South Carolina's Center for Birds of Prey
© 2009 Dave Spier
On our February trip south, we stopped at the South Carolina Center for Birds of Prey located about 15 miles northeast of downtown Charleston. It's on Seewee Road just east of U.S. Route 17 next to the Francis Marion National Forest. If you're coming from the Georgetown or McClellanville direction, it's about three miles southwest of the Sewee Visitor Center. [for a map, go to their website, http://www.thecenterforbirdsofprey.org/visit_us.htm and scroll to the bottom of the page] The raptor center is open to the public on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays (except holidays) from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm. Weather permitting, there are guided walking tours at 10:30 and 2:00 followed by free-flight demonstrations at approximately 11:30 and 3:00. You also can walk around on your own to see all of the raptors.
Most of the birds are housed in large outdoor pens. The afternoon we were there, Education Director Stephen Schabel, Jr. (Steve) started our tour at the vultures. The Black Vulture, Coragyps atratus, normally depicted with black legs, had one gray leg and one pale-yellow, the result of urination. The ureic acid is thought to act as an antibiotic and a coolant as it evaporates. The Turkey Vulture, Cathartes aura, (in the same pen) stayed on the ground in the back corner. A notable difference between the two genera is their sense of smell. The black has little or none, while the Turkey Vulture has a good sense of smell, at least based on the size of its olfactory lobe in the brain. Vultures are technically not raptors because they do not use their feet to catch prey.
Next stop was an American Kestrel, Falco sparverius, that had imprinted on humans. The otherwise healthy bird, taken as a hatchling, would be ill-equipped to survive in the wild and find a mate. A much larger Peregrine Falcon, Falco perigrinus, is housed separately. In the wild, peregrines eat pigeons and ducks which they can knock down by diving at speeds over 200 mph.
Owls are well represented at the center. The next pen was a British Barn Owl, Tyto alba alba, about half the size of its American counterpart. Barn Owls have their own family, Tytonidae, separate from all other owls. At another stop, a well-camouflaged Great Horned Owl stayed out of the sunlight. These owls want to be seen only during courtship, so a white patch under the chin opens when they are calling to each other. These birds have long wings and live on the edge of the woods, although I have found them nesting in mature forests. Members of the genus Bubo are sometimes referred to as "eagle owls." The center also has a Barred Owl, Strix varia, one of the "wood owls" genus. These birds have shorter, rounded wings and longer tails for life inside the forest. Barred Owls generally prefer wet, bottomland woods. (If you have time, or come early, walk to the Owl Wood, a separate area with more species.)
The guided tour serves as an introduction to the variety of raptors in the avian world, but there's time for only a limited number of species. For a few of the other birds you can see at the center, go to their website, http://www.thecenterforbirdsofprey.org/the_birds.html but even that is very incomplete because they have over 30 bird-of-prey species.
Following the guided tour, the group proceeded to the free-flight field. First up was a Harris' Hawk, Parabuteo unicinctus, a dark buteo of the Southwest. Because this species is a cooperative hunter, the white on the adults' tails allows them to keep track of each other. After the Barred Owl flight, which turned into the Barred Owl perch because of the wind, an active Eurasian Kestrel was brought out. This bird can see UV light which allows it to hunt voles by detecting their urine marks. The final highlight of the show was a Tawny Eagle, a magnificent bird that put on quite a show.
The raptor center is a bit expensive ($12/adult), but I look at it as a charitable contribution to help support their work. In addition to their medical and rehabilitation efforts and on-site educational tours, they offer off-site education programs and they do research and field studies related to the "protection of wild bird populations and their habitats." (For more detail, see http://www.thecenterforbirdsofprey.org/research.htm )
More photos taken during our visit to the center can be found at http://picasaweb.google.com/northeastnaturalist/BirdsOfPreyCaptive#