Sunday, December 25, 2005

One man's tragedy is another man's treasure

Saturday (12/24): Christmas Eve and although the Japanese don't necessarily celebrate Christmas the same way Americans do, the 23rd is the Emperor's birthday and marks the beginning of a "holiday season". For the next three weeks or so every week has some sort of holiday giving me plenty of days off to go hawking (if the misses let's me...).
Friday was shot as some of our good friends from Florida who had been teaching English here were returning to America. If it was up to me, it would've been a quick good-bye and out to fly the birds. Fortunately my wife is a bit more compassionate than me and when I told her my plans to fly that day she quickly put a stop to that! :( But it was probably for the best as we spent the entire afternoon with our friends laughing about the year and a half they spent here and their plans for the future. They will be missed...although so was hawking time!
Saturday, after getting two new hawking videos as an early Christmas present I was dying to get out and get my fix. We had some friends coming over for dinner and caroling at 4:30 though so I didn't have much time. Spark was a bit high when I loaded her in the box but I was hoping that the cold and wind would entice a few more grams off before we found a slip. I checked the big field for the mega flock but they weren't there so I tried some of the surrounding rice fields with no luck. There were splinter groups circling the sky so I knew the main flock was somewhere but none of them looked like they were putting in so I continued meandering. I finally saw half a dozen drop into a field next to a main road and pulled over to check the slip out. It was a perfect set up, the pigeons were feeding close to a rather tall embankment, I could climb the embankment and slip Spark directly above the unsuspecting "city grouse". One problem, the embankment was the sidewalk next to a very busy street. I debated the situation for a good 10 minutes while the pigeons waddled toward me, tempting me with such a great set up. In my mind's eye I could see the entire flight and of course, it ended successfully with the first head of the year...but then I thought of how many eyes there would be on me and the cars rushing by and as much as I wanted it, I decided to move on.
I was rewarded by finding a different flock that I've encountered before closer to Kishigawa. As I was beeping Spark up the suddenly lifted and began circling the field. I froze with the telemetry in my hand as they made two big passes directly over me and then...landed not 15 yards from where I was parked. I slowly removed the leash and crept slowly into the middle of the flock along a divider that seperated two fields. There were about 50 birds milling around and I couldn't believe that they had landed and stayed where they were. I know when Spark is ready to go when she crouches down on my fist and gets this intense focused look on the quarry, she didn't have that this time though. She kind of glanced at me and then casually looked at the pigeons. I guess it was the extra weight, maybe she's intimidated but such large flocks, but when they finally flushed about 10 yards out, she left the fist but did not even attempt to chase. She landed in the field and flew off when I approached her. I walked 50 yards to where she stopped, called her to the fist for a tid-bit, loaded her back up and headed out to fly the Harris. Apparently the couple extra grams had still not been shed.
It was windy out at the club house but Oguni was there with his falcon and Uchimura had nothing to do so we headed over to the irrigation ditch and resivoirs with the birds (two Harris' and a Saker) to see what we could see. The sparrows had taken shelter from the wind in deeper cover so there were none in the irrigation ditch. I tossed the Harris a couple times just to let it get some excercise but there were no chases. There were a couple of teal on the larger pond and Oguni attempted to slip his Saker at them off the fist but they easily beat the inexperinced falcon. All in all a rather unsuccessful day but I enjoy being out there nonetheless.
Upon return to the clubhouse, I noticed that the spar that Uchimura had gotten a couple weeks ago was not perched out in it's usual spot. Instead there was a rather ratty looking spar that looked like it had been run through the washing machine. Apparently the other spar had died that very morning of aspergillosis, a nasty fungus that grows in the lungs of birds and basically suffocates them from the inside. Quite the tragedy since it was in perfect feather and it's replacement that had just come was well, not to say the least. And then, a thought came to me, "That bird had been in perfect feather, Spark is not, if the body is still around maybe I could do an imp job!" Much to my delight, Uchimura had saved the body just for that purpose! A full set of perfect primaries and tail feathers, the ultimate Christmas present (other than Spark taking a wild teal...). I have yet to do the imp job (imping is like sewing feathers onto the bird, in the simplest of terms), but I'm hoping to have a feather perfect bird by next weekend! Watch out teal, here Spark comes.

Sunday, December 18, 2005


Monday (12/19): Last night I went out to Kishigawa (on my scooter, in the snow!) to pick up a teal to give Spark a taste of what we're really after this season. I'm amazed at how tiny they are but they certainly are beautiful. It spent the entire night shuffling around in it's cardboard box waking me up every half hour. I have to admit that I usually feel a twinge of guilt when I use baggies but I was rather excited when morning rolled around and I loaded the little noise maker up on the scooter to toss to Spark. I guess it's only fair that he exacts a little revenge on me during his last night.
We parked behind a stack of rice bales to shield us from the occasional wind bursts that were blowing through and I tucked the teal into my coat pocket as I brought Spark out from her box. I snapped on the telemetry and began walking parallel to a small irrigation ditch with a small bit of water in it in hopes to imitate the real thing as closely as possible. I turned around so that the ditch was on my right side, the side I would be tossing the teal from, hoping that I might be able to fool Spark into thinking that the teal had actually come from the ditch. I was worried that the teal might not fly so I tossed it pretty high and it immediately headed for the horizon. For a split second Spark seemed to think, "That's not a pigeon" and hesitated in her persuit but then something clicked and she dropped off the fist. She caught up to it about 30 yards out and came up from underneath, binding to it a good 15 yards up in the air. She had it firmly by the head when I arrived. I quickly helped her dispatch her quarry and let her eat the head and neck while I leashed her up. She left the teal for some pigeon breast and I tucked it away for later as we headed back to the scooter.
I was 45 minutes late for work but if this proves to be a foreshadowing of taking more teal later this season I'll call in late every day!

Getting closer

Friday (12/16): As always the hands on the clock seemed to crawl particularly slow on my half day at work. There was hawking to be done! Where's the fast forward button! Luckily in this wonderful world called cyberspace, you don't have to wait as long as I did to get to the action...
As I hopped down the four flights of stairs and trotted to my scooter when noon finally arrived, I put in a call to Kishigawa to see who was hanging out at the club today. Uchimura answered his phone and told me that they'd be "back" by the time I got there so go ahead and come out. "WHAT!, You already went hawking without me!" I joked, knowing full well that they'd probably gone to Nara to chase ducks early in the morning while I was chained to my office desk. They'd been unsuccessful but had tried to fly Oguni san's Altai Saker at teal off the fist. Both gosses had come up empty as well.
I figured that if they were going to go without me than I was going to return the favor and hawk all the way out to Kishigawa (even though I always do that anyway). I knew that the mega flock that we've gotten a few shots at had to still be somewhere in the area so I crossed the bridge and headed to the rice fields on the opposite of the mighty Kinokawa river. A quick glance at the biggest field told me it wasn't worth stopping at since the mega flock is visible from the road. I scootered down some of the smaller bike paths and saw a flock of about 20 pigeons circle and land in a smaller field behind a small warehouse. I parked on the side of a house that is under construction and tiptoed to the corner to see just how many birds there were. It was the mega flock. About 100 birds were milling around sampling what looked to be freshly cut grain (rice maybe?) that was scattered throughout the small field. I unloaded Spark and snapped on the telemetry but just as I did a small truck with two construction workers pulled up at the site and I saw the majority of the flock spook off the field. My shoulders may have sagged a bit but just to be sure they were all gone I snuck to the corner of the house again and peeked into the field. There were still about a dozen birds munching on a large pile of grain that had been left right up against the back of the warehouse. It was a perfect slip. I could sneak to within 5 yards of the birds by edging my way along the side of the warehouse. I thought for sure that I'd be showing off Spark's first legitimate head of the season when I rolled into Kishigawa. I could hear the low cooing of the pigeons as I neared the corner of the warehouse, my body began tingling as adrenaline seeped into my veins. I popped around the corner and the pigeons immedately flushed. I tossed Spark at them and she sped into the middle of the flock breaking up the tight formation. One bird looked like it was going to bail back into the field and Spark banked left to intercept it. Feathers flew into the air as the pigeon abrubtly changed course and turned skyward. Spark had gotten a foot on it but these birds seem to know how to deal with predators. Spark chased for about 30 yards but the pigeons were already above her and headed away. She landed on the roof of a nearby house and fluffed up in frustration. IT WAS SO CLOSE! She had pulled feathers! She pouted for a bit on the roof while I pulled out the lure. After about 10 minutes she decided to come down eat a few bites of quail while I leashed her back up and put her back in the scooter box. As I started the scooter up I noticed a flock of pigeons balling up to my left and looked up just in time to see the resident peregrine begin its attack. That's the second time I've seen that peregrine attacking those pigeons and it's so fun to watch! I saw four or five almost vertical stoops as the pigeons wheeled around beneath it and then the mountains obscured my view and I continued on to Kishigawa. I stopped at one other field for a shot at some wood pigeons but it was quite windy and they busted before I could get Spark close enough to give her a chance.
Once I arrived at the club house Uchimura and Oguni were just preparing to try kiting their falcons for the first time. With a stiff wind blowing we thought it was perfect conditions for the kite but the lure attachment kept coming loose as the kite got up and when we finally did get it all set up Oguni's falcon acted scared of the kite and drifted downwind without looking at the lure. Uchimura decided to forego the kite and just lure fly his gyr x peregrine. For someone training their first falcon and never having down any lure flying, I thought he did a pretty good job. After about half a dozen passes the falcon grabbed the lure and the show was over.
The Harris had been screaming at me since I pulled in so I figured he must be pretty close on weight but the scales revealled that he was about 10 grams higher than I wouldn've liked him to be. I doubt that 10 grams really matters all that much with the Harris but I'm so use to dailing Spark to within a couple grams that 10 seemed a bit much. I was going to take him out either way though and wandered down to the irrigation ditch we walked along last week to see if we could find anymore coot. The extra grams proved no problem as he dove into the brush after sparrows with his usual enthusiasm. I was particularly impressed when he took off after snipe that flushed just in front of us twice. Of course those are much too fast for him but at least he's putting forth the effort. It was a brush crashing fiesta with short chases after dickey birds every 15 yards or so. Toward the end he even began taking rather long slips at sparrows he saw feeding out in the fields. Alas, there were no coot and while he's a feathers width away from catching sparrows, we headed back to the club house empty handed.
With the sun dipping closer to the horizon I decided to make Spark work for the rest of her meal. I found a pigeon that wasn't banded in the loft and told Uchimura that I was going to toss it without a line attached for Spark. Most baggies have to have a line attached to them because they're homing pigeons that the breeders are trying to get rid of. If we tossed them without a line the club would get in trouble if the homers went back home! An unbanded pigeon means it was a wild pigeon that somehow got in the mix so I didn't have to attach a line. The last few lines have been a hundred yards or so though and Spark manages to fly them down well before they reach the end of it so I wasn't too worried but Uchimura was doubtful. Spark is still growing almost half of her primaries on her left wing and he thought that there was no way she'd catch a fully flighted baggie with no strings attached (no pun intended). Both Oguni and Uchimura followed me out to the field to watch the chase. I took the leash off of Spark and tossed the pigeon to my right, Spark seemed to hesitate for just the slightest nanosecond because of the new people in the field but after three flaps of the pigeons wings she tore off the fist and bound to it not more than 15 yards out. "She got it!" is all Uchimura san could say and I have to admit, there may have been a slight smirk on my fist as I marched over and leashed her up as she began to pluck. I know she can do it, we've just got to get the right set up and she'll be bringing wild pigeons home anytime. Watch this space, we're getting closer...

Sunday, December 11, 2005

The day after

Saturday (12/10): Spark was her normal hyper self this morning after her low blood sugar fit (or whatever it was) yesterday. I was still going to take it easy but I wanted to see how she reacted to things in the field so I loaded her up in the scooter box and off we went. We hadn't walked more than 20 yards into the field when I saw a massive flock of pigeons in the far corner. It was by far the biggest flock of pigeons I have ever seen in Japan, well over 300 birds with more dropping in as I watched. It was amazing! So much for taking it easy I thought, if I wanted to see how she'd react in the field, here was plenty of quarry to show her!
The flock was probably 300 yards away as I began my trek towards them but they were edgy and kept shifting positions. The birds on one side of the flock would fly over the birds in the middle and land on the other side creating a moving wave of pigeons. With so many eyes it was hard to get close with out a nervous few causing the whole flock to flush, make a circle and then land again. Finally they moved over toward a different side of the field where there was some rice stacked under a tarp about 6 feet high. It would keep me from view until I could get close enough to give Spark a good slip. I worked my way toward the flock keeping the tarp between us until I was about 30 yards away when suddenly the entire flock burst into the air. They immediately formed a tight ball as they lifted from the ground so I knew that it wasn't just a nervous flush. I looked up just in time to see a wild peregrine streak across the sky in a beautiful stoop! It spoiled my flight but for the next ten minutes or so I watch the peregrine put on quite the show as the cloud of pigeons performed defensive manuevers. The peregrine was putting in repeated stoops as the pigeon flock expanded and contracted like a huge aerial ameoba to confuse the stream lined predator. It was incredible! As I stood there enjoying the spectacle I watched the cars stream past on a busy road a few hundred yards away and thought about how unlikely it was that any of the people in those cars realized what was going on right above them and how lucky I was to be witness to it. I felt like Mother Nature had let me in on a little secret.
I knew the pigeons probably weren't going to land for awhile after that, and the flight had taken them so far away that I would have to load Spark back in her box anyway, so I decided to head out to Kishigawa to fly the Harris while keeping an eye out for any possible slips along the way. I checked a few spots but I think every pigeon in the prefecture had joined the mega flock so arrived at the Kansai Hawking Clubhouse without having taken Spark out of her box again. I perched her out with a newly acquired sparrowhawk owned by the club and went to weight the Harris.
The Harris weighed 675 grams, it's perfect hunting weight, so I decided to take it for a walk along an irrigation ditch not too far from the clubhouse. Oguni san was there with his grey gos so he decided to join me and see what we could scare up. The gos was turned on from the moment we left, snaking it's head all over looking for something to kill and bating at the Harris as I tossed it off my fist to let it follow us along. I didn't think we'd find much for the gos since the irrigation ditch has only a tiny stream flowing through it and is packed with overgrown brush. The brush provides plenty of cover for sparrows and other small birds though and the Harris put in a number of flashy attempts as they flitted from cover to cover. The ditch is about 8 feet deep so it gave the Harris a decent height advantage since I haven't gotten around to making the T-perch for it yet. The flights were short, brush crunching ventures straight down into the ditch with me tossing pepples to keep the birds moving. After harassing several different birds for a few minutes with no luck I called the Harris back to the fist and re-joined Oguni san and the gos to check the small resevoir that the irrigation ditch runs from. We were hoping to find a goisagi (a small heron) or perhaps a few ducks but after checking the likely spots it seemed like no one was home. Suddenly the gos bated toward a small stand of reeds in the corner of the resevoir and Oguni san tossed it into the air. The gos flew directly over the reeds, hovered for a brief second and then plunged downward. We heard some scuffling in the reeds and for a second thought it may have caught something but the unseen prey had escaped the attack and disappeared into the deep cover. Oguni san got the gos back out of the reeds and we tossed some rocks into the bushes hoping to flush whatever was hiding but whatever it was would not budge. We figured it was a coot and decided to let it make good it's escape.
The gos was still hot to get something in it's talons so we went back to the irrigation ditch and I let the Harris scare a few more sparrows while Oguni saw went to look for wood pigeons and check a small pond adjacent to the resevoir. The Harris had just crashed into another bush when Oguni san's voice came floating across a rice field to let me know that the pond had a couple of teal on it. I headed over to flush the teal for his gos and was excited at the prospects considering this was a relatively small pond that the teal were sure to leave if flushed properly. Oguni san positioned himself and the gos at the front of the pond where the ducks were sure to exit and I began working my way around the back. Now the saying goes, "Watch like a hawk" and true to character the Harris had been assessing the whole situation. It apparently saw something that I couldn't creeping into the bushes on the far side of the pond. He launched off my fist and made a 35 yard bee line to the thick brush lining the side of pond slamming into the reeds. There looked to be a scuffle so I began running toward where the Harris had gone in to offer my help. The teal couldn't take that much action so they lifted off the pond and headed toward Oguni san and the waiting gos. I looked over my shoulder as the teal passed not more than 10 yards from him and he threw the gos in their direction...but the gos saw easier prey and dropped low over the water toward my Harris who still had it's back turned, preoccupied with whatever had gone into the bushes (probably another coot). Oguni san shouted and I switched into a higher gear as I watched the grey ghost glide toward my poor Harris. We arrived about the same time but there was an embankment that covered in thick bushes that kept me from being able to see what was going on. With out thinking I jumped over the bushes and into the pond, wondering in mid-air how deep the freezing water was going to be! Luckily it was only up to my knees and I immediately waded over to the two birds whose feet were locked together. Each bird had gotten a foot on the others upper thigh area but I ungraciously drove my bare hand in between them and seperated them before any damage was done (to them at least, the gos footed my bare hand!). Oguni san grabbed his gos and I tossed the Harris back up onto the foot path as I waded around looking for a way out of the winter water. We looked the birds over and couldn't see any damage so we trudged back to the clubhouse in rhythm to the water shloshing in my boots.
My legs were cold and I probably should've at least dried off a little, but I knew the light would be fading soon and I wanted to get Spark fed before the sun dipped below the horizon. I grabbed a pigeon from the loft and with Spark on my fist headed out into another rice field. I tossed the pigeon and the two birds were slihoetted against the dark clouds briefly before Spark bound to it 40 yards out and 15 feet up landing in small mandarin orange grove. Apparently the sugar fit had no lasting effects.


On Friday (12/9) I took Spark out to fly in the vast rice fields that I've been frequenting. A quick pass through the area didn't produce any slips so I loaded Spark back into her box on the back of my scooter and began my search anew. Before the season started I would see pigeons EVERYWHERE but since November 15th they've been rather hard to come by in any decent numbers. I drove around for perhaps an hour and a half looking for a slip with no results! I needed to meet my wife for a doctors appointment so I headed back toward home and wouldn't ya know it, in the next field over from the big field I checked first a flock of perhaps a hundred pigeons had come out of hiding (perhaps thinking that since I'd already been by once that they were safe...).
I maneuvered my scooter as close as I felt comfortable with and got Spark out of her box. I began my stalk and small doses of adrenaline began to drip into my bloodstream as I neared the feeding flock. Out of that many birds at least ONE's number had to be up. I was imagining the first head of the season when they flushed. Spark dropped off the fist as the cloud of wings lifted off the stubble of the cut winter rice...but it wasn't a "pursuing" wing beat. Perhaps it was the size of the flock that threw her off but rather than bursting up through the bottom of the flock and binding to an ill fated Columba livia, Spark set her wings and landed in the dirt as the pigeons fluttered away into the blue. Muttering under my breath I headed out into the field to pick her up. A stiff breeze was blowing and as I approached Spark decided to spread her wings and drift another 50 yards away. More muttering as I changed my course and brought out the lure. About 20 yards away I tossed out the lure and Spark glided over and snatched it up. She dropped down into a dry irrigation ditch to pick at the pigeon leg attached to the lure but I had to head home to meet the wife so I hopped down and picked the lure up with Spark attached. But something wasn't right, Spark just laid on my glove and stared off into space. I rolled my fist back and forth but she just hung her wings limply and her eyes looked blank. I freaked out! All sorts of things were running through my head, was there poison in the mud of the irrigation ditch? Did I miss some symptom of a serious disease earlier? By the time I reached my scooter she had regained her feet but she was still ingnoring the pigeon leg I was waving in front of her face. I offered some quail and she managed to get a few bites down so I loaded her in the box and raced home stopping at every light to make sure she was still standing. When I got her back home although she was much more steady on her perch she just wasn't herself and sat fluffed up on the perch while I gentle coaxed her into eating some more quail all the time whispering, "Stay with me Spark" in a shaking voice. I brought a perch inside and turned the heater on low. Wife trumps bird as far as doctor visits go but I couldn't stop thinking about Spark and running possibilities through my head while driving there and back. It was a short visit for the misses so I raced back home and much to my delight, instead of finding Spark dead by her perch like I was imagining, she seemed to have regained her composure and ate a full crop of quail.
After consulting friends online and other sources it appears that she had a low blood sugar fit, not entirely uncommon in small accipiters. She appears to have made a full recovery though and I'm looking into ways to prevent attacks in the future. Not the type of adrenaline rush I'm looking for!

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Highs and Lows...and Highs

On Saturday morning I headed out once again to Nara with Oguni san and his grey gos and the Harris that I fly. We were inches from catching a duck last week so our hopes were high. Oguni san works nights and makes the drive to Nara on less than 2 hours of sleep each week. I asked him if he was tired and wanted me to drive but he said that the anticipation of catching ducks keeps him awake. I told him that if he was tired on the way back then I'd drive and he said that on the way back we'd be so excited about the ducks we caught that he wouldn't be able to sleep either! So it was in that frame of mind that we arrived at the river.
The gos was up first. There were perhaps a dozen mallards just waking up as he beeped the giant up and made his way to the rivers edge. These ducks remembered us from last week though and flushed before he was in position. Not discouraged at all we loaded the gos back up and headed further down the river. We found what looked to be a good set up with a few mallards and some coot hanging around a shallow bend and so the Harris got it's turn. Two of the mallards flushed as the Harris launched from the fist but the third one just sat there quacking as the Harris dove toward it. Right at the last moment it flushed and the Harris went for a swim. The Harris rowed itself to shore and was called back to the fist and put away to dry while we went to look for more gos slips. The further downstream we went the wider and deeper the water got but there also seemed to be more ducks. We finally decided to give it a go and brought the gos back out. These ducks were a little jumpy too and headed for the horizon before the gos had a chance. We could hear something in the reeds on the shore though and thought we might be able to flush a small type of heron that is legal to take in Japan. They are rather slow fliers and good confidence builders in the early season. We tossed a couple rocks and sure enough, out popped a "Goisagi". The gos took off after it but it quickly dumped back into the reeds and the gos took a stand on a nearby light pole. As Oguni san was calling it back down for another attempt the goi decided to head for a small pond a hundred yards away. We followed it over and were able to flush it again for the gos but it again dove into the trees to avoid the attack. As we made our way over to flush it again the gos dove off its light pole and we heard the goi begin to sqawk. We had it! But as we ran over the goi flapped away and a frustrated gos was too deep in the cover to give chase. We headed back to the river and tried some other long reeds hoping for another goi but instead a rooster pheasant came shooting out! The gos gave chase but the pheasant dumped into cover and managed to avoid the predator.
We decided to try further upstream as the water was a bit shallower and not so wide. Last week the Harris had a terrific shot at some mallards hidden in the low reeds almost invisible to the human eye so we thought we'd try it again. We spotted a hen mallard disturbed by our approach and stalked slowly toward it. The Harris was leaning forward on my fist and watching intently but not the mallard...the Harris took off and I saw some coot scampering into the tall reeds near the shore. About half a dozen mallards erupted but the Harris had chosen its target and crashed into the bush just missing the fleeing coot...but not the water. Soaked again, I too had to get wet this time to retrieve the Harris and trudged back toward the car. As I did, three mallards dropped down in among the reeds and Oguni san pulled out the gos to give them a try. I saw the mallards take off and the gos in hot pursuit, definitely the best chase I've seen the gos give this season, but the ducks managed to keep one wing stroke ahead and lived to see another day. Apparently I was the only one who saw the magnificent chase however as Oguni san fell face first into the water as he attempted to flush the ducks! Covered in swamp mud from head to foot I had to recount the chase for him as we made our way back to the car.
The Harris had another go at some more coot in a different spot and again I thought he had one but they seem to dive into the thick cover just in front of the outstreached talons each time. We ended the day with some great memories but nothing in the bag. Oguni san wasn't quite as excited on the way back to Wakayama and veered slightly off the road once as his eyes were starting to get heavy, but we made it back to Wakayama in one piece and reminded each other that there's always next week as we went our seperate ways. It was still early in the day so I grabbed a pigeon to let Spark chase and sped off to fly her. About 10 minutes from my home, my scooter died though and it took an hour to push back to the shop. No game in the bag, a broken scooter, and failing light dampened my Spirits a bit but a new spark plug fixed the scooter and I decided I had just enough time to head back over to the field I had tried the day before to fly Spark.
The sun had already set as I pulled Spark out of her scooter box and headed into the field. I tossed the pigeon and Spark launched off the fist and flew the pigeon down in about 30 yards. As the last rays of light faded into darkness Spark began to pluck at her prize. Suddenly the near misses and broken scooter were all made right.


It's been a busy week with trip to Tokyo that knocked out three days of hawking for me. What kind of sick work makes you go on a business trip in the middle of hawking season!?
But today I finally got back on track. This morning looked a bit depressing, rain clouds on the horizon and a few wet drops hurling themselves from the sky. By the time my half day at work ended there was a steady drizzle. I had some errands to run before I could get out anyway so I hoped for the best while I set about my honey-do list. With the chores finished for the day the hawking gods smiled down upon me and the skies cleared up just enough to take Spark out.
I loaded up Spark and headed to a spot I've been wanting to try for quite awhile now, a huge (for Japan) expanse of rice fields behind a high school. Last year the local falconers chased pheasants in the fields next to the rice paddies but it looks like 3/4 of their fields will be turned into rice paddies next year since they've almost all been plowed down. I wasn't quite sure how to get into the field I was hoping to fly so I took a side street that I hoped would lead me to where I wanted to go. On the left hand side of the road there was a small irrigation ditch and out of habit I looked down it to see if there were any ducks. Lo and behold there was a lone drake teal! My goal this year is to have Spark take a teal so this was an opportunity not to be wasted. I pulled over and got Spark ready but as I was doing so the teal decided he didn't like what I was doing so he hid himself in some tall grass on the opposite side of the ditch. I tossed a couple pebbles in his direction and he started to peek his head out. I reached down to pick up some more pebbles and the teal decided it was his chance to make a break for it. As it launched from the water Spark dropped from my fist. I would hardly call it a chase as she landed on the opposite bank as the teal blasted off downstream but I was encouraged that she left the fist on her own. It shows that she's thinking about it...
After calling her back to the fist we headed for the rice fields. I marked a wood pigeon in a far corner and tried to sneak up to it but it busted before Spark could get a chance. We wandered out into the main section of the field and Spark was excited by all the dickey birds hiding in the cut rice. I would never see them but she'd slick down and get ready to launch every time we passed some. They'd usually flush before she felt comfortable chasing them though. I'm sure that when all her feathers finally come in (she's still growing 5 primaries on her left wing due to a bad moult!) she'll take those slips with ease. We ended by cutting through a small section of waist high grass in the middle of the field. We flushed a couple of small birds out in front of us and she launched off the fist but they dropped back in to cover quickly and she went to land on a stack of tied rice bales. Since it was getting dark I tossed out the lure and she hopped to the glove after taking a few bites.
The head count is still 0 but with the interest she was showing those small birds and her considering the teal I think this new spot has plenty of potential.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Quite the busy week

It's been longer than I would've liked since I last wrote and while there's been a lot of great hawking, there's been quite a while (for me at least) without. I just returned from a business trip to Tokyo where I was for three days and a day before that I was bused up to Kobe for another work related venture. That's four days of the season that I'll never have back, how heartless can this cruel thing called work be!!
But before that pesky little detour from the season I was on quite a roll. Friday's are always a half day for me at work. When the lunch bell rings I'm out the door and on my way hawking before the chiming fades away. I usually skip lunch I'm so excited to be out. Last Friday (11/25) I loaded Spark up and headed out to Kishigawa where the clubhouse for the Kansai Hawking Club is located. Since our head count is still at nil I had to pick up some more quail before doing any real hawking and it killed me to pass by some rather large flocks of pigeons feeding in the rice fields that I passed by. After stocking up on quail Spark and I headed out to the surrounding paddies to see if any more pigeons were around. We found a couple of big flocks but they bumped before Spark had a real chance so we ended the day with a baggie pigeon and cropped her up.
The next day a friend of mine with a grey gos and I headed up to Nara to chase some ducks. It was by far the best day of the season yet! Since Spark had eaten quite her fill of pigeon the day before, she was left at home and I took out the male Harris. The Harris isn't really mine persay, I get to fly it in return for helping out with some English work that the guy who owns him is trying to do. It really is a weekend bird which is unfortunate since I know that with that flying schedule I'll never be able to see the bird's true potential, but it sure is fun to fly when I do get out with it. Nara was a blast and with just the two of us there were plenty of opportunities. The Harris was spot on as far as weight goes and had numerous shots at ducks. Three times I thought that it for sure had one but they just managed to avoid the pot. The gos had a few great chases, and while we came home empty handed we had huge smiles on our faces and are looking forward to the coming weekend when we'll head up there again. We were inches from catching some last week so I should have some great stories and hopefully a duck or two in the freezer by Saturday night. Can't wait!

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Early morning blues

The alarm caught me off guard at 6:15. It had hardly begun announcing it's presence before I landed a left hook that silenced it for at least another 24 hours. The curtains were closed but I knew it was still dark so I nestled back into my warm pillow for another 15 minutes of rest. It was an uneasy rest though, I imagined pigeons feeding by the river waiting for my arrival and their siren calls finally wrestled me from bed.
It was still dark and in the back of my head I knew there wouldn't be any pigeons out just yet so I took my time gathering my gear and preparing Spark's rations for the day. When I walked out the door the shadows were just beginning to slink back into their crevices. My breath appeared in short puffs as I walked through the parking lot of the race track next to my apartment and headed toward the river. I mistook a couple of crows rummaging through the trash in the distance for pigeons for a split second but Spark didn't even take a second glance. She weighed 206g but I'd woken her up too and she was content to sit fluffed up on my fist for the time being.
I walked the usual length of the river and just as I thought, the pigeons were smarter than to be out this early. Spark looked interested in a small flock of sparrows but lost her enthusiasm when I gently tossed her toward them. Two more of these lack luster attempts and a glance at my watch sent me packing for home. As we approached the race track parking lot again, a lone pigeon hailed us from behind a trash bin. Spark slicked down and launched but with only slightly more enthusiasm than she had with the sparrows. We had one more chance at four pigeons in the parking lot but Spark just wasn't in the mood today so resigned to my fate, I plodded home. There's always tomorrow.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Weekend Hawking

Wow, what a weekend! On Friday I headed out to Kishigawa to do some flights with the Harris in preparation for Saturday hawking. When I arrived however Oguni san, a regular out at the club, was there with his giant grey gos and said that we were going hawking! No complaints on this end! We loaded up the birds (two gosses and my Harris) and were off to check out some of the local areas where the club flew last year. First stop yielded no pheasants so we went to check out some ponds to see if there were any ducks around. We bumped a couple of teal off a small pond and couldn't find any others so as the light began to fade we decided to check the best spot of last year since there had been rumors that it had been turned into rice fields. About 2/3 of the field had been plowed over but a good swath was left and we're hoping for more concentrated pheasants when we check it next Wednesday. So no luck and really no flights on Friday but it was good to be out with the birds.
Saturday we got an early start and headed to Nara prefecture to a spot where I was told that catching ducks was "guaranteed". It was a small stream running through the MIDDLE OF THE CITY but it had plenty of ducks. There were apartment complexes on both sides, cars passing frequently, walkers and joggers, yet there we were walking down the street with huge birds on our fists scaring the ducks. I can't imagine flying in the same conditions in the States. Funny stuff. Alas, all the birds seemed a bit high. There were some short stabs at flushing ducks but no real pursuit. The spar got her first look at teal and I've sworn an oath that she will take one before the season is out, but no luck that day. So much for guarantees.
Now 99.9% of the time I don't fly on Sundays, but the temptation of a rare field meet with falconers from all over Japan lured me away from my Church responsibilities (much to the chagrin of my loving wife). It is estimated that there are only about 300 falconers in the entire country and even fewer who actually hunt with their birds. I didn't want to miss what could be a once in a lifetime experience...and what an experience it was! There were about 35 falconers, flying mainly goshawks with a few Harris' thrown in the mix, but in Japan fields are in such scarce supply that everyone flies the same field...AT THE SAME TIME! Any pheasant that was unlucky enough to take to the wing was immediately set upon but several hawks! Yet as a credit to their survival skills not a single one was caught. After an initial push by the large group we gradually broke off in to smaller groups to seek out any straglers in remote corners of the field. I got up one rooster and a couple of hens but the Harris' was still too fat and didn't even glance at them. So all in all it was a nice walk in the fields with my bird, hardly a sin!...Right?
After an entire weekend of constant hawking the head count remains at 0 but Wednesday is a national holiday and even though we have plans for a Thanksgiving dinner with some friends, I'm hoping to be able to sneek out in the morning. Freshly caught pheasant for Thanksgiving dinner...? We'll see.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Lunch breaks should be longer...

Last night we had a cold snap move in. We switched the air conditioning units over to heaters and switched our hot carpet on for the first time. My wife says she's going in to hibernation...I love it! I grew up in the cold. Winters were spent sledding, skiing, snow mobiling, and trudging through the snow looking for whatever animal had left it's tracks. I love being able to see my breath in the air and hear the crunch beneath my feet. I suppose most hunters do. It does however mean that I worry more about Spark.
When I flew red-tails in Utah cold was no problem. You could see them fluffed up on telephone poles no matter what the weather so I figured my birds could handle what ever came. Of course they weighed five times as much as Spark though. Spark flies best between 200 and 205 grams, a relatively small sparrowhawk from what I've heard. The tough thing about flying smaller birds is that you have to be that much more precise with their weight. Last year when our first cold snap came in Spark shed an extra 20 grams and dropped to 185 over night. She was rather lethargic the next day and I knew she'd been on the brink of dropping too low. So when I felt a little chilly last night I decided to give her an extra 20 grams before bed just to be sure there was no chance of dropping too low during the night. Either it wasn't as cold as last year or I fed her more than I thought but either way she was a bit high this morning so I decided to try and squeeze a flight in during my lunch break this afternoon.
On Thursdays I teach an English class for the city. My lunch break usually ends at 1:00 but since the class starts at 2:00 and I usually go home for lunch work lets me take the extra hour to prepare for the class (even though I'm usually done with preparation long before lunch time). Today "preparation time" would be used to go hawking.
I rushed home as soon as the lunch bell rang (yeah, here in Japan we have lunch bells at work) and must've looked like Superman to anyone who watched my apartment door...In at 12:15 in work clothes, out at 12:25 in hawking gear with Spark on my fist. I wasn't able to get a really good reading on the scale (tends to happen when your trying to weigh at warp speed), but I think she was a bit higher than I would've liked. She was close enough though so snapped on the telemetry and was out the door. We live near a bicycle racing track and it stands between me and the river where I usually fly. The trash from the races tends to attract pigeons, only problem is that when there are races the pigeons are in the statdium and not down by the river. Today there was a race. I saw a flock circle around the stadium and land just on the other side of the fence. They were teasing me, I know it. I weaved around the cars in the parking lot with amazing agility and soon found myself at the rivers edge.
Early this year there were at least a few pigeons every time I walked this stretch of river. I don't know if it's the cold weather or the bike races that has taken them away but they just aren't there recently. The wind picked up as I continued my sweep of the area and I began to doubt whether or not I'd fly her even if we did see a pigeon seeing how she was a little high. A glance at my watch told me that I'd better start heading back so I could grab a bite to eat before the English class. With the wind in my chest I turned back to the apartment and thought to myself, "Nah, with this wind I don't think a flight would be possible." The wood pigeon must've read my thoughts and thought he was safe because right at that moment I looked to my right and there among some shin high grass was a lone woodie feeling mighty cozy thinking I wouldn't fly Spark. It was all part of my plan though to coax him out! My true intentions were revealed as I turned toward him and began closing the 20 yards. I would've like to be just a bit closer to give Spark a better chance but she had already seen the pigeon and launched after only a couple steps. Wood pigeons seem to know the exact moment to flush so that Spark thinks she'll be able to take them on the ground and right as she shoots out a foot to snag takes to the air. Spark followed for about 3 wing flaps but had lost her momentum thinking she'd catch it on the ground. She veered off and landed on a dug out not too far from where the flight began. I walked over and called her down, glanced at my watch, shook my head, and thought, "Lunch breaks should be longer."

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Season Opener

IT'S FINALLY HERE! The 2005-2006 Japan falconry season opened this morning and I was out first thing. The spar was a little fat at 208g (she'll chase, but not withall the fire that she's capable of) but I wasn't going to miss the first offical day of the season! We headed down to our regular flying spot and started to look for pigeons. It starts to get light later every morning and I've noticed that there's not as many pigeons out when I've been flying her before work. Today was no different and I was afraid I wasn't even going to see anything when off to my left a brown bullet goes whizzing by. A wood pigeon! Feral pigeons are great but wood pigeons are a real treat. It landed on an old rusted goal frame about 100 yards away and was soon joined by it's friend. I started heading back in that direction but about 20 yards away they both spooked and flew to some telephone wires across the road. I figured if I walked away for a bit they'd come back so I headed in the opposite direction to a spot I've found pigeons before. About 5 minutes later I looked back to where the woodies had landed and they were gone so I figured they'd come back down to their feeding spot.There's a strip of uncut grass between the two baseball fields that I fly around and that's where I always see them so I headed in that direction. I approached the spot slowly craning my neck and watching for any movement to let me know where the pigeons were. I think I was more in yarak than my bird! And then...nothing. The woodies weren't there. Bummer. My shoulders slumped as I glanced at my watch and realized that I was running out of time before work. I took another step in the direction of my apartment and low and behold, sitting in the middle of the dirt road 50 yards away was one of the pigeons.They'd just headed to a different spot! Wahoo! I began my stalk once again as the pigeon headed into the grass on the edge of the road. I couldn't see it any more but I kept my eyes fixed on the spot where it had disappeared. About 30 yards away a small flock of sparrows suddenly chittered on my left and the spar slicked down and looked interested. "I promise we'll come back to the sparrows if these pigeons bust eary" I whispered to her as we continued to edge forward. Another ten yards and I could see both woodies scratching around for breakfast 20 yards away. I took a few more steps and theystopped scratching and looked in my direction...I knew they were about to bust so I held the spar high and took a quick step forward.They didn't flush right away but the spar took off. She dropped low to the ground and covered the 15 yards in a flash. I thought she was going to nail one right there on the ground, she was only about a foot away when they both got up. The three birds rose into the air and for a moment I thought she was gaining but the one the spar was chasing rolled to the right and as she followed there was an instant jink to the left and my spar knew she was beat. She landed in the sand a few yards further and looked back at me as the pigeons headed for a safer breakfast. I walked over, picked her up and headed for home watching for pigeons the whole way but not finding any. Not a successful first flight but a start nonetheless. It's going to be a fun season! Happy hawking!