Hope is the thing with feathers
that perches in the soul,
and sings the tune without the words,
and never stops at all.
And sweetest in the gale is heard.
and sore must be the storm
that could abash the little bird
that kept so many warm.
The Center for Birds of Prey
We recently had the opportunity to spend some time at the Center for Birds of Prey in Awendaw, SC. This rescue center focuses solely on local/regional birds of prey that have been injured through interactions with humans and their grand developments. In other words, they save birds that have suffered from run-ins with vehicles, power lines, hunters, etc. The center also provides public education to help prevent these injuries.
The Birds of Prey Center offers a close-up and personal experience that you're not likely to find in a zoo. Sure, you can wander around to see everything there. The guided tours, though, are the real learning experience. The Guide tells you about the bird and its normal habitat, but also takes the time to tell the stories of some of the Center's permanent residents. For example, there is the rescued eagle constantly sitting on an egg that, unfortunately, will never hatch (pictured below). Throughout the guided tour, you'll get to enjoy the untethered flight demonstrations… This is the “up-close and personal” part of the tour.
One of the best things about visiting the Center for Birds of Prey (especially as a photographer) is the untethered flight demonstrations. As we were walking through with the tour, one of the workers walked up with a Ural Owl (pictured above) on her arm. This was, quite possibly, one of the most beautiful creatures I've seen in real life. I was awestruck, just watching the bird watch us. Without warning, the owl took flight to land on a post nearby. I've always thought of owls as smaller creatures, but as it spread its wings I realized just how large yet graceful they really are. Once it landed, the owl condensed itself back into its deceptively small bowling pin form.
We were instructed to spread out around the area and stand as still as we could. Basically, the handler explained, we wanted the owl to see us as trees, and trees don't normally move. The wise bird sat on the post and quietly watched as we spread out and straightened up to pretend to be trees. I was so intent on trying to get into position (and get my camera into position) that I didn't notice the handler moving across the open space to the other side of the group.
It was quiet, but the owl suddenly cocked its head toward the handler as if it had heard some loud noise. And with that, she launched into flight. The beautiful owl quickly glided through the group, maybe 4 feet off the ground. It was an amazing sight, but I was in for an even better treat… As the owl flew past me, her wing brushed lightly across my arm. The feathers were soft, softer than what you find in the real down pillows. I was so wrapped up in the moment that I forgot to take the picture that I had been planning. Oh well, that was a trade worth making. We spent about 15 minutes pretending to be trees so the owl would fly. I can honestly say that was the best 15 minutes I've spent all year.
Other Flight Demonstrations
At the end of the guided tour we walked over to a sitting area that overlooked a large open field. This is where the “long distance” flight demonstrations are held. First was a Red Tailed hawk that had lost its left eye due to a collision with a car. Next up was a a Falcon, a Peregrine, and then a Kite. Each of these birds was amazing to watch, with different flight patterns and speeds.
Take the Road Trip
Do yourself a favor: if you are within driving distance of this place, take the time to make a day trip. You'll spend the day with owls, eagles, falcons, and even vultures (which, believe it or not, can be quite pretty up close). This makes for a great family fun day, and you'll learn a lot about these birds. We spent approximately 2 1/2 hours there, including the one-hour guided tour. The Center for Birds of Prey is almost exactly between Charleston and Georgetown on Hwy. 17, so there's plenty to see and do in the area once you've had your fill of feathers.