On the Cusp

Today, as we squired our house sitters around Floyd and ate excellent “pig” from Bootleg BBQ, we tried to think if there was anything additional that we needed to get done before our departure to the airport tomorrow and flight Sunday.

One last thing, not knowing what kind of wifi we might have over there, was to refresh my FB page photos. I chose a pic of CJ from a couple of years ago, because as the leaves turn on the early trees (dogwood, maple) I’ve been reminded of falconry season, which will begin before I return. And seeing posts and inklings of friends near and far beginning to be ready for their own falconry seasons, I’m a bit jealous, but I know I will start the hunting as soon as possible after I get back.

And I chose a photo of sunset over Occoneechee State Park’s Buggs Island Lake (or Kerr Lake, depending on whether you’re standing on the VA or the NC shore) for a couple of reasons. We will be missing the activities and freedoms of traveling in Roomba for this trip (Occoneechee and North Bend campgrounds being among our favorite spots); and down in Clarksville, our upcoming tour leaders have a “family” farm they are able to occupy as much as possible between stints at their places of work, and we went to visit them last year, staying at Occoneechee. Soon, we shall meet up with them and our cycling tour friends for a new adventure.

We are heartily looking forward to our trip—not only the cycling but also the longish visit with family—and have heard from friends old and new with best wishes and “bon voyages.” We know that our critters are in the best possible hands, and those hands are supported by lots of big-hearted friends who have assured their assistance should any be required. It is lovely to feel confident in getting away when there are so many people standing beside those we hold dear.

More later, folks. And into the blue we go.



Winter’s End

The crocus are pushing through the chill soil. The sun is out (for a change) and it’s relatively warm for March 13 in Meadows of Dan. The snowdrops are up in several places on the property, including on the puppies’ graves, where our beloved canine family has, over the years, been laid to rest: Sophie, Pippin, Jazz, Radar, Seth – all are fertilizer for the snowdrops, and the snowdrops remind us of the inevitable succession of life. We now have Chase and Mischief; after them, we will have a different but continuing canine family, to comfort, amuse, frustrate, delight, and love us.

Falconry season is nearly over – in fact, I’ve already stopped hunting with my juvenile redtailed hawk, Skye, in favor of allowing her broken feathers to go ahead and drop off, so she can grow new ones through the summer. I’ll keep CJ disturbing the crow populations around here for a while longer, because he and I are participating in a research program studying lead accumulations in scavenger species (from feeding on field dressed and/or “uncollected” rifle-shot game animals). The scientist wanted to include crows in his research, but was finding it difficult to find any to study. A falconer friend introduced me to the researcher and CJ and I have managed to help out.

But Jack and I are beginning to think bicycles, camping, and traveling. He’s the travel agent for our Roomba schedule, and we have a short trip to one of our favorite VA State Parks, Okeneechee, lined up for next week. By then, I will have completed my “beer magazine” duties (editing, layout, proofing, upload to the printer, etc.), and we will take our delayed “anniversary trip” that we manage every four years when our Sadie Hawkins Day anniversary comes around.

Last week’s wondrous, early spring weather inspired us to 3 bike rides. Not long ones, but it was truly good to get back in the saddle again – well, except for that “where the saddle meets the seat” part. That’s the most difficult aspect of getting back on the bicycles again: breaking in the body parts that spend a lot of time resting on the saddle. But this will pass soon, as the affected area toughens up and you just don’t notice it any longer.

It feels so great to exercise in a different way after a long winter of falconry, hiking through the woods and fields for hours. And being on the Blue Ridge Parkway again, in time to see the wildflowers emerge on their schedule, has me full of anticipation, watching for the rebirth of our native surroundings. I love being out there, spinning my wheels along the pavement, seeing what is to be seen; hearing what is to be heard. I’m so looking forward to the summer of traveling and cycling and Roomba-ing and exploring the new and the old. C’mon April!

The red-tailed hawk of one of my falconry apprentices

Cascade’s Freedom

I met him when he was a youngster of 6 months. This was November of 2011. He was not, at first, happy to see me. Not happy at all.

At first, I was unsure if he was a male or a female. But in time, I knew by his demeanor, character, and general lack of aggression that He was not a She. Thus, he was not known as Cass but rather Cade.

We had a great first year together. 

Then my hunting/helping dogs died, and during that winter of 2013-4, the squirrels died because of the acorn crop failure.

Cade and I were reduced to trying to find rabbits, and I can tell you, I’m not much of a rabbit dog. 

Over this past hunting season (2014-5) we still had difficulty finding squirrels as their populations had not rebounded in my neighborhoods. Cade lost his touch for the bushytails — and even though he’d caught two fox squirrels in 2012; and even though they were more abundant than the grays; Cade suddenly refused to even look at the fox squirrels we stumbled upon in the woods.

The first dog I chose as a replacement rabbit flusher turned out to be more afraid of the bird than he was attuned to rabbits. He’s sweet, but useless in the field with a bird.

Poor Cade spent much of the 14-15 hunting season cooling his talons in his enclosure.

His time to reclaim his freedom has arrived, and today he realized it. One of the greatest things about the way I practice falconry is that a wild-caught redtailed hawk, trained in the sport of falconry and thus fit, skilled, healthy and mature, will readily revert back to the wild.

As he did today. 

He ate the quail I held in my glove while I cut through the leather bewit holding the bell on his leg; and through the two leather anklets on his tarsi. Once he finished the quail, I had a large rabbit’s head for him to carry with him into the surrounding woods. The head would keep him occupied for a while after I left.

Once he realized he was free, he took off, looking as if the only thought in his head was, “Who are you?”

I thanked him for his willingness to work with me, and for the opportunity to get to know him. 

And I drove away.

Fly high good bird and make many more of your kind; Live Long and Prosper, my friend.



Falconry Season: February Crows

It’s been a strange season for flying birds. First the crash of the squirrel population. Then the wicked cold temps keeping everything (including me and my red tail) tucked into shelter.

So this has been the season I’ve reversed my “normal” A and B team concentrations. Where my most dependable and fun outings in the past have been flying the red tail on squirrels, and the falcon-on-crows focus was more of a “dawdle,” I have found myself frustrated and un-inspired by working with the red tail and the new dog. 

For one thing, the dog remains clueless. It’s hard to get the dog to understand what we’re doing out there when there are no squirrels to chase. So when I’ve looked for red-tail-style dinner options, we have devolved to rabbits. Not many of them around, either. So both the bird and the dog get bored. The other day, on one of those rare warm days, the bird found a significant snake crawling around — who’d have thought that a snake would be active in 45-50 degrees? And it wasn’t a little shoestring-sized snake, either. When the bird had finished eating it, we were done for the day.

A bored red-tailed hawk picks up bad habits. It might even think that the white-and-black canine running around randomly and not noticeably helping flush anything might just do for a quick meal.

Enter the traditionally-dubbed “B-Team.” My Crow Joe (CJ) the falcon has been spot on his targets. The thing about the crows, however, is that my fave time for getting out before too much human activity starts up for the day is right after dawn. But when the temps are in the teens and below, the crows are waiting for the sun to warm things up a bit before they start pecking around on the frozen-solid ground. Crows are smart, remember.

So it’s been tough finding the right timing and putting together the situations where both CJ is at weight and ready to fly, and the crows are out, messing around on the ground feeding. But it hasn’t been so tough that I have been unable to offer CJ opportunities to fly, and he has been eating heartily on fresh dinner á la corvid. 

I guess the upshot of all this is the following. You’re never too old to learn something new. If you try different things, you’re likely to find an alternative that works. If you’re patient, and try not to get your knickers all knotted up, the rough patches will smooth. And its useless to cry over situations that you cannot change; instead, make an effort to adapt.

So this is the winter of my adaptation. And I love my falcon.

February Crows:




Falconry with Friends


The Virginia Falconers’ Association held its Harrisonburg Field Meet last weekend. I met some new people, beat brush until I was near dropping, told some lies and tall tales, and generally had a great time seeing old friends who all share my particular form of insanity. The high temperature on the primary hunting day was 27 degrees, so it was also exhausting, trying to keep warm and stay out of the wind while following a hunting bird of prey. Still, it was rewarding to have my 2x intermewed redtailed hawk catch one of only two squirrels nabbed over the weekend (Harrisonburg is renowned, among falconers, for its rabbits).

When I was a start-up falconer, I hunted alone (with a bird, of course) for many many years. I’m very glad that circumstance changed for me. There is nothing quite like being in the fields and woodlots with my peers. I watch a recall to the glove: the singular beauty of a gliding hawk, homing in on a tidbit sitting on a leather gauntlet, some 50 or 100 yards away. We all stop whatever we were doing and watch, thrilling in the extraordinary discipline that has convinced this wild entity to voluntarily return to the fist; we all shake our heads, and murmur “nothing like it on earth,” and each knows what the other means. It is truly priceless.

I didn’t have the opportunity to fly CJ, the crow-eating falcon, during the field meet. I think it was too cold and windy for the crows to be sitting on the ground anyway; but I honestly didn’t have time to go check through the byways of Rockingham Co. So I flew CJ on the Monday morning upon my return home. He was so anxious to fly, he went out the window and nailed a crow within the first ten minutes of our effort. It was the first one we saw. He got a good crop-up in return for his good behavior and patience (ha! this is a joke: the very last thing counted among attributes of birds of prey is patience). Actually, I fed him up because I felt guilty that he was waiting fruitlessly all weekend to hunt.

It was a good weekend (plus). Hoping the approaching deep freeze won’t prevent more flying this week.

Story in Seven: No words beginning or ending in “s”

The tree rat escaped while the hawk, aground, walked with a rustle of leaf litter. Tripped by a branch and falling to a knee, I watched the fuzzy tail disappear behind a tree.

Did it go up? Did it run on?

Once, a dog duo tracked the path and offered directional pointing.

I growl in frustration for not being a canine. I weep in the woodlot for my lost team.



The first thing was to hide all the bedding, toys, and food bowls. We did that through streaming tears on the first day, merely to make the house habitable. Couldn’t then and still haven’t actually “dealt with” the paraphernalia, but simply moved it from sight. Those triggers were just too big to endure.

Since then, the triggers are small. Simple. Ordinary.

We drop a piece of food on the kitchen floor while cooking, and no one trots over to clean it up. I look out the kitchen window as I’m washing dishes but there’s no one stretched out sunning on top of the picnic table. Processing a load of laundry leaves the warm sheets in the living room to fold later, but there’s no one to yell at to keep their grubby paws off the clean sheets.

My dogs are gone and they’re never coming back.


Today, we’re a week into our bereavement. Yuck. Such an inadequate word to hug our devastation to our chests—to encompass the tsunami of tears; the avalanche of tissues; the derecho of splintered heart. Our glasses have been smudged and wet for days and days because our eyes continue to leak and our hugs for one another are tight and desperate and full of snot. We awaken with crusty eyelids because we cry in our sleep.

Triggers accost us at every turn. A squirrel at the feeder doesn’t prompt ear-splitting barking; a deer eating apples in the orchard isn’t answered by 4-legged lightening-streaks down the hill; our return from town isn’t ushered in with “singing” from our bedroom window.

I’ve taken refuge in work: I have had that advantage over Jack, with a job to do that gets me off the property. His work keeps him bumping up against the triggers, all day. Every day.

The gray, foggy weather hasn’t helped. Our first weekend alone in the house, we thought a nice Netflix movie would be a good distraction. But the popcorn made us cry. Jazz and Radar loved catching popcorn puffs tossed in the air. We cannot even snack on dry-roasted peanuts because they always shared with us. Popcorn and peanuts: the only “human food” we allowed our dogs.

Mornings are the worst. In a normal life, I came downstairs with my fleece jacket over my nightshirt and sweat pants under. I put the kettle on the stove, clicked the flame on, and walked outside to release them from their “playpen” below the front porch. Always so happy to see me, they’d stretch and yawn; jump and wag; and lift a leg or squat en route to the kitchen and their breakfast. We’d turn on the radio and settle down to a quiet cuppa for me and a post-breakfast snooze in the warmest, smelliest spots for them. Sometimes, there would be some lap-sitting and snuggling included.


Now. There’s nothing.

Me, my tea, and Tab O’Neal & Steve Inskeep on the radio. Jack comes down the stairs and we hold each other for everything that was lost.

We got brave and took our first walk around the ponds over the weekend in the drizzling rain and fog. We knew it would be upsetting without them running in the woods, barking up trees, and checking in at a gallop, only to race past and find a new spot to harry. No more water snake harassing. No more snatching catfish food out of the air as we toss it into the pond.

JazzSleepsAquarellSm0048 RadarSnoPortrait0343Web

I discovered that digging their grave was a great way to vent anger, frustration, heartbreak, and self-pity. Using a digging bar to loosen the clay and the inevitable substantial rocks—all the while cussing and crying and kicking dirt clods—was actually therapeutic. Who knew?

I know that, for me, the worst is yet to come. These were my falconry dogs; partners to the redtailed hawk in the hunt; with four and five years of experience behind them. The bird, acquired in 2011, was at long-last “getting” the game we played together—understanding the usefulness of the dogs. The dogs were “getting” the idea that, even though they weren’t allowed to catch the quarry, they could still experience success when the bird actually scored the take-down. It was an enormously talented team, which was admired by everyone who saw them work together.


Now, in one fell swoop, I’m demoted from falconry chauffeur to rabbit dog. I think the redtail will be sorely disappointed in what I can produce for it to chase, as compared to what Jazz and Radar were able to flush. That will, again, break my heart for all that has been lost.

Jack & I graduated to being able to talk about potential breeders of puppies as we were comforted by friends over the weekend. The images of my dogs that I see in my head are now, rarely of their bodies lying in the road; or as we arranged them in their final resting place, to appear as if they were snuggled together in sleep. I am beginning to see pictures of them as they lived, rather than as they died. Healing is happening.

And, I realize it is important to keep things in perspective. I just heard that a good friend does not, in fact, have cancer. That news is monumentally important to me and I am delighted to hear it and know it in my heart. I rejoice for her and her family and friends. We have received many wonderful expressions of heartfelt understanding from a tremendously wide range of our home community members. So much in our lives could be so much worse.

But for right now, right here, we are assaulted by triggers. And we cannot cleanse the pain with tears.