares his home with three cats, consider the following: forty thousand birds killed by wind turbines pales in comparison to the estimated one hundred million migratory songbirds killed every year by hunting housecats. It’s why I never allow my cats outside.

Besides, they might become a meal for an eagle.

Share

Golden Eagle

December 2nd, 2013

7286948

I had to clean out the gutters the day after Thanksgiving, one of the routine chores of late fall, after all the leaves have finally fallen. The good news is that we live in a one-story house, so for the most part it only involves my getting up about ten feet on a ladder. In fact I don’t even have to extend the extension ladder, except for the area over the entry which is about twenty feet up. The bad news is that we live in a one-story house, so it means there is a lot of roof and miles and miles of gutter, making it pretty much a day-long job, between dried leaves and dried mud which must be scraped out. But except for the raised entry area, it’s also a relatively safe job.

So of course I was up on the ladder at the highest point when a golden eagle went past. He was so big and so close to me and going so fast that for a wild moment I thought I was under attack by a B-52 bomber. (“Bombing Run Goes Awry; Local Man Vaporized; Details At Eleven.”) We have a healthy local population of golden eagles, so it’s not unusual to see one. Thrilling, always; unusual, no. But normally I see them hundreds of feet up in the air, riding the thermals with stately elegance. Once, Darleen and I came upon two on the ground eating something they had killed. They had progressed to that point in their meal where I could no longer tell what it had been before it became dinner, but we reined in the horses about fifty yards away and watched as the massive talons held down the bulk of the meal while the formidable beaks tore off chunks.

They are awe-inspiring predators. Steve Bodio has written a magnificent, fascinating book, Eagle Dreams, about his travels to western Mongolia to hunt with the Kazakh horsemen who ride out with their eagles after no less a prey than the wolf, and it includes a photograph of wolf skins hanging from the home of one of the hunters. I’ve never personally met a Mongolian wolf, but I don’t imagine they’re that much smaller than our wolves in North America, which is to say they’re probably just about the size of a former middleweight perched high up on a ladder.

There is thrilling, and then there is thrilling.

In this case, the eagle passed about twenty feet over my head, going at Mach speed with a family of red tail hawks (three of them, so I assume it was a family unit) in hot pursuit, followed by an large extended family of ravens (mom, dad, kiddies, aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces, nephews, in-laws, even that embarrassing old great-uncle who always tells such inappropriate jokes at family gatherings), though it was hard to tell if the ravens were pursuing the eagle or the red tails, the red tail and the raven being, shall we say, uneasy neighbors. They went by in a noisy woosh! (ravens are noisy fliers) at such great speed that they vanished over the nearest hill almost as quickly as they had appeared, leaving me clinging to the ladder and wondering if I should seek shelter.

My God, what a magnificent bird!

Though it is about a kestrel, not eagles, I’ll leave you with The Windhover, Gerard Manley Hopkins’ sonnet from the God’s Grandeur series. A Roman Catholic convert and Jesuit priest, Hopkins dedicated the poem, To Christ our Lord, and while it may be a difficult read that begs to be read aloud, it needs no explanation beyond that to make it accessible. However, to clarify, I will add that “sillion” is an archaic spelling of “selion,” meaning a furrow turned over by the plough.

The Windhover, To Christ our Lord

I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-

dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon in his riding

Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding

High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing

In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,

As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding

Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding

Stirred for a bird,–the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!

 

 

Brute beauty and valor and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here

Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion

Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!

No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion

Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,

Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion.

Share

A Neighbor in a Different Land

November 27th, 2013

7212599

I went deer hunting in Texas week before last. It was a trip arranged by Weatherby, the firearms manufacturer, and it was intended to give me and a few other writers a chance to test some of the new rifles the company is offering. From the point of view of companionship, hunting, and testing, the trip was wildly successful and a lot of fun. Good people, good times, good guns, good hunting.

But what I really want to tell you about was a small incident that was a first for me.

Hunting in Texas is completely unique. First of all, there is almost no public land in Texas. There are only two national parks that I know of (Big Bend and Guadalupe) and only a few state parks, so all hunting must be done on private land. Deer and exotics are the backbone of Texas hunting. There is great waterfowl hunting along the coast, and in the moist, sweltering areas of eastern Texas they are so overrun by wild hogs that if you knock on a farmer’s door and ask permission to hunt, he’s likely to offer you his youngest daughter’s hand in marriage. There is even a national television show about a, uh, highly colorful family that makes its living hunting hogs down there. (“Colorful! It’s what you get when you’ve lived in Bolivia for twenty years. You get colorful. Bingo!”) But it is deer and exotics that bring in the big bucks (you should pardon the expression) for private ranches in the Lone Star State.

Because whitetail deer and exotics represent big dollars to private landowners, just as black angus do to cattlemen, a lot of time and effort and money is put into maximizing both the quality of the animals and the quality of the hunting of those animals.

Ranches are completely high-fenced. Think about that for a moment. The ranch where we hunted, a relatively small one by Texas standards, is twelve-thousand-plus acres, cross-fenced into pastures of about a thousand acres each. I happen to know what regular horse-wire fencing costs per foot (which is why I had to do almost all of it on my little ranch myself), so I can only guess at the millions of dollars in fencing alone that have been invested in this ranch. I was told by the ranch manager that there was a permanent two-man fencing crew, whose sole job it was to build and repair fence, day in, day out, all year long. Sort of like painting the Golden Gate bridge.

Then there is the deer-breeding program. Yes, deer-breeding. The first thing a deer needs to grow large antlers is good genetics. Breeding deer is, by itself, a significant economic enterprise in Texas, where artificial insemination is done on scientific principles in facilities that make most hospitals look poor and slovenly, and breeder bucks with good genetics are treated with the kind of care and respect normally accorded to famous stallions. For reasons neither I nor anyone else on this hunt understands, this is only possible with whitetail deer. Mule deer cannot be bred successfully in captivity. We had a lot of debate about this while I was down there, and while mule deer seem to have somewhat larger spatial requirements than whitetail, they are just as adaptable and just as capable of living in close proximity to humans as whitetail are. Just ask anyone—my wife, for example—who has tried to grow roses or apples or just about any kind of garden in these mountains. So I don’t know why mule deer are different.

The second requirement for large antlers is good nutrition, and there are companies that specialize in the development of nutrient-rich feeds specifically for deer. I know what I pay to supplement my two horses, so I shudder to think what a hunting ranch must pay to put nutrients out for literally thousands of deer. Which, of course, raises the question of how you feed wild animals. Scores of feeders, perhaps hundreds, are spread across the ranch. They run off of solar-powered batteries, but like anything made by man, they are subject to inexplicable breakdowns and must be checked regularly. While I was there, the young hand (guide, if you will) I was with found three feeders that needed fixing. It’s a labor-intensive industry.

7212600

(Photo courtesy of Brad Fitzpatrick)

Why a guide for something as inherently private and solitary as deer hunting? Apart from the fact that this was all new land to me and they didn’t want anyone getting lost, the third factor that influences antler size is age. The ranch does not allow any buck (other than obviously deformed bucks that must be culled) under the age of five to be shot, and the guides are there to both judge the age of bucks and to enforce the rule. It turned out to be very instructive; I’ve been hunting deer for almost forty years, but I learned a lot about details of aging that I had not known.

Texas-style deer hunting is done out of blinds over feeders. This is a fact many people find repugnant, but consider that in almost every state where I have hunted whitetail in the East or Midwest, it is legal to plant feeder crops out in the middle of the woods to attract the deer and to hunt over those crops. In the parts of the West where water is scarce, mule deer, elk, and pronghorn are frequently hunted over waterholes. So the bottom line is that I don’t see much of a difference. As it happened, this particular ranch also runs black angus, and both the deer, and my guide and I, got run off the feeders by greedy cattle, so I ended up hunting by glass-and-stalk (and taking a dandy buck), but that was just an accident, and I spent the first two days happily and optimistically sitting in a blind.

7212601

And it was in one of those blinds, on the second day, that I got my first good long look at a gray fox.

We have gray fox in the mountains where I live in California, but very few of them. (We also have kit fox down in the Central Valley at a much lower elevation.) If you have a lot of wolves, you won’t have many coyotes. If you have a lot of coyotes, you won’t have many fox. In California we have coyotes coming out of our ears, so there are very few gray fox. In twenty-two years up here I only seen tracks, one dead one by the side of the highway, and one flash of a live one running across the road late at night, so I was delighted to see a gray fox hunting his—or her—way delicately toward the blind.

7212602

The land on the western edge of the Edwards Plateau in Texas is rolling savannah dotted with live oaks, mesquite trees, prickly pear, and pockets of brush, and this fox emerged quite suddenly from some heavy brush just north of the blind. He was small, elegant, beautiful, and had that typical vulpine air of confidence in his own native wit. I half expected him to stop, look up at us in the blind, and make a sarcastic and insulting remark. (This is a somewhat inaccurate bit of anthropomorphizing on my part, since the gray fox is scientifically named Urocyon cinereoagenteus, not Vulpes.) As it was, there was something I couldn’t see there in the grass (mice? voles? insects? a little of each?) he found to his liking, so for about twenty minutes he hunted happily within ten feet of where we sat, sometimes making a quick darting snap with his muzzle, sometimes making the lovely arching pounce I associate with foxes, rising up on his hind legs, jumping into the air and landing on his prey with both front paws. He evidently felt quite safe and at home, never pausing to check for any other predator (primarily bobcat in that part of the state), never paying the slightest attention to the cattle stealing grain out of the feeder one hundred yards away, or the unhappy deer circling cautiously around watching the cattle steal their dinner. At one point he came so close to the blind I could have dropped my notebook on him. Then he gradually hunted his way into a tangle of brush and live oak on the south side and vanished.

If I were a Howard Pyle, I would have drawn him with boots on and a battered cap, a game bag over one shoulder, rifle on the other, a happy fellow hunter on a glorious winter day.

7212603

Share
Top of Page