The majesty of an eagle perched high in a tree, the power of an owl in flight – there’s something about birds of prey that intrigues and excites the imagination.
We are lucky in BC that we are home to one-quarter of the world’s population of Bald Eagles and seeing one is not rare, however, seeing one up close is easier than you might think.
Just a short drive north of Victoria, on the outskirts of Duncan is The Raptors, a wildlife habitat that allows visitors to experience these incredible creatures one-on-one.
The Raptors was founded by wildlife biologist Gillian Radcliffe in 2002 and now includes some 130 birds of prey.
“Most are hatched here and help with demos and bird abatement or wildlife management,” says Robyn Radcliffe, manager of Pacific Northwest Raptors.
The birds are used every day at the Vancouver International Airport to help keep runways clear of smaller birds such as starlings, pigeons and geese. “It’s a cool method and it’s environmentally friendly. The goal is not to kill the other birds, just move them away,” says Radcliffe.
The birds are also used as natural predators at various landfills and even in movies.
The goal of The Raptors though, is education and conservation. The 15 acre site includes dozens of aviaries housing eagles, hawks, falcons, owls, vultures even kookaburras and Gaston, a Marabou Stork.
Selena Silvester made her first visit to The Raptors when she was nine. “My grandma told me she signed me up for Raptor Camp. I told her, ‘grandma, you can’t go to camp with dinosaurs,’” she says with a laugh. The now 20-year-old has been working at The Raptors for six years and was a regular volunteer prior to that.
It’s Silvester who takes me around the site, introducing me to Manwe the Bald Eagle and Altani, a Golden Eagle, both are large and impressive birds. Silvester tells me that while Bald Eagles eat salmon, in the wild Golden Eagles hunt mountain goats by pushing them over cliffs and are even used to hunt wolves in other areas.
Next we visit Harry, a Swainson’s Hawk, Harry was hit by a car, suffered a concussion and can’t be released back into the wild. He’s one of the few birds here that weren’t born at The Raptors. Another is Gaston, a 12-year-old Marabou Stork who was hatched at the African Lion Safari in Ontario and sent to live at The Raptors. “They’re sometimes called the Einstein bird or the grandfather bird,” Silvester says. “I’ve looked at a lot of pictures of them and believe me, he’s the best looking one I’ve seen,” she says of the large bird that really does look like he has a head of curly grey hair. The docile looking creature has a 10-foot wingspan and uses his beak like a sword.
Next we visit Elton, a spectacled owl. Silvester hands me a thick leather glove and Elton easily sits on my hand for a visit. I fall instantly in love. His large eyes take me in as he puffs his feathers out. I ask if I can take a photo with my phone. “Oh sure. He’s used to selfies,” Silvester says.
Elton goes back to his perch and Silvester brings out Belle, a 16-year-old Saker Falcon. She too sits on my hand and patiently lets me take photos.
Our final visit is with Vega, a Harris Hawk, who we take into the forested area for a fly.
He’s outfitted with a radio transmitter in case he gets lost or doesn’t return when she calls him. The birds are all allowed to fly free daily and if Vega is any indication, they love it.
He flies up through the trees and swoops down to my hand, which Silvester fills with chunks of fresh chicken.
Like a bit of a rebellious teen, Vega decides to visit an aviary with a pair of eagles in it, he seems to be showing off that he’s on the outside while they must wait their turn.
After a short trail walk, we venture out to the flying field where Vega swoops out into the tall trees, then comes winging in for another treat. Back and forth he happily soars, listening to Silvester’s gentle commands.
In a flash, our two-hour visit has flown by. I feel like I’ve visited another world, a peaceful place where magnificent mythical creatures are real.
The Raptors is open to the public daily 12-3pm with flying demonstration at 1:30pm. pnwraptors.com.
Correction: The story has been updated. The raptors are used at the Vancouver International Airport as it is built on an estuary and a major fly-way for birds.