After spending the morning hang gliding, we change into dry clothes and head off to spend our afternoon with some of the best pilots ever born. They are a group of slightly crazy and/or disabled raptors. Raptors as in the family of birds that includes hawks, owls, eagles, and vultures–in other words, birds of prey.
I have been looking forward to this for weeks. We originally saw a poster for a Raptor Experience at the hang gliding office a month ago. The Raptor Experience is offered by a non-profit organization called SOAR (Save Our American Raptors). They care for non-releasable raptors and train them so they can be used for educational programs to teach people about birds of prey. They also have a Peregrine Falcon release project and are tracking a falcon who is currently vacationing in South America.
As a bird lover and one who is particularly fascinated by birds of prey, I am excited about this beyond belief. I’m hoping we will get to actually handle the birds, but in my excitement, I can’t remember if the person I talked to said we do or not. Even more exciting, I’ve been wanting to volunteer for a raptor rescue program for years, and now this looks like it might be an opportunity.
We arrive at the designated meeting spot a little early. My nerves kick in about meeting people a bit, but since we just talked with Dale, the wife of the husband and wife team who run the organization, I’m not too nervous. John, the other half of the team, arrives only a couple minutes after we do. He’s driving a jeep with a hang glider on the roof, so it’s not too hard to guess it’s him. Dale told me on the phone that she and John are both hang gliding pilots and I enjoyed watching a video of John taking a one-winged bald eagle hang gliding on their web site.
John offers to drive us up to their property where the birds live, explaining that the road is pretty rough. Pat, being a man, decides that he can drive the mini-van up it and save John the trip back down later. As we make our way down the dirt road with large holes, ridges, dips, and rocks, the car drags enough time to make me wish we’d just ridden with John. We make it without losing any parts of the van, although Pat comments that it’s a good thing that I’d already knocked off the front lip spoiler (whatever that is) dragging the front bumper over a parking block.
When we arrive, Dale comes out to greets us, although one of their rescued dogs beats her to the punch, and invites us into the house where she offers us freshly baked, homemade cookies and gives us a run down of what we’re going to experience and why these birds are here. We learn that, yes, we will get to handle the birds. (Yay!) We also learn that none of the birds here at SOAR are able to return to the wild either because of injuries or mental problems. Interestingly, “mental problems” are defined mostly as birds who were raised by humans and, because they imprinted on the humans, don’t know how to do what they were born to do.
After the orientation, we head outside and are equipped with leather gloves. We are going to start with Eastern Screech Owls. Small, docile, and probably sleepy, they sit quietly on our gloves and even enjoy being petted on the back of the head. John tells us that owls understand touch as affection, but other birds we will handle do not and warns us not to attempt to pet the hawks.
I am so amazed by these tiny little owls. They weigh nothing. John points out that we can see the ruffled edges of their feathers, the secret to the silent flight of owls. And, even more amazing, John shows us their ears. They actually have little human-like ears under those feathers! The ears are offset, apparently to help locate where sounds are coming from in the dark.
I could have been happy just sitting there with these little owls all day, but Dale puts them away so John can bring us a Barred Owl–since Barred Owls will eat Screech Owls, everyone is happier when they’re not together.
We used to live in a wooded ravine where Barred Owls also lived. They are enormous. Or, at least they look enormous. In contrast to their size, hollow bones and feathers make birds weigh far less than other types of animals of the same volume. I’ve read this before, but having never held a bird, the reality of the gap between how much this bird looks like it should weigh and how much it actually weighs surprises me when Dale puts this great big owl on my glove. This owl weighs less than 2 pounds.
Next, John returns with a Barn Owl. We don’t get to hold this owl who is about halfway between the size of the Screech and Barred Owls. At least not right way. He doesn’t like to sit on the glove–he wants to fly. And that is exactly what he gets to do.
John stands at one spot behind the house and we go to the other. Dale accompanies us with a pouch full of small mouse parts. I ask her who gets to chop mice–she makes a face when she admits it’s her. Clearly, it’s not her favorite part of the job.
I hold out my gloved arm and Dale places a small piece of mouse on my fist. John releases the owl and he flies to me, swooping low to the ground and then flaring upward so that he lands feet forward on the glove. Having just come from hang gliding, we are fascinated watching how the owl instinctively uses ground effect (the rising air close to the ground) to get lift in time to flare, which is what Pat is now learning to do, so he can land on his feet.
It’s an amazing experience to stand there waiting for a bird of prey land on your fist. As he glides towards me, the owl’s tiny body is dwarfed by his enormous wingspan. The sunlight shines through the feathers on his wings, making him look as angelic as a bird of prey can. I wonder if he minds performing in the early afternoon when he should be sleeping. He looks pretty darn happy when he picks up a mouse chunk and swallows it down.
Next, we get to fly Cody, a Red-tail Hawk who refuses to hunt. Cody glides even closer to the ground, skimming just inches above the surface, and then swoops up in a sharp arc just before reaching me. I notice he flares with his feathers as well as his wings. Every feather spreads, his tail dramatically opening like a fan. Just as with the owl, this flare brings him nearly to a halt so that when he lands on my arm, there is no impact. It’s like he parachuted down gently.
After flying Cody, we get to meet Franklin, an American Kestrel, and a Harris’s Hawk whose name escapes me. I’ve never seen a Harris’s Hawk before. He is beautiful–rich browns blend into black, which contrasts with the white in his tail.
Next, we get to meet Casey, the Black Vulture. Casey seems to think she is a dog. She circles around Dale, who tickles Casey on the back and Casey responds with what appears to be a happy Vulture sound, but comes out a lot like a hiss. Casey gallops along on the ground, preferring to walk even though she is perfectly capable of flying. Dale tells us that she sometimes walks Casey in the woods–she really does think she’s a dog!
We attempt to fly Casey, but Casey is in the mood to run instead. She flies up to our gloves to collect treats, but then hops back to the ground to run the distance between us instead of flying. Cameraless today, I switch my iPhone into video mode and try to capture her running on video–there is just something too funny about watching a vulture run.
I appreciate the work that vultures do, having once had a pond where hundreds of fish died all at once, it was an amazing thing to have a few dozen vultures show up and clean up the mess in about 3 days. However, I never thought the words “cute” and “vulture” went together. Today, I change my mind. Casey is adorable. Dale tells us that Casey is used to being the star of the show; I am not surprised.
We finish off our Raptor Experience with a Bald Eagle. I can’t recall this eagle’s name, but it is a Navajo word that means, “The Littlest Eagle.” It’s a good name. This poor guy lost a wing due to a shooting. I’m not sure if the missing wing contributes to how small he looks, but he definitely is small for an eagle. I am sad to learn this eagle has not been hang gliding yet because it means that there are two one-winged eagles living out their lives in captivity.
It’s an appropriate finale to the day, though. After all, it’s hard to beat a Bald Eagle for majesty. We go inside to wash our hands and talk for a while before wrapping up and heading home. Dale talks us into one of her cookies before we go–a peanut butter blossom with a soft hershey’s kiss in the middle, yum! We get in the car and I feel like I should pinch myself–it’s hard for me to believe that I just spent the afternoon playing with raptors. Instead, as Pat creeps back over the bumpy dirt road, I look at the pictures Dale took for us on my iPhone and smile.