EASTON — The Grassland Bird Trust’s Winter Raptor Fest, held this weekend at the Washington County Fairgrounds, gives visitors plenty of chances to get close looks at the hawks and owls they would normally see only at a distance, such as red-tailed hawks and kestrels, raptors such as diminutive screech owls that they might not see at all, and the short-eared owls and snowy owls whose habitat the trust aims to conserve.
Beyond the “oohs” and “aahs,” the birds’ handlers, who are licensed wildlife rehabilitators and trained volunteers, take every chance to educate. They start with the most common question — “What kind of bird is that?”
Mo Tusty, a volunteer with The Wildlife Institute of Eastern New York, said the cinnamon-and-gray aplomado falcon perched on her gloved hand came from a breeding program to reintroduce the bird to its former range in the desert Southwest. The birds, related to the Northeast’s kestrel, were driven to extinction in the U.S. because farmers and ranchers poisoned prairie dogs, the falcon’s prey.
Many of the birds brought to rehabilitators are victims of collisions with cars or rodent control efforts, Tusty said. “We really discourage poisoning rodents, because everything eats them,” she said.
Trish Marki, The Wildlife Institute’s director, was keeping watch over a snowy owl on a perch. Oz, eight years old and captive bred, has matured to almost pure white, with striking yellow eyes. Oz is an experienced education bird and was used to the hubbub in the Wild Encounter room where he was on display, Marki said, but he wasn’t used to the warmth in the building and was panting. Snowy owls are natives of the high Arctic and are most comfortable in temperatures below 40 degrees, Marki said. To help him cool off, she let him sip water from a paper cup.
The raptor fest features presentations and demonstrations with live hawks and owls, the Wild Encounter display of raptors and other birds in mock-ups of their natural habitats, information from other conservation and natural history groups, kids’ activities and horse-drawn wagon rides through the fairgrounds, where passengers can look for cutouts of local birds. The Wild Encounter was expanded this year and includes woodlands, grasslands and Arctic habitats, suggested by live plants and tree trunks, large-scale photographic backdrops and models or cutouts of some other birds and animals, such as turkeys and meadowlarks, that also live in that habitat.
All the live birds at the event are either captive bred or injured in ways that prevent them from being returned to the wild. Rehabilitators “release birds when we can,” Tusty said. “Otherwise, we try to keep them for educational programs.”
The Winter Raptor Fest is a fundraiser and outreach event for the Grassland Bird Trust, which conserves critical wildlife habitat in the Washington County Grasslands Important Bird Area. The grasslands, in Fort Edward and Argyle, are vital for short-eared owls and 10 of the state’s most imperiled grassland bird species, including bobolinks and eastern meadowlarks.