Sunday, March 15, 2009

Beach Trapping, LIFE style

Way back when, on Assateague....boy, I am so delighted to see these again. They are photos of the early days of tundrius peregrine trapping on barrier beach flats, and show a world disappeared. I love them.

I wrote a paper on beach-trapping years ago, a history of science paper. Never published it: that winning combination (for winning, read losing) of insecurity and laziness conspired. Also, it's dry as hell, except the fantastic quotes from folks like Al Nye. I'm excerpting a passage below, though, if you're interested in why grown men buried themselves in sand with a box on their head, holding live pigeons...


In the late 1930s Assateague ran horizontally along the coast of Maryland and Virginia for approximately 37 miles. Attempts to colonise the island had been foiled by hurricanes; it was littered with the detritus of civilization; abandoned beach houses and wrecked hotels. Only three miles wide at its widest point, its broad expanses of open beach led back to rolling dunes with vast wash flats of sand on their lee sides, the largest of which, Fox Hill Levels, was astonishingly featureless; at least a mile wide and six or seven miles long, on a bright sunny day you could stand at one end and hardly see the other.

In late September 1938 falconers Al Nye and Bill Turner were treated to an extraordinary discovery account. Turner’s father and his friend Roddy Gascoyne had returned from a poor day’s surf-fishing on Fox Hill Levels and to relieve their boredom they had cruised up and down the flats with a .22 Hornet shooting the ‘great number of duck hawks’ that were sitting around on pieces of driftwood and on the sand itself. Nye was incredulous:

We, naturally, didn’t believe them at first and thought that they must be confusing these hawks with some other kind. Who had ever heard of seeing 40-50 Duck Hawks on the sand on an island! But they persisted in claiming that they were actually Duck Hawks, in light of the fact that they had seen several tame falcons of Bills, and had actually killed several on the island. So Bill and I finally made up our minds to visit the island to see just what was there.

They did, and were astonished. These birds utterly failed to meet previous conceptions of the species; these peregrines were far from the solitary inhabitants of sites of natural sublimity that Nye’s diary entry describes:

The habits of the Duck hawk on Assateague are amazing! Duck hawks in my mind have always been associated with high cliffs, either in mountainous areas or on high, rocky promontories overlooking river valleys. Then, too, I have seen them sailing majestically over Hawk Mountain, and also at Cape May. […] But at Assateague, they forsake all elevated perches, and really prefer to sit on bits of driftwood right on the sand. They actually look like terns or gulls in this respect. As a result, it is quite a shock to see the lordly Peregrine of inland lofty cliffs sitting like a gull on the sand next to the ocean .

They were shockingly anomalous. Almost every attribution previously accorded the peregrine was reversed. While the ‘rock’ peregrines were large and dark, these ‘beach’ or ‘blond’ birds, as they were quickly termed, were small and usually pale. While rock birds were found inland, and were largely sedentary, solitary and very territorial, fiercely defending the cliff sites that were their home, these blond birds were coastal, found in groups of up to 80 birds and transitory, appearing in unpredictable numbers sitting on the beaches and wash flats for a couple of weeks each fall. Whereas ‘rock’ birds were shy and unapproachable, blond birds were sometimes so tame that they allowed falconers to walk up and touch them. They looked like, and flew like, peregrines. But they were behaving in utterly alien ways, resisting previous readings and significations.

Nye and his friends immediately set about trying to trap these birds. They were initially unsuccessful, for their first attempts used technologies designed to secure sedentary birds in predictable spaces. Sitting in a blind watching a pigeon-baited net was frustrating because the peregrines on Assateague were unpredictably distributed across a vast area of relatively homogenous space. Instead, falconers actively searched for falcons along nearly 40 miles of beach from vehicles transported over by barge, their tyres let down for driving on sand. A trapping method was required that took cognizance of the free-floating relationship between falcons and place on Assateague. The trapper had to be as mobile as the falcon—traversing space, locating targets and then setting about securing them. Nye hit upon the ‘dig-in’ or ‘headset’ method on his second visit. On sighting a falcon, he buried himself in a shallow trench in the sand with only his head exposed, his half-buried hands holding a live pigeon as bait. A headset of loosely woven grass, or an up-ended crate, completed the disguise.

The results were immediate and astonishingly rewarding to the trapper. Nye’s account of the first peregrine he trapped using this method demonstrates both the emotional charge of the event and makes plain that the competitiveness of east-coast falconry culture was as highly-charged on Assateague as on the river cliffs of the Susquehanna. With one flutter of the pigeon, Nye wrote:

that peregrine took off and headed right straight in like a homesick angel and (snap) just like that. Came right straight to the pigeon. No dilly-dallying, no stooping, right straight to the pigeon. Here I was with very close to a heart-attack, looking through this grass. We had a peregrine, a wild peregrine sitting on my fist two feet away. And I want you to know in all sincerity my heart was pumping like I have never had it pumped before. […] I slipped my hand under until I felt the leg of the hawk. Boy, at that point, it’s a wonder I didn’t squeeze it in half. I held on so tight. But I grabbed that leg and then I reached with my fingers over and I got the other leg. Then I took the headset up and came up out of the sand. And…there I was with an immature falcon caught in less than ten minutes after I left Turner and his bow net down the beach. My god. Here I was with this beautiful thing, you know […] Then I made my first big mistake. What’s that? I turned around and went back down the beach and told Turner and his buddies about it. Oh Lord.

The ‘dig-in’ method was later mostly replaced by the ‘noose pigeon’, a pigeon wearing a leather ‘jacket’ covered with nooses attached to a long string that was tossed out toward falcons. The suspense, excitement and strategic planning of falcon trapping was addictive: ‘Trapping in itself became a very important and intricate part of my falconry activities’ recalls Brian McDonald, who trapped for a week every year on Assateague between 1945 and 1969. ‘I enjoyed the going to the beach and the trapping almost as much as I did having the birds and flying them at that particular time’ A code of tacit trapping ethics developed throughout the 1940s and 1950s concerned directly with the ownership of birds. S. Kent Carnie recalls:

if you’re driving along, and here’s a guy up in front of you, and he’s got a peregrine down on a pigeon, and he’s working it, the deal was that he would turn on the four-way flashers on the car, so that the lights were flashing, and the unspoken rule was you did not go anywhere near it. That was sacrosanct. That was his bird. You didn’t try and get that bird off of him; uh, I do know of […] some guy was down there who was not at all accepted by the group. And the guy had barged in and tried to trap somebody else’s bird and they, they simply roared in, bumped it off the pigeon and ran him off the beach, whatever […] So, there was, as I say, there was an ethical standard there; you didn’t mess with another guy’s bird…the birds were in the boathouse at the old coastguard’s station, or in the old hotel before it burned down, and they were commonly kept in sort of a big, common mews, and that was the guy’s bird and the bird was in there, that was his, and you know…mostly you didn’t mess with it.

Nye and three or four other falconers began trapping in earnest in 1939, when 22 falcons were secured . Despite the predictable secrecy surrounding the discovery of a source of falcons, the word spread among east coast falconers. Heinz Meng recalls how George Goodwin, falconer and curator of mammology at the New York Museum of Natural History kept ‘the island’ secret from him. In 1942-3, Steve Gatti and Brian McDonald, unofficial falconry apprentices of Nye, heard of ‘an island’ where falcons could be caught and asked Nye about it. He refused to discuss it. McDonald recalls ‘he even made phone calls to all the then DC falconry group telling them to avoid Steve and I because we were trying to find out about the island and he did not want us to go there and trap’. Nye’s anxieties were prescient: Assateague rapidly became the source of most peregrines flown in the eastern US.

From the 1940s onwards, Assateague became a yearly pilgrimage for six to eight groups of falconers, mostly from the Philadelphia area, some from the Washington DC area. They met on Assateague, driving cars or ex-military jeeps over the beaches and wash flats, some staying for a day or two or over a weekend, others, such as Jim Rice, Halter Cunningham and Brian McDonald, staying for a week or more. Throughout these years, numbers of beach birds showed no obvious decline, although numbers fluctuated greatly in relation to weather conditions during their migration. The sedentary rock birds, however, whose local prey-base was heavily contaminated by pesticides, began dying off in the 1940s—just as falconers turned their attention almost entirely to beach birds. Early trappers required no licenses, as peregrines were unprotected in Maryland and Virginia; later, falconry legislation allowed the taking of birds by registered falconry permit. Increasing property development on Assateague led to decreases in the areas on which falconers could trap, and in the late 1960s licenses to trap for falconry were revoked as a result of territorial conflicts with the National Park Service warden and the Chincoteague Wildlife Refuge manager over perceived over-trapping of an threatened species on what had become a National Seashore. By 1969, when the DDT-induced extinction of the inland race of the peregrine placed both beach (tundrius) and rock (anatum) subspecies on the Endangered Species List, trapping of peregrines for any reason other than scientific investigation was forbidden.

(With great thanks to Kent Carnie for his help and hospitality during my stint researching at the Archives of Falconry in Boise)


Moro Rogers said...

Gee. I go to Assateague* with my family for about a week every year and I don't think I've ever seen a peregrine there. Kind of sad.

(Well, we stay on Chincoteague and drive over to Assateague in the afternoon.)

Rachel Dickinson said...

Great piece, Helen. I'm going to post a link to it on my website:

I also loved your falcon book.


Rebecca K. O'Connor said...

Bless, you! I was just pondering some nostalgia for my blog, to try to convince the gun hunting guys to support the peregrine take that is now being presented in the regs. They are afterall a resource. We are afterall, human. Our admiration and devotion for the things in our hands far exceeds those we can never touch.

I would have gotten here eventually, but saw Rachel's post first.

You rule! And humble me as always. (and also make me want to write a little more and dig a little deeper) Keep fighting the good fight!

xx r

Steve Bodio said...

I heard the stories. And slightly AFTER the ban (68-9?) I saw two outlaw beach birds. To my innocent eyes they looked like desert falcons.

Moro-- they should still come through, but you have to watch the weather, storms in particular.

Moro Rogers said...

Cool, I'll keep my eyes peeled the next time. (Dunno if I'll get to go this summer. Hopefully I'll have a job.)

Kitty Carroll said...

At a local raptor group meeting, in the early 1980's I remember Alva Nye telling his story of how the beach birds were discovered. He gave me a captive bred peregrine in 1991. She was used in educational programs until her death in 2007. She was a real favorite.

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