VACATIONS WITH THE BIRDS

(originally published in Airlines magazine, June 2004 issue)

By John Geary

Who has not marveled at the sight of a bird, flying overhead? Whether it’s a bald eagle, a raven or even a tiny chickadee, there is something magic about birds, a magic humans admire and perhaps even envy, probably because birds can do something no humans or many other mammals can do, without machinery:

Fly.

Many Canadians spend their summers bird watching in forests and marshes. For those who do not, there are other opportunities that allow them to experience the wonder of birds “up close.”

Some facilities in Canada provide the opportunity to see exotic birds from other locales around the world, providing a taste of a trip to the tropics without leaving the country. Others offer close-up experiences with raptors.

Many of these facilities are involved in avian conservation, through rehabilitation, captive breeding and education. Here are five places in Canada to get “up close and personal” with birds.

LEARNING FALCONRY AT PACIFIC NORTHWEST RAPTORS

When you first enter the Pacific Northwest Raptors Centre near Duncan, B.C., you’ll be forgiven if you feel you’ve stepped into Middle Earth.

Many of the centre’s birds are named after characters in Lord of the Rings. Galadriel, a proud-looking ferruginous hawk, gazes at you, looking every bit a queen; nearby sit Strider and Gimli, a pair of active Harris hawks; and one of the smaller birds - a Lanner falcon named Pippin - is one of the noisier flock members.

“When we first obtained birds for the centre, the first Tolkien movie was just out,” says Gary Worley, one of the instructor/owners. “They have some great names, and many match our birds’ personalities.

“For example, we have one named ‘Gollum,’ who, like the Tolkien character, has a split personality. When we fly him, he may be stubborn and not fly at all, then suddenly something clicks, and he’ll fly for anyone.”

The centre flies birds six days a week from April through October. If you want to do more than watch, you can take a half-day or full-day falconry course.

During the course, you meet the birds and learn about the 8,000-year-old sport of falconry. After practising the falconer’s knot, participants transfer a bird from its perch to their gauntleted hands.

Following a walk to get comfortable handling them, you spend the rest of the day flying them in a field, using stationary lures to coax them onto your hand and lures whipped through the air using a rope, to give them a chance to nail their “prey” in flight.

If you’re lucky, you might finish your day walking through the woods, while Gimli and Strider fly back and forth along the trail, eventually catching up to you, just like their namesakes chasing Orcs in the second LOTR movie …

IF YOU GO

Getting there: Take the Trans Canada Highway north from Duncan. Approximately four kilometres north, turn right (east) on Herd Road, driving past Lakes. The centre is at 1877 Herd Road, on the left just past Richards Trail, across from the rugby club.

Hours: The centre is open daily, except Wednesdays, 11 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., mid-April to mid October. Flying demonstrations are at 12 noon and 3 p.m.

Cost: Adults, $7; children five to 15, $3.50; children under five, free. Courses are $60 for the half-day course, $115 for the full-day course.

Contact: Phone: (250) 746-0372; email: [email protected]; website: www.pnwraptors.com .

 WALK THROUGH THE TROPICS AT BLOEDEL CONSERVATORY

The calls of unfamiliar birds echo throughout the air as you proceed along the path. Sweat forms on your face, the result of tropical heat and humidity.

Crossing a small footbridge, a flash of colour catches your eye. Glancing left, you spy two gorgeous green-winged macaws, grooming themselves. Close by sit two blue-and-gold macaws. They open their mouths to produce the loud cries you heard moments ago.

While it may feel like Central America, you're actually only minutes from downtown Vancouver, in Queen Elizabeth Park’s Bloedel Conservatory. The world’s second largest domed conservatory houses more than 60 exotic bird species and 500 plant species. In addition to macaws, it houses a pair of Amazons, an African grey parrot, a Moluccan cockatoo, and many other exotic birds.

As well as its tropical environment, Bloedel offers an area dedicated to desert environment that includes cactus and agave plants.

Outside, you're treated to a spectacular view, looking north across Vancouver.

While the birds are the highlight of the 35-year-old conservatory, it was originally built to display plants.

“The original thought was to create a tropical plant cathedral,” says Alex Downie, supervisor of the conservatory. “They didn’t have any birds originally, then someone donated a pair of macaws in the early 1970’s, and they had a few zebra finches, as well.

“In the early 90’s, we began to expand the bird collection, adding parrots and other species of compatible, free-flying birds.”

The parrots stay on perches, their wings trimmed to prevent them from flying and destroying their habitat. However, if you’re not careful, you may have a Yellow golden pheasant sneak up behind you, or have to dodge a free-flying finch.

All too soon, your walk is done and you’re ready to exit. But there is that great view waiting for you outside …

IF YOU GO

Getting there: Access is via Cambie Street in south Vancouver. Turn east at 33 Avenue into Queen Elizabeth Park. Signs will direct you to the conservatory parking.

Hours: Open daily, May 10 to Sept. 10, 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Cost: Adults, $4; seniors, $2.80; children 13 to 18, $3; children six to 12, $2; children under six, free.

Contact: Phone: (604) 257-8570/8584.

REHABILITATING AND EDUCATING AT ALBERTA BIRDS OF PREY CENTRE

Whoosh! The sound of air rushing effortlessly through strong wings gives you just a small inkling of the power and majesty of a bald eagle, as you stand next to a huge recovery aviary, your face inches away, separated only by some chicken wire.

The recovery aviary is one aspect of the Alberta Birds of Prey Centre, located just outside Coaldale, a few hours south of Calgary. Visitors can also hold a raptor like a great horned owl; for those who crave more action, they can hold a tasty morsel of food and tempt a Harris hawk to zoom across a field and land on their gloved hand.

The centre works to rehabilitate and release injured birds of prey and educate the public about birds of prey and raptor conservation. It is home to owls, eagles, vultures, falcons and hawks.

Open since 1991, the centre operates under the direction of the Alberta Birds of Prey Foundation, a registered charity, formed in 1982.

“There was a need for avian rehabilitation in southern Alberta and nobody was here,” says Wendy Slaytor, the foundation's executive director, “so we volunteered our services and it's grown from there.”

All visitors have the opportunity to slip on a leather gauntlet and hold a live falcon or owl for a photograph. There is even a tiny burrowing owl for toddlers.

Slaytor says those kinds of experiences “can play a very important role in educating children about wildlife.”

The centre holds live flying demonstrations daily. In between the demonstrations, you can walk around and view all the birds.

The centre tries to rehabilitate and release every bird brought in, but some are still too injured to release, so they remain in the centre.

This July, its newly constructed wildlife rescue building opens, offering people behind-the-scene tours three times daily.

IF YOU GO:

Getting there: Drive south from Calgary on Highway 2, then turn east at Highway 3. Ten minutes east of Lethbridge, you’ll come to Coaldale, the site of the centre. About two hours from Calgary.

Hours: Open daily, May 10 to Sept. 10, 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Cost: Adults, $8; seniors, $7; children six to17, $5; children three to five, $4; children under three, free.

Contact: Phone: (403) 345-4262; e-mail: [email protected] ; website: www.albertabirds.com

VIEW THE FALLS, THEN STEP INTO BIRDS OF THE LOST KINGDOM

Something large looms in the darkness, hanging in the air … moving closer, you make out the outline of a wrecked 1930’s biplane. You get the feeling Indiana Jones might be lurking around here somewhere …

You’re not in South America, and it’s not 1938, however. You’re in the Birds of the Lost Kingdom, just a few blocks away from one of the natural wonders of the world, Niagara Falls.

Opened in June 2003, the Niagara Falls Aviary houses 86 different bird species, including toucans, hornbills, lorikeets, finches and parrots, contained in three main areas.

The first area holds many small birds. The nocturnal area houses bats, snakes, poison arrow frogs, giant cockroaches - and the old biplane suspended in mid-air.

The facility’s crowning glory is a three-story 60-foot high, 14,000-square-foot aviary, full of free-flying birds. A 40-foot waterfall cascades down one wall. You can descend all the way down the wheelchair friendly walkway to its bottom. Watch out for playfully low-flying toucans, who may just miss your head in one of their aerial swoops!

While there, you can enter the lorikeet enclosure with a small container of nectar while 10 or 15 of the colourful little birds swarm onto you, each vying for a drink.

You can also treat yourself to coffee in an authentic Java House - a 125-year-old house from Java, not just a coffee house.

“The house was brought over, piece-by-piece from Java, but the person who brought it over lost interest in it,” says George Rason, the curator. “Larry and Marilyn Vann, the owners, bought it, and re-constructed it in the aviary.”

Most parrots do not fly free, but you may be greeted by an African grey, Amazon or cockatoo or have your picture taken with one of them in the main aviary.

IF YOU GO

Getting there: From Toronto, take QEW Niagara exit 420 Niagara Falls, Highway 420 east towards Falls to Falls Ave. Turn left onto Clifton Hill then left onto River Road. The aviary is one block up on the left) About 1-1/2 hours from Toronto.

Hours: The aviary is open to the public seven days a week, 365 days a year, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. November to April, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. May to October.

Cost: $14.95 for adults, $13.95 for seniors, $9.95 for children 12 and under, free for children three and under. (prices do not include tax).

Contact: Phone toll-free 1-866-994-0090; email: [email protected] ; website: www.niagarafallsaviary.com

TAKE YOUR PICK AT AFRICAN LION SAFARI: RAPTORS OR PSITTACINES

While visitors may not initially associate bird shows with something called “African Lion Safari,” this facility offers the opportunity for some exciting action with both birds of prey and parrots.

The “Parrot Paradise” show usually involves eight to 12 parrots. Geared for people of all ages, it demonstrates, through several routines, parrots’ intelligence, their dexterity while walking and flying, the strength of their formidable-looking beaks, their ability to distinguish colour, and of course, their talking - and in some cases, singing - ability.

The show also educates people about the natural history of parrots.

Both the parrot and raptor shows will be revamped this year, Lion Safari’s 35 year of operation. Plans include a new 1,000-seat animal amphitheatre and an expanded flying field.

“The amphitheatre allows us to free-fly our parrots more than we ever have,” says Carole Precious, Lion Safari manager of birds. “We’re also integrating other avian species - a crow, some kookaburras, and some homing pigeons - into the parrot show.”

During the raptor show, all five raptor types fly free: an eagle, a hawk, a falcon, a vulture and an owl. This helps to illustrate the different flying styles of each bird, why they have different styles, and how they use it to capture their favoured prey.

The audience is very involved in the show, as volunteers can have a bird land on their gauntleted hand. Sometimes they feature a race along the ground, pitting a vulture against children. (The vulture – with its nine-inch legs – usually wins.) They also have a facility with one-way glass that allows people to view adult birds nesting with babies.

In addition to putting on shows, African Lion Safari rehabilitates injured birds and has provided captive-bred owls, swans, hawks and a bald eagle to reintroduction programs for release into the wild.

IF YOU GO

Getting there: From Toronto via 401, follow 401 west (London) to exit 299, Highway 6 south, which is just past Milton. Go south on Highway 6 for 14 km and turn right on Safari Road. Follow Safari Road for about 16 km, centre is on the right.

From Toronto via Q.E.W., follow the Q.E.W. west and then follow Hwy 403 west towards Hamilton. Take Highway 6 north towards Guelph. Go north on Highway 6 for 11 km, turn left on Safari Road. Follow Safari Road for about 16 km, centre is on the right.

Approximately one hour from Toronto, using either route.

From London, take the 401 east and then take exit 268A. Follow Regional Road 97 east to Highway 8 and turn right on Highway 8 and follow the signs. About 1-1/2 hours from London.

Hours: Open April 24 to October 11, in 2004; hours vary, from month-to-month. Contact Lion Safari for specifics.

Cost: Spring (Apr 24 to June 25)/and fall (Sept 7 to Oct 11), 2004 rates: Adult (13 to 59), $20.95; seniors (60+), $17.95; children (3-12), $15.95. Summer (Jun 26 to Sept 6, 2004 rates: Adult, $23.95; seniors, $20.95; children, $18.95.

Contact: Phone toll-free (in some areas) 1-800-461-WILD (9453) or (519) 623-2620; email: [email protected] ; website: www.lionsafari.com .