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Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Positively Raptor(ous)

by Mauverneen

A vulture on his handlers arm. Look at that wing span!

About 45 minutes somewhat west of Joliet, IL, where the countryside meanders through one cornfield after another, lies the Raptor Rescue facility SOAR (Save Our American Raptors). The center is run by George and Bernadette Richter - licensed Master falconers, rehabilitators, and educators. Originally from Naperville, they moved out to the country when traffic and population became too intrusive.

Entrance to the facility is by appointment only. A former garage-turned-visitor-center is used for classes in falconing, seminars, lectures and educational programs for park districts, nature centers, schools, scouts, churches, birding clubs – you name it. This particular morning it was a local camera club.
No wonder I never see them in the woods! Perfectly camouflaged

Screech Owl - no bigger than a kitten
It was a crisp Saturday morning, and there was hot coffee waiting as about 30 people showed up, armed with cameras, tripods, and some loooong lenses. Following a brief introduction to birds of prey, we were led outside.

Barred owl - looking very fashionable, as if wrapped in a scarf. It looked so soft I just wanted to reach out and pet it

One by one the tethered birds were brought out by their handlers, and gently set atop a tall tree stump for their photo shoot. They all behaved like professional models - turning their heads this way and that, opening their wings to the warm sun. With every turn of the head, camera shutters clicked like rapid fire machine guns.
A vulture catching some rays

Posing like a vulture should
It was an educational morning. As each bird made its appearance, Bernie told us the story behind it and other birds they had nursed back to health. A Hawk, it’s beak shoved sideways after being hit by a truck, a starving Eagle, birds with broken wings or broken legs - more than a few left on their doorstep in cardboard boxes.

Coopers Hawk 
Most problems can be handled by George or Bernie or the local vet, but for serious cases they take the injured raptors to specialists in Naperville, IL or Geneva, IL. They also work with the University of Minnesota, which is well known for its outstanding work in raptor rehabilitation.

About 10 or 12 years ago, West Nile virus was ravaging bird populations in the Midwest and elsewhere. Crows, Robins, Blue Jays, Red-tailed Hawks and Great Horned Owls were especially hard hit. They died by the thousands and some are only now finally bouncing back.

Great Horned Owl
Love those yellow eyes!
None of the birds we saw that morning appeared nervous, seeming far less interested in us than we were in them. The owls looked like they would rather be sleeping and the red-tailed hawk was more intent on an ant that had found it’s way up to her perch. It made a tasty snack.

Red-tailed Hawk - now you know how it got its name 
Beautiful little Kestrel Hawk
At the end of our session, we were treated to watching one of the birds fly on a long tether called a creance.

Trained to fly at the whistle, it gets a nice reward for its efforts when it comes back to its handler
Far overhead, floating on the wind we spotted a couple of hawks and a trio of bald eagles. As I left the SOAR facility, a Kestrel in a cornfield caught my eye. I felt a bit smug, knowing what to call it. I also felt thankful for birds in general, and for people like Bernie and George, who put so much time and effort into preserving these beautiful creatures.    
Bald Eagle
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