Props: proper respect, recognition – Urban Dictionary

I’ve never given the opossum a second thought unless it happened to scurry across my path in the approaching dusk. Ghostly, ghastly, pallid and grotesque, there were so many more colorful things in life to give my attention to.

Until now.
If Gracie hadn’t caught one, I’d still think that way.
Of course, after seeing one close up… close enough to take a photograph, I was intrigued.
What an interesting looking creature.
My, what big teeth it has.
What does it eat?

Thank you Google – all my questions were answered and I have to share my new-found knowledge about and “props” for the heretofore unknown and unappreciated ‘possum.

Before I reveal what I’ve learned, I must first elaborate a little more on Gracie’s successful hunt. This was the other evening. The days are getting a little longer and my husband took her out to hunt just before dark.  She flew up from his glove, immediately spotted the unlucky opossum and dove for it. As soon as my H saw her go for it, his heart sank as he knew there could be a fight – either one could die. He ran over to her as she tried to subdue her prey and reached her in time to help her dispatch the creature.  It was twice her weight (2200 grams). The opossum punctured Gracie’s foot with its teeth, but she’s o.k.

The Opossum

Close-up of Opossum Teeth

Here’s where we put on our big girl pants and look beyond the grisly photos above. The opossum is beautifully and intelligently designed, the same as something pretty like a butterfly, baby deer or canary. Maybe they’re not cuddly or cute, but I’ve realized that they do deserve some air time.

Here’s what I found:

  • The opossum is the only marsupial in North America. It carries its babies in a pouch (now that’s kind of cute)
  • They have about 50 teeth; the most teeth of any N American mammal. (not so cute, but interesting!)
  • Adults are the size of an average house cat and weigh six to 15 lbs (the one Gracie caught was 5 pounds)
  • Because their ears and tails lack fur they often suffer frostbite on these body parts during cold winters. (this was kind of sad)
  • They have five toes on each foot. (hmmm)
  • They have a resistance to rabies but may still be carriers of the disease.
  • They eat mostly dead things, insects, frogs and like apples, clementines and persimmons (what variety!)
  • When playing possum, the lips are drawn back, teeth are bared, saliva foams around the mouth, and a foul-smelling fluid is secreted from the anal glands (Wikipedia) (now that’s cool and gross at the same time)
  • Sometimes, they actually look cute (take the baby photo above for example)

Hopefully, I’ve given the ‘possum a proper nod and that if you ever see one, you’ll look past their long snouts, sharp teeth, beady black eyes, oily skin, coarse fur, parasite-carrying, rabies resistant bodies and appreciate what’s good about them.

What do you think? Cute or gross?

Enjoying a beautiful moment on a cool yet sunny spring day with my husband, two dogs and Gracie. I took a bunch of photos and here are the best of the bunch.

Pretty Girl

Pretty Girl

Gracie has such an intense stare with those golden eyes.

Beautiful Profile

I thought this shot had interesting angles and colors.

More intensity from a few steps back!

I'm continually in awe of her - just stunning!

This was a defensive stance to make herself look larger as our Golden Retriever approached.

A stately pose!

The sky is so blue here. I love the shadow under her wings and sun on her breast feathers

There's a turkey vulture (top right) that kept circling above us

Again - pooch coming a little too close!

Do you ever feel like you're being watched?

Yikes! It's more than a feeling!

Ok, think exit strategy...that tree looks good up there.

The film on her eyes is the nictitating membrane which protects their eyes when hunting, flying at fast speeds or feeding their chicks, keeping their most precious asset clean.

Can you feel any mice or squirrels in there? Falconers regularly check the keel feeling the musculature and level of fat on the bird.

On a recent hunting trip in South Georgia, these falconers and their hawks hunted together for squirrels, a common prey for the Red-tailed Hawk. The photos illustrate three different hawks (Gracie, an immature female, Scout, an immature male and Heath). If you look closely at the photos, you will be able to tell a difference in the appearance  – their size and coloring (you also might see a squirrel, racoon and armadillo!).

Click on the “expand” button on the bottom right corner to view larger images, then sit back, watch, relax and imagine  you were there…

Many thanks go out to Bart, the photographer who braved the forests and took these photos.

 South Georgia Hunting Trip
I couldn’t resist adding this one by itself – my Husband (above) running after Gracie who has a squirrel in her talons…

Last Saturday, January 15th, 2011

3:50 a.m. – the alarm squawked, or was that my husband? He had been up since 2:30 in anticipation of a state annual falconry “Field Meet”  where falconers convene to hunt, share stories, styles, tips and tricks. Included is a banquet (I imagined roast squirrel with pine nuts, a mouse cheese plate, possum stew and rabbit jerky), but it was actually much less sensational… steak, shrimp, and salmon (rabies-free!).

4:45 a.m. – My H, brother and cousin and hawks departed (or so I later found out, as my own self wasn’t up yet)

7:30 a.m. – they arrived at the meet, just in time for a photo shoot and then off to prepare for their first hunt.  Gracie was dressed in her jesses and bells, ready to roll. A woman had graciously offered her property (almost 300 acres) for the falconers to fly their birds.  My H, brother and a falconer family trio headed to the woods and my husband volunteered to fly Gracie first as she seemed to be at a good flight weight.

She was anxious to fly and when released into the trees initially followed well. Eying a squirrel, she chased it into a nest and jumped on it, but the little creature was stubborn and refused to come out (poor sport!). The hunters waited a few minutes to see if the squirrel would budge, but to no avail. It evidently knew what its fate could be (banquet fare?). They decided to walk on to another area, but unfortunately, Gracie’s mood changed and she didn’t follow.

Before I continue with what happened after this point, I should note that my H asked if I’d write this story in the hopes that it may help another falconer. He was concerned that he may not retrieve Gracie, but luckily with team work, perseverance and advice from a master falconer, this story has a happy ending.

10:00 a.m. – He called Gracie, but she flew further away in an ever expanding circle.  Pulling out the lure, which should be a falconer’s most reliable recall (for the women reading this, think new Prada bag), he tried to attract her, but she was indifferent. This wasn’t a good sign and he knew he was in for some trouble (think lost Prada bag).

She continued to “bump” around (flying from one spot to another) and crossed a major road to a neighboring property. They were hesitant to enter someone else’s land (as you should always have permission before doing this), but the neighbor was notified and they jumped the fence. Losing sight of her at this point would almost eliminate the possibility of her retrieval. My brother tried to nudge her back towards them and they worked at this for over an hour.  She was now out of sight, but still within earshot. The situation was getting worse and my H decided to contact his sponsor who connected him with a master falconer who was also on the hunt close by.

tfw-free-flight001

"Bumping" from tree to tree

He offered a few tips for retrieving a reluctant hawk (here is my translation):

  1. Chick-on-a-rope: Hang chick (deceased baby chicken – let’s be clear now) on a rope from tree and dangle it about 2 feet off ground in her sight
  2. The Roman: Drag chick across the ground on a rope behind you (looks better if you’re on a horse)
  3. Military-Style: Establish a search perimeter, one person walks in the dirction of the hawk while the others circle around (remember the “The Fugitive”) and stalks the hawk
  4. Ole’ Faithful: Try the lure again

I guess begging wasn’t an option.

12:00 – Good News! The master falconer found Gracie by the road and alerted my husband.  My H ran to her location and followed her until she led him to the original tree where the squirrel had hidden. He blew his whistle – no response.  He tried “Ole-Faithful” and whipped the lure around with a jolly Ho Ho Ho.  Bingo.  Baby got his bird back.

P.S. When my husband returned home, he found this helpful quote in a recent falconry newsletter: “I have heard many stories of apprentice’s birds being lost.  I can say with confidence that if a good foundation is laid and the bird is at initial flight weight, it would be hard to lose her under even the most difficult of circumstances.  There is a litany of traditional excuses as to why a bird is acting up in the field or why she cannot be flown; “she’s not used to this many people”, “she doesn’t like your hat”, “thermal conditions are bad”, “it’s too windy”, and so on down the list.  But the truth is, she is not at the right weight.  A bird maintained and if flown at the right weight can be flown at any time of day, in any weather conditions and over any size crowd of strangers without the need for excuses.”  – excerpted from an article on weight management by Gary Brewer, author of Buteo and Bushytails.

P.S. I realize this was a longer post than usual and if you’re tired of reading (as I was after I re-read this), get a cup of coffee, clear your mind and look at some hawk photos or alternatively watch hawk tv below:

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PS2YozkWbTM

A Miffed Hawk

I dropped my husband off at the mews yesterday. It was lunchtime, a typical day and nothing unusual was in the wind. I walked into the barn with him and then into the mews while he was deciding whether or not to fly her.  Gracie was sitting on her perch, as usual, however he noticed that one of her jesses was missing.

Jesses (singular “jess”) are thin straps, traditionally made from leather, used to tether a hawk or falcon in falconry. They allow a falconer to keep control of a bird while it is on the glove or in training, and allow a bird to be secured on a perch outside of its aviary. – Wikipedia

My H looked all over the mews and a few minutes later finally found it stuck in the top corner of the roof of the enclosure. It was a mystery as to how it got there, but one thing was for sure – she was evidently having a bad day and quite short tempered (throwing a fit and stomping)!

Jess caught in mews

A Miffed Hawk

We have no idea how the jess ended up where it did (speculation is that she flew up into the corner and it got caught as her tail feathers were a bit damaged), but at this point, I left and went home to make lunch and let the dogs out. While I was gone, more adventures ensued.  My hubs decided to take Gracie out to fly her.  Now, there are actually 5 mews attached to our family’s barn and a Red-tailed hawk in four of them.  On the way back from their outing as they approached the barn, she flew up to a tree, then to the roof of the barn and then spotted her target which unfortunately wasn’t a squirrel, but was Scout, our cousin’s hawk sitting in his mews.  She pounced down to attack him, but was stopped short by the mesh roof.  He flew up to her in defense, but neither could get at eachother. I think she was planning on taking him out of the picture all together. Luckily, she was easily distracted and responded to a lure call from my H, losing interest in her next door neighbor. 

These birds are very territorial, and defend territories that range in size from 0.85 to 3.9 square kilometers, depending on the amount of food, perches, and nest sites in the territory. The female is usually the more aggressive partner around the nest itself, whereas the male more aggressively defends the territory boundaries. The birds will soar over their territory, mostly on clear days, looking for intruders.  – (Preston and Beane, 1993)

walking

Well, yesterday was the big “if you love something set it free moment” where you quickly find out if your hawk will fly the coop or will return to you for some glove love.

My husband went hunting with friends and their hawks and took Gracie along to free fly her for the first time.  They took turns hunting and waited until the end of the day to fly Gracie.  When it starts to get dark, there’s a better chance of retrieving your hawk as they don’t typically fly at night and even if she flew away, she probably wouldn’t go very far.

So, after 7-8 weeks of training, it was time to take the plunge.  At first, when encouraged to fly off of the glove, she held on.  The second time, she flew to the ground and then back to his glove.  The third time ‘s a charm and she finally realized that she could fly to a branch and did.  As the group walked into the woods, she watched them closely and began to follow my H, flying from tree to tree.  You could tell that she had her eye on him the whole time and this was a very good sign.  She flew through the trees, sometimes right by or above you (which is an amazing thing to behold) to perch on his glove, get a snack and then fly to the next tree.

The next step will be hunting with her and I’m excited to hear about their next adventure.

Gracie keeping her eye on my husband...

Gracie is about to fly to the glove

Gracie watching everyone walk through the woods

Looking for squirrels.

The end of a successful day

Gracie Sleeping

Our Red-tailed Hawk is evidently a very deep sleeper.  Watch this video as my husband opens the giant hood (her crate) and tries to wake her up – slowly and carefully.  He doesn’t want to startle her – there’s nothing worse than a grumpy hawk!

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XpdsmZwACRo&fs=1&hl=en_US

After much prodding and poking, she finally wakes up and then glares at me – I didn’t do anything, I’m just the camera person!
Walking with Hawk in Box in Hand

The scene:
27.9°
wind chill of 18°
gusts of 14 mph

As you may have heard, a cold, bitter blast of winter weather hit the south this morning. Despite the cold, it was still a beautiful day and my husband decided to head to the football field for some lure training. I tagged along to observe and snap a few photos.

According to my H, lure training is one of the final steps before free flying. As I see it, Gracie needs to view the lure as her new BFF. The way this is described in falconry terms, (which by the way, they have a different word for everything) is that she has to be “made to the lure.” Apparently, the way that you do this is to put them on a limited diet (no more Micecream Cones) and convince them that the lure (a piece of leather served with rodent tartare that gets flailed around in the air) is their next Happy Meal. Once the hawk is convinced that you are their epicurean savior, you’re ready to set sail to the high skies and roam the countryside for rascally rabbits or squirrely squirrels. Yep, right up Elmer Fudd’s alley.

There’s a little piece of chicken in the grass that she’s looking at in the foreground of the photo. I’m glad I’m not a piece of chicken.
Lure Training Gracie

The last flight to the gauntlet of the morning:
Lure Training Gracie

Hawk on a cold blustery day
Lure training on a cold blustery day

By the time the training session was over, I was an ice cube. My hands were like little stiff stalactites inside my gloves. When we got home, I took the dogs for a walk and they enjoyed the cold weather. I might have liked it better if I had a fur coat, too.

Play time's over - going home

P.S. As I write this, there’s a cold weather advisory for our town and surrounding areas. It’s snowing sideways and hot chocolate sounds really good right now.

reindeer-hat

If you have one of these hats, I apologize in advance for any offense to your sense of fun, style or Christmas spirit by this post.  This hat came into my possession recently and unexpectedly as a gift for my H to wear during the holidays. In addition to its obvious charm, it also plays, “Gramma Got Run Over by a Reindeer.”  It gets even better.  While belting out this novelty Christmas song, the hat’s antlers wave back and forth in rhythm to its country roots.  It’s truly a sight to behold, especially for a hawk.

If you were a predator, would this look like a tasty snack?

Gracie (enter hawk), was sitting on her perch in the living room the other evening. A few hours went by, the lights were down low, it was getting late and my H and the hawk were having a face-off.  Neither quite trusted the other to completely let their defenses down.  However, as I mentioned, it was getting late. In the duel between man and beast, beast was about to win.

The hat was sitting quietly on the arm of the couch between husband and hawk. It just happened to be placed there at an earlier date and time, and was one of those objects that you get used to seeing and then forget that it’s even there.

My H, sitting on that very couch had his peripheral vision glued to the hawk. As time passed, the eyelids on those green lookers started to droop lower and lower and then finally closed in exhaustion. Seconds ticked by.  Seconds turned into minutes, minutes turned into… an opportunity.  Then, the strike happened. It seemed to came out of nowhere as Gracie went for the hat… or was it the husband?

Being a hunter by nature, Gracie obviously had the upper hand in the waiting game.  She knows when a good meal is at stake.  My H didn’t have a chance.  We still don’t know til this day whether she was going for the hat or for his head. If it wasn’t for the short line connecting those long legs and sharp talons to her perch…

We later wondered, “Was she offended by the garish nature of the Christmas gag or was she waiting for the right moment to commit the perfect crime and off her captor?”

I don’t think we’ll ever know.

Hawk 1, Husband 0.

Happy Holidays!

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IO4PAhndFO8&fs=1&hl=en_US&color1=0x5d1719&color2=0xcd311b

Gracie Gets a Reward (The mouse is in her mouth)

She was at the 30 and…
… to the 40 to the 50 to the 40 to the 30 to 20.

I’m faking it – I really don’t know anything about football, but I do know that I was on a football field yesterday afternoon.  Ok, fine.  I wouldn’t even have known that unless my H hadn’t clearly said, “I’m taking Gracie to a football field.”

Of course, I was fascinated and repelled simultaneously.  Why a football field?  Sounds so… sporty.

Luckily, it had nothing to do with dueling squads of  human battering rams, vexatious announcers, mouth guards or sweaty tattoos.  That being the case, I willingly went along as a first time official outing photographer.

The local highschool football field was vacant.  It was a brisk 32° with a wind chill factor of about 21° – invigorating!   My H, pockets filled with mouse cadavers, set up the perch and creance (a thin line attached to the hawk) and I followed along, excited about the chance to capture a Gracie-in-action shot.  She flew about 5 times from the perch to my H’s gauntlet and reached up to 50 yards.  By the last time, she had begun to lose interest as she was getting full.  The entire exercise took about 20 minutes.

I was only able to get a few shots as my hands were freezing (and hawks fly a lot faster than you think):

Gracie in action - low flying along the 30 yard mark towards my H

Gracie flying 50 feet from creance to glove

Flying right towards us - what a sight!

PICT0411

Her reward (I really having nothing to say at this moment other than the macro feature on my camera works great)

Gracie with part of mouse in mouth

Eating her reward - you can still see the mouse before it completely disappeared in her mouth (I just vomited a little bit)

Gracie in Mews

This photo is just eye candy to make up for any visual violations in this post - I took it in the mews before we left