Dan and I went to this year’s Hawk Watch yesterday. There were probably several hundred people there over the day. Sky Kings Falconry Service brought some of their raptors and conducted several flight demonstrations. Kevin Gaines, the President, and his assistant had several raptors perform for the audience including a Barn Owl, Black Vulture, Harris’s Hawk, and a Eurasian Eagle Owl, while Joel Simon with Hawk Watch International gave informative talks about the Hawks that migrate over south Texas.
The White-Tailed Kite, as Joel Simon explained, hadn’t been breeding here in Texas since the very early 1900’s but in the past 20 years or so they had begun breeding here in Texas again since habitat for them has been encouraged. Texas Parks and Wildlife offered a reward for anyone who found a breeding pair of White Tailed Kites and a couple of nests were located. It came to be known that these birds pick a tree which is distinctly taller than any of the surrounding trees (such as one tree above all the others in a wooded area.) This seems to ring true. When we were taking a van tour around Welder Wildlife Refuge this past Thursday, Dan spotted a White-Tailed Kite which had perched itself in a substantially taller Oak tree among surrounding Mesquite trees.
Kevin Gaines with Sky Kings and his assistant gave a fun and informative demonstration of their live raptors. These birds are breed in captivity for the specific purpose of being used in falconry. Sky Kings provides falconry services, such as bringing in their birds to scare away nuisance birds such as pigeons, starlings, grackles and seagulls. They also lead guided hunts with their falcons. This particular group of birds he was using to demonstate at the celebration was a special group. These are his stage birds, not his hunting or abatement birds. This group of birds are injured birds that he can’t use in his other services and that couldn’t survive in the wild. By using them as performers a way has been found for them to earn their keep, I guess. Each bird performed one at a time with Kevin Gaines prompting them to take flight from the perch near him and fly to the perch near his assistant. Then his assistant would guide birds to return to their original perch. The birds were enticed to action and rewarded with the lure of raw meat. It looked like chicken, yuck! Birds eating other birds, isn’t nature ironic sometimes?
The whole audience of about 70 people enjoyed watching these good-tempered and often times endearing little characters. There was Tango, the Harris’s Hawk. He was a handsome bird that demonstrated his skills with miltary style accuracy and precision. Harris’ Hawks are one of the few hawks who hunt cooperatively. Some of them will flush the prey in the direction of the other hawks who await the fleeing animals for an easy catch. I assume the birds evenly divide the proceeds or at least return the favor. Nevertheless it is a cooperative and organized hunt!
Black Vultures have a digestive system that is so strong that they can eat carrion which is infected with E. Coli and Anthrax and not be affected. Igor was the name of the Black Vulture Kevin Gaines showed the crowd. Why was he named Igor? Because of the characteristic walking style of the Black Vulture which seems to drag one foot in a limping fashion, much like the movie character Igor. “Yes, Master. Yes, Master,” Kevin mimicked the bird’s walk as the audience laughed.
“Widget” the barn owl, was a lovely bird who’s gentle, quiet personality made her easy for the audience to fall in love with. Despite her impression of being adorable and extremely pettable, it was explained that these kind of birds do not make good pets and are not easy to handle without specialized training. Oddly, this owl is more numerous around places inhabited by people, but generally goes without being noticed because it has silent flight and is more active at night. We witnessed how quiet their flight is by watching Bridget perform for her meat treats. When we say silent, that is literally, she made no noise when she flew. Barn owls are a very important predator in that they help control the rodent population which carries many diseases deadly to humans.
Artemis, the Eurasian Eagle Owl was a very big owl, but only 5 months old. His youthful mannerisms and being “new” to performing made him quite the attraction. He seemed to enjoy perching up on the post in front of the audience. His curiosity with watching passing golf carts go by and what the golfers were doing kept him preoccupied, as his trainer was left hanging, until Artemis was ready to move on. His trainer patiently repeated his requests, but the young owl was too busy scoping things out to pay much mind. With a little encouragement and direction from the assistant, Artemis finished his performance quite well and with a good-natured readiness. There was a man in the audience who seemed to love this bird and periodically made comments sympathizing with the owl in a tone which would imply great fondness of the bird, and skepticism for the trainer. I guess that for Mr. Gaines, it might not be uncommon to have a member of the audience who seems to take the bird’s “side,” and give an oral narration of how the bird is just misunderstood while the trainer is generally a boof. The trainer would say something like, “Getting Artemis back into the cage is going to be the hard part.” Then of course, contradicting Mr. Gaines prediction, Artemis flew back into the cage cooperatively and with ease. The interpretive audience member said, “Not tooooooo hard.”
The children in the audience were very interested and asked lots of questions about the birds. Suddenly the show came to a halt, though, when a kettle of hawks were spotted flying over the park. Whenever hawks came through in a kettle, someone would shout it out loud enough for the crowd to hear and whatever was going on at the time would give heed and defer to the hawks.
Some other groups that were present at the Hawk event were Audubon Outdoor Club of Corpus Christi which gives free birding field trips in the area. We spoke to the women “manning” the booth. They were very helpful, explaining that their group meets once a month on the second Tuesday of the month. They have speakers scheduled for their meetings. This coming month, they will have a speaker on the Purple Martin. Information can be found at www.ccbirding.com.
Donald Scibienski was there to represent the South Texas Botanical Gardens & Nature Center. He brought with him about ten reptiles and amphibian species each in different little boxes and a Diamondback Rattlesnake in a small aquarium. The effort made to bring these animals to the event made their booth the most fun of all the booths present, especially when it came to kids. Donald explained that he is in charge of the Botanical Gardens Reptile and Amphibian exhibit at the South Texas Botanical Gardens & Nature Center in Corpus Christi. He gave Dan a snake to put around his neck. Dan did so, without hesitation, smiling from ear to ear, as I remained behind the camera gladly.