Rumors of a much-needed thunderstorm beckon on the horizon on an otherwise sunny Sunday afternoon in July as a 70-foot, double-decked excursion vessel slows to a stop 100 yards off the craggy, exposed coastline of Lake Buchanan.
On the Texas Eagle II’s foredeck, the talons of a nervous six-month-old great horned owl are digging into the leather welding glove worn by a probably equally nervous 12-year-old boy. The boy’s name is Will Sinsabaugh. The owl, propitiously, has no name.
“If we give them a name,” says Kelly Rayner, facilities and educational director with Last Chance Forever, a nonprofit that specializes at rescuing birds of prey, “that means we’ve had them too long.”
Last Chance Forever, founded in 1978 in San Antonio, rehabilitates birds abandoned, injured, lost, ill or otherwise threatened. They’re treated, nursed to health, and retaught to fly and hunt live prey. Life at Last Chance Forever for the 150 to 300 falcons, hawks, eagles, owls, vultures and other species rehabbed each year isn’t bad—the birds have modest flying room and a steady diet of beef heart and homegrown rodents—but nothing beats catching a draft and soaring unconstrained over Central Texas and eating on your own schedule.
When the birds have regained their strength and instincts—they must make three live kills on their own—they are set free. About a half-dozen or so times a year, from spring through fall, the release is held on a Freedom Flight Cruise, a two-hour excursion put on by Vanishing Texas River Cruises during which two or three birds are released with ticket-buying passenger participation. On this trip, featuring the release of two juvenile great horned owls and an adult red-shouldered hawk, passengers also visited Garrett Island, identified birds and learned about their habits.
The boat is piloted by Shawn Devaney, 53. Born in southern Louisiana and raised on Lake LBJ, Devaney took to the water when still in his teens. He’s been with Vanishing Texas River Cruises since its beginning in 1982 and has owned the business since 1999.
Devaney is backed by a crew made of mostly retirees. Guide Tim Mohan, for example, has made a life’s work with second acts. Retired in 2004 from a 27-year career as a juvenile probation officer, Mohan mans the boat’s microphone, mixing information about the predilections of the various bird species with play-by-play of the release of an owl.
In between he calls out sightings, sounding like a spotter for an anti-aircraft battery. “Osprey at 1 o’clock. 500 feet. Great blue heron at 11 o’clock, low near the water.”
Five minutes into the cruise, Will wins a drawing among the 25 or so passengers to release the owl. Blond and tanned, Will dons the heavy gloves and holds the owl as the spectators count down from three. Then he lifts his arms, opens his hands, and the owl, unsure of strength and not yet aware there are no constraints, pauses for a moment before soaring off toward the shore and over the horizon.
Later, Will’s face glows as he recalls the moment, and the feeling it gave him. “When I let it go, I knew the bird was better, and I felt free,” he says, pausing to reflect on what he’s just said.
“I’ll bet the bird did, too.”
Mark Wangrin is an Austin writer.