Comic Con for Raptor Lovers
This past week, we had the pleasure of attending the 2nd Annual Raptor Fest at Boyd Hill Nature Preserve, or what I am now calling “Comic Con for Raptor Lovers.” ‘We’ are the crack team from Peace River Wildlife Center who loaded our vehicles and drove from Punta Gorda to St. Petersburg bright and early in the morning. Luna, our famous white screech owl, and Hootin’ Annie, the great horned owl, were accompanied by PRWC tour guide and Annie’s amazing handler John Hime, dedicated family member and volunteer for the day Susan Rhoads, wildlife rehabbers Amy Rhoads and Cara Brown, and myself-Anne Marie Witkowski, office administrator.
To back up a bit, we were excited for this event since Amy, Cara and I met some of the Boyd Hill volunteers and bird handlers at the Sarasota Medieval Fair last year. The fact alone that the volunteers were in period dress was enough to intrigue us, but we also soon learned that this dedicated group is extremely knowledgeable and experienced in their field. After we bombarded them with questions for far longer than their gracious responses called for, they told us about this upcoming event. This is also when we learned that Luna was way more famous than we knew about. You see, they had heard about him but not us, much to our dismay. As are many in the bird world, they were skeptical at first about whether or not we truly had found a white screech owl since screech owls normally have grey, brown, or red plumage for camouflage in trees and they have bright yellow eyes. Luna obviously does not have either of these colorings. He is leucistic. Leucism, for those of you who don’t read Doctor Robin’s articles regularly, is a condition caused by a genetic mutation that prevents multiple types of pigment, including melanin, from being properly deposited on the bird’s feathers, skin, eyes, beak, and nails. In Luna’s case, he also does not have the trademark yellow eyes. Once the Boyd Hill team learned that PRWC in fact did have a leucistic bird, they became excited and hoped that they would have a chance to see him at their event.
We slightly underestimated just how enthusiastic people would be to meet Luna. We already knew how many people come from all over the world to meet Luna at PRWC and other outside events, but we (maybe Doctor Robin has experienced the Luna phenomenon) never knew how bird “nerds” (an expression of love, I promise) en masse would react. The moment we drove up to our table to unload our gear, Luna became surrounded by his adoring fans. It was like Comic Con for Raptors and Luna was Leonard Nimoy (Spock from Star Trek for those not in the know) moving among his admirers. People literally came out of the trees to meet our star. The Boyd Hill volunteers and other bird enthusiasts from local Audubon Societies and other raptor experts flooded our table. They were thrilled to see Luna and were extremely pleased to also meet Annie, whom I believe now has an entourage of her own. They should get Facebook pages. The event opened to the public and the Raptor paparazzi arrived with their telescopic lens, which surely has now made Luna look to be the size of the giant Stay Puft Marshmallow Man from Ghostbusters.
Luna and Annie were not the only stars of the day. There were several local falconers and EarthQuest – an amazing organization that specializes in raptor educational programs, environmental exhibitors, rehabilitators from all over Florida, exhibitors such as local Audubon Societies, the Sierra Club, Clearwater Marine Aquarium, and so many more. Remarkable raptors such as the Eurasian Eagle Owl, Harris’s Hawks, Red Tailed Hawks, a Short Tailed Hawk, a Finnish Goshawk, Red Shouldered Hawks, Great Horned Owls, Screech Owls, a Black Vulture, and an Amazing Andean Condor named Storm were present. EarthQuest and some of the local falconers participated in free flight demonstrations and discussed the revitalization of the Condor, a bird that once was on the brink of extinction. The sheer size of this New World vulture was mind boggling, and I admit I slightly feared for her handler. But I should not have feared, her handler was extremely experienced (as is essential for a falconer of any kind to be– experience and licensed!) and Storm was the ideal student.
Remember what I said about needing experience? That is paramount. I have to say a frightening number of people visiting our table said, “How can I get a screech owl. I want one.” I will gently remind everyone that wild birds are just that – wild. It requires skill, education, and several licenses (both state and federal) to ‘own’ a wild bird or wild animal of any variety. Educational birds are mostly birds that have been sick or injured and not releasable or birds that are available to licensed falconers and educators. Please do not take one home to raise yourself. If you find a sick, injured or truly abandoned bird or other wildlife life please contact a local rescue center or licensed wildlife trapper. Lecture over.
There was a schedule of activities throughout the day of the event. We would like to thank the overwhelming group of people who came to listen to Cara and John’s discussion about Luna and Annie. Numerous people stopped by our table after to ask more questions and learn about Peace River Wildlife Center in general. Many said that they would come down to Punta Gorda and visit us in the future. We certainly hope to see them here and bring a friend – or ten!
Thank you to Boyd Hill Nature Preserve and all the volunteers who made the event so great. It was very well organized and obviously a labor of love. We hope to attend again next year.
by – Anne Marie Witkowski