Birds of Prey Center flying toward 25th anniversary in 2016

This month is an extra busy one for the Awendaw-based Center for Birds of Prey, its staff and volunteers.

Besides having all-hands-on-deck at Marion Square for the Southeastern Wildlife Exposition, the center is undertaking a new capital project in advance of its 25th anniversary in 2016.

The center, which has always been a bit off the beaten track of U.S. Highway 17, is working on a future main entrance off the highway. The current one is off Seewee Road.

The new entrance will include a gate, sign and half mile road, and is bound to capture the attention of some of the 31,000 vehicles a day that Center for Birds of Prey Founder and Director Jim Elliott says “don’t know we’re here.”

“We’re still a well-kept secret,” Elliott adds of the center that has been located on 150 acres, which was a gift of the Joe Rice family, for more than decade.

That added visibility, Elliott says, will bolster what has become priority No. 1 for the center: educating the public about living in more harmony with the natural world.

“We are not consumers of the natural world, but part of it, and we need to take much better care of it,” says Elliott, adding that we need to change our domination mentality from that of the “Spanish conqueror” to one that assimilates better.

The concept is easier to convey, Elliott says, when people can witness the grace and beauty of birds of prey, including owls, hawks, eagles, falcons and even vultures.

The education component of The Center for Birds of Prey — which has included regular appearances and flight demonstrations at SEWE for two decades — is spreading.

In 2014, staff and volunteers gave presentations at a record 504 schools, with a focus on Title I schools, and reached an estimated 18,000 students. That’s in addition to the 10,000 to 12,000 people at presentations at other locations and the center.

Meanwhile, Elliott says the center treated more than 600 birds that were injured or orphaned in 2014. That case load has continued to grow over the years as the center’s network of 150 volunteer “transporters,” people trained to pick up and deliver injured raptors, continues to develop.

Those transporters and 80 regular volunteers at the center provided a critical 16,000 hours to the center, which employs eight full-time and part-time staffers.

“It’s incredible how much people are willing to give,” says Elliott.

Having a brigade of volunteers also is key to many other programs offered by the center, including the emergency response in the event of an oil spill. The center is the official repository for oiled birds in South Carolina.

Elliott says the matter of a spill disaster is not a matter of if but when.

“I hope they are wrong, but if they aren’t, we’re ready.”

The 7,000-square-foot Avian Medical Center contains the Oiled Bird Treatment Facility, specifically designed for an efficient response in the event of an oil or contaminant spill affecting native birds.

As if education and rehabilitating birds aren’t enough, the center also collects valuable data on a variety of birds.

Since 1995, the center has been integral in the South Carolina Coastal Hawk Migration Study to document trends in migration. Elliott admits that the value of the survey only increases over time.

“One year does not tell you much, nor does five, but 10 or 15 years can tell you a great deal on populations, whether it’s numbers, timing or migration routes. All the data that we collect goes to the Hawk Migration Association of America,” says Elliott. “Over time, those trends and the populations provide a great deal of valuable information. That also impacts us.”

The center also participates in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service MAPS (Monitoring Avian Productivity and Survivorship) Program banding station. Ten times a year, from May to August, staff and volunteers use mist nets in a 15-acre study area to catch and band song birds.

The center also manages the Citizen Science for Swallow-tailed Kites program and works with multiple cooperating organizations with the mutual goal of protecting the bird, which is endangered in South Carolina.

The effort started in the early 1990s asking people to report sightings via a toll-free number. Now the effort is much higher tech and even has an app for that. The information of where the birds are ranging and nesting is used by scientists in a number of different projects.

Reported sightings have increased from 800 in the first year to 8,000 in 2013.