by Peter Colson
Executive Director, Alaska Raptor Center
An owl receives treatment
I call it the morning greet. I walk up to the front doors of the Alaska Raptor Center past eagle row and the weathering yard. Each habitat occupied by one or more raptors with names as colorful as their personalities: snowy owl, red-tailed hawk, great grey owl. The names given to them by the staff are often predictable but not always: Sitka, Volta, Boris, Esperanza. With seven extra vertebrae in their necks, all of the birds watch me pass-by without moving their bodies around to follow my path to the deck. While I greet each by their given name, my voice doesn’t generate a response back. Rarely will they engage with me before their first morning cup of coffee which in this case is a pound of salmon or a rat.
On the back deck overlooking the river and eagle habitats, I spot Oliver, a golden eagle, and three more of our resident bald eagles. My presence usually solicits a territorial call from one of the bald eagles but not this morning, and Oliver is an infrequent conversationalist and chooses to keep his peace and distance, even when his favorite keeper enters his habitat. No matter the weather, he prefers to be left out in his habitat, day and night, rather than shelter in his mew beneath the deck.
Before entering the Center, I make a cursory check of the great horned owl and red-tailed habitats. Two pair of yellow eyes slowly blinking in the dark beneath the trees and the ruffling of two feathery bodies a short distance away assures me that all are accounted for this morning. In the distance beyond the hawk habitat, I can hear the two resident ravens, Onyx and Martin, gurgling their conversation with the wild ravens that frequent the trees above their home.
Outdoor facilities at the Alaska Raptor Center
Stepping inside, I find Tootsie and Petey already adorning their perches just beyond the front counter of the reception desk. These pint-sized raptors are the two favorites of all visitors to the Center. A Northern Pygmy Owl and a Northern Saw-Whet Owl, they are often mistaken for a display, rather than live birds. In spite of their charming appearance and diminutive size (they are the second and third smallest owls), they are a ferocious pair, and it is always a good idea to keep to the distance allowed by their tethers. Before I boot-up my computer for the day, I typically make a trip to the medical clinic at the back of the center to check out the admissions board hanging on the wall. Frequently, I am surprised to find a new patient has arrived overnight from some off-island village or town, flown in by one of our floatplane partners or Alaska Airlines. A rare admit such as a hawk owl or goshawk will completely up-end my morning.
My last stop is the flight training center. This 20,000 square foot room houses the bald eagles which, if successfully rehabilitated from their injuries, will be released in the upper muskeg area of the campus. No matter how many times I walk into the viewing corridor, the sight of 15-20 bald eagles perching or flying tight circles around the room never ceases to captivate me. Most visitors are taken back by the sheer size of an eagle up close. Female eagles can weigh up to 13lbs. and the males 10lbs. With a wing-span of more than seven feet and feathers numbering over 7,000, an eagle is a formidable sight when perched or flying a few feet away from the windows.
Morning, after the sun has risen above the tree line outside, is one of the best times to visit this facility. Before they are fed their daily rations, the eagles are often most active in their rehabilitation or often found bathing in the stream that runs the length of the room. While the curators who work with the birds daily can readily identify the birds by name…Fancy, Digit, Friar Tuck, Oscar…. I am left to admit that the adults and the juvenile birds in their mottled colors mostly look the same to me. For the most part, the birds get along with each other as they are all well-fed and their needs addressed in this state-of-the-art facility. I enjoy telling people that if you are an eagle and are not ready to survive in the wild, living at the Alaska Raptor Center is a good consolation prize.
The eagles receive additional dietary supplements every other day with their meal of fish or deer, and if they are detained for a longer period of time, the curators will hone their talons and beaks to keep them ready for release back into the wild. If a raptor cannot be release due to extensive injuries, they become part of the resident education cadre which assists the curators in educating thousands of visitors from around the world and children attending classes here and in numerous schools around the country.
After this morning’s ritual, I find it difficult as the executive director to refocus my attention on real work. Normally, it takes a cup or two of coffee to lubricate my fingers for some interaction with the keyboard, and I have learned to exercise a great deal of self-control, resisting the urge to jump up from my desk every time an eagle calls possibly indicating the presence of a visitor on the deck. On the days when rain gives way to the sun, it is even more difficult to refrain from wandering the trail and boardwalk around the 25 acre campus. I always enjoy visiting the shoreline of Indian River and Eagle Swim pool where the curators take the education eagles for summer baths after a busy day of presentations, and where I occasionally find time to cast a fly to the Dolly Varden and rainbow trout cruising the burnished pools.
Above the river, the rainforest permeates with many different smells depending on the season. A ten minute walk on the trail will take me up and out of the forest and on to the muskeg which offers an unobstructed view of the Sisters, the iconic trio of mountains looming behind the town of Sitka. The muskeg, a rich, grassy wetlands ecosystem, hosts a number of unique residents, and I sometimes extend my boardwalk inspections to explore for carnivorous sundew plants along the trail.
A Snowy Owl outdoors at the Alaska Raptor Center
As director of the Alaska Raptor Center, I find my job has many challenges but sorting the logistics of the cruise ship season and caring for 50 or more raptors are not the most difficult. Rather, it’s enduring the distractions of living and working in an environment that constantly asks “shouldn’t you take a break?” or “this can wait a bit longer, right?” Does somebody know where the power button is on this computer?