Raptors, raptors, raptors!

I’m going to dispense with all pretense of food for this post. This is a very non-vegan post in that it’s all about very non-vegan beings: birds of prey, or raptors. I love them! I’m just fascinated by raptors. So when I somehow stumbled over the Capitol Photography Center website while looking for something completely non-related and found an upcoming “raptor photo safari”, I was all over it. This happened this past Saturday and let me tell you, it ended up being such a fabulous day. It was one of those days where you don’t win the lottery or anything obviously fantastic like that, but at the end of the day you look back and realize, “I did everything I love today!”.

I think there are a couple different schools of thought when it comes to wildlife photography: one feels that it’s easier and safer to photograph captive animals, and also more interesting in that you have access to many animals you’d never see otherwise, while the other feels that there’s no challenge in captive animal photography. I am more a member of the latter school, although most of that is because I don’t believe animals should be in captivity in the first place. I don’t go to zoos, which rules out nearly all of my chances of seeing captive animals…I’m the rare specimen for whom it’s easier to find wild animals than it is captive animals! Well, other than captive raccoons, but all of our raccoons eventually become wild. I was interested in this particular photo safari, however, because it was held at a nature center where they presented several different raptors for us to photograph in a natural setting, which would allow me to get much closer to them than is generally possible. All of the animals are “education animals”, which are injured animals that have been rehabbed but are non-releasable for various reasons. I don’t have a problem with education animals being held in captivity. It’s either that or euthanasia for them and all the ones I have met have been well loved and cared for. I go to a lot of trainings and the like where I see education animals, but mostly they are being held by handlers and we are indoors – doesn’t make for fabulous pictures. So this was a really cool opportunity. They do it a few times a year (the next one will be on my birthday – October 19!); if you live in the DC/Baltimore area and that sounds interesting to you, I recommend it.

How about some pictures, you say? Well, of course. The first bird to come out was a barred owl. I think they said this was a male, because he was pretty small and I know that like many raptors, male owls are smaller than female owls.

Next up was one of my favorite owls, the Great Horned. I got a picture of the handler bringing him out because I WANT THAT TO BE MY JOB. Actually, I’ve been giving serious consideration to volunteering with a raptor group here, in which case, it MIGHT one day be my job! (Where by “job” I mean another thing I do that involves getting pooped on with no pay.)

You can see the jesses in this picture – the leather straps that tether the bird in place. He had enough mobility to hop around, but not enough to fly away.

This is why I love Great Horned owls – their EYES! Torticia makes this exact face at me all the time; I’ve always told her she looks like an owl when she does it.

Next was a red-shouldered hawk. This one is missing an eye. We also saw a red-tailed hawk, which is similar but larger, but I don’t seem to have uploaded a picture of that one.

I must say, Mark is more perceptive than I sometimes give him credit for. He was looking at my pictures later and when he saw the next one, he said, “this eagle doesn’t look…all there.” I don’t know how he can tell from the picture, but this bald eagle is brain damaged.

Brain damage or not, he was majestic. Eagles are just special, man. Another thing about Mark is he and I think alike, which is scary. He saw the next one and said, “he’s strutting!”, without knowing I had named this file, simply, “strutting”.

I want to hold an eagle.

I’d never seen a golden eagle in person. This one had been shot on the Maryland Eastern Shore. WHO SHOOTS AN EAGLE??? What is WRONG with people? Every time I think of whoever it was who shot this animal, all I can do is comfort myself by thinking of whoever it was who found the injured animal and took it to safety, and the person who meticulously removed all of the buckshot from its wing and performed surgery on it, and the people who care for it every day. That’s one bad person and many good people. The world is a good place, right?

The instructor told us he had requested the Eastern screech owl for the “cute” factor. He’s so tiny!! Smaller than my cats!

The handler didn’t say the peregrine falcon was her favorite animal, but she was clearly very attached to and proud of him. He’s 15 years old and has been all over the country, including a stint at Dollywood teaching other rehabbed peregrines how to be peregrines. I didn’t know that was even a thing that Dollywood did.

That was all of the animals. We had about 15 minutes with each one. The instructor was there to give tips and help with your camera or photography if you needed it. I would definitely do it again, although I admit that although I got some great shots, I didn’t quite feel the same indescribable joy that I do when I get a picture of something new when I’m out in nature. So later in the day I decided it was far too nice out to do my daily walk on the treadmill and instead headed to Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, my default park. I was only going with the intent to walk for exercise, so although I grabbed my small mirrorless camera just in case, I wasn’t expecting to take many pictures. I wasn’t finished going through and editing the more than 1,200 pictures (!!!) I’d taken on the photo safari! Well, five minutes into my walk, what should walk across my path but a wild turkey! This was amazing because I’ve seen them there before but I’ve never been able to get a picture because they are very shy and very fast. Usually you just hear them rustling about and never actually see them. So getting a picture of one has been a goal of mine. When you least expect things…

No, it’s not nearly as good a picture as any of the ones above, but it was in a way more fulfilling. I continued walking and eventually came upon a tree full of vultures. And found my camera battery was dead! As was the spare! I was so mad! So I practically ran 1/2 mile back to my car to get my “big” camera, which is a LOT better at telephoto shots anyway, then trotted back to the vulture tree, and they were all still patiently waiting for me. (Okay, they were probably patiently waiting for dinner and not the paparazzi.)

Two turkey and one black vulture:

One turkey and one black vulture:

Black vulture being a vulture:

Vulture flying into the setting sun:

Driving home from the refuge, I realized what a great day it had been, other than the waking up at 5 a.m. part. I was presented with a bunch of raptors to photograph as I pleased; the weather could only be described as “perfection”; because the photo safari was in Maryland, I got to spend hours driving my beloved convertible on a perfect spring day; I spent a couple of hours relaxing and editing pictures in my favorite chair; I went to my favorite park at sunset and got a picture of an animal I’ve been trying to photograph for a long time, and I got great shots of lots of vultures. AND I was exhausted when I got home – the best kind of exhausted – and Mark surprised me by making dinner. That, my friends, is my idea of a GREAT day! And guess what – my next post WILL have a recipe.


  1. Josiane Said,

    May 1, 2013 @ 9:36 pm

    I love that you got to enjoy such a fantastic day! Waking up at 5 a.m. is indeed brutal, but then, that has let you pack a *lot* of great stuff in the hours that followed.

  2. Chantal Said,

    May 4, 2013 @ 6:07 pm

    Good day Renae,

    I just wanted to thank you for the advice you gave me re: volunteering to rehab wildlife. I ended up finding a place around here (okay… I admit: an hour away) that did it. I started today feeding squirrel babies. We also have a beaver, a couple of porcupines, a bunch of turtles and, of course, raccoons. You were so right when you said they were noisy. It is pretty impressive! Anyway, thanks!

  3. renae Said,

    May 5, 2013 @ 5:23 pm

    Chantal, I’m so glad to hear that! I hope you find it a rewarding experience. By the way, I’ve always liked the name Chantal, and in fact, when I took high school French and everyone had to go by a French name chosen by the teacher (the closest equivalent of our real names), of course I was Renee, but I insisted on being called Renee-Chantal.

  4. Chantal Said,

    May 5, 2013 @ 9:07 pm

    C’est vrai… Maintenant que tu le mentionnes (je me permets de te tutoyer, d’accord?), je me souviens avoir vu des bouquins en français dans tes photos. Tu t’y étais plongée en vue d’un voyage en France. I am impressed you got anything out of your French classes. My husband actively worked on forgetting the little he had learned upon leaving High School.

  5. Jes Said,

    May 8, 2013 @ 12:37 pm

    Your vultures get me in a tizzy every time. !!!

    The photo safari sounds incredibly fun–when you’re out in the wilds, what lenses do you normally shot with? I’ve been wanting to get more into nature photography but haven’t bought any mega lenses yet. Just wondering what ones you use.

    Also, mirrorless camera ftw!

  6. renae Said,

    May 8, 2013 @ 9:39 pm

    Jes, I primarily use the Canon 400mm f5.6L for wildlife. I bought it used on eBay. It’s a great lens. I debated a lot between that and the 100-400mm zoom but although I occasionally end up too close to my subject when I’m wandering around the wildlife refuge, I’m usually happy enough to just switch to my macro lens and the image quality is wonderful, so I think I made the right decision. The 100mm macro is also awesome; image quality is fantastic. The focal length is not my favorite, although it worked well for the photo safari and is good for flowers and bugs. I can’t think of any instance when I’ve wished I had something between 100mm and 400mm, so working with two primes instead of the zoom works for me.

    The mirrorless camera is awesome for travel, but terrible for wildlife, at least wildlife that is any real distance away. Although the 70-300mm lens I have for the mirrorless camera is a million times lighter than the Canon 400mm, it’s actually easier to handhold the huge 400mm (it’s very hard to hold the smaller lens steady, believe it or not), and the camera just can NOT track moving objects at a distance. The mirrorless camera IS good for landscapes and people.

  7. Jes Said,

    May 9, 2013 @ 10:12 am

    Renae–awesome, thanks for the lowdown. I really like the idea of a non-zoom for the big honkin lens. Definitely on my wish list for a ways out, but always good to get reviews from people I know!

  8. Nikki Said,

    May 29, 2013 @ 2:41 pm

    Hey Renae! Just in case you never knew, I have always admired your photography skills. Wonderful raptor photos! Hopefully, you are able to see Fred more often since he is closer to you now. I miss everybody! Say hello to Smark for me! XO

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