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

 

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.