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

Baby, You’re Not Quite a Star

Me making my way carefully through the crowd with Buddy and Jerry

Me making my way carefully through the crowd with Buddy and Jerry

Today’s photos are by my husband, Patrick Murray, shooting with the Canon Rebel T4i.

As mentioned in an earlier post, I’ve been in training on Saturday mornings.  I am learning how to be the assistant in the Rock City Raptor’s program so I can cover for a vacation.

The problem, of course, is that I cannot both perform in the program and take photos.  I was quite happy that my husband made some time to come up and watch a program and take some pictures.

John with Gilbert, the American Kestrel

John with Gilbert, the American Kestrel

It’s amazing how quickly things get confusing back stage–a DVD player failed a couple weeks ago and was replaced by a smaller one.  There are 2 DVD players and the one that failed was on the bottom.  The new, smaller one is now on top.  All of my notes refer to top and bottom.  This means having to do a mental flip-flop when I try to remember which machine I need to do something with.  It’s irritating how this small change can put my brain into what computer geeks call “thrashing.”

But, after many Saturdays, some things are starting to come together.  I am now, for example, able to walk around with both Buddy and Jerry on my glove and get through the Screech Owl script without forgetting much of it.  I’ve now managed to walk through the audience, stepping over people sitting on the steps, and stepping up on what can be slippery rocks without hurting myself.

John with Artie, the Barred Owl

John with Artie, the Barred Owl

Although, I did fall before the show because I was carrying Cody (the red-tailed hawk) next to a wall and was following instructions to keep my body between Cody and any objects that he might hit should he decide to bait (fly up from the glove), which he does frequently.  In my determination to protect Cody, I forgot that I was about to go up stairs and fell up the stairs.  Cody, ironically, stayed calmly on my glove through the whole thing.

I have a few days worth of Pat’s photos (I did quite a bit of post-processing), so here are just a few from the first few birds in the program.  The last image is a post-show image.  At the end of the program, I take Buddy (one of the screech owls) out and let people touch him.

This is probably my favorite part.  Since I don’t have to walk through the crowd, make sure the microphone is picking up my voice, or worry about saying the right things at the right time (so I cue someone else to do their part), I can really enjoy the looks on people’s faces when they touch an owl for the first time.

I also get to hear their stories and answer their questions in a more one-on-one kind of basis.  What’s really cool is hearing people comment about how much they enjoyed the program and, especially, the new things they learned.

Buddy wowing the crowd one last time

Buddy wowing the crowd one last time


Jerry, an Eastern Screech Owl, Hipstamatized

Jerry, an Eastern Screech Owl, Hipstamatized

After spending a good hour or so entertaining a small crowd at the Little Owl Festival, the crowd began to thin out.  A handful or so hung around, petting Jerry the Screech Owl and asking the questions that didn’t get answered during the program.  A few stragglers wandered over in time to get a chance to see the birds.

In this moment of relative quiet, Paul with Artie, I with Gilbert, and Megan with Jerry lined up for a photo op.  We lined up in this order because Artie has a way of making Jerry nervous–in the wild, Jerry would be prey for Artie.

Gilbert suddenly started a shrill alarm call, looking around frantically.  One of the remaining fans spotted a Coopers Hawk in the woods.  It took several minutes of pointing and moving about for the half dozen or so humans hanging about to spot the hawk.  Gilbert had spotted his mortal enemy without so much as turning his head.  I remain bewildered as to how he noticed the hawk slip into the woods 500 yards away.

At the same time, Gilbert doesn’t have the same reaction to a Barred Owl sitting 3 feet away.  With me and Gilbert between Jerry, a tiny Screech Owl, and Artie, all would have been quiet were it not for the Coopers Hawk in the woods.

Lining up so Jerry can't see Artie

Lining up so Jerry can’t see Artie

Pat managed to get a series of shots in any case.  In the meantime, the last remnants of the crowd faded off to the next act, leaving us to pack up the birds and call it a day.  Pat and Dale had a face-off with the cameras before we went our separate ways.

Dale wins in the camera battle with her polka-dotted case

Dale wins in the camera battle with her polka-dotted case

I walked across the field back to our car feeling high.  I stopped to visit with the Audubon folks at the tent selling tickets and couldn’t stop smiling about how much fun it had been to share the birds with the audience.  I think they might have been jealous.

We loaded into the mini-van and headed down the road talking about where we should have lunch.  As we rounded a curve through the wooded neighborhood that surrounds Audubon Acres, we spotted a huge flock of wild turkeys, with what appeared to be a dozen toms strutting about displaying their plumage, competing for the attention of the hens.

I, of course, called to Pat to stop the van as I grabbed the camera, hopped out of the car, and tried my best to get a shot without scaring them off.  Wild turkeys are not very cooperative, I’ve found.  They look perfectly content to hang out in the open like they own the world and there are no predators they have to worry about until the moment someone shows up with a camera.  Then they seem to rapidly disappear.

My 24-70mm lens was no match for the distance the turkeys were able to cover in the time it took me to get lined up.  But, we enjoyed their show none-the-less.

Wild turkey toms doing their best to attract a mate

Wild turkey toms doing their best to attract a mate


Family Act

Posing for Granma's Camera

Posing for Granma’s Camera

Sometimes I think I’m a bit odd.  Maybe just slightly kooky, a little nerdy, maybe even a bit eccentric.  Then, every once in a while, I discover how truly normal I am.  It’s almost disappointing, really.

For example, I thought maybe getting so excited about spending time with the wonderful birds of SOAR that it evoked childhood memories of the night before Christmas might be unusual.

Paul introduces Artie to one of the younger audience members

Paul introduces Artie to one of the younger audience members

But what I’ve learned is that it’s not unusual at all to grin ear-to-ear when encountering wildlife up close.  In fact, I believe every person I’ve seen attend any birds of prey program has responded with a similar grin.  It really comes as no surprise that my brother and sister-in-law, joining us for the weekend, also exhibited the same jaw-cramping grin while helping out with an intimate show at the Little Owl Festival here in Chattanooga this weekend.

Megan holds Jerry up for all to see

Megan holds Jerry up for all to see

The rain started early, turning into a light drizzle by the time we arrived at Audubon Acres for the festival.  The organizers were fairly certain it was going to be dry for the duration of the festival.  We were a bit nervous.  But, we chose a back corner of the meadow, as far from the train tracks as possible, and started setting up.

We waited to start the program until after the civil war re-enactor had fired his musket a few times.  Thankfully, one of the event planners thought to warn us so we left the birds in their carriers until after the smoke from the gun shots had cleared.

This birthday girl got quite a treat petting Jerry

This birthday girl got quite a treat petting Jerry

Once things had settled down, the small crowd that had braved the early weather headed our way and we got ready to start the show.  We had a small enough group to have them in a circle around us, which allowed everyone to get a front-row view of each bird, with time to pause for photos.

Megan was walking with Jerry, a Screech Owl, who was the only bird there that could be touched.  Megan got the added pleasure of seeing children’s faces as they touch an owl for the first time in their lives.  It’s a look that makes me smile so hard, my TMJ issues kick in and cause stabbing pain in my face.  It’s worth it.

Seeing my brother with Artie makes me smile, too.  I asked him what was going on in this image:

Paul trying to read Artie's mind

Paul trying to read Artie’s mind

He said, “He was looking at me.”  The angle makes it a little hard to tell, but my brother is still grinning ear-to-ear.  I kind of get the feeling that if Artie could grin, he would be, too.

By the way, I should mention that today’s photos are all by my favorite guest photographer, my husband.  I put my camera on Automatic and handed it to him.  Although I had to crop quite a bit because I should have put a longer lens on the camera, he did a fabulous job in a difficult shooting situation.

Paul squats to let the shortest audience members get a good look at Artie

Paul squats to let the shortest audience members get a good look at Artie

Raptor Experience

Artie always impresses his new friends

Artie always impresses his new friends

It’s been a while since I’ve posted about S.O.A.R.–Save Our American Raptors.  This is a fantastic, and very tiny, organization that cares for about a dozen or so unreleaseable birds of prey, making a life-long commitment to care for birds that may outlive the current organizers.

These birds stay fit and happy by participating in educational programs that help spread awareness of the importance of predators to our ecosystem and provide an up-close, one-of-a-kind experience for the human participants.

Unfortunately, not all of the birds can fly.  Some have eye injuries and wing injuries that make flight impossible for them.  The ones that can fly usually are human-imprints that cannot or will not return to the wild because they perceive humans as their parents.  Cayce, the black vulture, as a case-in-point, has been released to the wild three times only to return to her human parents.

Not a great shot, but Cayce is usually the star of the show, playing with the visitors and flying for them

Not a great shot, but Cayce is usually the star of the show, playing with the visitors and flying for them

S.O.A.R. offers an opportunity to have an intimate experience with their birds called “The Raptor Experience.”  This is actually how I first met Dale and John, the birds caretakers and directors in the organization.  About a year ago, I saw their poster at the Lookout Mountain Flight Park when we were taking hang gliding lessons.  Pat and I called and scheduled our experience and were amazed by the whole thing.

This participant enjoys meeting Buddy, an Eastern Screech Owl

This participant enjoys meeting Buddy, an Eastern Screech Owl

Since that time, I’ve been volunteering for S.O.A.R. whenever and however they need me.  When Dale called me over the holidays and asked if I could assist her with a Raptor Experience, I was thrilled to have the opportunity.

Two couples and a friend arrived at the S.O.A.R. location in a van driven by Dale.  Because the road back to S.O.A.R. is a bit tough on the suspension, Dale or John meets attendees at a nice, smooth parking lot a couple miles away and then shuttles them to the site.  Sometimes the ride up can be a bit of a thrill–slick mud made for some tricky maneuvering on this particular day, but Dale’s experience negotiating the road makes it a very safe ride.

Artie watches his new friend carefully, probably hoping he'll get petted (he did)

Artie watches his new friend carefully, probably hoping he’ll get petted (he did)

I helped get birds out, put them on gloves, and talked about them in a sort-of tag-team with Dale.  I realized that while I think I know a lot about the birds, I have much to learn.

The owls are always a favorite for visitors–perhaps because they’re the only raptors in the program who enjoy being petted.  If you scratch the back of Artie’s neck just right, he rolls his head back, his eyelids close and you could almost swear you hear him moan.

Jerry enjoys being petted, too.

Jerry enjoys being petted, too.

Like Jerry and Buddy, the Eastern Screech Owls, Artie, a Barred Owl, was hit by a car.  All 3 owls are unable to fly as a result of their injuries.  Most people are surprised when they hear the owls were hit by cars, but statistically, this is the most common way that owls are injured.

Maybe we should put up owl crossing signs?


Theo like to flap a lot--he's one of the human-imprints that can still fly

Theo like to flap a lot–he’s one of the human-imprints that can still fly

Atsa Yazi, the littlest eagle, is a small male Bald Eagle who was shot when he was only a year old, costing him his wing

Atsa Yazi, the littlest eagle, is a small male Bald Eagle who was shot when he was only a year old, costing him his wing


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?”

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.