Birds of Prey Center soars to new heights ahead of SEWE appearance
David Quick – Wednesday, February 13, 2013
If you go
What: Birds of Prey Flight Demonstration
When: 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 1 p.m. Sunday
Where: Marion Square downtown
Price: Included under general admission tickets; $20 Friday and Saturday, $10 Sunday, $40 for a three-day pass
more info: www.sewe.com
Jim Elliott remembers one moment during a Southeastern Wildlife Exposition in the mid-1990s that made him realize the importance of the mission of the Awendaw-based Center for Birds of Prey.
It was back when the center just had a display and brought demonstration birds, which cannot be released into the wild and are used for education reasons, to the event.
“I had a broad-winged hawk on my fist and handed the bird off to someone else,” recalls Elliott. “I remember standing back and looking at this huddle of people around us drawn to these beautiful animals. It looked like a Norman Rockwell painting in all its diversity — young and old, big and little. It was the total cross-section of everybody we hoped to reach. They were there, enthralled and engaged, asking about this bird.
“I won’t ever forget that. What it told me was that there is an appeal or resonance with everyone we talk to. Somewhere there’s a connection with what we were doing.”
Those were the early days of the center, back when it was called the Charleston Raptor Center, back when Elliott, two or three staffers and dozens of volunteers worked out of his 5-acre residence in the middle of Francis Marion National Forest.
Much has changed since then.
The gift of a 150-acre property, closer to Charleston but still in Awendaw, has allowed the Center for Birds of Prey to soar to new heights.
Now, instead of relying entirely on taking the birds to the public for educational reasons, the center invites the public inside its facility for regular demonstrations Thursdays through Sundays.
The larger space also has allowed it to pursue initiatives that previously were next to impossible.
In the past year, the center marked three milestones.
The first was treating its 6,000th bird, which took place in December, since the center’s founding in 1991.
Besides the satisfaction of returning those birds to the wild, Elliott said that number has another meaning to him. “The total number of birds is what it is, but it’s also an experience for us,” he said. “The experience we’ve gained from those birds is so valuable for the next 6,000. It tells us a little bit about the universe out there and our impact on it.”
Another milestone was adding its 50th species of bird, a short-tailed hawk, to its educational program, which was a goal set for 2015.
The importance of have different birds, both native and non-native, is to tell a deeper story about each one’s struggle with habitat loss and other challenges, as well as draw attention to the center’s mission.
“We don’t want to be a roadside zoo, but from an organizational standpoint, we’re making some headway into being more visible,” Elliott said of the center drawing visitors to hear the message of conservation.
“It’s so much a part of what we need to be doing. One of our founding objectives is to reach as many people as we can to help. We know the more informed we are, the more environmentally responsible we are.”
The third milestone was more technical.
For years, the Center for Birds of Prey monitored bird migration Sept. 15-Nov. 30 every year. Last year, it added a radar system sensitive enough to pick up even songbirds and give them another ability they didn’t have before: counting birds at night.
In addition to those milestones, the center also reached some other impressive numbers and added programming.
Assisting its paid staff of 12, three of whom are part time, are dozens of volunteers who logged a whopping 12,000 volunteer hours in 2012. Elliott said that equates to six full-time staff members.
That level of volunteer support played a role in luring the center’s current medical clinic director, Debbie Mauney, whose husband works with the red wolf restoration program in Alligator River, N.C.
“I love the volunteer aspect of this, too, because of all the different backgrounds of these people who would otherwise never meet or hang out,” Mauney said. “Everybody just seems to come together. It doesn’t matter what your income level is, everyone is here for the birds. And I love that atmosphere.”
And besides the obvious efforts to help injured and orphaned birds of prey and educate the public of the importance of the birds, the center is involved in research efforts, has a successful captive breeding program, and is trained and prepared for oil spill response along the South Carolina coast.
With all those pots on the stove, the 24/7/365 center’s staff veers off-course only once a year: for SEWE.
“To be honest, it’s a stressful event for both the staff and the birds. For us, it’s a lot of effort to move them. We can’t leave the birds downtown. We move this cadre of birds, they work all day, as do the staff. Three days in a row,” Elliott said.
“But people expect us to be there. They would miss us. We would be conspicuously absent if we weren’t there, and the audience has grown. We’ve got 40,000 people over that weekend, and the majority of them see us at one point or another, and that’s a good thing.”