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Birds of a Feather

Get up close with owls, hawks, and eagles at Audubon Society’s Raptor Weekend

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In the heavy summer air in Bristol, a green heron huddles atop a white branch over the muddy salt marsh, a football of grey and mahogany feathers on spindly legs. The bird slinks through the dead branches, her chest undulated by breath, before she elongates her neck and slices through the water. At the edges of the shimmering marsh where the heron hunts, double-crested cormorants, swallows, herring gulls, red-winged blackbirds, snowy egrets, and yellow-bellied flycatchers preen and flit between the tall grasses. Occasionally, you might spot an osprey’s white underbelly in flight or, thousands of feet above, a red-tailed hawk wafting on the sea winds.

Spying a raptor like the osprey or red-tailed hawk requires patience and luck for even the most experienced birders, but on September 8 and 9, birds of prey will be on full display during the Audubon Society of Rhode Island’s annual Raptor Weekend.

The family friendly weekend will take place at the Audubon Nature Center and Aquarium in Bristol, which is nestled within the 28-acre Claire D. McIntosh Wildlife Refuge. “Our goal is to make sure we have something for everyone… whether it’s an individual, couple, or family,” says Audubon Director Anne DiMonti. “We have a number of kids’ games and activities, running games, interactive games, face-painting, temporary tattoos, and crafts. And the presentations are geared for all-ages.” There will also be lectures with raptor experts and Providence’s resident raptor photographer, Peter Green.

“We’re very fortunate that we have rehabilitators and people who work with raptors from New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and from all over Rhode Island,” says DiMonti. The lineup of birds making an appearance will include a European eagle owl, spectacle owl, barn owl, Harris’s hawk, aplomado falcon, bald eagle, golden eagle, American kestrel, peregrine falcon, and a variety of live owls found in New England as well as other parts of the world.

“We’re hoping that if it’s not too warm, we can have some snowy owls, which are very popular because of Harry Potter,” DiMonti says excitedly. “Personally, I tend to have favor toward the owls, but they’re really all so cool.”

Over the past 10 years, photographer Peter Green has become a fixture in the birding community, known for his striking photographs of the raptors that nest in downtown Providence. In one shot, a red-tailed hawk boasts its full wingspan as it lands on the outstretched arm of the golden “Independent Man” who stands atop the Rhode Island State House. When Green first moved to Providence, he noticed a flock of pigeons “going crazy” downtown and pulled out a pair of binoculars to see what was going on. “I noticed there was something tearing the pigeons up. It was wild.” He had spotted a peregrine falcon.

“I started watching them with my binoculars, then I got a camera, then I got a bigger camera,” says Green, who lives in the Peerless Building lofts with a view of several pigeon nests – a raptor’s food court. Green began attending Raptor Weekend as he developed his bird-watching and photography skills, and now works for Audubon as a graphic designer. This year, Green will host a lecture at Raptor Weekend about the peregrine falcons who live atop the “Superman Building” and the red-tailed hawks that hunt in Burnside Park near the downtown bus stops. His photographs will also be on display in one of the auditoriums of the Nature Center during the weekend and a few weeks following.

Green wants to address some urban legends surrounding hawks and other birds, like the one that dictates if a baby falls out of its nest, you shouldn’t touch it because the mother will reject it. “That’s definitely an urban legend,” he says. “You should definitely just put the bird back.”

“People also believe that the government or Audubon bought and trained these hawks to live downtown and hunt,” Green chuckles again, “and that’s totally not true. They live there on their own. ”

A sense of consequence also undergirds the weekend, as bird experts notice disappearing habitats and the impact of pesticides on the birds for which they care. Horizon Wings is one of the organizations that will present rehabilitated raptors that are not fit to be released back into the wild.

“Horizon Wings lost two birds this summer, [one] to rodenticide and one to lead poisoning,” says Horizon Wings founder Mary-Beth Kaeser. “Lead is extremely toxic; it takes a piece no larger than a grain of rice to poison an eagle. Fishing line and other plastic trash left in our environment can also have a negative impact on not only our raptors but other species as well.”

A proposed amendment also poses a looming threat for birds across the nation. The amendment, which awaits a vote by the US House of Representatives, would gut the century-old Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, which has served as the main protection for birds against sale and other destruction. In 2010, when the Deepwater Horizon rig bled oil into the Gulf Coast, the law was used to force a payout from BP to restore the bird habitats that were destroyed in the accident. The National Audubon Society has already filed suit against the Department of the Interior to challenge the proposed amendment, and lists several ways concerned birders can get involved in the action on its website.

Despite the challenges facing birds and their caretakers, the strength, agility, and beauty of the raptors continues to fuel education efforts like Raptor Weekend. When asked about her favorite bird, Kaeser can’t choose.

“The golden eagles are just magnificent with their presence, the bald eagles with their personalities, the red-tail [hawks] with their beauty, the peregrine [falcons] with their intelligence… I could go on,” says Kaeser. In photographs from past Raptor Weekends, that same awe is reflected in the dozens of faces of attendees gawking at the presenters and their birds. DiMonti expresses the allure of the weekend simply: “Most people won’t ever get the chance to be within five feet of a bald eagle, but at Raptor Weekend, they will.”