Photographing Raptors Turns into a Labor of Love

LAGRANGE — I’ve always been fascinated by raptors.

Big birds, birds of prey — eagles, owls, hawks, falcons, and peregrines — just to name a few.

But it wasn’t until a chance meeting with three Soarin’ Hawk Raptor Rehab volunteers that I got a chance to work with those birds. And that collaboration has produced a calendar for 2021 featuring photos of its birds.

Soarin’ Hawk is a Huntertown-based organization that rescues and rehabilitates injured and orphaned birds around the northeast quarter of Indiana, as well as southwest Michigan and northwest Ohio. Each year, Soarin’ Hawk team members travel thousands of miles speaking to school children, clubs, and organizations about raptors, as well as showcasing several of the group’s birds – most so tragically injured by an encounter with mankind that they can no longer care for themselves in the wild. Those injuries include things like shattered or lost wings, neurological damage, and blinded eyes. Still, in the hands of Soarin’ Hawk volunteers, those birds can continue to play a vital role across the region, raising awareness about raptors and acting as species ambassadors on visits to schools, clubs, and organizations.

Soarin’ Hawk is an almost exclusively volunteer organization. Its only paid staff member is a part-time vet technician. Veterinarians are paid for their services, but the handlers, who feed, rehabilitate, and care for the animals, are all volunteers — more than 100 in total – donating their time.

It was my chance encounter with three Soarin’ Hawk volunteers several years ago that they mentioned it would be great to have a gallery of photographs of actual Soarin’ Hawk educational birds, photos that could be used to create a special one-of-a-kind Soarin’ Hawk calendar.

“I think I can help,” I said, without giving it a second thought.

The pictures, one person said, had to be special. He wanted the birds photographed against a black background. It’s trickier than it sounds. It requires controlled lighting, including a key backlight that helps lift the subject out of the black background.

And so, last February, along with the help of my better half, Suellyn, I started shooting photographs of those birds: 25 different educational animals, spaced out over three four-hour sessions, accounting for nearly 600 photographs. At first, my goal was to shoot the perfect profile of each bird, head to tail, showing how magnificent each animal was, but I quickly discovered that each animal had a lot more to offer than that. Each bird has a unique temperament, and all I really had to do was sit back for a few minutes and allow that personality to bloom right before my camera.

Almost as quickly, I started to develop a real connection with each bird I photographed. Sheyenne, for example, a Harris Hawk, worked the camera like a Hollywood star walking on the red carpet, jumping from pose to pose giving me her best as I grabbed frame after frame with my camera.

Monet and Athena were hilarious. A juvenile Barn Owl and a juvenile Great Horned Owl, each had the attention span of, well ... a kid. Both were curious about everything in the room and both quickly grew bored with me.

Then there was Chewie, an Eurasian Eagle Owl, the second largest owl in the world. Chewie has talons and a beak so big and powerful he could shred a human. But that’s not Chewie. Turns out he’s a shy, quiet owl who would rather cuddle than fight.

I worked with Ginger, and Ruby, and Homer and Puck, and Jefferson, and Sherman, Peabody, Skylar, and Marshmallow, Frankie, Freckles, and Hawkeye, just to name a few. The list goes on and on, but trust me, each animal is now very special to me.

Many of those photos are now being featured in a Soarin’ Hawk calendar that’s headed to press later this month. The proceeds raised by the calendar will be used to help feed those birds in Soarin’ Hawk’s care. The mission is more critical now than ever because COVID-19 closed the door to Soarin’ Hawk’s normal channels to fundraise.

To purchase a calendar and help support this one-of-a-kind nonprofit organization, visit soarinhawk.org and look for the calendar link under the donate tab.

By Patrick Redmond predmond@kpcmedia.com​​​​​​​