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Ambush Of The Sky Predators

by Bill Bennett

The early December morning dawn is cold as a weak light struggles across the eastern horizon. You quietly drink a third cup of coffee as the cobwebs of sleep fade from your eyes.

The air is cold, still and wet from last nights downpour. The sun’s weak rays struggle to dissolve the thick blanket of fog that has settled across the Delta. You are anxious to load the dogs and get out of doors. Your patience grows thin as the minutes drag slowly by like a heavy steel weight.

But experience has taught you not to venture out in dense foggy conditions. The heavy mist creates a world fraught with perils for anyone who ignores mother nature’s temperamental moods. The fog muffles and distorts sounds making it difficult to hear the dogs. Visibility is limited to a few yards at best. To chance a shot under such conditions is parallel to insanity as the background is blotted out.

Your lovely wife wanders into the dining room. You pour her a cup of coffee as she manages a mumbled ‘Good Morning’. She tries to shrug the sleep from her eyes. She asks why you have not left for the field as she peers at the alarm clock, showing the morning is rapidly slipping away.

You point out the dining room window. The heavy fog has swallowed the house across the street; a mere seventy-five yards away. She blinks her eyes and flashes a sympathetic glance at you. She sees the disappointment etched across your face. She knows you were up early and prepared to take Sam and Bell for a long run. You tell her you are trying to be patient and hope to salvage part of the day when the weather conditions improve.

By ten o’clock a bright sun has opened a window through the mist-covered world. The dogs whine softly in the carrier box as you shut off the truck motor next to a field gate at the Mason Farm. The two hundred acre tract is located ten miles east of town and three miles south of state highway.

The farm is typical Eastern Arkansas Delta terrain; complete with a rising, high banked Army Corps of Engineers drainage ditch, which splits the property in half. The monstrous ditch runs in a north and south direction. It is covered with a sprawling growth of briar patches, honeysuckle vines, stands of green cane, frost deadened crab grass, yellowed Johnson grass, and dark brown dock weeds.

Across the wide ditch on the east side is a forty-acre woodlot. Numerous bare branched hardwoods guard both sides of the ditch with white oak, sycamore, water tupelo, cottonwood, ash and the ever-present willow, which thrive on the moisture of the slow moving water. A few lonely red cedars offer a splash of green color that clashes with the drab brown terrain.

Near the south end of the property are two towering white oak trees. Their tangled branches seem out of place as they stretch toward the clear blue sky, dwarfing their smaller hardwood cousins. Seventy-five yards apart, they proudly state to the Delta that survival belongs to the strong and persistent.

On the north side of the narrow drive, lies a dormant abandoned garden spot. A few faded green beet tops identify its’ location. Scatterings of weed covered watermelon vines hug the ground. Dark brown from winters harsh ravages, they seem to seek warmth from the cold wet soil as they snake their way through an over growth of frost killed panic grass.

On the south side, a one hundred acre cut soybean field hugs the huge ditch like a sleeping, oversized child, clinging to its’ substitute mother. The winter dormant field is split in half by a smaller drainage ditch. The shallow depression is clearly marked with scrub oak, hickory, persimmon, sumac, and miniature willow sprouts. Sprinkled along its two hundred yard journey across the brown stubble are bare branched thorn bushes, sassafras, redbud, and willow oak saplings. The two-foot depth and four foot width is dressed with dark brown cocklebur stalks, crabgrass, dock weeds, and green honeysuckle vines.

The bright sunlight sparkles off the cold wet vegetation with a multitude of tiny reflections. No wind stirs as you survey a dilapidated fencerow. It has long ago surrendered to an overgrowth of thorny blackberry bushes; saw briars, honeysuckle, and muscadine vines. The once proud protector of the garden, it now staggers under years of neglect like an old man shouldering a burden much too heavy, for its rusted frame of barbed and mesh wire. A few cedar fence posts stubbornly stand erect as a testament of endurance against the ravages of time and harsh weather.

As you open the truck door, a pair of resident morning doves feed among the garden weeds, reacts to the unnatural movement and burst into the crystal clear air. The whistling of their wings breaks the morning hush as they soar skyward and disappear in the bright sunlight. As you step onto the wet sandy ground, the dogs whine anxiously from the canvas covered carrier box. You talk to them in a soft reassuring tone of voice that all is well.

You ritually stretch your leg muscles as a hedge against cramps and pull on your heavy, warm coveralls and boots. The worn game vest slides on easily. Heavy with the weight of number 6, twelve gauge shotgun shells; it feels good against your shoulders and back. Decked in a blaze orange vest and possibles bag, you uncase the shotgun from behind the seat of the truck. Wagging dog tails drum against the fiberglass sides of the carrier as the dogs show their excitement. Moments later they pile out onto the ground from the lowered tail gate.

Both dogs excitedly search the ground for a fresh rabbit scentline. They thrash through the high-stemmed Johnson grass and tangles covering the dilapidated fencerow. In seconds, they are soaking wet from the moisture-laden vegetation. You watch them closely and at the same time glance ahead along the fence line, alert for a cottontail to break from the heavy cover.

The morning quiet is broken by the calls of a pair of red-tailed hawks floating effortlessly, high overhead. The white underneath of their wings and breast feathers, wink back at you as they glide gracefully on high, invisible morning thermo winds. The early morning fog must have delayed their hunt much like yours. You sense a primitive kinship with these graceful sky predators, each fulfilling a role neither you nor they really understands completely. They struggle to survive on a diet of rodents and small game. Yourself answering a primeval call to hunt. To see. To search. To seek to understand the ageless call to the out of doors.

Suddenly there is a rush of feathers against the cold still morning air. The suddenness startles you as a covey of then bobwhite quail explode from the thick cover of the fencerow. Like miniature rockets, they sail eastward into the sun toward the safety of the high ditch bank. You take a deep breath of air and force your rising adrenalin and fast beating heart back to their normal levels. Bell and Sam momentarily watch the darting feathered rockets with pricked ears and statue like stillness. Just as quickly, they return to the business of searching for a fresh rabbit scentline.

Sixty yards ahead, there is the remnant of a fallen pin oak tree. Nearly invisible from a thick covering of honeysuckle vines and saw briars, it is marked by its’ broken, rotting, three foot high stump. Bell submarines her way underneath the thick tangles as Sam methodically investigates the outer edges checking each escape hole. Both dogs are working close to you and are in plain sight when Bell produces a weak whimper. She quickly tunnels underneath the honeysuckle. It is obvious the rabbits have kept their movements to a minimum… most likely due to the heavy fog of the early morning hours.

Bell keeps at the task of exploring the thick stuff as you watch. The only evidence of her presence is the quivering of the tops of the vegetation. Sam is ten yards away exploring the tell tale routes leading towards a stand of tall Johnson grass. Thirty yards ahead, small jerking movements wiggle the tops of some brown overgrown Bermuda grass. “That must be a rabbit!” you tell yourself. Yet neither dog has opened. You watch the movements with such intensity, your eyes begin to water and blur from the strain.

In the blink of an eye, the cottontail bursts from a clump of yellow sage grass. He quickly darts into the soybean stubble and streaks for the safety of the cover of the high ditch bank. Bell’s high chopped mouth breaks the morning hush with the effect of an over energized fire alarm. Sam responds to her with a howl and running jump between the barbed and mesh wires of the fence to join the action. Both dogs howl at the top of their lungs as they thread their way though the thick tangles. You catch a glimpse of the bobbing white cottontail as it disappears into a stand of green cane at the top of the ditch.

The dogs break from the tangles into the stiff brown soybean stubble and race eastward, squarely on the scentline. The chorus of Bell’s high pitched chopped mouth and Sam’s thunderous baritone bawl send a shiver stabbing at your heart strings. As you watch and listen that familiar thrill of excitement races through your bloodstream.

You walk slowly in the direction of the huge ditch, listening to the sounds of the race. The clamoring of the dogs is slightly muffled as they head down the steep embankment. You wonder which direction the rabbit will go as your feet feel the squish of mud underneath the insulation of your waterproofed boots. He might cross to the far eastside using a beaver dam for a bridge, or turn either left or right, zigzagging up and down the vertical sides of the ditch. There are numerous hiding spots among the thick undergrowth including clusters of one-inch thick saplings of ironwood, sassafras, and water locust sprouts.

Suddenly there is a hush over the cold still air as the dogs temporarily lose the scentline and begin their check. A mockingbird scolds from a nearby elm tree, expressing his disapproval for the disturbance of dogs and man. As you patiently wait for the dogs to open again, you watch a small gray field mouse scurrying across a bare spot on the ground toward a hidden nest somewhere in the weedy cover on your left. One hundred yards to the south you watch the airborne ballet of the two red-tail hawks, gliding across the clear blue sky. Their wings are nearly motionless as they sail effortlessly in their hunt for survival.

An eternity later, Sam’s thunderous bawl bounces off the sides of the large ditch bank announcing to the world he has found the scentline. Within seconds, Bell honors his efforts by tonguing at the top of her lungs and joins the chase.

They head south along the gigantic ditch, following the scent in interplay of prey and predator. The noise of their excitement can be heard echoing on the cold still morning air.

You take a post at the edge of the bank and survey the area to the south. Anticipation grips your mind and body as you convince yourself the cottontail will break into the soybean stubble. Focusing on the area near the small drainage ditch, you try to out guess the quarry’s next move. More often than not, you will lose the guessing game but the safety of the shallow finger ditch might provide a temporary hiding spot from the pursuing hounds.

Seventy-five yards beyond the small ditch line; movement in one of the old tangled white oak trees catches your eye. A closer look reveals one of the red-tailed hawks has taken a post by perching on an out-stretched snag of a branch. Its’ mate is nowhere in sight but a sixth sense tells you it must be nearby.

The rabbit bursts from the cover at the top of the ditch with lightening speed, thirty yards short of the shallow ditch. You shoulder the twelve gauge shotgun but before you can find the elusive target in the sight picture, it dives into the safety of some tall weeds lining the small depression.

Meanwhile the dogs turn up the volume as they crash from the underbrush and head for the quarry’s hideaway. The fresh scent fills their noses as they run headlong through the brown drab stubble, tails wagging furiously, tongues flying and loud howls demonstrating their excitement for the chase.

The cottontail explodes from a cluster of dark brown cocklebur stalks on the opposite side of the small ditch. As he streaks in the direction of the tall tangled oak tree, he slips into the relative safety of the thick vegetation of the bank and disappears. The red-tailed hawk lifts itself skyward with a seemingly effortless motion.

The dogs race along the hot scentline, giving full cry to an ageless drama of predator, pursuit, and prey. They follow the scentline to the spot where the rabbit turned left into the thick cover. In her haste, Bell overruns the line and charges ten yards beyond the scent. Sam sure nosed and a step slower than his bracemate, quickly casts to the left and bellows loudly that he has found the rabbit’s escape route. Bell answers in her high chopped bark as both dogs charge up the embankment and quickly disappears in the dense cover.

As the chase heads down the wall of the bank, a ghostly shadow floats across the drab brown soybean stubble. You glance skyward shading your eyes from the bright sun. You watch the red-tailed hawk quickly overtake the howling hounds and track the rabbit’s movements through the heavy cover. A flicker of slow movement fifty yards away on the edge of the bank near the field briefly reveals the cottontail’s location.

Another slight movement in the vicinity of the second tall tangled white oak catches your attention. A closer inspection reveals the dull brown color of the companion hawk. Perched on a bare limb, his attention is riveted on the slow jerking movements of the cottontail as it slips along some uncut soybean stalks beside the field.

Meanwhile, the hounds continue to howl and bay at the top of their lungs along the fresh scentline. The sky borne red-tailed hawk floats silently above the rabbits tell tale motions and hovers motionless, fifteen feet above the ground.

In the twinkling of an eye, the rabbit charges from the cover and heads south toward the waiting companion hawk perched in his overhead lookout. Briefly exposed from the safety of the uncut soybean stalks, the rabbit is spotted by the airborne predator who cups it’s wings and dives toward its target. Seemingly sensing danger from above, the rabbit kicks it’s speed into high gear and unknowingly speeds toward the entrapment of the awaiting hawk.

Before the rabbit can change it’s course, the perched hawk lifts itself ten feet into the air and with lightening speed, dives on the blurred, brown and white target. The cottontail shrieks with terror as the hawk’s long, sharp talons pierce flesh and bone. As you watch and listen you can hear the cottontail’s death cry above the noise of the howling dogs fifty yards behind. The hawk lifts it’s prey from the ground with strong, silent wings and joined by its companion, sails across the huge water filled ditch to the safety of the adjoining woodlot.

In a few short minutes the dogs reach the spot of the remarkable encounter. They whine in a state of confusion as they smell the remnant scent of blood, fur, and feather hanging on the crisp clear air. You talk to them in a soothing tone of voice, assuring them all is well. Bell looks up at you with a questioning look in her eyes as if to ask, “Where did he go, Boss?” Sam undauntedly, ambles a few feet away to find a fresh scentline.

You call the dogs away from the spot and twenty feet away you command them to ‘check’ a briar thicket. Two minutes later another chase is underway. The rabbit heads through the dense wet cover, looping to the bottom of the ditch and up the steep sides. He breaks from a patch of honeysuckle and into the open stubble field. The dogs are howling thirty feet behind, the hot scent filling their noses. There are no checks this time.

You shoulder the twelve-gauge pump and find the bobbing target twenty five yards away, running full blast from left to right. The blast of gunfire echoes through the morning stillness as the rabbit tumbles in a heap and lies motionless.

You wait patiently as the dogs follow the fresh scent to the downed rabbit. Sam picks up the prize in his mouth. He swaggers towards you, head held high, tail straight in the air and drops the rabbit at your feet. You praise him for his retrieve and pat both dogs affectionately for their fine work. They respond with tails wagging and low whines as you slip leashes around their necks.

Heading slowly in the direction of the truck you approach the spot of the incredible encounter. You cannot resist the urge to survey the spot a final time. A quick scanning reveals a tuft of white fur, a small grayish feather, and a tiny splotch of blood. You are amazed that so little evidence remains. Mother nature proves herself efficient in death as well as birth.

Reaching the truck, you load the dogs, store your gear, case your shotgun and clean the game. You glance back to spot of the encounter once again. The scene is serene and quiet as though nothing has happened. The bright sun rays shower the ditch bank with a false warmth as a cold north breeze sets the bare branches of a hickory tree swaying. The event clings to your mind like moss to the bark of an old, oak tree. You wonder how many people have witnessed such an event. You give a silent thanks to the Creator for allowing you the opportunity to be a part of this cycle of life and death. You acknowledge it would have been impossible to witness such an awesome sight without your Beagles. You file the event away in your memory as part of the adventures of Beagling.

Should you have a concern regarding the health of your Beagle(s), you should contact your veterinarian. All information on this site is presented solely for educational and informational purposes and should not, at any time, be considered a substitute for seeking or receiving veterinary care for your Beagle(s).