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



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.


Birdie, You’re a Star

Continuing the theme of birds, on Sunday, I had the opportunity to go to Rock City, a local attraction on Lookout Mountain, to see the S.O.A.R. raptors perform.

S.O.A.R. performs regularly at Rock City throughout the warmer months, educating the public about the role raptors play in the ecosystem and giving people a close encounter with birds of prey.

I’d never seen the S.O.A.R. program before, so I plan to watch it twice. I’m hoping to collect enough photos to put together a screen saver we can use to raise money for the program.

One of the unique things about Rock City is that dogs are welcome. Unfortunately, dogs make birds of prey (and really, most birds) quite nervous, so while they are welcome in Rock City in general, they are not permitted in the vicinity of the bird program.  This meant that while Tisen got to come with us, he had to be escorted away from the vicinity of the performance before the show.  So, both Pat and Tisen missed out.

My goal for the first run was to learn the pattern of what they did so I could do a better job getting shots of the birds in flight during the second performance.  However, it’s almost impossible to sit with your camera in your lap and not shoot a single frame when you’re surrounded by super stars!

The performance is in a nice amphitheater large enough to accommodate probably 100 people.  It’s small enough to create an intimate setting.  It also makes it possible for Dale and John to walk through the entire audience with the birds, giving people an up-close view.  And, if walking around with the birds isn’t exciting enough, they fly a barn owl, Theo, a red-tail hawk, Cody, and a black vulture, Cayce, right over people’s heads.

While the birds are busy capturing the audience’s interest, John and Dale sneak in an enormous amount of information about the birds.  Between the live birds and several videos, people witness incredible feats that only birds of prey can perform.  And while it’s one thing to see a video of a Peregrine Falcon pulling in his wings to achieve a dive of over 250 MPH, it’s completely another to feel the wind from a raptor’s wings as it soars just above your head.

The thing that I really like about John and Dale’s approach is that they are serious about raising awareness about the importance of these birds to the highly interconnected network of life we are part of.  At the same time, they understand that to raise awareness, you have to get someone’s attention first.  And there is no one, I contend no one, who can fail to be fascinated by the kind of close encounter John and Dale provide.  If having a bird soar over your head doesn’t do it for you, petting a Screech Owl after the show probably will.

These birds have a special skill at attracting attention and keeping it.

Winging It

On Saturday afternoon, I went to a Chattanooga Audubon Society fund raising event as a volunteer for S.O.A.R.  S.O.A.R. was there to do their 45 minute long educational program on birds of prey in support of the Audubon.

The challenge for John and Dale was that the program was in a large field outdoors, potentially tempting free flying birds to head for the trees.

The challenge for me was to see if I could get any good shots of the birds.  I am planning to make a screensaver to give away in exchange for donations at an upcoming event.  Unfortunately, I’ve never seen the program before, so I am completely winging it (yes, a pun).

I chose my new 70-200mm lens thinking because it’s faster, it will help me freeze more movement.  Given that it was a bright sunny day, I probably would have done better with my 100-400mm since I didn’t really need the speed.

I put my camera on a tripod and set it at its maximum height thinking I’d have a better angle catching the birds flaring before they land.  Unfortunately, I didn’t consider the need to separate the birds from the audience.  I would have been better off getting really low–well, not sure my knees would have been better off, but my pictures would have been.

I also needed to be as unobtrusive as possible so the birds didn’t get confused and fly to me.  No one wants a bird of prey to land on their unprotected flesh.  As a result, I tried to stay in one spot and not move around much.

In addition to being in a fixed position, up high, with too short a lens, all my subjects were in motion.  John and Dale are constantly moving.  When I am looking through my lens, I can only track one of them, but I need to know where the other one is to predict what direction the bird will fly.  Looking away to locate the destination person caused me to miss more than one good shot.

My lack of experience using the continuous focusing mode also did not help.  I had issues with losing focus. I’m not sure what I did wrong, but I’m going to have to do some more practice with continuous focusing mode.  It was depressing to see perfectly framed and timed shots that were totally out of focus.

In the end, I have some fun snap shots, but nothing to put in the screensaver.  I spent an insane amount of time trying to salvage one of the photos by blurring away the distracting background.  Unfortunately, the photo doesn’t look right now–see if you can tell which one I majorly doctored.

At least I learned a lot for the next time.  And, none of the birds flew away.

As for Tisen, he couldn’t come to the event with me–birds and dogs don’t mix well.  But, I included another shot from his nap with Red Dog.

Going to the Birds

After spending the morning hang gliding, we change into dry clothes and head off to spend our afternoon with some of the best pilots ever born. They are a group of slightly crazy and/or disabled raptors. Raptors as in the family of birds that includes hawks, owls, eagles, and vultures–in other words, birds of prey.

I have been looking forward to this for weeks. We originally saw a poster for a Raptor Experience at the hang gliding office a month ago. The Raptor Experience is offered by a non-profit organization called SOAR (Save Our American Raptors). They care for non-releasable raptors and train them so they can be used for educational programs to teach people about birds of prey. They also have a Peregrine Falcon release project and are tracking a falcon who is currently vacationing in South America.

As a bird lover and one who is particularly fascinated by birds of prey, I am excited about this beyond belief. I’m hoping we will get to actually handle the birds, but in my excitement, I can’t remember if the person I talked to said we do or not. Even more exciting, I’ve been wanting to volunteer for a raptor rescue program for years, and now this looks like it might be an opportunity.

We arrive at the designated meeting spot a little early. My nerves kick in about meeting people a bit, but since we just talked with Dale, the wife of the husband and wife team who run the organization, I’m not too nervous. John, the other half of the team, arrives only a couple minutes after we do. He’s driving a jeep with a hang glider on the roof, so it’s not too hard to guess it’s him. Dale told me on the phone that she and John are both hang gliding pilots and I enjoyed watching a video of John taking a one-winged bald eagle hang gliding on their web site.

John offers to drive us up to their property where the birds live, explaining that the road is pretty rough. Pat, being a man, decides that he can drive the mini-van up it and save John the trip back down later. As we make our way down the dirt road with large holes, ridges, dips, and rocks, the car drags enough time to make me wish we’d just ridden with John. We make it without losing any parts of the van, although Pat comments that it’s a good thing that I’d already knocked off the front lip spoiler (whatever that is) dragging the front bumper over a parking block.

When we arrive, Dale comes out to greets us, although one of their rescued dogs beats her to the punch, and invites us into the house where she offers us freshly baked, homemade cookies and gives us a run down of what we’re going to experience and why these birds are here. We learn that, yes, we will get to handle the birds. (Yay!) We also learn that none of the birds here at SOAR are able to return to the wild either because of injuries or mental problems. Interestingly, “mental problems” are defined mostly as birds who were raised by humans and, because they imprinted on the humans, don’t know how to do what they were born to do.

After the orientation, we head outside and are equipped with leather gloves. We are going to start with Eastern Screech Owls. Small, docile, and probably sleepy, they sit quietly on our gloves and even enjoy being petted on the back of the head. John tells us that owls understand touch as affection, but other birds we will handle do not and warns us not to attempt to pet the hawks.

I am so amazed by these tiny little owls. They weigh nothing. John points out that we can see the ruffled edges of their feathers, the secret to the silent flight of owls. And, even more amazing, John shows us their ears. They actually have little human-like ears under those feathers! The ears are offset, apparently to help locate where sounds are coming from in the dark.

I could have been happy just sitting there with these little owls all day, but Dale puts them away so John can bring us a Barred Owl–since Barred Owls will eat Screech Owls, everyone is happier when they’re not together.

We used to live in a wooded ravine where Barred Owls also lived. They are enormous. Or, at least they look enormous. In contrast to their size, hollow bones and feathers make birds weigh far less than other types of animals of the same volume. I’ve read this before, but having never held a bird, the reality of the gap between how much this bird looks like it should weigh and how much it actually weighs surprises me when Dale puts this great big owl on my glove. This owl weighs less than 2 pounds.

Next, John returns with a Barn Owl. We don’t get to hold this owl who is about halfway between the size of the Screech and Barred Owls. At least not right way. He doesn’t like to sit on the glove–he wants to fly. And that is exactly what he gets to do.

John stands at one spot behind the house and we go to the other. Dale accompanies us with a pouch full of small mouse parts. I ask her who gets to chop mice–she makes a face when she admits it’s her. Clearly, it’s not her favorite part of the job.

I hold out my gloved arm and Dale places a small piece of mouse on my fist. John releases the owl and he flies to me, swooping low to the ground and then flaring upward so that he lands feet forward on the glove. Having just come from hang gliding, we are fascinated watching how the owl instinctively uses ground effect (the rising air close to the ground) to get lift in time to flare, which is what Pat is now learning to do, so he can land on his feet.

It’s an amazing experience to stand there waiting for a bird of prey land on your fist. As he glides towards me, the owl’s tiny body is dwarfed by his enormous wingspan. The sunlight shines through the feathers on his wings, making him look as angelic as a bird of prey can. I wonder if he minds performing in the early afternoon when he should be sleeping. He looks pretty darn happy when he picks up a mouse chunk and swallows it down.

Next, we get to fly Cody, a Red-tail Hawk who refuses to hunt. Cody glides even closer to the ground, skimming just inches above the surface, and then swoops up in a sharp arc just before reaching me. I notice he flares with his feathers as well as his wings. Every feather spreads, his tail dramatically opening like a fan. Just as with the owl, this flare brings him nearly to a halt so that when he lands on my arm, there is no impact. It’s like he parachuted down gently.

After flying Cody, we get to meet Franklin, an American Kestrel, and a Harris’s Hawk whose name escapes me. I’ve never seen a Harris’s Hawk before. He is beautiful–rich browns blend into black, which contrasts with the white in his tail.

Next, we get to meet Casey, the Black Vulture. Casey seems to think she is a dog. She circles around Dale, who tickles Casey on the back and Casey responds with what appears to be a happy Vulture sound, but comes out a lot like a hiss. Casey gallops along on the ground, preferring to walk even though she is perfectly capable of flying. Dale tells us that she sometimes walks Casey in the woods–she really does think she’s a dog!

We attempt to fly Casey, but Casey is in the mood to run instead. She flies up to our gloves to collect treats, but then hops back to the ground to run the distance between us instead of flying. Cameraless today, I switch my iPhone into video mode and try to capture her running on video–there is just something too funny about watching a vulture run.

I appreciate the work that vultures do, having once had a pond where hundreds of fish died all at once, it was an amazing thing to have a few dozen vultures show up and clean up the mess in about 3 days. However, I never thought the words “cute” and “vulture” went together. Today, I change my mind. Casey is adorable. Dale tells us that Casey is used to being the star of the show; I am not surprised.

We finish off our Raptor Experience with a Bald Eagle. I can’t recall this eagle’s name, but it is a Navajo word that means, “The Littlest Eagle.” It’s a good name. This poor guy lost a wing due to a shooting. I’m not sure if the missing wing contributes to how small he looks, but he definitely is small for an eagle. I am sad to learn this eagle has not been hang gliding yet because it means that there are two one-winged eagles living out their lives in captivity.

It’s an appropriate finale to the day, though. After all, it’s hard to beat a Bald Eagle for majesty. We go inside to wash our hands and talk for a while before wrapping up and heading home. Dale talks us into one of her cookies before we go–a peanut butter blossom with a soft hershey’s kiss in the middle, yum! We get in the car and I feel like I should pinch myself–it’s hard for me to believe that I just spent the afternoon playing with raptors. Instead, as Pat creeps back over the bumpy dirt road, I look at the pictures Dale took for us on my iPhone and smile.