Speaking Owl

Artie looking very happy on Horst's glove

Artie looking very happy on Horst’s glove

Note:  my husband is once again the guest photographer for all photos of the Raptor Experience, including in yesterday’s post.

One of the great pleasures in life is sharing something you love with someone who enjoys the experience.  Think about it.  While on the one hand, we might respect that everyone has different tastes, there is something in human nature that causes us to gravitate towards people who appreciate the same things we appreciate.  And introducing someone to something that’s a personal favorite makes for a particularly enjoyable experience.  It’s like discovering a new food that makes you want to groan when you put it in your mouth and finding out that someone else has the exact same reaction–it’s something in common, creating a tiny bond.

Elvi speaks owl fluently

Elvi speaks owl fluently

I think that’s why I enjoy volunteering for Wings to Soar so much.  There aren’t many people who don’t enjoy getting up close to birds of prey.  There are a few.  I recently met someone who is terrified of birds–probably not a great idea to introduce her to the raptors.  But most people are pretty fascinated by getting to see a creature up close that they normally only get to see soaring overhead or perched high above.

Me assisting in the background in my Cayce-protecting boots

Me assisting in the background in my Cayce-protecting boots

It’s interesting how this interest crosses cultures and language.  I may not be bilingual, but I’m pretty sure the owls are.  They seem to recognize their admirers in any language.

Artie, the Barred Owl, hopped on Horst and Elvi’s gloves and immediately settled down and looked content.  he wasn’t the least concerned about what language they spoke–as far as he was concerned, they spoke owl.

Theo hopping over to Horst's glove

Theo hopping over to Horst’s glove

Theo, the Barn Owl, however, might have been a little too settled–he was content to ride over to Elvi and Horst when we were hoping he would fly.  He sat on the perch and stared, occasionally acting like he was going to fly, but then waited patiently for Dale to come over and put him on her glove.  Dale walked Theo closer to Elvi and Horst in turn, trying to get Theo to a distance from which he would fly.  Theo looked longingly at the tasty piece of mouse on the destination glove, but he wouldn’t fly to it.  When Dale put her glove next to Horst or Elvi’s glove, he happily hopped over to their glove and munched contentedly.  He seemed perfectly happy; he just didn’t feel like flying.

Theo happy to join Elvi

Theo happy to join Elvi

Theo is a human imprint–he was raised by humans and doesn’t really understand he’s an owl.  I sometimes wonder if his reluctance to fly is because he identifies so much with humans, he starts to think it’s unnecessary.  But, then there are days when Theo doesn’t seem to want to sit on a glove at all.  He baits and baits and can’t seem to stay still.  I don’t know if it was the calming influence of Horst and Elvi, but I think he would have sat all day.

The 3-gloved approach

The 3-gloved approach

Theo-logy

Theo sitting calmly while I walk and talk

Theo sitting calmly while I walk and talk

(All photos in today’s post by my husband, Patrick Murray.)

I have 3 parts in the Rock City Raptors program.  The first is with Screech Owls (see yesterday’s post).  My second is with Theo, a Barn Owl.  Theo doesn’t always want to sit on the glove.  He baits.  A lot.  When he baits, he spreads his wings and flaps.

Now, a Barn Owl looks small and innocent when you see him sitting quietly–head to tail they are about the same length as a crow.  But when he spreads his wings, which can be over 40” long, he suddenly becomes an enormous bird.

Part of my job is to keep him from hitting anyone when he baits. )Anyone, that is, other than me.  I’ve taken quite a few wing beats in the face of late.)

Theo and I facing the same way

Theo and I facing the same way

This can be rather tricky when you’re making sure you say all the right lines and stepping through a crowd with an owl on your glove.  To ease me into the part, at first I just did the talking while Dale walked through the audience with Theo.

This past Saturday was my debut at talking and walking with Theo.  He baited a few times, but I held him high enough that he couldn’t hit anyone.

The only real mishap was when I looked away for a second to find a place to step other than on the feet of an audience member.  When I turned back to Theo, it was just in time to see a something that looked suspiciously like a giant wad of wet owl poop falling directly toward the man seated below me.  I tried to do a check to make sure he didn’t get hit without missing any lines.  I’m not sure if I checked thoroughly enough, but I didn’t see any splatter–with owl poop, there will be splatter.

Theo in flight

Theo in flight

Since Theo is a finicky flier, we decided not to have me fly him this Saturday.  I handed him off to Dale so she could fly him with John.

We had done an educational program for a group of students earlier in the week and Theo had baited and baited and baited like he couldn’t wait to fly.  He smacked me in the face repeatedly as I tried to adjust my hand to get him in a position where he would settle down.

At once point, he got himself upside down and when I reached over with my bare hand to help him up, he accidentally grabbed my arm.  I was proud of myself for not panicking–I managed to extract his claws from my flesh with only a few minor scratches and the audience didn’t seem to notice.

Then, once it was time to fly, he suddenly sat back and relaxed on the glove like he would be content to sit there all day and nap.  So, it seemed like a good plan to hand Theo off to Dale to fly him.  He did fly for her at Rock City.  He flew like a champ.

Theo coming in for a landing on Dale's glove

Theo coming in for a landing on Dale’s glove

Eskimo Kisses

Theo shows off his impressive wing span

Theo shows off his impressive wing span

Each of the birds at Wings to Soar has a distinct personality.  Yet, all of them seem to have a special bond with Dale.  I don’t know exactly how to describe what a bond looks like when it comes to these mighty hunters, but there’s a level of trust and calm that the birds have with Dale.

Using his ridiculously long wings, Theo looks like he could glide forever

Using his ridiculously long wings, Theo looks like he could glide forever

I suspect the birds would be far more agitated being handled by me if Dale weren’t nearby.

Whatever the effect Dale has on the birds and vise versa, there are times when I’ve noticed her expressing what can only be described as a motherly affection for the birds.  For example, once during an educational program in an open field, a train came through blowing its whistle and scaring the bejesus out of Theo.  Theo was flying with a light line hooked to his jesses to prevent him from flying far, but he did take off and fly as far towards the trees as possible.

Theo with arced wings mid-flap

Theo with arced wings mid-flap

Dale had to go retrieve him from the middle of the field.  I swung the camera around and followed Dale for a bit.  When she retrieved Theo, the two of them bent their heads towards one another in some form of secret greeting.  It was like they were reconnecting after a fright.  Theo immediately appeared to relax.

Theo reaching for the glove

Theo reaching for the glove

On Saturday, when it was Theo’s turn to fly, that affection came through loud and clear.  Theo didn’t seem particularly motivated to fly.  After flying to me a couple of times, he wasn’t into modeling for my camera, probably because he had a full belly.

Theo making a mid-flight adjustment in response to Dale moving

Theo making a mid-flight adjustment in response to Dale moving

To coax him into flying, Dale stood close to his perch and then backed away so Theo would get a longer flight in.  This didn’t work so well the first attempt–Theo was obviously confused as to why Dale was running away and tried to land on her glove at her side.  The only thing to do when a raptor is trying to land on you is to give them the glove–you sure don’t want them to land anywhere else!

Theo gets lined up with the glove an come in for the approach

Theo gets lined up with the glove an come in for the approach

The second time Dale tried this approach, she started running away sooner and ran faster.  As she approached the distance Theo normally flies, she turned back towards Theo, but kept backing away.  Theo performed some impressive maneuvers in his attempts to avoid colliding with Dale as she changed speed and direction.  I wish I’d been set on video–I swear I saw Theo fly backwards at least twice.

Theo looks like he's all set for a landing, but Dale is still in motion

Theo looks like he’s all set for a landing, but Dale is still in motion

In the end, they did a graceful mid-air eskimo kiss just before Theo readjusted one more time to land on Dale’s glove.  The amount of effort Theo made to get to Dale’s glove spoke volumes about what this owl feels about his momma.  The smile (just visible through the feathers of Theo’s wings) on Dale’s face as she nearly collides beak-to-beak with a Barn Owl speaks volumes about Dale’s own feelings.

Theo and Dale rub noses before Theo manages to back up and land safely on the glove

Theo and Dale rub noses before Theo manages to back up and land safely on the glove

It’s hard not to smile when you see Dale working with these magnificent birds.

Back home, Tisen hung out with Twiggy, making themselves comfortable on the couch

Back home, Tisen hung out with Twiggy, making themselves comfortable on the couch

Owl Prowl

As my regular readers know, I love birds.  I can’t help it.  There’s something profoundly beautiful about birds.  I love watching them maneuver in the sky completely denying gravity.  I particularly admire birds of prey.

It only follows that I would end up volunteering for the Chattanooga Audubon Society.  And, when they scheduled an owl prowl, that I would sign Pat and me up.  (Unfortunately, Tisen is not welcome on the Audubon property–it’s a wildlife preserve and domestic animals and wildlife don’t mix well.)

Pat and I arrived just before 8PM, in time to deliver a load of bird seed I’d picked up for the feeders at the visitors’ center.  Then, Kyle, the property manager, gave a presentation on owls including their “songs” to remind us what we were looking for.

Kyle had been hearing Barred Owls on the property even in the middle of the afternoon; we were confident we would at least hear one.

Kyle had also recruited an owl expert to lead the walk who was extremely good at calling the owls.  Barred Owls are known for flying in to see who’s imitating them when called.  I once went birding with a group of experts in Columbus.  We started at 5:00AM.  The leader called twice and had 4 Barred Owls show up within minutes.  It was very cool.  I think the owls were just as amused by us.

However, here, the Barred Owls must have been up too much during the day–they had no interest in checking us out although our leader called and called.  Even in the area where they were most frequently seen, they remained silent.  He also tried Screech Owls, but we were not rewarded.  As our expert pointed out, it’s best to call Screech Owls first–they won’t go near Barred Owls (because Barred Owls will eat the much smaller Screech Owl).

While a Barn Owl might also find Audubon Acres a suitable place to live (especially if it could find a way into one of the many buildings), none had been spotted on the property, so we really didn’t expect to find any of those.

While the owls were not cooperative, we had started off the walk with an Indigo Bunting catching a late-night snack at the feeder.  We also saw many spiders and bats.  At one point, we were sure there was a silent owl in a tree, but it turned out to be a young opossum.  It blinked in our bright flashlights and gradually decided to move.  We watched it with fascination as it slowly made its way down the tree trunk.  Every part of it was help perfectly straight, including its tail, as is calmly made it’s way head down the side of the tree.

At the end of the walk, the moon was shining and we stood outside chatting.  While we talked, we heard a Barred Owl calling, “Who cooks for you all?”  Or maybe it was saying, “Who are the fo-ols?”

Training for the Birds

Over the weekend, I had my first lesson in bird handling.  While we previously met these birds of prey during a “Raptor Experience” a couple months ago, I am now learning how to handle them so I can assist during educational programs.

The first thing I learned was how to grab a handful of chopped mice and shove it into a training pouch.  This is one of those things that really makes you want to go “Ewww!” Especially when you get chunks with tails and faces attached.

First task accomplished, I now get to watch how to properly enter an enclosure.  First and foremost, there is a sort of foyer area enclosed in chicken wire that you must enter and close behind you before opening the door to the birds quarters.  Second, you don’t actually walk in with the bird in there.  Rather, you put a nice fresh chunk of mouse on your glove, stand behind the door, and hold your arm out for the bird to land on.  This way, you don’t have to worry about being “footed” in the face.  The bird lands nicely on the glove and starts eating, giving you time to secure its jesses.

The jesses are the equivalent of a collar for a dog.  They are leather thong things that go around each leg of the bird and hang down a couple inches, allowing a leash to be hooked to them that can then be secured to the glove.  They allow the handler to keep the bird from flying off, essentially.  I am warned that securing the jesses can be a vulnerable time and that Cody, the Red-tailed hawk, is known for footing people if they get their hand too close to the glove while securing the jesses.

I also learn that “footing” means talons seizing flesh.  Not a fun thing to experience, but something that happens to varying degrees of seriousness ranging from scratches to talons driven through cheeks.  None of which really sounds like something I want to try.

We fly Theo, a Barn Owl, and Kayse the Black Vulture in addition to Cody .  I practice holding my arm out to make an appropriate target, as well as securing the jesses when a bird lands on my glove.  It looks simple, but I am befuddled by how to wrap the jesses between my fingers without getting the bird’s foot caught.  Fortunately, they are patient with me.

Since I don’t have pictures of the birds, I decided to do some more night sky shooting tonight for my morning post.  I’m feeling a bit lazy after yoga class and just shoot from the balcony.  I kind of like the roof of the balcony I caught in the frame in the wide angle shots.  I also switch lenses and grab a few shots at 560mm.  I did a little more experimenting with HDR and was disappointed I couldn’t get a properly exposed moon into the shot.  I guess I will have to try again.

Going to the Birds

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.