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?

Bellatrix Red-tail Hawk We picked up a beautiful passage hawk 12 days ago. A falconer and his wife who live south of us had trapped her and put out an alert in the falconry community to see if anyone was looking for a Red-tailed Hawk. My husband was! He had been trapping all month (with help from my brother and I) and had a few close calls, but none would stay on the trap. So, needless to say, we were all very excited, relieved and thankful to hear that she was trapped and available as it was getting late in the season.

To capture a bit of history and chronicle the manning of a hawk, I’ll be keeping track of the daily progress that my husband makes with Bellatrix (Bell).

Day 1: Prepare room (drop cloths on the floor, plastic on the walls, dark curtains, comfy chair and table), giant hood (a crate for transporting hawks). We picked up the hawk, drove  home and he sat with her on his arm in the dark for 3 hours. He tried to feed her, but knew that she would not be comfortable enough to accept food yet.

Day 2-10: Wash, rinse, repeat – morning, afternoon and night. During this period, the hawk is not only reluctant to accept food, but will not bend down to eat it as they are vulnerable and unsure if you are trustworthy. Also, the prey is not alive, which could be different than what they’re used to. My H offered food from a stick close to her beak until she accepted it. It took a few days, but she finally ate the mice if it was placed right next to her beak.

Day 11: Today was the day – we had a breakthrough! This morning, Bell finally leaned over to eat a tiny rodent from my husband’s glove. This was a huge step in her progress and the result of 10 days of extreme patience to earn her trust.

Beautiful colors and angles

My husband recently decided to let Gracie, his first red-tailed hawk, fly free. Only 20% of most hawks in the wild make it to maturity (due to many reasons including disease and poisoning from eating tainted rodents). A hawk that has an opportunity to be with a falconer has a greater chance of surviving when it is released, as it will be stronger and healthier than if it were in the wild.  I had a chance to take a few photos before he released her:

Gracie about to eat her last easy meal.

Gracie after eating that mouse.

She has such beautiful color and angles.

Argos waiting patiently.

Gracie (her beautiful red tail) and Theo

A Profile of Gracie

Just about to be released.

Gracie sits in the tree, unsure of her new found freedom.

My husband, saying a final farewell to Gracie.

Gracie finally flies away after about 15 minutes. Can you find her flying in the trees?

My husband has a new hawk now, a male, whose name is Oz. Stay tuned for photos and news about this new addition to our family!

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

When I hear my husband’s falconry tales, I listen in amazement and wonder how I’m going to explain the next adventure to my readers. I have to admit that his take on the story is usually a short, to the point, ex-New Yorker recap of the situation. However, knowing him as I do, there is so much color, drama and adventure between the lines that I just have to write about it!

Hailing from the Bronx and surrounding areas, he grew up with fine-tuned street smarts and survival instincts that many a hunter would envy. Maybe he’s not an expert yet at the greener sports, but he’s got that 6th sense that will serve him well in any situation.

One thing about falconry that everyone should know is that a hawk is not a pet. It’s a wild animal that can be dangerous if not handled appropriately and safety has to be number one not only for you, but for your bird. That being said, when confronted with a wild hawk on the loose, this short story should give you confidence (as long as you have fresh meat on hand – and it isn’t you).

As you can see in the image below, there are three mews connected to the barn by an inner doorway, one on the left, center and right and each one is designed to house one hawk. What you can’t see is that connecting the three (on the inside) is a third room that unites each section and acts as a safety area in case one of the hawks was to escape.

My husband’s hawk, Gracie, is in the center mews (if you look closely, you can see two perches through the mesh wall). The left mews houses Scout, our cousin’s hawk and the right mews is currently empty.

The other day, my H decided to feed Gracie from the lure in her mews. He was wearing his falconry vest and had the lure and food in his back pocket. As he was about to open the door to her mews, he sensed something behind him (yep, anti-attacker-stalker-mugger-smarts). As he turned to look back, he saw a hawk coming out of the doorway of the unoccupied mews and into the “escape” room towards him. This was one of those moments when “act first, ask questions later” was the wisest choice (and besides, hawks can’t talk). Out came the lure from his pocket along with its bounty in order to distract the hawk from attacking the food which was located near my husband’s _ _ _ (rhymes with bass). Luckily, it ended up being Scout who had just escaped from his mews. He ate the food, hopped up on my husband’s glove and was quickly returned to his perch.

Although street smarts is mostly applied to the urban setting, I think there is a place for it in the outdoors .  Perhaps it is otherwise known as common sense (as usually it’s knowledge that isn’t learned through study of theoretical material). It seems that survival in any setting would involve an understanding of how to function properly in your environment.

As my husband later said:
“You got to know when to hold em, know when to fold em,
Know when to walk away and know when to run.”

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