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)

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.

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.