Thursday, January 21, 2010

Raptor Free Flight--Literally


Our "greeter" upon approaching the ticket office at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum was this barn owl.

However, given that the Museum is a world-renowned zoo, natural history museum and botanical garden, the welcome from the barn owl was entirely appropriate. In fact, the Museum is regularly listed as one of the top ten zoological parks in the world because of its unique approach in interpreting the complete natural history of a single region--the Sonoran Desert.

The Museum's publications emphasize this status: "This represents a significant achievement, since the Museum's collections and size are smaller than many of its counterparts. Not a 'museum' in the usual sense, it is an unparalleled composite of plant, animal, and geologic collections with the goal of making the Sonoran Desert accessible, understandable, and treasured."

On our way to one of the program's within the grounds, we walked along the Desert Loop Trail, part of almost 2 miles of paths covering a portion of the 21 acres of beautiful desert. We passed javelina and coyote, but we could only get close enough to a subject to photograph this flowering plant.

The sunlight on the Teddy Bear Cholla created a stunning brilliance on this grouping.

William H. Carr inspired the Museum, when, in 1944, he moved to Tucson and found "a gross lack of knowledge about the desert among the local populace as well as in the national mind." He and Arthur Pack founded the Museum in 1952.

The sunlight caught the hairs on one of the cactus arms to give them an orange appearance when framed against the black background of another cactus. (Double click to enlarge the photo.)

We arrived at the location for the Raptor Free Flight program just in time for the Chihuahuan ravens to put on a show of their flying skills. I felt fortunate to get this photograph, since these birds flew with great speed from point to point within a distance of a few hundred yards between handlers.

This is a unique bird of prey flight demonstration in that it occurs in the open desert.

The Harris Hawk was the next featured raptor, i.e., a bird that eats live prey and also has excellent vision, sharp talons or toenails, and hooked or curved beaks. The hawk made several passes over the people in attendance as it flew between handlers. On some of the trips between handlers, the bird took a rather circuitous route as though hunting for prey.

Before the introductions of the birds, those in attendance were warned not to reach for their hats as the birds flew overhead. The reason for this advice became clear with the flights of the Harris Hawk. Several of its passes between destinations were so close to the heads of people that one or two said they felt its wing.

Material from the Museum states that "Unlike other bird flight shows, the Raptor Free Flight focuses the attention on the birds and how they behave in nature." Although it was not needed, the validity of this statement was confirmed by the Ferruginous Hawk.

From where I was standing, I could only get a glimpse of this large hawk with a wing span that could reach 56". Hoping to get a photograph of this magnificent bird, I moved to a better location in the crowd. But as the bird took flight, I was caught up in its beauty and did not try to photograph it.

The hawk made a wide circle high above the crowd and . . . was last seen heading due west into the desert. Thus ended the (aptly named) Raptor Free Flight program.

On our way back to the Museum, we heard the sounds of the Cactus Wren. From a docent at this location, we learned that this wren, the state bird of Arizona, is very territorial. While listening to the docent, we noticed three other wrens had joined the first, and all were engaged making threatening demands.

Their irritation was clearly directed at the feathered one sitting on the hand of the docent. In this photograph© of the Western Screech Owl, it appeared calm, but we could see that it was clearly aware of the wrens' presence. This owl eats a diverse array of small animals—primarily small rodents, but also birds, . . . . So, the reason for the wrens' displeasure was clear.

Well, the severe thunderstorm warning and tornado watch have expired, but the high wind warning is still in effect. For Tucson, AZ.

In January.

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