Raptors in Flight, Desert Delight

Let us prey.

Is there a more magnificent bird than the owl? Pink flamingos be damned – give me an owl over those smelly things any day. Owls are bold, brilliant, mysterious, and a little spooky. Their power and might have to be seen up close to be believed, but it is astounding. They are fierce predators, ferocious foes, and spiritual totems. As a child, I adored them, thanks mostly to the friendly façade of Woodsy the Owl. (Give a hoot, don’t pollute!)

On this day at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, a “Raptor Free Flight” demonstration was about to begin as I entered the beautiful pathway and made my way through the sun-baked environs. Assembling with a group of gawkers along the observation corridor, I waited until the first hawk swooped down from overhead. With no nets or cage to keep them, the birds flew close to us. Strict warnings were given not to extend anything above our heads, and as one of these predators flew by, you could feel the rush of wind in their wake. It was incredible. Still, I’d seen hawks before, right in my own backyard, and I wanted something more.

It arrived in the form of a Great Horned Owl that landed right nearby. I’m seldom truly marveled by things, but seeing this majestic creature in such close proximity was a revelation. Its eyes were as big as folklore makes them out to be, its head swiveled in impossible circles, and its cries were glorious reminders of all that is wild and wonderful in this world. I could watch and study such magnificence all day long, but with one final screech it was beating those immense wings and swooping out of sight. Such beauty is often fleeting, and never long enough for those of us who want more.

A red-tailed hawk was the final show-stopper of the day, but as wild animals aren’t always on the timetable and schedule that we humans strive to achieve, it flew high into the sky and the announcer said we were free to disperse as there was no telling when it would deign to return. He continued to talk some more, but in the hot sun I was ready for a shaded nook and some water, so I walked away from the viewing area.

A few moments later, I heard him announce that if we looked up we could see the hawk returning. I searched the sky and saw a tiny spot far in the distance. The announcer was adamant that it was returning, and quickly, so I kept my eye on it. In seconds, it was speeding toward the crowd like a missile. One moment it was a speck, the next it was over my head. I have never seen anything so fast and so close. The speed that the hawk had was insane, the way it tucked its legs and wings into the most aerodynamic form was diabolical, and the quickness of the whole thing made me realize how easy it would be to grab a rodent without warning. The whiz and whirl of the natural world.

A quieter scene was to be found in the hummingbird house, where a couple of these floating machines were enjoying a rare moment of rest.

Back on land, beautiful beasts rested in the blaze of the desert sun. The trick is to stay as still as possible, exerting as little effort as possible, and I will attempt to re-create that stance as much as possible.

Last but not least was one of the more interesting animals of the desert, and one which I’d never seen anywhere else: the coati. An omnivore after my own heart, this animal will eat almost anything. (Though I draw the line at grubs.) After a morning of exploration, I was ready for a meal myself.

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