By Linda Carr
If you’ve been in Garrett County long enough, you’ve seen the majestic birds that fly overhead or heard the screech of an owl late at night, but rarely do we get to come into close contact with them. The Aviary, located at Deep Creek Lake State Park, allows you to do just that. Located just west of the Discovery Center parking lot, the Aviary consists of six mews housing nine birds of prey and a Turkey Vulture. All the birds here have been injured and are non-releasable back into the wild but are lovingly cared for by park volunteers and staff.
Park Ranger and Program Coordinator Caroline Blizzard of the Maryland Park Service has been working with the birds for over twenty years and has watched as their presence grew both in physical space and in outreach to the community. A short time into our conversation it was obvious that this is much more than a job for Caroline, it is a labor of love. She knows small facts and details about each of the feathered creatures she feels lucky enough to care for and takes the time to introduce me to each one.
The first bird we meet is Amelia Earhart, a gorgeous Peregrine Falcon that was hit by a car, then a snowplow in the northern panhandle of West Virginia. Because she was banded as a chick, they know Amelia was born in Three Mile Island, Pennsylvania. Peregrine Falcons are the fastest birds in the world which is why she was named for the fastest woman in flight.
In the next mew, you’ll find Junior and Clarisse, two Red Tail Hawks. Junior was found along Rt. 219 and has had a full wing amputation. Clarisse was hit by a car during migration. Although they came to the Discovery Center at different times, the staff tried housing them together and were amazed at how quickly and permanently they have bonded. In fact, there are several paired birds at the Aviary. “We have found that even if their personalities are completely different, all birds that have a partner are happier together,” explains Caroline.
While some birds are released after they’ve had a chance to rest and recover from their injuries, the ones here have done surprisingly well. “We’ve only lost one in over twenty years,” says Caroline proudly. These birds have a very long lifespan. Clarisse, for example, is at least 22 years old.
The Aviary and its residents have become a staple of the Park’s Scales & Tales program and travel to different festivals and schools throughout the community. “They make great teaching ambassadors,” says Caroline. “Even their feeding becomes an opportunity to teach more about the birds, their habitats and lifestyles.”
Next we find the owls: two Barred Owls, one of the most common type of owls found in the Northeast, named Sage and Seymoure and their roommate Phoenix, who is a Great Horned Owl. When Phoenix first came to the Aviary, he was mostly blind, emaciated and on the verge of death. With tender loving care and patience, they watched as he “rose from the ashes”, hence his majestic name. Today, he is a popular feature in their programs, both on site and in the classroom.
The staff and volunteers at the Aviary work closely with the Cheat Lake Animal Center in Morgantown, who recently opened the Avian Conservation Center of Appalachia, which includes a hospital dedicated to the rehabilitation and re-homing of our feathered friends. “Before they opened we would have to travel north of Baltimore to treat our sick and injured birds,” says Caroline. The Center has even sent a few of the residents to them over the years as well.
In the last next mew resides the King of the Aviary, a Golden Eagle named Kona. He has two roommates, an American Bald Eagle named Carson (for Rachel Carson, no less); and the newest member of the flock, Suli, who is a Turkey Vulture and one of Caroline’s favorites. “Turkey Vultures are so misunderstood,” explains Caroline. “Suli is the Cherokee name for these vultures, and were considered ‘Peace Eagles’ because vultures don’t kill their prey. They clean up already dead creatures. They are literally the garbage collector of the animal world and a very integral part of the whole ecosystem.”
According to Caroline, Turkey Vultures don’t get diseases, they eat ticks and clean up animal carcasses before they rot which helps from spreading disease as well. Wait. A vulture with two eagles? Caroline laughs. “They are actually very communal. The Eagles had lived together for a while and had really bonded. In fact, when they sleep they huddle against each other’s injuries, helping protect the wounds from the elements. We introduced Suli into the mew slowly and although he definitely knows he’s at the bottom of the pecking order, the three get along very well.”
The Eagles are probably the largest draw to the Aviary and it’s obvious as you watch them why that is. Beautiful, majestic and “wicked smart”, they are a sight to behold. Caroline explains that Kona’s grip is equivalent to over 600 pounds of pressure.
The mews are available for viewing anytime the park is open. They are open air but have plastic sheeting and heat boxes for wintertime and are filled with ramps, nesting spots and lots of toys and more so their inhabitants are never bored. The birds are checked on by volunteers and staff at least once a day and are fed small mice, chicks and other rodents although Carson prefers fish each week. What happens after dinner? Suli walks from mew to mew and cleans up, of course.
In the back of the viewing area is an enclosed space where food is stored and weighed and detailed records kept on each bird. “We weigh them, and clip their nails and beaks once a month,” explains Caroline. “That way we know they’re keeping healthy and eating the right amount of food.”
Scales & Tales is “a state-wide environmental education program that encourages an appreciation for the splendor and diversity of Maryland’s wildlife” and several are held each week throughout the year so viewers can learn more about the birds and other inhabitants in the park.
One of the most popular of these is the Aviary Feeding Hour, held every Sunday at 2 p.m. and folks are encouraged to come out and watch the birds eat, plus hear the stories of how they came to be in their care and about the species itself.
As much as Caroline loves this program, she freely admits that it would not exist if not for the staff of the Deep Creek Lake State Park and Discovery Center but most especially the volunteers. “The Deep Creek Lake State Park Volunteers are a small but strong group of animal lovers that have contributed mightily to the growth of not only the Aviary, but all the programs we offer here at the park,” she says. They hold fundraisers throughout the year (including next month’s Art in the Park, a visitor favorite), help with feeding, weighing and general care of all the Aviary residents.
If you would like to learn how to work with and care for these amazing animals, you can check out their Volunteers page on their website. They also accept donations of items needed for the Aviary including dog toys, pool noodles, tennis balls and non-commercial treated sisal rope. Monetary donations are also welcomed to help for the feed and care of the birds.
The Discovery Center is open year-round, daily from Memorial Day through Labor Day and weekends the rest of the year. You can find their full schedule of events for the month at http://www.discoverycenterdcl.com or just stop by anytime to visit the wonderful world of The Aviary at Deep Creek Lake State Park.
All photos courtesy of Caroline Blizzard.