Photography courtesy of Lowell Washburn, all rights reserved.
My kitchen calendar was offering the latest proof positive that time really does fly. Even with Leap Year’s added day, the 29th of February had suddenly arrived. Tempus fugit for sure!
I doubt that many will mourn the month’s passing. For a lot of folks, the end of February marks the end of winter — or at least hope for the end — and the sooner we get the season in our rear-view mirrors the better. No mystery really. You see, most of Iowa’s three million residents don’t like cold and don’t like snow. Some even claim to hate winter.
But before we get started too far down the tracks, I should probably admit that I’m one of those Iowans who not only enjoys – but actually LOVES – winter weather. It’s not really as unusual as you might think. Although they might not admit to it in public; I know of at least three others.
But regardless of our mutual climate preference, the season is changing, with or without our consent. Up here in Northcentral Iowa, the spectacular beauty of winter has disappeared. Formerly snow-covered crop fields are now open and muddy. And although the weather may still provide a short-term surprise or two, ‘Ole Man Winter is on the way out.
But although my snowshoes had become suddenly obsolete, all was not lost. In sharp contrast to the open fields, local woodlands still harbored a surprising amount of snow. But the remnant white stuff was on borrowed time. With extended temperatures predicted to soar into the 50s, there was no time to waste.
The choices were obvious. I could sit in a corner and lament winter’s demise, or I could pull on my boots and make the most of whatever was left. An eleventh hour, Leap Year Rabbit Hunt seemed a perfect remedy for shaking the Snow Melt Blues.
I knew without asking that my female goshawk, Mayhem, would be more than willing to join the hunt. Trapped as a migrating juvenile near Two Harbors, Minnesota, the big ‘gos is currently at the end of her fifth season. And if there is anyone who enjoys chasing and eating rabbits even more than I do, Mayhem would be that creature.
By the time we arrived at our favorite timber, conditions were already becoming less than ideal. The temp was well above freezing and the ever-shrinking snow cover was getting squishier by the minute. But although somewhat deceiving, the wooded landscape still carried the illusion of winter. I would have much preferred six inches of fresh powder but decided that wet snow was better than no snow.
One of the things I like most about goshawks is their unrivaled intensity. High strung and edgy, goshawks are the equivalent of feathered nitro glycerin. Volatile and reactionary; goshawks spend their entire lives on hair trigger. They rarely relax and they rarely lose focus. They love the chase and remain ever eager to launch an instantaneous attack on anything – furred or feathered – that may happen to cross their path. Goshawks are so completely focused on pursuit that I can’t help but wonder if they live to hunt rather than hunt to live. Reminds me of the Jurassic Park line where Sam Neill excitedly exclaims — “T-Rex doesn’t want to be fed. He wants to hunt!” As it turned out, today’s hunt would offer a classic example of the goshawk’s ability to put game in the bag.
The Hunt Begins: Stepping into the woods, I quickly removed Mayhem’s hood and leash. Launching from the glove, she took a high perch and immediately began scanning the landscape. For her, the hunt had already begun.
After a few minutes of trudging through the snow, I kicked out a nice cottontail. Reaching full throttle by its second or third leap, the rabbit rocketed down the valley toward the woodland’s thickest cover. Looking back over my shoulder I tried, but failed, to locate the hawk. Turning my attention back to the retreating rabbit, I knew from experience that Mayhem would soon appear. Sure enough, a couple of seconds later I spotted her coming in from the side, twisting and turning through the cover in a blistering exhibition of speed. Pulling in behind the cottontail, Mayhem attached both feet to the fleeing rabbit. The chase was over. From start to finish, I doubt the entire flight had lasted twenty seconds. Nevertheless, it was a memorable event — a genuine Leap Year cottontail. The chance of nabbing a rabbit on February 29th is something that only occurs once in every four years.
The cottontail was in prime condition and, in spite of the late date, was still carrying body fat. When introduced to a hot skillet, it made a fine meal. As I cleaned my plate, I decided that if this turns out to be the season’s last rabbit, it will be a great way to end the winter.