Saturday, March 17, 2018

Up-close perusals of birds of prey at this weekend's Raptor Fest

ST. PETERSBURG — It's feeding time at Boyd Hill Nature Preserve.

Volunteer Jason Cowen stands outside the cage of Abiaka, a 7-year-old bald eagle who ended up at the preserve after falling from his nest at Honeymoon Island during a 2010 storm.

Abiaka, who is named after a Seminole Indian tribe leader, severed tendons in his wing during the fall and could not be rehabilitated. He would not survive in the wild, so his home now is a cage at Boyd Hill. Abiaka perches on Cowen's arm and pecks at a dead rat with his powerful beak.

"In rehab it's all about keeping them away from humans, getting them better and getting them back in the wild," said Cowen, who has been a volunteer at Boyd Hill for six years. "Once they come to us their life will never be like that.

"We get them used to people on purpose. Their life is here or in a classroom. The idea is that if they can't be in the wild themselves, at least they can help advocate for their wild counterparts."

Abiaka will be one of many raptors on display Saturday during Boyd Hill's fourth annual Raptor Fest. Like Abiaka, some of the other birds of prey at the fest are full-time residents of the preserve. Visitors can see turkey vultures, red-tailed hawks, barred owls, red-shouldered hawks, Eastern screech owls, American kestrels and black vultures.

They all ended up here because of various injuries that made it impossible for them to survive in the wild.

Those birds will not be the only ones showing off Saturday. The stars are sure to be the falcons and an American condor. They will be displayed by Steve Hoddy, a regular at Raptor Fest who has been training birds of prey for over 35 years. The big, graceful raptors are trained to fly over crowds from a post and onto Hoddy's padded arm.

While impressive, Cowen said Raptor Fest is not only about entertaining, but educating as well.

"Yes, it is all about having fun and seeing these birds up close," Cowen said. "But it's also important to know that they are not pets. We want to educate people about these birds that spend their days in the same environment as us."

Indeed, most of the raptors at the fest can be seen in Tampa Bay. Cowen said there is a bald eagle nest on a cell phone tower in a south St. Petersburg shopping center parking lot. There is also one near the preserve and Lake Maggiore.

According to an Audubon society population count, there are more Eastern screech owls in St. Petersburg than anywhere else in the United States. And vultures, those ugly birds with small heads, are actually pretty cool if you listen to Cowen.

"They are one of the smarter birds around," he said. "They have personalities and they can even do simple puzzles. They get a bad rap for being ugly birds, but they really do serve an important purpose."

It seems as if each of the raptors has a unique and interesting story. The popularity of the event has grown through the years, and more than 3,000 attendees are expected Saturday.

"It's gotten bigger and bigger every year," said Andrea Leavitt Anderson, a nature preserve ranger at Boyd Hill. "We try to have as many exhibitors and activities as possible."


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