By Emily Webb, Lees-McRae College
A few Grandfather Mountain staff members and representatives from local media outlets gathered to watch the release. Nina Fischesser, the director of the May Wildlife Rehabilitation Center, explained that animals treated by the center are normally released close to where they were found, but this was impossible for the two hawks. Instead, she reached out to Grandfather Mountain president and executive director Jesse Pope, a LMC graduate and Fischesser’s former intern, to arrange a public release.
“This is full circle for us,” Fischesser said. “We’re really glad we can be here.”
Hawks are closely linked with Grandfather Mountain, as the mountain is an official Hawk Watch location. Each September, trained counters come to the mountain to scan the skies and track the number of hawks flying overhead. These numbers are reported to the Hawk Migration Association of North America and used to assess the health of raptor populations in the country. At Grandfather Mountain, up to 10,000 hawks have been spotted in a single day.
Three LMC summer clinical students, Ashley Ellis, Caselyn Little and Megan Guess, handled the release itself, and each gave a short presentation about the birds.
Ellis, a wildlife biology major, talked about the natural history and behavior of broad-winged hawks. Like many hawk species who pass over Grandfather Mountain during their migration south, broad-winged hawks rely on the wind currents coming off the rocky outcroppings and ridges of the mountain to help them conserve energy on their flight. Broad-winged hawks are also one of the dozens of species who nest and breed on the mountain itself.
Little, who is also studying wildlife biology, handled the first release. She explained that the patient, Silver 191, had been found on the side of the road, and they suspected he had been hit by a car. Although he didn’t have any broken bones or serious injuries, he was severely dehydrated and infected with parasites. After receiving treatment, he was declared ready to return to the wild.
During the release, the hawk seemed slightly hesitant to fly away. Little had to gently tap and shake the carrier to encourage him to fly. After a few moments, he soared out of the box and directly into a nearby tree.
Guess, a pre-veterinary medicine major, told the story of the second hawk, Patient 216. He was found near a road in Flat Rock, North Carolina and came to the center with a beak injury. The staff found blood in his glottis, the structure that surrounds the trachea, and multiple types of parasites in his digestive system. He was also treated with medication, and although he lost the tip of his beak, he was able to rebuild his strength and stamina by practicing in the center’s flight cages.
Patient 216 came out of his carrier more readily, flying low over the group’s heads as he aimed for a tree. At the same time, Silver 191 took off from his perch and few in lazy circles above the crowd, showing off his pale barred undersides and providing a perfect photo opportunity.
One of the reporters asked the students how they felt after the release.
“It’s absolutely amazing,” Guess said. “I love to see all of our patients be able to come out here, be released, and then live long and happy lives in the wild.”
Little described the experience of working with a patient from intake to release as “very rewarding,” and Ellis said it’s why she chose to study wildlife biology.
According to Fischesser, the summer clinical program is the “meat and potatoes” of the May Wildlife Rehabilitation Center. Students get hands-on experience treating and releasing injured wildlife alongside seasoned professionals. Although students help out in the center year-round, the summer clinical is an intensive months-long course that prepares students for future careers.
The May Wildlife Rehabilitation Center is one of the only wildlife rehab centers in the country located on a college campus. It treats injured and orphaned animals of all different species and offers educational presentations to teach the community about native species and the importance of conservation.
Beginning on June 4, public wildlife presentations will be held in the Banner Elk Tate-Evans Town Park Amphitheater on Fridays and Saturdays at 1 p.m.
Although the center is currently closed to visitors, it is still accepting patients and orphaned wildlife. For information about what to do if you find an injured animal, visit the May Wildlife Rehabilitation Center website, or call (828) 898-2568.