Showing Up

I remember once, many years ago when I was teaching for a community college prison program, having a conversation with another instructor who was telling me about advice he’d given a student.  He’d told the student, “Just show up.  Showing up is half the battle.”

I was reminded of a student in one of the classes I taught during my teaching certification field experience.  He showed up to class, sat down, put his head down on his desk, and promptly fell asleep.  I asked him if he was feeling OK and he told me he’d been up until 2AM that morning playing video games.  When I asked him how he expected to succeed in school if he didn’t sleep at night so he could stay awake during class, he replied, “I’m here, aren’t I?”

I think this requires considering what “showing up” means in this context.  It doesn’t mean physically moving your body from one point to another and not actually being there mentally.  Showing up means paying attention, watching and listening for opportunity to present itself.  It implies both an awareness and recognition of opportunity.

Even with this revision of the definition, I don’t know if I agree that just being there is 50% of the battle.  There’s also preparedness.  It doesn’t do much good to realize you have an opportunity if you’re not in a position to take advantage of it.

For example, I walk my dog in our neighborhood park 3-4x a day.  I spend this time mostly looking for birds.  I am aware, paying attention, watching and listening for the opportunity to see interesting birds present themselves.  However, I’d really like to get great images of these birds.  Yet, in spite of this desire, 9 times out of 10, I rush out the door with the dog but not my camera.

The opportunity to photograph birds presents itself nearly every time I walk, but only 10% of the time am I prepared to actually capture an image of a bird.

Yet, oddly, I seem to be less likely to see birds when I am most prepared.  This is like seeing that the weather forecast is for rain, taking an umbrella, a raincoat, and wearing waterproof boots only to have the weather turn sunny against all odds.

If we apply statistics to this equation, I think it comes down to this:  I’m going to see birds I could photograph 90% of the time I walk.  If I carry a camera only 10% of the time I walk, the odds that I will actually capture an image of a bird drops to 9 times out of 100.

Like everything else in life, showing up, being present, and being ready have to come together with luck.  The more frequently we do our part, the more frequently our readiness will connect with good fortune.  So, I guess that means I will be carrying my camera a lot more often in the future!

Meet Tom Turkey

Meet Tom.  Tom is a Bourbon Red heritage turkey who is free-ranging it on a farm in Wildwood Georgia where the grass is green, the sun is bright, and the hens are . . . well . . . at the moment, scarce.  Tom’s Tinas are off sitting on about 20 eggs they laid in a secret hiding spot where the two hens share incubation duties of a combined nest.

What’s remarkable about this story is that Tom and his Tinas participated in the act of procreation without assistance from humans.  That happens to be one of the criteria for a breed of turkey to be considered “heritage”–they have to be able to breed on their own.

But what exactly is a “heritage” turkey?  Perhaps the best way to define a heritage turkey is to say that it is a traditional turkey from back before tradition became to factory raise turkeys who can barely walk, let alone breed.

The criteria to be a heritage turkey are:  mate naturally, have a long productive lifespan, and grow slowly.  By “long” and “slowly,” I presume what is really meant is “longer than” and “slower than” the dominant breed of turkeys used by factory farms.  You can read about it from a better resource at the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy website, which I was paraphrasing.

Tom takes the first item on that list quite seriously.  However, after spending about 15 minutes trying to convince Tom that I am not a turkey hen and only being able to divert his attention by offering the distraction of my husband, I wonder if there might be a criteria missing?  I suppose the approach of attempting to mate with anyone and anything until one of those things turns out to be a turkey hen will work as long as the hens are close, but it seems a bit inefficient.

It also made Tom a challenging model when I was trying to get pictures.  It’s hard to hold a DSLR with a heavy lens and press the shutter button with one hand while holding back a horny turkey with the other.  When I squatted down to try to get an eye-level shot, Tom rushed me.  Thankfully, Tom is persistent but not violent.  He just keeps pushing his puffed chest up against whomever has attracted his attention over and over again in this crazy dance of you pushing him back and him pushing forward.  It’s a dance with only one step in two directions.

When we got ready to leave, we pulled an empty Styrofoam egg carton out of the car only to have Tom pull it out of our hands, drop it on the ground, and proceeded to jump on top of it as if it were a Tina.  It was the most remarkable display of species confusion I’ve ever seen.  I guess it’s a good thing that how many attempts it takes a turkey to figure out who to breed with isn’t part of the heritage criteria.

A Bigger Small World

Some days, it feels like you’ve reached an end of sorts.  I had one of those days this week.  I sat on our balcony watching the sky change to a gentle gray as the sun came up somewhere out of sight.  I sat on the balcony overlooking the courtyard and Stringer’s Ridge and felt caged.  I sat on the balcony and thought, “This is not my life.”

It’s a paradoxical thought to have–after all, of course it is my life.  At least, I hope so.  It’s the only life I expect to have; I’d like it to be mine.

But sometimes life feels too small.  I don’t know exactly what that means, but I am sometimes overcome by the sensation that the world has shrunken to less than a half of a square mile.  Then, I go walk that half of a square mile listening to the birds and I smile.  It’s not such a bad ½ square mile.

Spotting a large flock of Cedar Waxwings while walking Tisen the following morning, I was surprised by how still they were.  I didn’t have my camera with me, but I decided to take a chance after getting inside, grabbed it and ran back down.

The whole flock remained.  Some were roosting.  Periodically, small groups would fly down to the wetland to drink.  The rest were content to watch me.  I wondered if the world had started to feel small to them, too.

It’s funny how the size of the world shrinks and expands based on who is part of the world with you.

I entertained them with my funny, long lens and they entertained me.  For the few moments I spent intensely focused on the birds, watching them and waiting for moments to shoot, my world was simultaneously microscopic and infinite.  That such creatures exist bend the mind.  With their bandit masks, neon-yellow dipped tails, and red-wax-tipped wings, they always make me imagine a bird super-hero.

In spite of how common they are, the Cedar Waxwing goes surprisingly unnoticed.  I did not see one for the first time until I was around 30 even though I knew what they were from bird books–most people overlook them because they don’t know they exist.  I’ve had numerous people ask me about seeing a small, gray cardinal, knowing I like birds and hoping I could tell them what they saw.  Like me, these are people who are well into adulthood, yet they had never seen a cedar waxwing before.

Perhaps that’s why a flock of birds can make life seem bigger.  That something can be right under our noses (or above our heads) and go unnoticed makes it seem possible that there are many other missed possibilities within the confines of whatever portion of the world we inhabit.  The potential to discover something new in the same half of a square mile suddenly makes the possibilities seem endless.

Final Curtain

Elvi and Bo

Elvi and Bo

One final post with guest photographer Patrick Murray (aka, my husband).

This will be the last post from the Raptor Experience with my husband’s aunt and uncle.  It was a great experience.  They came on a visit from Germany and the birds helped bridge any language gaps (at least for me–my husband speaks German just fine–it’s his first language).

Horst and Dante

Horst and Dante

Bo and Dante, the Harris’s Hawks, got to spend a little time learning German.  They normally don’t participate in raptor educational programs these days, although one of them may be making a debut soon, but during the raptor experience, they get to spend a little time visiting with participants.  Bo and Dante normally sit out on perches in the yard.  One of the first questions people ask is “what about coyotes?”  Bo and Dante don’t sit out on their perches unattended.  If no caretaker is going to be close at hand, they go back into their enclosures where they are safe.  But, they enjoy hanging out under the canopy of trees and are quite content.  They are also content to sit on a glove and look beautiful.

Elvi, Cayce, and me assisting

Elvi, Cayce, and me assisting

Harris’s Hawks are not found in the majority of the US.  Texas is the most likely place to find them, although they are also seen in New Mexico, Arizona, the most Southern part of Southern California, Louisiana, and, occasionally, Oklahoma and Nevada.  To see two in Tennessee is quite a treat–they truly are beautiful birds.  They’re also quite intelligent hunters.  They hunt in a cooperative fashion in small groups.  This has made them a favorite among falconers and they work very well with hunting dogs.

Elvi and I confer while Cayce heads off the other direction

Elvi and I confer while Cayce heads off the other direction

I have never seen a Harris’s Hawk in the wild, although they are not considered endangered or rare.  The just have limited territory in the US and I haven’t been where they are.  Just as I wouldn’t expect to see an Anna’s Hummingbird in Columbus, Ohio, it would be silly to think I’m going to spot a Harris’s Hawk in Chattanooga.  Sometime I’m going to make a trip back to Harris’s Hawk territory when I have time to go birding.

Cayce flies up to Horst's glove

Cayce flies up to Horst’s glove

As usual, in spite of the charm of the owls or the flying of the Red-tailed hawk, Cayce stole the show.  She refused to fly from glove to glove.  Instead she hopped along the ground, only flying up to a glove for a treat.  She’s a funny girl.  I wore my boots just in case she decided to try to bite my legs.  She chased me briefly, snapping at my calves.  I was happy I had my boots on.  I don’t know exactly what makes Cayce so universally lovable.  Maybe it’s just the surprise of getting to know a vulture and discovering that they’re so cool?  What ever the reason, Horst and Elvi appeared to enjoy Cayce’s antics just as much as if we were all speaking the same language.

Cayce lands on Horst's glove

Cayce lands on Horst’s glove

Cayce waiting for us to get our act together so she can hop onto Elvi's glove

Cayce waiting for us to get our act together so she can hop onto Elvi’s glove

 

Cayce Rules Rock City

Cayce mid-air (Photo by Patrick Murray)

Cayce mid-air (Photo by Patrick Murray)

Cayce and I have come to an understanding.  I understand that I am below her in her pecking order.  She understands that I will wear tall boots to avoid having chunks of my legs removed.  It’s not a particularly equitable understanding.  But it’s an understanding none-the-less.

This is a new development in our relationship.  When I just occasionally appeared in her life, she treated me like a guest.  She frolicked and flew and ate chunks of beef out of my hand without so much as an aggressive blink.

Launching Cayce back to John (Photo by Patrick Murray)

Launching Cayce back to John (Photo by Patrick Murray)

Now that I’m appearing on a regular basis, she seems to have decided I need to be put in my place.  And that place is below her place.  It’s not like she’s every caught me eating her food (not into raw beef, thank you very much).  But, familiarity bred contempt.  Or at least attitude.

When I am backstage at the Rock City Raptors amphitheater, I have to be careful not to stand too close to her enclosure.  She sits on a perch on the inside of the door and reaches through the mesh to peck at whatever part of me is in reach.  During our part in the program, she runs at my legs and attempts to peck me.  Given that her beak is designed to tear open flesh, there is the potential she will draw blood–in fact, she’s bloodied John’s legs on more than one occasion (he also has the joy of being lower than Cayce in the pecking order).

Cayce changing direction mid-flight out of pure orneriness (Photo by Patrick Murray)

Cayce changing direction mid-flight out of pure orneriness (Photo by Patrick Murray)

This has led to my latest fashion statement:  cowboy boots and shorts.  She can bite my boots all she wants and I can’t feel a thing.  However, Cayce is a sly one.  About the second time she encountered my counter measures, she reached high and nipped at the exposed flesh above my boot.

Apparently having to reach above my boot was quite irritating to her.  Her next antic was to turn and bit the inside of my arm between my sleeve and my glove in the middle of a program.  And that wasn’t enough for her.  She’s also taken to biting the hand that feeds her when she takes her food out of my hand.  I used to just stuff a piece of beef into a loosely held fist and let her stick her beak in to retrieve it.  Now I have to make sure I keep my hand circling her beak when she twists her head–otherwise she clamps down on my hand.

A small mark inside my bicep post-program (Photo by Dale Kernahan)

A small mark inside my bicep post-program (Photo by Dale Kernahan)

Oddly, I’m somewhat flattered by this attention.  It’s as if she’s decided I’m part of her human flock and order must be established.  I feel I have moved from the casual visitor to someone who belongs, even if it’s at the bottom of Cayce’s hierarchy.

What that little nip looked like 2 days later (photo by me in an awkward pose with my iPhone)

What that little nip looked like 2 days later (photo by me in an awkward pose with my iPhone)

I just wish “pecking order” weren’t quite so literal.  Although, I do get special pleasure out of answering anyone who asks about the bruise on my arm with a casual, “Oh, a Black Vulture bit me.”

Cautiously feeding Cayce (Photo by Patrick Murray)

Cautiously feeding Cayce (Photo by Patrick Murray)

See Rock City

Cody getting ready to fly

Cody getting ready to fly

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

In yesterday’s post, I mentioned that I have 3 parts to learn to take on the assistant’s role in the Rock City Raptors program.  In reality, the assistant normally has 5 parts.  However, to make it easier on a newbie like me, we will work around 2 of the parts when I’m subbing as the assistant.

One of the parts we’ll skip is with Cody, the Red-tailed Hawk.  Cody is even less reliable than Theo when it comes to flying.  Dale and John joke during the show that they have a radio transmitter on Cody in case he decides to go “See Rock City” when they fly him, but it’s not really a joke.  He’s been known to take off in the middle of a program and fly off into the trees if something has upset him.  Things that upset Cody can range from someone standing up unexpectedly in the audience to a wild hawk flying by to a sudden whim.

Cody makes the flight

Cody makes the flight

The odds that he might fly off are increased if Dale isn’t his target.  Dale seems to have a special bond with most of the birds.  Cody is no exception.

When it’s time for Cody to fly to Dale during the program, Dale takes a stance that communicates “Fly right here!” with every fiber of her body.  It seems to work most of the time–I have yet to witness Cody flying anywhere other than straight to Dale.

If determining where Cody will fly to is a problem, deciding whether he will fly at all is another.  The morning conversation goes something like this:

“Are we flying Cody today?”

“Well . . . we’ll see if he starts vocalizing.”

Then, as the first program starts, “Are we flying Cody?”

Dale makes the call based on whether Cody is exhibiting high energy behavior, I guess.  I haven’t asked her exactly what it means when Cody is making noises that makes it more likely that he will fly.

Cody looking like he's overcome his fear of hunting

Cody looking like he’s overcome his fear of hunting

There is a backup plan for when Cody isn’t going to fly.  On those days, Dale walks through the crowd with Cody on her glove while a video of flying Red-tailed hawks plays.  It’s not quite as exciting as seeing Cody fly in person, but it’s less stressful than trying to convince Cody he wants to fly in the middle of a program.

I will not be walking through the audience with Cody on my glove.  Cody baits even more than Theo.  And, Cody is a Red-tailed hawk with giant talons that would do much more damage if I put my bare arm in the wrong place trying to help him back on the glove as I did with Theo.

I appreciate Dale and John’s concern for my safety.  I also appreciate their willingness to let me practice during low-risk times like carrying Cody from his outdoor perch back to his enclosure before the audience shows up.  I just need to learn to watch out for the stairs!

Tisen relaxing on the couch after spending the morning at doggie daycare while I was playing with the birds

Tisen relaxing on the couch after spending the morning at doggie daycare while I was playing with the birds

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