Of Baseball, Randy Johnson and Peregrine Falcons

Written by Jim Huckabay on April 11, 2014. Posted in Uncategorized

It was one of those off-Reecer Creek meetings of the Reecer Creek Rod, Gun, Working Dog & Outdoor Think Tank Benevolent Association. Over hot cups of java at D&M Downtown, the subjects on the floor were this week’s column and the opening of the baseball season. In particular, the buzz was around the Mariners’ new pitching rotation. Felix was on all minds, of course, with a mix of caution and excitement over Ramirez, Paxton, Young and the new Cuban kid, Elias.

Jacques “Toot” Jesaistout, as always, wanted to compare the entire rotation to his hero Randy Johnson. In a repeat of the last time we talked pitching and wildlife, he made his plea. “You should write about peregrine falcons, like that one Randy Johnson hit with his fast ball that time. 95 mile an hour fastball… Man, it was just ‘Poof!’ Feathers everywhere…” In most cases, Toot needs to be footnoted, and this was no exception.

This incident happened when Randy was pitching for the Arizona Diamondbacks. During the seventh inning of a spring training game against the Giants, March 24, 2001, he threw a fastball that struck a dove picking the wrong moment to fly through the infield. Feathers filled the air and the ump called a “no pitch.” Because I have previously compared Randy’s fastball to the speed of peregrine falcons, and their ability to knock loose a cloud of feathers from prey, Toot continues to insist that Randy clobbered a falcon. Oh, well.

Still, it is a good time to explore peregrine falcons. As the most widely distributed raptor on the planet, and strikingly handsome, they are what we watchable wildlife writers call a “charismatic” species.

With a lot of help, peregrines bred their way back from the brink of forever. They were not alone. Ospreys, American kestrels and bald eagles, too, suffered huge losses from exposure to DDT and heavy-metal pesticides. at one level or another, and all have slowly increased their own numbers.

From the time the problems were identified, and DDT was banned (1972) peregrine watching became a hobby. Falco peregrinus is a 15-inch-long medium-sized hawk, with pointed wings spreading almost 40 inches. Its almost-black helmet, slate‑blue back and buff and barred underside were made for school kid sketches. Its natural habitat of cliffs and canyons could be supplanted by the tall buildings and deep gorges of major cities. Rock doves – common city pigeons – substituted for the ducks, doves, flickers, magpies and jays of its rural diet. “Falcon cams@ watched transplanted falcons and nests on skyscrapers from Seattle New York. And the in-person watching was a big part of the hobby.

I remember standing with a crowd of sidewalk lunch-munchers watching peregrines nail pigeons in the urban canyons of Denver.  We watched them teach youngsters to fly and hunt. Knowing that half the young would die from accidents or starvation in the first year, it was high drama.

We would hold our breath as a falcon swooped after a pigeon, knowing it would miss four out of five times. We might imagine moving through the air at more than 220 miles per hour (faster than a free‑falling stone in its first ten seconds). We could fantasize about moving twice as fast as a great pitcher’s fastball, and still being in complete command. We could see that, at that speed, the bird’s strike with its strong clenched oversized feet was like a lightning bolt. The pigeon invited for lunch would explode in feathers and flutter toward the ground until the peregrine regrouped and snatched it in midair. For a moment, each of us could be a peregrine falcon.

This still happens in cities across the US, and it is easy to find out where. Seattle and Spokane are among several viewable peregrine locations in our state. Get started at www.seattleaudubon.org/sas/LearnAboutBirds/NestCams.aspx and click on the downtown Seattle peregrine link. Explore the site for nest activity location information.

Surf the net.  See www.frg.org/ for the Falcon Research Group’s web cam and photos of peregrines on Seattle’s Washington Mutual Tower. The group is also carrying out a project to track a couple peregrines through their migration range, from Chile to Canada.  Check out Sunny Walter’s great images of, and links to, Washington’s raptors at www.nwlink.com/sunnywww/Apn-Birds-Raptor.html. Here you will find photos of peregrines (and other raptors), information about research projects around the country and a slide show of two babies becoming falcons.

The peregrine is pure beauty and power on the wing. Find. Watch. Feel the air. Touch the sky.

All about Sandhill Cranes

Written by Jim Huckabay on April 4, 2014. Posted in Uncategorized

Almost exactly thirty years ago, one of my Denver homeys – a long-time hunting and fishing buddy – said something like “Hey, let’s forget about hunting and fishing for a few days and take a run up into Nebraska. You’ll see giant beautiful birds dancing and singing and clumsy and graceful all at once. And we can get some pictures and maybe play a little poker in the camper over something on ice.”

This was the same guy who once got me to take a six-mile forced armed march through the Piceance Basin of northwestern Colorado by urgently saying, as he lowered his fancy binoculars, “Omigod! Two giant bucks just dropped into that draw across the valley.  We got just enough time to get into there and back before dark, if we hustle.” Of course, we found neither bucks nor tracks. “Maybe I was mistaken,” he finally allowed over a cold malt beverage that evening, “but it was a good hike.”

Given his history, while weighing the good times we’d had, I agreed to hit Nebraska for a long weekend. Worse comes to worse, I figured, we’d play a little blackjack, savor a little nicely-aged scotch and he’d buy most of the groceries. The three-hour drive took us northeast from Denver into a very dark night along the Platte River.

I can still feel myself standing there that next morning, mouth agape, looking over a noisy, boisterous sea of greater sandhill cranes. Over the better part of three days, we were within a hundred yards of tens of thousands of them. They were flying, landing, bouncing, calling, bobbing, dancing and taking off. They were breathtakingly graceful and comically clumsy. They were before us and behind us and around us. A time or two, as they fell awkwardly from the sky, I’d have sworn they were going to land on my head. Raucously, they filled those early spring fields along the river.

What got me thinking about all that, of course, is the buzz about last weekend’s Othello Sandhill Crane Festival. It was all it promised to be. And there are still hundreds of these birds to be seen.

The last time I found cranes out in our Columbia Basin, it happened as dusk settled. We pulled well onto the shoulder, grabbed optics and camera and sat mesmerized. That loud, rattling “kar-r-r-o-o-o, kar-r-r-o-o, kar-r-r-o-o-o” echoed off the clouds and the Rattlesnake Hills as bird after bird found its way to the earth. Pairs and small groups bobbed, bowed, leaped, danced and trotted around with half-open wings. By full darkness, a hundred cranes were celebrating the open field within fifty yards of us.

As Big Bird Information Officer for the Reecer Creek Rod, Gun, Working Dog & Outdoor Think Tank Benevolent Association, I am required to provide the following.  Our birds are lesser sandhill cranes.  The greater cranes (in Nebraska and thereabouts) are slightly taller and a bit longer in the bill, leg and wingspan than our birds.  Sandhill crane’s scientific name is Grus canadensis.  Our lessers will weigh in at seven pounds or so and stand just under three and a half feet tall, with wingspans just over six feet.  Add three or four pounds body weight and five or six inches to each measurement for the greater sandhill cranes.  The birds are mostly gray—often with red staining from preening in ferrous (iron-rich) mud—with a bright red crown and white cheeks.  Cranes fly with their necks outstretched, and once you hear that haunting “kar-r-r-o-o-o, kar-r-r-o-o, kar-r-r-o-o-o,” you won’t forget it.

Our lessers are on their way to make babies in the far North Country, although some will remain in the lower 48 (including nesting pairs at Conboy Lake National Wildlife Refuge, south of Glenwood at the base of Mount Adams). The larger birds breed mostly in Central Canada and the northern tier of states.

Once the bonded pair settle into breeding country, they will build a bulky nest of dead sticks, moss, grass, reeds and whatever else they fancy and lay two four-inch buff/olive eggs, marked with olive and brown.  After a month of incubation, the young cranes will hatch and be following their parents within a day.  Like their parents, they will eat pretty much what is available, including aquatic insects and invertebrates, worms, small mammals, young birds and eggs, bulbs, berries, lichens, water plants and grains.

In fall, our lesser cranes will head to Mexico.  Next spring, we’ll again celebrate their trip north.

It is easy to learn more about these amazing creatures. Steve Taylor and many others have posted crane photos on the PBase site – some of them are breathtaking. Go to www.pbase.com and put “sandhill cranes” into the search window. Find a good nature guide or a copy of “Washington Wildlife Viewing Guide” for places to find sandhill cranes. Check out Cornell University’s All About Birds site at www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Sandhill_Crane/id.

It’s not too late. Call 866-726-3445 for information. Go to the Basin. Find sandhill cranes. Have a noisy, dancing, wing-waving time.

Happy spring.

Happy Birthday, Duck Stamps

Written by Jim Huckabay on March 28, 2014. Posted in Uncategorized

What a great month. Two weeks ago, we celebrated the 95th birthday of our Kittitas County Field and Stream Club. A couple days after that was the 80th birthday of the duck stamp, March 16, 1934, when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the Migratory Bird Hunting Stamp Act into law. These anniversaries harken back to a time when wildlife and its habitat were in grave danger. We celebrate them today because men and women concerned about future generations – that is us, by the way – stepped up and did something nearly a century ago.

I thought we might review those times a bit.

The 1920s (the “Roaring Twenties”) were a time of flappers, gangsters, and rich lifestyles. Urban living became the dream for much of the world, with the wealthy all over the world betting on good times and unending natural resources that few saw fading. Difficult times were on the horizon, as the demand for land and food grew with rapid development and poor agricultural practices. Midwestern prairies were stripped of their soil, and wetlands were ditched and drained. Such economic progress pushed food production and waterfowl habitat ever-closer to the edge. Migratory waterfowl populations (many species still recovering from market hunting) slumped precipitously – particularly pintails and canvasbacks.

The conservation ethic of leaders like Teddy Roosevelt, John Muir and Gifford Pinchot was nearly lost in that decade of wild excess.

Then came the Great Depression. Markets, Americans’ spirit and wildlife populations fell into a deep malaise. While few had thoughts for anything beyond economic recovery, President Franklin D. Roosevelt seemed to see recovery in a more global way – he saw a country still defined by people working the land, and by its natural resources. As he worked to recover citizens’ spirit, he spoke to the need for wildlife habitat even as, for many species, extinction seemed inevitable.

Still, through the most desperate and hopeless of times determined conservationists pushed forward, creating new bands, groups and clubs of folks looking ahead. By 1934, most talk of stopping the destruction of wetland habitat and the steep decline of waterfowl numbers was still just talk. Finally, after more than a dozen years, and several of Jay “Ding” Darling’s nationwide editorial cartoons, agreements and compromises were made. The Migratory Bird Hunting Stamp Act bill was passed in March and signed on March 16, 1934. That first federal duck stamp featured a Ding Darling sketch – completed in an hour – of two mallards. It sold for one buck.

Since 1934, sales of the Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp (its name since 1976) have generated over $850 million, conserving more than six million acres of wetlands and migratory bird habitat in the National Wildlife Refuge System. Ninety-eight cents of every dollar spent on Duck Stamps goes directly to such purchases. The Duck Stamp has cost $15 for the last two decades. Senate Bill S. 1865, sponsored by Senator Mark Begich, D-Alaska, would raise it to $25, and it is probably time. The new stamp, due in June, features the common goldeneye.

These stamps are important. Friend Joe Meuchel once wrote that “…every birder should buy a duck stamp. A measly fifteen bucks shelled over the counter at your local post office will buy fifteen dollars worth of some wildlife refuge somewhere. Not just that, it gives you a season ticket to enter most federal refuges and you don’t even have to hunt ducks.”

Well over 30,000 people buy Duck Stamps in Washington. More than a third of them also put something back through membership in Ducks Unlimited (DU). The 60-plus chapters in Washington raise a million bucks a year for waterfowl and habitat conservation. (You can play, too; call Joe Briscoe at 509-697-4482 and check out the Selah DU Banquet, Saturday, May 3.)

DU calls itself the world’s largest private, nonprofit waterfowl and wetlands conservation group. Organized in 1937, with more than a million supporters, DU has conserved more than 13 million acres of waterfowl habitat throughout North America. In its nearly eight decades of existence, it has raised nearly $3.5 billion.

Nearly a century ago, our ancestors handed us the future. Restoring and enhancing quality habitat for wildlife is a game we are all playing. Let’s keep playing.

P.S. Find more at www.fws.gov/duckstamps/conservation/mbcc.htm, www.birdnote.org, or www.ducks.org.

The James Gang & Memorial Pheasant Hunt IV

Written by Jim Huckabay on March 21, 2014. Posted in Uncategorized

You may recall that our buddy Jim Groseclose (J1) suddenly went home four years ago today – March 21, 2010. Two weeks before that sad day, Jim Davis (J2) and I (J3) joined J1 on a James Gang Pheasant Adventure on some of the Cooke Canyon Hunt Club ground. Our armed walk with J1’s beloved labs happened on a perfect almost-spring morning. There were pheasants everywhere, and the dogs were in top form. Since that day, J2 and I have been determined to honor his memory.

Groseclose, of course, was founder and leader of the James Gang, with Jim Davis and me being J2 and J3, respectively. Being part of that James Gang, chasing pheasants, ducks, quail and chukars with two great Labs and two true gentlemen added a richness to my life I had been missing since those decades-ago days with my big black Lab, Freebe the Wonder Dog. Whenever any of us were around J1, a sense of impending adventure hung in the air.

Perhaps that sense of impending adventure is why we carry on an annual pheasant hunt tradition on one or another of the pieces of ground that brought our gang so much pleasure afield. This year, J2 exercised the membership we purchased at last summer’s Chukar Run Banquet and booked The Fourth Annual Jim Groseclose Memorial Pheasant Hunt at Alice and Doug Burnett’s Cooke Canyon Hunt Club.

Once the hunt was set, anticipation grew, and I often found myself lost in thought about honoring those who made my outdoor time rich and memorable.

I can’t pass a black lab without saying a short prayer for Freebe – the best four-legged human with whom I ever shared time.

Last weekend, we dropped in on my 90-something Aunt Evy in East Wenatchee for one of our regular check-ins. We opted to take the south route back to Paradise, toward Quincy. That drive took us past the orchards where I hunted pheasants and quail too-many decades ago, and past the ponds where I learned to shoot fast enough for ducks and doves.

The house The Old Man and I built, and the orchard next door, are resting under Costco ground now. From the roof of that house, on a crisp fall day, I watched him climb down our ladder, get the shotgun and a couple of his mismatched shells, and go shoot a crowing rooster pheasant in that orchard. He handed dinner to my mom and we went back to our roofing work.

The Old Man coached and trained me in shooting and sportsmanship. He held the door open on crisp fall days, handed me his old J.C. Higgins bolt-action 12-gauge, filled my pockets with a mix of shotgun shell brands and shot size from whatever he’d had for ammo since his own youth, and said, “Bring us something for dinner.” To this day, I can’t go afield for birds without at least two different brands of shells in my pocket – a memorial of some kind, I guess.

Where were we?  Oh, yeah… Our Fourth Annual Jim Groseclose Memorial Pheasant Hunt. It happened on Tuesday. After all that wind and chill, Tuesday dawned clear and temperate and almost still. J2 and I were joined by Gloria Sharp, Honorary James Gang member and our photographer for the day. Homey Bill Boyum joined us, too, bringing his classic German shorthair, Maisy, to supervise our bird-finding.

Just to hear Jim Groseclose – in our minds’ ear, at least – chastise us for missing a shot, one of us fired a single warning shot. In honor of J1’s appreciation of working dogs doing the work they were born to do, Maisy took the lead under Bill’s quiet coaching. We connected with each bird she located, but there were moments when we forgot we were armed. Two or three times, Maisy slid smoothly into the wind and came solidly on point before some nervous rooster, and nobody moved. Something about a beautiful dog on a perfect point in perfect sunshine in that crisp air had us mesmerized. At some point, Bill might say, “Uh, Jim?” and one of us would get back to the task at hand.

After a few final pictures, a round of thanks to Maisy and Bill, and words on behalf of our absent and still-missed James Gang leader, we retired to the Cooke Canyon Club House. We cleaned our birds, shared a few (mostly) true tales of bird hunting in the Dakotas and in Paradise, and took our leave.

The Fourth Annual Jim Groseclose Memorial Pheasant Hunt was a success, in all the ways we had hoped it might be. Now, as J1 would often say after our final hunt of the season, it’s time to think about salmon fishing.

ALL Kids Have the Right to an Outdoor Adventure

Written by Jim Huckabay on March 14, 2014. Posted in Uncategorized

If you missed the Monday night meeting at Hal Holmes, you missed something special.

First of all, we were celebrating the 95th anniversary of the Kittitas County Field and Stream Club.

The club was organized in March of 1919, as the Ellensburg Sportsmen Association. It organized with 75 charter members. …And dues of 50 cents a year. President Austin Miers and Secretary-Treasurer J.H. Van Gusen presided over a dedicated group of men (mostly) and women who hosted bird dog trials and wildlife meetings, sent delegates to the Washington Game Commission and reached out to wildlife groups across the state and nation.

In 1946, the Club incorporated as the Kittitas County Field & Stream Club. Today, as you likely know, the Club is a non-profit corporation promoting public access to public lands, effective conservation, good sportsmanship, and environmental and outdoor education of youth. Great effort goes into improving and increasing outdoor recreation opportunities – especially hunting and fishing.

The rich chocolate anniversary cake was delicious, by the way, and helped us appropriately celebrate 95 years of “Working Today for Tomorrow’s Wildlife.”

At another level, the evening was about our fervently held and shared belief that all kids have the right to enjoy outdoor activities. To wit: our proposal that “The children of Washington have the right to discover and experience the outdoors through activities including the following: Create an outdoor adventure; Explore a trail; Camp under the stars; Go fishing; Discover nature; Explore Washington’s heritage; Go on a picnic; Play in a park, in the water, in the snow, on the rocks; Go hunting; Learn to be safe around firearms and other outdoor tools.”

Our first guests were Glenna Maskal and son Grant, leaders in our local On-Target 4H Shooting Sports Program. We have supplied the program with a trailer and certain supplies, and they were bringing us up to date on the number of kids in the program, the various types of shooting activities with which they are involved, and the growing demand for a safe family-oriented marksmanship program. It has been a good partnership, and we look forward to a long run.

Our main program went right to the heart of our kids’ outdoor bill of rights. Joe and Cindy Carpenter drove over from Moses Lake to give us some first-hand information about their Youth Outdoors Unlimited (Y.O.U.) program. This is a tax exempt 501(c)3 corporation focused on making hunting and fishing dreams come true for young people diagnosed with a life-threatening illness and/or a physical disability. The program, started by a spark from a Mississippi program in 2010, is already doing remarkable things for dozens of kids who really need something remarkable.

Twelve kids are already approved, or in the application process, for camps and hunting or fishing trips this year. Fishing trips are for anything from warm water spiny-rays to salmon over 30 pounds. Hunting may be for turkeys, white-tail or mule deer or bears, with other possibilities. The youngster who successfully lands fish or harvests game gets the meat processed, the critter mounted and a photo record of the experience. There are fishing derbies and old-fashioned hunting camps, where the kid picks the menu. All outings are with established guides. Whatever the hunter or fisher needs for gear – from clothing to a special chair or custom-fitted rod or firearm – is provided by the program and its sponsors.

After only four short years, the Y.O.U. sponsor list reads like a who’s who of regional, national and international hunting, fishing and gear outfits. Start with Cabela’s and Wholesale Sports Outdoor Outfitters and work your way to Horns & Hooks Magazine, Vortex Optics, Gunwerks and Brothers ‘N Arms. Add in a couple dozen custom clothing or equipment manufacturers contributing to a disabled kid’s ability to suddenly be abled, and you have a flavor of what Joe and Cindy have started.

Most of our guests were too manly to show it once the lights came up, but the Y.O.U video we saw put laughter and joy in every heart, and tears in most eyes. Check out www.YouthOutdoorsU.org. You will find heartwarming stories about these amazing youngsters and their adventures in every issue of Horns & Hooks Magazine. You are welcome to help, too.

We are working on bringing Joe and Cindy back to town for a community-wide presentation of their work. Stand by.

All kids have the right to outdoor adventures.