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?

You may have been one of those people who excelled at sports (and if you were, I really do admire you), however, I was never among that elite group of fit, perky, energetic individuals that could kick &@!$% in their chosen field. For me, it was a series of painful, embarrassing, awkward moments and Sysyphean tasks. Phys Ed was my nemesis. No happy-happy, no joy-joy. Which leads me to the point of this post.

I glimpsed P.E. joy this weekend.
Would you believe that a local college actually had falconry as a credit for P.E.?
How cool is that?!?

Last Sunday, the N. Georgia college offered a class presented by a falconer/raptor rehabilitator. A master falconer (who is also a coach at the college), organized the presentation and invited some other falconers to attend (my hubs included).  I tagged along and took a few photos.

As I sat in the classroom (reminiscing about the horrors of P.E.), I looked around at the students and wondered why they took this class.  Did they want to become falconers or did they hate P.E. as much as I did? Whatever the reason, not only did they escape the wrath of sweaty athletics, the door of a fascinating sport was opened to them. Only time will tell if any of them will walk through it and join the select group of those who have embraced the pursuit of falconry.

Here are a few photos taken from (at present) the only college level falconry course in the country.

Anatomy and Physiology

Raptor Anatomy and Physiology

Feathers and Flight

Discussing Feathers and Flight

The Cast

Presenting the Cast (An egg-shaped ball, consisting of feathers, bones, etc., which all hawks throw up after the nutritious part of their food has been digested.)

Raptor Rehabilitation

Raptor rehabilitaton tools - tube to feed or provide electrolytes for a raptor

Classroom filled with students and falconers

Classroom filled with students and falconers

Falconry class

An outside demonstration after the class

After the class for college students and demonstration for children was over, the students and falconers split up into different groups and went hunting.

Maddie captures a squirrel

Maddie, a Red-Tailed Hawk, captures a squirrel

I now have a new, albeit grudging respect for P.E.

What about you, did you like P.E.? (wait – before you say anything, take a moment to reminisce on the fetid stench of muggy locker rooms, heinous polyester shorts, bad hair days, being 13, cruel temperature extremes, archaic equipment and the fascist attitudes that often go with the teaching of team sports – sorry coaches. ) Ok, now you can answer.

European Kestrel (a small falcon). Photo by quaddie

The Kestrel (photo by deoroller)

I came across this beautiful poem about the Kestrel, which is a small falcon only a little bigger than a Robin. It’s distinctly colorful and when it hunts, it “hovers” in the currents of the wind.

It was written by Gerard Hopkins and published in 1918. He admires this remarkable bird of prey alluding that it controls the wind as a man might control a horse. The kestrel then suddenly swoops downwards and “rebuffs the big wind”.

The Windhover

I caught this morning morning’s minion, kingdom of daylight’s dauphin,
dapple-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! Then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend; the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird–the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!

Brute beauty and valor and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
Buckle! And the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!

No wonder of it; sheer plod makes plow down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion.

by Gerard Manley Hopkins

Now that you’ve felt his immense delight for this bird’s prowess and design, watch this video of the kestrel floating on the currents of the wind with its eye to the ground for a tasty morsel.

I loved how Hopkin’s described the Kestrel as “daylight’s dauphin, dapple-drawn Falcon.” You can see in this video the beautiful dapple coloring in its wings. The Kestrel is also known as the “Windhover” as it requires a slight headwind in order to hover.

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

1318184_red_heart

A huge thank you to Joe and Rebecca of the Outdoor Blogger Network (OBN) for featuring my blog as one of their “Featured Outdoor Bloggers of the Week.” When I first found the OBN, I was so impressed with the quality of the content, comraderie and spirit of adventure that I submitted my blog hoping to be included among such great company.  Alas, not only was I kindly added to their blog, but shortly afterwards  (2 days to be exact) they went a step further and added a whole new falconry category which now includes 2 other falconer’s blogs (Hawk Heaven and Tink’s Falconry Journal).

For their side of this scintillating story visit the OBN’s Featured Outdoor Blogger of the Week

Don’t be timid – check out the other falconry blogs on the OBN’s hot Falconry Category

And, be sure to take a moment and congratulate the other bloggers that were featured this week – but be careful, you might get hooked!

BTW, in case you didn’t know, the Outdoor Blogger Network is known as THE place for everyone to come, find the best Outdoor blogs, and enjoy our great outdoors just a little more!”

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