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)

Another Turn for Cayce

A split second of stillness while Cayce nibbles at the glove

A split second of stillness while Cayce nibbles at the glove

The last, but not least, bird we exercised on Saturday was Cayce.  Cayce the wonder vulture.  I got to witness a new side to Cayce.  Cayce’s next door neighbors, a pair of Peregrine Falcons, are currently nesting.  Wings to Soar is hoping to have their first fledglings to release to the wild as a result.  This is an exciting extension of their program from education to restoration.  Peregrine Falcons were a critically endangered species that has, through captive breeding and release programs, been removed from the endangered list.

However, during nesting, the falcons are fed through a hatch in the side of their enclosure that opens into a shelf up where the birds nest.  To reach the hatch, John and Dale have a ladder set up outside the enclosure.  When we took Cayce around the Peregrine Falcon’s enclosure, Cayce clearly thought that ladder was the boogie man.  Or whatever Black Vultures might be terrified of.  She jumped straight up in the air when she saw the ladder and refused to go past it.

Checking out the surroundings, Cayce is still nervous about where the ladder was

Checking out the surroundings, Cayce seems more relaxed with all her neck feathers fluffed

I tried taking Cayce back around the corner while Dale moved the ladder.  Then we tried to come back around.  I thought Cayce was following me, but as soon as I got passed the corner, she jumped straight up in the air again and made an attempt to land on a tree.

Fortunately, as soon as Dale came back into sight, she hopped back down and seemed a little more relaxed.  We ended up not being able to fly Cayce, but she did hop up and down from our gloves and run along the ground between us.  She just wasn’t up for flying.

One of the challenges of shooting Cayce in flight is the length of her wings.  She has such a long wingspan that the tips of her wings are always a blur in flying shots.  While I don’t mind having some motion showing in the photos, I’d like to have more of her wings still.  Regardless of what I want, on this day I don’t have the opportunity to try.

Shooting Cayce on the glove is a lot like trying to take portraits of a 2 year old.  She squirms and wiggles and moves her head. She flaps and jumps and basically makes it almost impossible to get a good shot.  This is complicated by her black feathers and black face, which suck up light and often leave her as a dark shadow.

In spite of these challenges, I think at least one image I came home with gives a good idea of Cayce’s personality:

I like to think of this as Cayce's "Hey, what are you doing?" look

I like to think of this as Cayce’s “Hey, what are you doing?” look

I don’t know if vultures have a sense of humor, but when I look at Cayce, I have to think they do.  There’s just something about the way she tilts her head like she really wants to know if you’re paying attention.  I suppose she could just be looking for food, but it makes me happier to think she at least find us entertaining.

Tisen via Hipstamatic--he's all up for lounging on the couch these days

Tisen via Hipstamatic–he’s all up for lounging on the couch these days

Cayce Rocks the House

Cayce follows Dale around much like a faithful dog

Cayce follows Dale around much like a faithful dog

Cayce is my favorite vulture.  Is it normal to have a favorite vulture?

Normal or not, I suspect anyone who has ever met Cayce falls into the same camp–Cayce is their favorite vulture.  Of course, for most people, there’s a high probability that Cayce is the only vulture they’ve ever seen (or at least realized they’ve seen).

Cayce hops to my glove in exchange for a piece of beef

Cayce hops to my glove in exchange for a piece of beef

This reminds me of when Pat and I went on a tour of Taliesin West (Frank Lloyd Wright’s Arizona-based school of architecture) and the tour guide told us that on almost every tour someone says, “Frank Lloyd Wright is my favorite architect.”  He said he always has to stop himself from asking who their second-favorite architect is–he’s pretty sure most people who say this can’t name a second architect.

Sometimes Cayce prefers to hop from glove to ground, run, and then hop up to the next glove--it's pretty funny the way she hops

Sometimes Cayce prefers to hop from glove to ground, run, and then hop up to the next glove–it’s pretty funny the way she hops

Like Wright, Cayce has the advantage that vultures (and apparently architects) don’t usually become household names.  However, unlike the stories we heard about Wright, Cayce has an irresistible personality.

Dale spends a few minutes setting the stage by telling the audience about vultures, their role in preventing the spread of disease and their importance to the environment.  Then she explains how Cayce was erroneously rescued and became a human imprint.

The young lady celebrated her birthday holding a vulture

The young lady celebrated her birthday holding a vulture

When everyone is wondering what it’s going to be like to see a Black Vulture up close, Dale calls “Here’s Cayce!”  and I open Cayce’s travel crate.  Cayce comes charging out and starts looking around like she’s trying to get oriented.  I toss a small piece of beef towards the center of the circle formed by the audience and Cayce runs front and center.  Once she sees Dale, she is good to go.

Cayce heads back to my glove having just passed over the heads of the surprised audience

Cayce heads back to my glove having just passed over the heads of the surprised audience

As Dale continues to tell the small audience about Cayce, she walks along the circle of spectators with Cayce following at her heels.  It’s pretty clear that Cayce would follow Dale anywhere.

Usually, when the birds are going to fly during a program, they get their breakfast during the show, flying for their meal.  This both keeps them properly fed and motivated to fly.  However, on this day, Dale forgot and fed Cayce her full breakfast.  Often, a bird of prey won’t fly if it isn’t hungry–after all, their instinct is to expend energy flying purely for the purpose of seeking food.

Fortunately for us, Cayce loves to please a crowd.  In spite of her full stomach, she launched perfectly several times, buzzing the heads of the audience.  Everyone ducked as Cayce barely clearer their foreheads–her feathers brushed back the hair of one taller gentleman.  This is always a crowd pleaser.

The second time Cayce buzzes the audience, they are a little better prepared and start to duck early

The second time Cayce buzzes the audience, they are a little better prepared and start to duck early

One of the reasons an unreleasable vulture makes a great entertainer is because, unlike Cayce’s raptor relatives, vultures don’t have talons.  Their feet more closely resemble a large chicken’s, making close fly-by’s much safer.

Of course, we humans would be happier if Cayce could live out her life in the wild.  But I doubt Cayce agrees–after all, she returned to humans after being released several times.  I think she found her calling.

Cayce comes in for a surprisingly gentle landing

Cayce comes in for a surprisingly gentle landing


*Photography credit goes to Pat, my wonderful husband who took all shots of the birds of prey program.

Raised Hands

Today’s photos provided by my guest photographer and husband, Pat.

Today, I did a volunteer gig instead of eating lunch.  The company I work for provided a grant to fund taking an educational program using birds of prey to underfunded schools that can’t afford special programs.  I’m psyched about having the opportunity to work with both the kids and the birds.

But, when I arrived at the school, I got a text message from one my best friends in the world, Gina.  She was having a bad day.  Her text to me was representative of something I feel all the time.  It was along the lines of “I feel invisible.”  Dismissed, unheard, unimportant, irrelevant.

These are the words that describe the worst feelings any person who regards herself as a valuable asset in the workplace can have, except maybe fired.  But, I suspect it’s the fear of being fired and what that represents to us that makes these feelings so difficult to deal with.  We all want to feel indispensable.  Invisible and indispensable don’t work in the same sentence (except, of course, this one).

I returned from vacation vaguely disappointed that the entire company didn’t come to a halt while I was gone.  It hurts my ego to realize the company didn’t even skip a beat.

But there I was, about to meet two 3rd grade classes with a bunch of birds and I’m getting this text that reminds me about my own fears of inadequacy in a corporate, adult world that often feels foreign to me.

I set my phone aside and focus on the event at hand.  The 3rd graders file in and the program begins.  The children are fascinated.  They smile, laugh, and look amazed.  Not mildly interested and politely faking amazement.  No, they ARE amazed.  And I don’t mean that in the over-used, can’t-think-of-a-better-word sort of amazed.  I mean they were surprised and delighted that something so wondrous as the opportunity to pet a Screech Owl and feed a Black Vulture was happening to them.

And then, they start raising their hands.  They want to be called on.  As each takes their turn, it becomes evident they often don’t know the answer to the question they volunteered to answer or they don’t actually have a question even though that’s why they were supposedly raising their hand.

I had the sudden realization that these were children who feared invisibility.  They raised their hands not because they had something to say but because they didn’t want to disappear in the crowd of their peers or the rules of their teachers who seemed to largely focus on making sure they behaved.

Behaving seemed to be an act of making oneself invisible.  But raising your hand, speaking out, those are acceptable actions that allow you to stand alone and be recognized.  A statement of being worthwhile, important, relevant, and noticeable.

It all suddenly seemed so simple–it’s all about raising your hand.

Biking, Birding, and Bystanding

Biking and birding reminded me of several life lessons I have learned, forgotten, and learned again.  First, speed causes us to miss details.

I think back to the native prairie by the bike path back in Columbus, Ohio.  I used to ride by wondering why I didn’t see more birds.  When I went by on roller blades, I saw more birds, but was surprised I didn’t see any hummingbirds.  When I walked by, I saw hummingbirds but was surprised there weren’t any bees.  When I stood completely still, it was like a magical veil was lifted and suddenly I saw an amazingly dense array of life, buzzing and hovering and dipping among the flowers.  I am frequently reminded that sometimes, to really see the abundance of life, you have to sit still.

The second lesson was:  it probably isn’t a good idea to point out birds–even really big ones–to a bunch of people on bicycles.

When we all pulled well off to the side of the path to stop and look, everyone was able to see the differences between a Turkey Vulture and Black Vulture, and many got to see an Osprey soaring overhead with no injuries.

As I watched these birds of prey, I had to wonder if they experienced the same kind of joy in catching a thermal and soaring on the wind as I was experiencing pedaling my bike through the early autumn breeze.  Some may think that birds just do what they do for the purpose of finding food, but I have to believe there is a joy that comes from doing what you were born to do that even birds experience, particularly on a beautiful day.  I find it impossible to watch the grace of soaring raptors without being moved.

As we made our way up the Riverwalk to the Curtain Pole Road swamp area, I learned the third lesson of the day.  Sometimes, it’s not the birds that are the most interesting part of a bird walk.  One of the other participants spotted turtles and frogs.  Although the wood ducks were still my favorite (see photos from yesterday’s post), the turtles and frogs were pretty darn fascinating.  By the way, one attendee pointed out that in the last Wood Duck photo in yesterday’s post, there is a camouflaged turtle right in front of the Wood Duck.  I totally missed that!

The final lesson for the day was that we all have different levels of excitement about the same birds.  I was so excited to stand and watch the Belted Kingfishers at Amnicola Marsh.  I could have stood there all day with them swooping across the marsh, chattering away.  In the meantime, most everyone else was looking for something more interesting.

Regardless, I think we all enjoyed the outing. For me, it doesn’t get any better.  A beautiful day, a bike, a new group of interesting people to meet, some really cool birds, and my camera.  What more could anyone ask for?

Cayce’s Turn

Perhaps three posts on one birds of prey program is a bit excessive?  But, I feel that Cayce requires her own post.  After all, how many Black Vultures do you know that get a standing ovation?  For that matter, how many Black Vultures do you know at all?

Vultures happen to be one of my favorite birds.  I always enjoy watching them soar on the wind, hardly ever flapping their wings.  But I really fell in love with vultures when we had a house in the country with a large pond.  One spring day, we had a inversion.  I honestly can’t say I fully understand this, but apparently the water on the top of the pond becomes cooler than the water on the bottom and, as the water switches places, the oxygen escapes and the fish suffocate.  When I say the fish suffocate, I mean hundreds of fish suffocate.  I mean more fish than we would have ever guessed lived in that pond suffocated.  I mean the entire surface of a 1 acre pond was covered in dead fish.

Enter the vultures.

Any bird that can come onto the scene of such a stinky mess and leave less than 3 days later with the place looking like nothing happened (besides a few stray skeletons)  is welcome at my house any time.  I can’t imagine how much we would have had to pay a person to clean up that mess.

My appreciation for nature’s sanitation engineers (as Dale of S.O.A.R. would say) meant I had an open mind the first time I met Cayce.  But Cayce doesn’t really require you to have an open mind–she will win you over regardless.

First of all, Cayce likes to run around on the ground.  This is in and of itself is funny.  Black Vulture run by hopping and skipping across the ground.  It’s funny.  Trust me.  Or, watch the video:

Second, Cayce flies over the audience with a particular glee.  She seems to know she’s a star and that getting as close as physically possible to the audience makes her more of a star.  In fact, she hit me in the head with her tail as she flared to land on Dale’s glove during the second show.  The audience loved it.

Third, Cayce chases John, pecking at his legs, demonstrating he is below her in the pecking order.  The entire audience cracks up as John runs from Cayce.  While he is being slightly theatrical, Cayce can draw blood, so moving quickly to avoid her beak is not just for show.

An interesting tidbit I learned about vultures from John and Dale is that Black Vultures have a strong beak for piercing and tearing through thick flesh while Turkey Vultures have a great sense of smell.  Together, both species eat well.

But today, no one is really thinking too much about what Cayce eats, even though Dale is throwing her chunks of dead mice.  My only complaint about Cayce is that she’s hard to photograph.

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.