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.


Fourscore years ago, Rock City was created.  80 years later, in honor of their anniversary, Rock City held a naming contest for a rescued Peregrine Falcon recuperating on their property.  The winning name was Fourscore.

Fourscore was the offspring of a mom who wasn’t mature enough to take motherhood seriously.  His more mature father took over incubating the eggs and doing the feeding.  But, as the two brothers grew, the father couldn’t keep up with their eating needs without the help of the mother.

One of the chicks died before a human intervened.  The other, Fourscore, survived, but he was too weak from underfeeding to survive on his own.  Fortunately for Fourscore, his rescuer turned him over to S.O.A.R. and Rock City for rehab.

Kept safe inside a box perched high on Lookout Mountain, the little guy gained in strength until he was well prepared to fledge for real.

Pat and I were invited to Fourscore’s launch.  It meant getting up at 4:30 AM to have time to take care of the dogs before driving up to the top of Lookout Mountain, but we were game.  I, of course, packed my backpack full of camera gear.  I wanted my 100-400mm lens to get a good shot of the falcon launching, but they were opening the box at 6:00AM–the light would be low.  Since my 70-200mm lens is faster, I figured I would have a better chance of getting something usable with the extra speed than with the extra length.

As the Eastern horizon started to show the first signs of dawn, I crouched behind a shrub while John and Dale lowered the front of the box, creating a shelf that the falcon could step out on.  I sat with my face pressed against my viewfinder, resting the lens on my knee in an attempt to hold still while we waited.  Nothing happened.

John had warned us that sometimes it can take a couple of hours for a bird to fly when released after being rehabbed.  We waited.

I realized I could not possibly keep my face pressed up against my camera for two hours.  I was getting a cramp in the muscles I use to close my left eye.  I pulled back and started to relax my arms, which were also cramping.  Then I realized we’d only been waiting about 3 minutes.

This was not the first time I questioned my desire to shoot wildlife.

Then, just as I was about to stretch my wrists, there was a noise.  I got back into position as quickly as I could, but I missed.  I managed to catch a dark silhouette against the sky when Fourscore circled back around and flew for the woods.  Not exactly what I was hoping for.

We spent the next half hour with John wielding an antenna to track a radio transmitter on Fourscore.  As we were about to leave, we saw him being chased by a group of swallows.  He looked like he was having a ball.


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.


It’s early Saturday morning.  Today is a big day.  I am nervous.  Taking on getting the word out about the event with a $100 budget for printing materials was a new challenge.  It’s an interesting comparison to have a corporate event where you know exactly who your target audience is–all their emails are in your contacts list, you have a budget in the 10’s of thousands (it was a small users conference for about 150 customers back in the days when corporations still spent money on such things), and you plan your activities based on your known audience.

In comparison, this event is the opposite in every way.  You plan your activities based on what you can do, then you try to find people who might be interested in attending what you’re planning, and you spend as little as possible to try to find them.  Social networking was not really an option for me although the other planners were able to leverage their Facebook pages and email lists.  Since no one on my facebook friend list lives in the vicinity who isn’t already participating in the event, my social networking was pretty limited.

I reached out to every person I knew in Chattanooga (which was 3 people) to find ways to get publicity.  My trainer hooked me up with a newscaster and we did the early morning news spot that I posted previously.  I sent emails to several radio show hosts and newscasters I’d heard about through my second contact (a small business owner in the same building as Pat).  That resulted in one radio spot.  So, we got a little free publicity from that.  A connection through other organizers resulted in a second news spot yesterday at noon.  Maybe, just maybe, people will know about it.

Now the question is, will they come?  The skies in Chattanooga are overcast.  There is a steady rain falling.  The weather says it’s supposed to clear for a few hours in the afternoon and then turn into thunderstorms later in the day.  We have indoor areas, but will people come out to Wildwood, GA if the weather is bad?

I’m crossing my fingers that this work will result in a huge turn out and lots and lots of funds raised for S.O.A.R.

For today’s photography lesson, I look at my impromptu portraits in the parking lot with Osceola from last night.  I see that I have taken on a rather challenging photography assignment.  Getting enough field of view for both bird and person means either using a shorter focal length or getting further back, which may not be possible.  I used the shorter focal length last night and am not pleased with the results.  There is no bokeh effect (background blur) yet in some shots I don’t have enough depth of field for both the people and the eagle to be sharp.

The classes I’ve taken don’t happen to mention how to get great shots of people holding birds.  Maybe I can find a niche for myself yet!

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.