I’ve always thought of birds as the ultimate travelers, gracefully able to fly where, when and how they want. While I’ve admired birds from afar, I hadn’t spent much concerted effort learning about them. A couple of my travels have brought birds into closer perspective.
My first introduction to the world of birds came some years ago when my friend Beth and I signed up for a Butterfield & Robinson excursion to Costa Rica. A biodiversity hotspot, Costa Rica is known for its varied landscape featuring volcanoes, jungles and rugged coastlines. Costa Rica also is a top destination for bird enthusiasts, boasting over 800 species. Beth, who’s a birder, got me intrigued about the prospect of observing exotic birds in the wild for the first time, and exploring some of the dramatic climatic areas – rain forest, cloud forest and dry forest – on foot and pedaling 21-speed bikes.
Our local guide, Memo, was confident we’d spot many endemic birds, especially the country’s noted resplendent quetzal. Sadly, that species proved elusive, as did most of the other signature species bird watchers anticipate seeing there. Then one day when we were riding in our transport van alongside a dense forest, Beth nudged me and nonchalantly remarked, “There’s a toucan,” referring to the bird that topped my want-to-see list because of its colorful, oversized bill.
“Stop the bus!” I hollered. “Beth saw a toucan!” Understandably startled by my unexpected outburst, the driver slammed on the brakes, and the bus skidded to a halt. Out scrambled our group for what became the trip’s most stellar bird encounter. Memo hastily set up his telescope and zeroed in on a keel-billed toucan, nestled high above us about a quarter mile away. How Beth spotted it from a middle seat in a moving vehicle still amazes me. Unbelievably, the toucan stayed in place, appearing coolly aloof, but probably fully aware it was the center of our attention.
More recently and closer to home, I had the opportunity to develop a deeper understanding and appreciation of birds of prey (owls, vultures, eagles, hawks, osprey, falcons) during a visit to Carolina Raptor Center (CRC). I had met Michele Houck, the nonprofit’s associate executive director, on a bike ride through Charlotte’s Little Sugar Creek Greenway and Freedom Park with Charlotte B-Cycle, a bike-sharing program. Houck kindly invited me to come to CRC for a one-on-one tour.
On a crisp fall day, I drove north from Charlotte to Latta Plantation Nature Preserve in Huntersville, where CRC is located. As I walked from my car to the visitors’ center, several hoots, kaks, squawks and screeches pierced the air, telling me I was in the right place.
Carolina Raptor Center, Houck explained as we began our walking tour, is all about the birds. CRC is dedicated to environmental stewardship and the conservation of birds of prey through education, research, and the rehabilitation of injured and orphaned raptors.
Thirty years ago, a student brought an injured broad-winged hawk to Professor Dick Brown, an ornithologist and biology professor at University of North Carolina – Charlotte, and asked if he could do anything to help the bird. Brown did indeed help the hawk and subsequent other birds with hands-on loving care, and built some cages for the birds while he tended to them. Thus was the birthplace, or “hatching spot,” as Houck called it, of Carolina Raptor Center, which moved to its current location in 1984.
Mindful that the care of birds was the original impetus, CRC operates a full-on hospital for raptors seven days a week. The hospital isn’t part of the public tour, but Houck led me through the facility, explaining that it includes: full-time veterinarian Dave Scott, who’s an avian specialist; three full-time staff and multiple volunteers; a surgical suite complete with anesthesia, autoclave, surgical packs with scalpels, and sterile procedures; a digital x-ray; and an electronic medical records system that’s actually a public document – there’s no HIPPA/health information privacy law for birds. In one room that was, frankly, a bit stinky, volunteers prepared food – chicks, rats, fish, mice and super nutritious worms – for CRC’s resident birds.
The hospital sees about 1,000 birds a year with admissions as needed. That makes CRC the largest raptor hospital in the country and possibly the world.
“A lot of the reason we see birds is from human/bird interaction, like habitat loss from development, hitting a car, and flying into electrical wires,” Houck said. “We’re passionate about trying to have a positive impact to combat that.”
The good news is that CRC rehabilitates and releases back into the wild approximately 75 percent of the injured raptors that live longer than 24 hours (the most critical time). Recuperating birds are kept in isolation in specially built outdoor aviary enclosures, and practice building up their muscles in flight cages.
The general public can have up-close looks at 100 resident native and exotic raptors from all over the world. They live year-round in outdoor enclosures along a ¾-mile walkable education trail. Information panels outside the enclosures tell the birds’ stories.
The birds all have names, like Hemingway the osprey and American bald eagles Derek and Savannah. She’s active on social media with her own Facebook (Savannah Eagle) and Twitter (@Savannah_Eagle) accounts – wonder how she can type with talons?
The education trail is species-based, with such designations as Hawk Condo, Vulture Culture and Raptors of the Silver Screen. The Owl Forest includes art easels and crayons to prompt children’s creativity. CRC soon will transform the Falcon Loop into a Built for Speed exhibit, complete with an airplane from Carolinas Aviation Museum, to help explain that falcons are the fastest living creatures on earth, having been clocked at a whopping 200+ miles per hour.
Accompanying programs cover “habitat, adaptation of birds of prey and how they’re surviving in the modern world, and their importance to the food chain and the health of the overall environment,” Houck said.
Summer brings a spectacular flight show at the amphitheater. Trained resident birds fly from point A to point B over the heads of the audience, and demonstrate their natural skills as a means to show how critical birds are to the environment.
For Houck CRC is also about the humans. She especially values the passionate cadre of volunteers who work on site and do community outreach. Organizations like Boy Scouts troops help construct information kiosks, railings and other infrastructure. Some corporations not only provide funding, but their employees are actively involved as well.
“We’re trying to capture peoples’ imagination and inspire them to action,” Houck said.
When you go
Carolina Raptor Center is at 6000 Sample Rd., Huntersville, NC, 28078.
Admission: $10 adults; $8 seniors 65+/military/teachers; $6 students; free for kids 4 and under
Some photos courtesy of Carolina Raptor Center.