Friday, December 31, 2010

Holiday Adventures

I had a bit of time off of work for the holidays so I spent a good deal of time letting Goliath do his thing.

On Christmas Eve we had the best flight of the year. I decided to swing through a high school parking lot where I'd chased some starlings last year. I hadn't hit the spot this year so I wasn't sure what I'd find but to my delight there were quite a few starling around. Unfortunately, none offered ideal slips but I was figuring a slip was a slip and I'd take whatever I saw.

There was an embankment on the far edge of the school about 20 yards back from the edge of the parking lot. The embankment itself was probably 10 feet high and there was a chain link fence at the top. There were probably a dozen starlings feeding on the far side of the fence and that perked Goliath's interest. They were barely visible from our vantage point. Then two popped through the bottom of the fence and I figured, "what the heck, we'll give it a go" not expecting much.

Goliath left the fist about 40 yards from the birds. I thought he was way too far away and the fact that he had to go up a hill to get to them meant he didn't stand a chance. As expected the starlings spotted him coming in from below when he was still a good 15 yards out and took to the air. The two that had been on our side of the fence popped straight up and Goliath poured on the speed snagging one right out of the air at the top of the fence!! I could hardly believe my eyes! What a flight! He had to gain at least 15 feet of elevation to catch that thing! I know that's not much for the bigger birds but pretty impressive for a kestrel!

On Christmas day we had another fantastic outing. We went 2/3 on slips and it was actually the one that he missed that was the best flight!

It was the first slip of the day, a group of starlings was hanging around a restaurant parking lot but they were about 30 yards out and down a small hill. Goliath could see them dropping off the wire but after they landed they couldn't be seen from where we were. I was trying to figure out how we could get a slip on them but a few flushed when I started toward them ready to throw Goliath so I retreated a little and put him back on the fist like normal. He bobbed a couple times and then took off towards the starlings even though we couldn't see them! He swerved down the hill and around a tree and a bunch of starlings busted where he went down. He'd missed, but what a cool flight!

The next flight was about 20 yards at some starling feeding on the edge of a dumpster. He plowed in to one right on the edge and tumbled into the dumpster with it! Luckily (unluckily?) it was a pretty full dumpster and all I had to do was reach over and pull him off the top. Starling one in the bag.

Now I'd never been successful at doubles until today but my buddy was supposed to come out with me earlier and had gotten caught up on the phone with relatives. Since he'd never seen Goliath take a starling and I kept catching them when he wasn't around I figured I owed it to him to try for another! We found a group near the same restaurant where I'd gotten the first missed slip and this time they were in a much better position. Goliath smacked one near the top of a small hill and they went tumbling down into some landscaping. I pulled them out and claimed my first double!

It had actually been a rough week as far as slips go. I was planning on putting buckets full in the freezer during my time off but on most days I only got one slip, if that. I did catch another starling in there somewhere but it was nothing incredible.

New Year's Day made up for it though! We had a big storm come through and things got cold. I got up and even though Goliath was a tad on the high side (92.5) I suspected that the cold would keep the starlings on the ground and we could get a few more slips then we'd been getting. Boy was I right!

I left the house at 9:03 and the first starling was in the bag by 9:09. It was a nifty little flight at some birds hanging out near a dumpster. They flushed before he got there but he snagged one out of the air at about the height of the dumpster. I love air catches!

I had a few more slips before we connected again. One miss was pretty cool in that he took a 40 yard flight at some birds we couldn't see behind a wall. We watched them drop from on top of a building and he just took off. It would've been even more cool had he caught one but he was awful close.

The next catch came near a doughnut shop. There were starlings EVERYWHERE. I don't think I've ever had that many starlings just hanging around. He had a couple misses there too but the starlings would literally land right beneath him after a miss. They were tempting fate and #2 collided with it as Goliath pounded him while he was snacking on some bread pilfered from a nearby dumpster.

I thought about calling it a day and fed Goliath quite a bit after that but as I was feeding him more starlings landed right in front of us! Can't argue with that! So I pulled the starling wing away and we went again.

It took a little bit of convincing to snag #3. Since he was already high when we left the house and he'd gotten some good tidbits after the first two, he balked on several that he usually would've hammered. #3 was just too good an opportunity though as it landed right in front of us and was busy gobbling up some dumpster goodies. Goliath smacked him so hard they rolled about 4 feet.

3 was as many as I could ask for though and better than I've ever done. I fed him up and we headed home. A fantastic way to start the new year!

Alas, my time with Goliath looks to be short lived. I got news over the break that I will be starting a new job out of state in the middle of February. Its really too bad since Goliath is turning out to be a phenomenal bird but this change is for the better. I have a few more weeks and then I'll fatten him up and turn him loose. He'll do just fine on his own and he'll always be a bird to remember.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Another Sparrow

Goliath snagged another sparrow over the weekend. Not much to write about, one slip, one bird. I thought I had the camera on the picture setting but ended up taking a little video instead. The subsequent pics I took didn't turn out too hot so I'll just include the video here:

Apparently a lady that feeds the sparrows (in a Walmart parking lot??) saw the catch and she was none too happy with our shenanigans. First time I've ever had a negative encounter! I know those types are out there but I've been lucky to avoid them thus far. She may think sparrows are cute but they can be nasty little critters that harm native bird populations. I wasn't going to argue though. She said it was "sickening to watch a bird prey on her sparrows", I said, "You know this happens every day in the wild, right?"

"I know, but it's sickening."


And I left. She feeds "her" birds, I feed mine. This is how things work. :-P

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Back in the Swing of Things

Goliath flew like he was on fire at 90.2 grams. We had a few great off-the-fist chases at sparrows in hedge rows before he nailed this starling in a hospital parking lot:

Now that man week is over, it's time to slay some starlings!

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Manliest of Man Weeks Part 3: Elk Hunt

After NAFA Joel and I headed home to spend Thanksgiving with our families. We stuffed our faces, kissed our wives and kids, and headed out the next morning to hunt elk in the Rocky Mountains.

We started by sighting in the rifle I would be using. A .300 Magnum I'd borrowed from my father specifically for this hunt. It had never been shot before and my father pounded in to my head the need to sight it in correctly before I shot it at any animals. It's been awhile since I shot a high-powered rifle and well, I was rudely reminded of how powerful the kick is on my first shot:

It was the scope that put those nice little marks on my forehead! Ouch! But I learned my lesson and we got the rifle pretty well sighted in.

From there we chained up the truck and began our ascent to elk camp:

And further up the mountain we were breaking trail. Apparently we were first up the mountain this weekend:

We had a bit of an adventure with our canvas wall tent in that the spikes that are pretty much essential in holding the tent up weren't in the bag when we got to our spot. With a little bit of good ol' fashioned jerry rigging and the help of some nearby trees however we finally had our living space for the next couple of days:

It wasn't pretty, and to be quite honest we were worried that a strong gust of wind might take us out, but once we got the little pot bellied stove going it was a heckuva lot warmer inside than out. It got down to something like -9F that first night but honestly I was too warm if anything.

We were up before the sun the next morning. It's funny but if I'm going hunting I'm instantly awake when the alarm goes off. We loaded up for the day and headed out. I was to sit in a blind half way down a ridiculous slope but there were game trails both above and below the spot. Joel promised me this was a good spot. He was going to head another ridge over and work his way through some aspens down to another blind he knew of there. The plan was to meet back up around 9:00 or 10:00.

As I made my way down to the blind I spotted a couple of deer walking right beneath the blind about 400 yards away. I sat for a moment and put my scope on them just to see what they were doing and they looked right up at me. They weren't in too big of a hurry but after spotting me they weren't sticking around. I casually watched them saunter off in the direction Joel had gone but didn't pay them too much attention. I continued on for about 5 minutes before glancing in the direction the deer had gone. I noticed one working its way up a hill and then a much larger shape materialized next to it. Elk!! I sat down again and put my scope on a small bachelor herd of about 6 bulls. They were much too far away to shoot but it got me excited and both Joel and I only had cow tags anyway. I watched them disappear into the aspens and figured Joel would probably catch a glimpse of them from his spot as well.

I finally got to the blind just before the sun came up. There was a lake beneath us covered in fog and it made quite a beautiful scene. I snapped a few photos from the blind:

We met up a little before 10:00 as planned and discussed what we should do for the remainder of the day. Joel had seen a few more elk on a ridge a little further away but they disappeared into another stand of timber and he suspected they were going to hole up there for the day. I offered to work my way up and around the timber to try and push a few out to Joel who would stay in the blind.

It was a good idea but I hadn't quite considered the logistics. As mentioned before, the blind was on a ridiculous slope and I had to go back UP the hill to get around the timber. It was a brutal climb. I finally reached the top though, surveyed the territory and saw that the timber was much larger than I had originally thought. I went about half way over and decided to drop down into it to make my push. I hadn't gone far when I saw a nice big 5 point elk shed sticking out of the snow! My son would love it! So I strapped it to my pack and continued on. I told myself to take it slow because the timber was so thick it would be easy to miss something. 3 steps and stop, 3 steps and stop. It wasn't more than a dozen steps after finding the shed that I glanced down through the trees and thought I saw something looking back at me. I slowly sat down and put my rifle on my shoulder. It was an elk! And what's more I had a perfect shot at about 50 yards...only I couldn't see it's head. My crosshairs were right on its shoulder and it just sat there. I was afraid to move but I was surprisingly calm. I ran my crosshairs up its shoulder to its head and much to my dismay I saw antlers. It was a bull, no shot. I walked a couple more feet and it noticed me, swung it's butt end around and trotted off through the woods. I was amazed that for such a large animal in such heavy timber it didn't make a sound.

I continued down through the trees, took a short snack break, and finally made my way back over to Joel in the blind. I had pushed one bull out to them but again, we only had cow tags. The number of animals we were seeing however was encouraging. We spent the rest of the day skirting the top of a ridge and being amazed at all the sign we were seeing. At the end of the day we made our way back to camp and just before the sun went down we saw 4 cows about 1000 yards away. We'll see you tomorrow, I thought.

After a grueling day wandering up and down that mountain we were hungry. We did an inventory of our foodstuffs and decided to just throw it all in a dutch oven and call it good. There was turkey, summer sausage, thai soup, and various vegetables, and in the end it was...well, interesting.

I ended up eating 3 or 4 bowls full just because I was THAT hungry but it wasn't something I'd save the recipe for!

The next day Joel and I split up before the sun came up again. I intended to go to the ridge where we'd seen the cows the night before and he was going to work the edge of the timber I'd gone into the day before and make his way back to the blind. I got a little mixed up once I entered the timber though and ended up on a ridge we'd worked the day before. The good news was that just as I got to the edge I saw two bulls making their way up the side of the mountain and a cow about 500 yards away. I don't know if she saw me or what but she was headed in the opposite direction in a hurry. I wasn't going to lob a shot at her from that distance though. She was safe...from me anyway.

Shortly after I'd settled myself for the morning I heard a shot ring out across the valley. Joel had taken a shot at something! Shortly thereafter, another shot, followed by a third! And then...silence. "Hmmm," I wondered, "Did he get one? Should I head over there to help him out or should I stay put and see if I can get one myself?" After about 20 minutes of debating with myself I decided to head over to see what had happened. I found Joel sitting the blind looking disappointed with himself. Apparently he'd shot at a cow a good distance away and missed all three times.

From what Joel had told me about how smart elk are I figured that our hunt was pretty much over at that point. All the other elk within hearing distance would be running for 20 miles or more. But after a brief discussion we decided to sit in the blind until at least 9:00 just to see if we could get lucky. Here's what the blind looked like:

Here's the view directly up from the blind:

And looking down from the blind to the right:

And to the left:

We hadn't been sitting more than half an hour when I noticed 4 deer working their way up from the small aspen grove directly beneath us. Apparently animals were still moving, I took that as a good sign. Another 15 minutes later and a shot rang out from above us. I spun around and saw two bulls at the top of the ridge. More bulls? Frustrating, but at least there were still elk in the area. Probably 10 minutes later Joel whispers, "There's some, don't move." And of course the first thing I do is whip around to see what he's talking about. 3 cows came sauntering out of the aspen patch you see to the right of the picture that is looking down from the blind on the right.
"They're cows." Joel whispers and my scope is on the lead animal. "You take the leader, I'll take the next one." I whispered back to Joel and I moved my crosshairs to the next animal.

I was surprisingly calm. The biggest thing I'd hunted before this was pigs in Hawaii and I remembered shaking considerably when I'd gotten shots at them. I was excited this time for sure but overall there was little emotion. My only thought was, "We're going to get our elk."

"Do you have a shot?" asked Joel.

"Not yet," I replied, "They've got to clear the they come...I'm going to shoot on 3...1...2...BOOM!" Apparently I shot a little bit before 3 and to my amazement my elk didn't drop! I heard Joel shooting to my left and since there was more than one shot I assumed that his elk didn't go down either. It took me a second to realize I needed to shoot again. I chambered another bullet and fired again. She flinched like I hit her but was still on her feet. I was amazed that they hadn't run further but after the initial volley they'd only gone another hundred or so yards. They stopped again directly beneath us. I chambered one more bullet, calmly laid the crosshairs on her shoulder and fired. She stumbled and fell.

"Mine is down!" I yelled. I'd just killed my first big game animal ever.

The story of Joel's cow is a bit unfortunate. He had hit her in the back left hindquarter. She made it down the ridge and to the edge of the timber you see on the left edge of the picture from the blind looking left. She wasn't going anywhere but we didn't have a good shot on her from our position so Joel began working his way across the mountain for a better shot when another hunter spotted her standing there and took a shot to knock her down. Joel did take the final shot but the other hunter claimed that since he knocked her down the cow was his. Joel said that in all the years he's hunted that area, even when it's covered in other people, he's never run in to that problem before. There was a bit of an argument before I suggested that we had our hands full with the other cow. Joel reluctantly gave up his animal but we got a picture and talked the other hunter into giving us the hindquarter where Joel had initially hit her.

It was a little after 7:00 a.m. when all was said and done. We spent the rest of the day dressing my elk, breaking camp, and then dragging her down the mountain to where we could pick her up with the truck. Despite being relatively downhill the entire way it was quite the drag. We started at the top of this mountain, the picture was taken from the truck looking back up to where we'd been.

I was exhausted by the end of the drag. Pulling a 800 lb animal down a mountain is as tough as it sounds even with three people involved. But the meat from this animal will feed both of our families well into the summer and the experience is something I will remember forever.

We spent the next two days butchering the cow and stocking the freezer with elk steaks and roasts and grinding up elk burger. We took another 25 lbs to a processor to be made in to sausages and brats.

And thus ended Man Week 2010. It was a week that Joel and I will be talking about for years to come. Pheasants in Kansas, a hawking trip, and elk to top it off. I can only hope that this will become a yearly tradition!

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Manliest of Man Weeks Part 2: NAFA

My last post ended with Joel and I pulling in to our camp at the North American Falconer's Association annual meet. Most people who attend this meet stay at the official meet hotel but for $80 a night it felt a little too luxurious to a few of us who elected to find a nearby trailer park that would allow us to put up a tent for a mere $5 a night. We were deemed the "Gypsy Hawkers" and even had a banner made for our tent:

As you can see though, this was no ordinary tent, a fellow falconer from Colorado brought his outfitters tent complete with a pot-bellied stove that kept the interior toasty warm despite the cold nights. $15 for our entire stay rather than the $240 it would've cost at the hotel (which I hear wasn't a great experience in and of itself...)? No complaints here! And the whole crew agreed we should do it again next year. Hopefully Gypsy Hawkers will be come an annual tradition.

We headed out early the next morning to get the hawking started. We actually began by meeting up with a fellow kestrel hawker to see if we could catch a starling with her female. As luck would have it, as we pulled into a rather empty looking lot to see if some starlings on a telephone wire would come down, a jackrabbit popped up out of nowhere! We had 4 red-tails with us so one was quickly pulled out of the car and sent on the chase. Despite there being no more than an inch of brown grass mowed to a stubble on this lot jacks began materializing left and right! We'd found a fantastic jack field right in the middle of town! The kestrels were abandoned for the moment while we chased jacks with several birds and eventually caught one with a big female flown by a falconer from Illinois. It was his first jackrabbit ever and he was ecstatic (even though his bird mistakenly grabbed his hand while he was trying to help with the jack...). I know many pictures were taken but I haven't seen any of them floating around on the Net yet. I'll insert them when I find them.

On the way back to the hotel to pick up another red-tail to take back to our awesome field, we found a large group of starlings feeding on the side of the local Walmart. The other kestrel hawker had her chance! She took the slip and her little kestrel nailed it's first starling. Again, pictures were taken but I haven't seen them yet. It was a fantastic start to the first day of the meet for our little group!

The days that followed were filled with more jackhawking with red-tails. I had intended to go out with a few other folks to see birds fly but we were having so much fun chasing stuff with the birds we had we just kept at it. One morning a fantastic photographer, Tasha Leong (who contributed the tent photo as well) came out with us and took these great shots of Joel's red-tail in action:

A narrow miss!

Joel's red-tail actually hit this jack and rolled it a couple times, this photo was just after the rolling stopped and the bird and jack took stock of the situation:

Other shenanigans in the field:
"Look, a mouse!"
"Got it!" (Look closely on my arm...)

Back at camp we threw some of the pheasants Joel and I had gotten into a dutch oven along with anything else we could find lying around and made a sort of pheasant "goulash". Usually when I cook pheasant it dries out quite a bit and is fairly tough, this was delicious!!

As we all crowded around the table to partake of the goulash, a pvc pipe that had been installed as a hose spigot (not very smart since pvc gets rather brittle in freezing temperatures!) was bumped and a water fountain erupted near the table when it broke completely off! We quickly called maintenance but quite the pool was forming as we waited and the water was creeping toward our tent. We tried to shove a towel down the pipe to stop the flow of water but there was too much pressure so we tried to hold it down with a flushing stick we had in the back of Joel's truck. Still too much water pressure, but we were on the right track, we just needed something to hold the pole in now. We decided to use the carrier that attached to an SUV trailer hitch, propped it on the table and balanced it on the pole that was keeping the towel in the broken pipe. It's not nearly as funny in writing as it was in person but we all thought it was a fine bit of redneck engineering! The maintenance folks finally did shut the valve off and the water was kept from our tent.

Despite all our efforts, the jackrabbits eluded us but Joel's bird finally snagged a cottontail on the last day we were at the meet, earning Joel his first ever NAFA game pin.

Overall it was a great time and it was a shame that we had to leave before the official end of the meet (Saturday night I believe) to get home for Thanksgiving. On our way out of Dodge we did stop at that little walk-in with the abandoned farmstead and put one more rooster in the bag before we made the drive back home to Colorado to spend Thanksgiving with our families.

As delicious as the meal was, it was only a brief respite before we were out hunting again. We left the day after Thanksgiving to pursue elk in the Colorado mountains. Part 3 soon...