It was a typical night at the Lake Placid Lodge on 4 February 2017. I was there with my birds to conduct my normal Saturday bird of prey presentation to the interested guests. At the onset, the visit seemed to be just like countless visits I had done in the past ten years. In my routine, I always brought Morley out first and I talked about how amazing he was and what made birds of prey so special. It was finally time to put Morley back in the car and for Tessie to make her weekly appearance. She was waiting in her travel crate in the back of my car along with Scooter and Mortimer. Each bird traveled in a separate travel crate, except for Morley, who sat on the back of the front passenger seat.
I reached down to pick Morley up off the perch and he twittered excitedly and stepped onto the glove. I told the guests that I would be back soon and proceeded to walk down the stairs to the first floor. As always Morley perched comfortably on the glove as we made our way through the building to the door. Occasionally Morley would bait off the glove, when the door leading out onto the lower terrace was opened and we walked through. The view from there was spectacular with the snow covered lawn directly below us and the lake stretching out from there to the foot of the snow frosted Whiteface Mountain towering off in the distance.
It was at that precise moment that it happened and my typical evening routine was irreversibly altered. Because of Morley’s strength whenever he baited, I would generally hold tightly to his leash and wait till he righted himself on the glove and then we would continue our trek across the stone terrace to the covered stairs and we would work our way down them to my car waiting for us only 100 yards away at the bottom of the hill. However, unbeknownst to me the leather anklets that wrapped around his legs and acted like a dog collar were both sufficiently rotted enough through the past year to have been adequately weakened and when he tugged hard on them…they both tore from his legs and Morley was free. With several strong wing beats he shot over the lawn and banked around the trees and cottages standing at the edge of the lake and he was gone.
In a panic I thundered down the stairs to where I had last seen him and desperately searched for my lost friend. It was no good, I didn’t see him and to make matters worse, the sun was just setting and soon it would be dark. I was afraid that I would never see him again and I was sick to my stomach with grief. For you see, to the best of my knowledge, Morley had never hunted in his life and if I could not locate him before too long, he ran the risk of starving to death. An imprinted bird, such as Morley, was used to living with me and would sooner or later seek food from me and if he did not find me, soon he would approach strangers in desperation. Approaching an unknown person was always a dangerous prospect because he ran the risk of being injured or killed by a frightened person that mistook his intentions and felt they were being attacked. Numerous other fates awaited Morley if he was unlucky, such as electrocution, a collision with a car and being attacked by other wildlife.
I was in total shock as I frantically searched the trees and cottage roofs in an effort to locate him. I was sure he hadn’t flown far and I needed to locate him quickly, Inevitably, the sun set and darkness enveloped the land. Totally defeated, I numbly dragged myself back up the stairs and into the lodge to collect my possessions and let them know what had happened. As I trudged slowly back up the stairs I had the sickening feeling that he was gone forever. When I arrived back upstairs, I found seated on the chairs where I had been presenting was Kelli, a wildlife photographer, who had come to see my birds and her two friends. Sadly, I informed them of the recent events and they agreed to come down with me and assist in the search. By now the rest of the lodges’ inhabitants were all buzzing about the news of Morley’s escape and were extremely concerned and very sympathetic to my plight.
Half an hour into the search, I was talking to Kristel on my track phone organizing a search party for the next day when I suddenly spotted a flash of large wings near one of the cabins a hundred feet away. With my heart pounding, I rushed to the cabin and spotted his silhouette against the moonlit sky. He was sitting on the cabin’s roof and he was scanning the countryside with his great orange eyes. Kelli and her friends surrounded the cabin in order to determine which direction he went if he flew off. Softly I spoke to him and held up a mouse as I tried to coax him to come to me.
I am sure that Morley was totally dumbfounded by his new freedom and little bit scared because of his total exposure and vulnerability. The previous visit one week earlier, he had been terrified by fluffy snow blowing off the tree branches above his head, so I imagined that he was very sacred. The concerned folks from the lodge showed up and asked if I could use a ladder. The lodge employees had all watched Morley grow up and they were all very concerned for his well-being. At first I resisted the suggested ladder, but when it became clear that he was not coming to me I agreed and they quickly had a rickety ladder leaning against the one-story cabin that Morley was perched upon.
I slowly ascended the unstable aluminum ladder to the snow covered roof trying to make as little noise as possible. When I reached the roof, I realized that there was no way for me to stay on the slippery roof without sliding off so I remained on the ladder at the edge of the structure. With all that activity below his perch, Morley was getting agitated and hopped back and forth from the roof to the chimney. He nervously glanced in my direction and with a flap moved further out of reach atop the chimney. Reluctantly, we moved the ladder to the chimney and as I slowly extended it’s frame skyward, Morley had enough and shot off into the night sky.
In a panic we tried to regroup and to trace his route but to no avail it was too dark. Kelli quickly found and flashlight and started searching the nearby trees where she insisted he flew to. I was sure he flew further and searched a pine tree further down the shoreline. After another forty-five minutes of searching in vain, I decided I needed to leave and let Morley settle down. I was sure that an army of well-intentioned souls canvassing the area and flashlight beams scanning the night skies was not helping matters.
I asked people to leave so that he would settle down. I also decided to leave and come back early the next day and try to find him. Driving away without him was one of the hardest things I had ever done in my life. But I had to think of my other birds and I could not help him at that moment. I numbly drove the 54 miles to my home and quietly unloaded my other birds. It is my practice to feed them upon our return and realized then, that Morley had only eaten 2 small mice early that morning and that he would be hungry soon.
I had decided I needed to eat and get a few hours of sleep before returning to the lodge to start my ill-fated search. By 10:00 PM the phone rang and it was the people from the lodge with news. Morley was hooting next to one of the occupied cabins and they knew where he was perched! They also rose to the occasion and offered the use of one of the unoccupied cabins for me to stay in while I searched. I was back on the road within minutes and renewed my search at midnight. I called out to Morley into the night sky and was answered with a low…HOOT. Within seconds, I was standing under his tree and I could see his head bobbing against the moonlit skies. I held up my gloved hand garnished with a delicious mouse and offered him the snack as an enticement to coax him out of the tree and to me.
I spent the next hour talking to him and listening to his hoots. Then he decided to move and with a flash of wings he silently launched himself into the night sky. The gibbous moon illuminated the sky and I stood there helplessly and watched him fly to the roof of the lodge. He was easily 60 feet off the ground and I could see him hop from one of the six chimneys to another as he began to enjoy his new found freedom. It was now 2 in the morning and I knew I needed to sleep if I were to ever hold him again. So reluctantly, I left Morley alone for the second time in six hours. My last glimpse of him frolicking on the rooftop in the cloudy moonlit night made me think of Hogwarts. I crawled into bed thinking that I probably saw the last of Morley and tried to sleep.
At 5:00 AM I clamored out of bed to resumed my search. But how would I find him in the frosty landscape? I searched in vain along the lodge roof and saw no romping owl. I called his name and strained to hear a deep HOOT echoing back to me from the murky grounds, but my plaintive call was only met by silence. Slowly, I ascended the stairs and maneuvered to the front of the building and called to him again. This time my efforts were met with a distant and deep…HOOT as he answered me. I rushed to the source of the sound and found him in the pine trees on the edge of a fairway of the golf course. He was flying from one tree to another back and forth across the fairway. I tried desperately to maintain contact with him.
My hopes of having a quiet setting in which I could lure him down were soon shattered. The person in charge of maintaining the ski trails came out with a very loud snowmobile and started grooming them. It seemed like everything was working against me. The loud noise startled Morley and he quickly retreated to a more secure location to watched as the frightening machine roared off into the slowly lightening countryside. By now I had a bal chatris baited with dead mice, because that is what he was used to eating and because I had no live bait, and I had set it out underneath him. I was also armed with a mouse in my gloved hand. My goal was to maintain contact with him until he was hungry and then he would come to me. I kept adjusting the trap’s location whenever he moved and once was actually within 10 yards of him as he stood on a fence post and hooted at me. When we hooted he assumed a courtship posture. That encouraged me because he was so bonded to me that I could count on him staying close. I slowly reached the garnished glove out to him and gently cajoled him to come to me. Just when it appeared that he might come to me the snowmobile roared over the ridge and a frightened Morley rocketed off into the ever lightening skies of the new day.
The apologetic snowmobile driver had finished grooming the trails and was preparing to leave for the day. He was unaware of the situation and apologized profusely for scaring him off, but I told him that he had no idea what was going on and that I did not fault him. By now the raucous calls of a large murder of crows near the lodge as they alerted me to Morley’s new location. He was only a tenth of a mile from where he originally escaped from me. It appeared that he was reluctant to leave the area and hopefully me. That was very good and maybe I would recapture him after all.
I clamored down the freshly snow covered roads to the sound of chaos. It had started to snow around 3:00 AM and by then the ground had a couple inches of fresh puffy snow. People from all over the world come to Lake Placid for such a beautiful scene, but I was oblivious to the beauty of my surroundings and just wanted my feathered pal back safe and sound. I found Morley in a large white pine beside million dollar vacation home that thankfully was not occupied. I was exhausted but needed to maintain contact. Thankfully, reinforcements soon showed up when Kristel and Jessie came answering my frantic phone call from the night before. They helped me maintain eye contact with him as he spent the day in the tree. Sporadically, the crows would return throughout the day to continue their assault on this monstrous owl that had dared to invade their realm.
Throughout our watch, there was a steady stream of people checking in on our progress. My phone was constantly ringing with update requests, people from the lodge would stop by and assess our progress, and Wendy came with a larger prey item. Wendy and her family own a wildlife rehabilitation refuge 15 miles from the lodge. Earlier that day I had called her and asked her if she could bring me a medium sized rat. I thought a larger prey item might be more appealing to my wayward friend. She had also recently successfully reacquired her wayward barn owl after a 2 week ordeal, so she knew what I was going through. She had a car full of interns and was heading off to do a presentation of her own so they did not stay long. I was extremely grateful that she made time in her busy schedule to deliver the rat.
I was hoping the larger food item would trigger a response. At first Morley appeared to notice the rat, but soon his focus shifted. I had also been in contact with my friend Rick, who owns Morley’s parents and has also gone through the ordeal of desperately searching for a lost bird. Rick suggested that I tie the rat to a long string and drag it in front of him. I only had 5 feet of string but I gamely tried his idea. Once Morley grabbed at the rat as I dragged it along the snow covered roof near his perch. He actually stood only two feet over my outstretched hand as I held up the rat to him.
It was nearly 4:00 PM when a very apologetic Kristel announced that they had to leave. I was grateful for their company and assistance during the day. They had answered my call for help and gained my utmost respect. I thanked them for their help and bide them farewell. Upon departure Kristel stated that she might be able to help the next day. Then the she drove up the hill, around the bend and out of sight.
It was not long after their departure that Morley began to stir. Soon he was sitting on the roof of the condominium the his perch tree stood in front of. It was now over 30 hours since he ate and the wind was howling, the snow was falling and the temperatures were dropping. To top it all off, the guys responsible for shoveling and clearing away the snow needed to do their job. They had put off clearing this col-de-sac for as long as they could in order to not disturb him, but they needed to finish their rounds. I told them I understood and they quickly went about their business consciously trying not to scare him off.
Morley nervously retreated back into the pine and watched them as the noisy truck plowed the street below his lofty perch. The quickly shoveled all the walks and porch except for where Morley was positioned. They agreed that they could do it the next day due to the fact that nobody was occupying it at that moment. I thanked the guys as they left and continued my tireless pursuit. Soon Steve from the lodge appeared, he was extremely fond of Morley and came to offer assistance. But at that moment there was really nothing to be done but sit and wait for Morley to get hungry.
As the daylight hours dwindled he hopped back and forth from the tree to the roof. A few times he stood on a fence post beside the back of the building. I tried to get close enough to net him with a large landing net I had brought with me. But just as earlier in the day, when I was a mere 4 steps from him, he flapped his mighty wings and was instantly out of reach. I decided that he was like the teenager that was given the family car and was raveling in his new found freedom. I could tell that he was nervous and scared because he was so expose, but he was also exhilarated with his newly acquire freedom.
Once again, the skies had darkened and the wind gusts of 18 miles an hour began to let up. The snow continued to fall and was only slated to stop around 3:00 AM when the temperature was predicted to plummet to several degrees Fahrenheit below zero. Morley looked around at his surroundings and then with a strong downward flap he lifted up and shot over the freshly snow covered road and disappeared into the night. I was cold, discouraged, tired, hungry and feeling defeated as I trudged through the snow clad streets. I slowly plodded back to the lodge to eat something and warm up before I would renewed my search.
The folks at the lodge were all extremely interested in how I was progressing. Many of the staff had made a point to stop down every week when we visited to see him and they were genuinely concerned for his well-being. After eating a hot bowl of soup and drinking a hot chocolate I stepped back into the cold night and resumed my quest. Upon leaving the lodge I hastened to where I last saw Morley and hooted to him. No answering hoot met my ears so I continued across a footbridge near his last position and slowly slogged up a steep snowy lane and hooted for him again. All at once the still night was shattered with a very loud HOOT from the very expensive house directly in front of me. By now I had realized that there were only a few occupied domiciles in this community of 200 plus million dollar homes. That encouraged me to hoot into the night with reckless abandon and with little concern about waking the neighbors.
Soon I found him again. He was perch on what appeared to be a vent duct on the top of the roof. He hooted and postured at me like usually and then took off yet again. I followed him to a few more locations and finally decided that this was getting me nowhere and so I went back to my cabin to sleep. As I crawled off to bed I muttered a prayer that God watch over Morley and help me catch him and then drifted off to sleep. Rick and Meghan both woke me when they called to check on my progress. Even though I was exhausted I actually was bolstered by their concern.
I woke at 3:00 AM, dressed and started my search again. It was now Monday the 6th of February and Morley had been away from me for two full nights. The winds had died down but the temperatures were cold. My mother had gone to my house and taken my dogs to her house, but my other birds needed to be fed and cared for too. I did not want to compound this tragedy by putting any other of my birds at risk. I determined to locate him and wait until it was light and hope that his pattern of moving at night and resting during the day would continue. Despair started to set in after I walked all over the region hooting with no reply from Morley. Finally I dragged myself down the only trail I did not check and uttered my woeful hoot to the winter skies. Seconds dragged on and finally I heard his faint but verydistinctive hoot answering me. With a new spring in my step a hurried off in the direction of the hoot. Occasionally, I would stop, hoot and listen and like a beacon to a lost seafarer Morley hooted back and led me to him. He was perched in a tree over another mansion at the edge of the Whiteface Resort about a quarter of a mile from the lodge where the nightmare had started. I gently spoke to him and offered the rat to him. He hooted, postured several times over the next three quarters of an hour and flew off. Feeling better that at least I knew approximately where he was I went back for a few more hours of restless sleep.
It was 5:00 AM when I had returned to the cabin for a few hours of sleep. I awoke at 7:20 AM and hastened back to where I had last seen him. The crews were plowing the roads, but they all stopped to ask about my success. I pulled into circle at the end of the col-de-sac and hooted for him. I was startled when he hooted back from the deck railing on the house directly in front of me. He had only moved a couple houses down from where I had seen him last. He was staring at me from the deck and I slowly approached him holding my offering of rat high in the air. Standing on the snow drift below him, he was perched only a few feet over the rat.
I noticed that he was staring longer at the rat but after a prolonged stare he turned his focus on other distractions. I was getting impatient with the game and tried to speed it up by tossing to rat tied to the string near him. Unfortunately, it scared him and he took off toward the back of the deck. Once he was out of sight I heard a loud crash and panicked. Did he break his neck flying into a window I wondered? I had to get up there and check on him. Thankfully, the roof over the garage doors was low enough for me to crawl from the bolder onto the roof and then I slowly moved to where I could see on the deck. Thankfully, he was sitting back on the railing and appeared to be fine. He had collided with the screen from the porch and was undoubtedly stunned. It was only then that I wondered if the home was occupied or not. Thankfully, it was not or I might have been shot or arrested for trespassing.
It was time to run home and take care of my other birds, shovel, eat and get cleaned up. I also needed get more provisions for my next stab and reacquiring him. Before I left I stopped in at the Lodge and told Steve where Morley was. Steve worked at the Lake Placid Lodge and was a local. He knew who lived at the house and he knew that they knew me and Morley too. Then I rushed home. On the way I updated everybody and discussed my plan of attack with Rick. Normally, I have pigeons at home that I could have used for bait but a hungry weasel wiped them all out a month ago so I had no live bait to entice him with. I also had to prepare my lesson for my class I taught at Paul Smiths College every Tuesday and Thursday. There was also a winter advisory for Tuesday late afternoon heading into the region. Things were beginning to build up and my window of getting Morley back was rapidly closing and that feeling of dread surfaced again.
While I was home I tried to get a rabbit from one neighbor, but nobody was home. The Amish did not have a small enough chicken and the one offer I had for a chicken small enough was way over in Canton. I decided to stock up with a dozen dead rats and then I headed back to find Morley. On the way Kristel called and said she could help again. When I got back to Placid, I immediately ran over to check on Morley. Much to my chagrin, the guys were clearing the snow off the road and had even cleared the driveway of the house were Morley was perching. Thankfully, by now he had gotten used to this activity and had moved to a light on the corner of the deck where he was protected on two sides by the building and the screened in porch. At this location he obviously felt more secure and seemed to be more relaxed. I had also brought a long length of braid string and tried the dragging rat ploy again. He watched it intently for several minutes and then his focus shifted to other things. About this time Steve showed up and made a few suggestions that I knew would only frighten Morley. I mentioned that I was frustrated because I usually have pigeons to that he stated Betsy at the lodge has a barn with pigeons.
Filled with new hope I followed Steve back to the lodge to talk to Betsy. She informed me that she did in fact have a barn with pigeons and I would be welcome to grab them. I called a few of my students to line up a pigeon catching expedition, but the only one to show up was faithful Kristel. The barn was in Wilmington about 15 miles away. But upon arrival, my heart sank because there were huge pieces of the walls missing and the pigeons would escape easily with that type of setup. But with no other options I discussed my plan of attack with Kristel and then we hoped to get lucky. We almost succeeded but unfortunately there was just too many escape routes and they all escaped.
Kristel then suggested borrowing a chicken from Wendy. We were practically at Wendy’s house in Wilmington so I called her and talk her into lending me their smallest chicken. Unfortunately, it was way too big and I knew Morley, a novice at hunting, would never attack it. But, it was another option. By the time we got back it was very dark so we went to check on Morley. He was gone and he did not answer my call. With that Kristel headed home and I started my nightly sojourn around the Whiteface Club and Resort anxiously searching for my baby. I finally heard a hoot and was lead back to where he spent the day. He was there all the time but must have been reluctant to answer me with Kristel present.
I found him on a telephone line hooting and posturing to me. In my rush to find him, I forgot the falconry glove but I still had a rat in my pocket, so I held it up and hooted to him. Soon he flew directly at me and I rapidly tried to devise a way to grab him without him impaling me. Morley would never hurt me intentionally, but if he is scared he will try to defend himself. If I were to have grabbed him that would definitely scare him. So I braced for pain. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your viewpoint he passed over me and continued to another perch. He had only been a few feet over the rat. I knew we were getting close, but would it be before the promised storm? He lead me back to the main part of the Resort and closer to where this all started. Finally, I left him for sleep.
I slept for a couple hours and then at 3:00 AM resumed my mission. It had been over sixty hours since Morley last ate and he had to have been burning calories at a fast rate with all the activity. So when I headed out I told myself it had to be today. My class was at 12:45 PM, so I only had to 11:30 AM to make it happen and it was all up to Morley. I heard him before I opened the door of the cabin. He had practically traveled a full circle back to where he started. I found him perched on a chimney of the building beside the lodge. I called him several times but even though he started his excited twitter, which he does when I pick him up or feed him, he refused to come down to me. After an unfruitful hour I dragged myself back to rest until 6:00 AM.
Within five minutes I had followed his call back to where I was standing under him again. This time he was on the chimney of a huge apartment type condo. He had to be at least fifty feet up and he was hooting and posturing as always. I held up a fresh rat and called. I called him from several sides of the building and finally, he flapped his mighty wings and dropped straight at me. He landed gently on the glove and reached for the rat. I gave him a few seconds so he was fully concentrating on the rat and then I grabbed his leg with my free hand. Thankfully, I remembered to wear the glove and a welding glove for the other hand because he had become scared and he did grab my hand. Immediately, I tucked his wings to his body and held him close to my body making sure to secure his ever dangerous feet with my hands. Once he was secured, I tucked him under my coat and then rushed back to my waiting car. I relaxed alittle once he was confined within the vehicle.
I had driven the car to the footbridge when I had ascertained his location. I wanted to have to car available if I did recapture him. As I returned to my cabin approximately two tenths of a mile away I scanned the area to find someone to help me put new jesses on him. Thankfully, I spied one of the guys plowing the roads. I told him of my success and asked him if he would follow me to my cabin where we would put brand new anklets and jesses on him. Morley was not happy to be treated so harshly and when we were done he hooted his displeasure to me. Once the processing was complete. I told the plowman to let him go. Morley tried to fly, but he was now attached to the glove and soon realized that and perched on the glove.
I thanked my companion for his help, took and deep breath and walked Morley to the car. He was standing on the glove and after such a horrible ordeal I did not relish the thought of an encore performance. When we stepped out of the cabin, Morley baited from the glove and tugged hard on the new anklets…they held fast and I placed him securely on the back of the passenger seat of my car and quickly tethered him to the seat belt. Once the door was shut, I hurried back to the cabin and gathered my belongings.
I actually had enough time to load up, thank to staff at the Lake Placid Lodge and drop off the key and rush home to get Morley safely squared away before my class. The staff at the lodge were amazed and impressed that I had recaptured him. Once again, I thanked them for all they did for me and hurried to my car. I had many things to do before my class and had just enough time to get everything done. I was still wondering what I was going to do with the chicken that was at that moment encases in a trap in the back of my SUV. Morley was hopping from seat to seat and would occasionally stare down at the chicken. It would not do to have him pounce on the chicken and get snared.
As I drove toward Saranac Lake some 8 miles away I contacted people to tell them the good news. An agitated Morley was slowly starting to calm down as we drove through the Adirondacks. I offered him a mouse, but he was still to riled up to eat at that point. Miraculously, I ran into Alex, Wendy’s son in Saranac Lake and gave him back the chicken before Morley tried to grab it. Also, Alex had to help me reattach one of the grommets that did not lock on well and had become loose.
Upon arriving home, I carefully transferred him back into his mews. He was still slightly excited, but had relaxed considerably. By the time I left for class, he had settled down and was finally ready to eat. He hopped to me and took and ate 2 mice from me and by the end of the day he gulped down a couple more and was back to courting me again. Over the next few days, I have noticed that he appeared to be happy to be back in his familiar home and his bond to me seems stronger than ever. Finally, I made plans to meet Rick on Friday and put on a sturdy pair of anklets made of buffalo hide. I resolved to never experience such a horrid adventure ever again.