Close Encounters at The Birds of Prey Center in Coaldale, Alberta
By Dr. Robert Berdan
May 22, 2013
Spirit is an injured Golden eagle that is almost totally blind (300 mm f/2.8 Nikon D800)
It was 1998 when I first visited the Birds of Prey Center in southern Alberta where I took my first close-up photos of a bald eagle named Roosevelt (below) and it was nice to see that he was still there and doing fine when I visited again on May 19 with my wife. The Birds of Prey center was founded in 1982 by Wendy Slator and Colin Weir. Their mission is to rehabilitate injured birds of prey and release the birds if possible back into the wild. They also provide a captive breeding program and release of endangered species. The center is also involved in studying and monitoring wild birds of prey and encourages positive habitat stewardship through increased awareness and education. They are funded primarily though admission fees and donations by businesses and individuals and receive no government operating subsidies. To help pay for these activities the center is open over the summer to visitors and is a great place to study the birds and take photographs up close.
Roosevelt photographed in 1998 is still alive and doing well at the Birds of Prey Center (300 mm f/2.8, Velvia 50) CS
The birds of prey center resides on what was a marginally productive farm field and wetland that was drained. The wetland has been reclaimed and with the assistance of St. Mary’s Irrigation District the wetland has been guaranteed a source of water during dry spells. The wetland attracts a wide variety of ducks, geese, yellow-headed and red-winged blackbirds. There are also ponds where the kids can feed ducks – feed is available for sale in the gift shop.
Visitors feeding the white ducks at one of the many ponds.
Wading white ducks waiting to be fed
There are several things that make this center a worthwhile visit for anyone interested in birds or bird photography. The center provides a wide variety of birds, some in cages and some tethered so visitors can view the birds in close contact and photograph them. There are also a wide variety of wild birds in the wetlands on the property. The highlight for me is how close you can get to the birds and as someone that has photographed eagles in the wild – getting this close is not easy not matter how big a lens you have.
Bald eagle (300 mm f/2.8 lens, Nikon D800) CS
Immature Bald eagle (Nikon D800, 300 mm f/2.8 lens) CS
Golden eagle photographed at the Birds of Prey Centre in 1998 (300 mm lens, f/2.8, Velvia ISO 50 film).
As soon I entered the visitor center I was greeted at the counter by a small burrowing owl named Phil and a volunteer at the counter. Admission for adults is only $9.50 and even cheaper for seniors and children (check their web site for current prices).
The visitor center features a variety of bird related products for sale and they had some live birds on display.
Phil - a burrowing owl greeted us at the counter - burrowing owls are endangered and difficult to find in the wild. CS
A pair of young barn owls being cared for in the visitor center. CS
The center features daily flight demonstrations using falconry techniques and an interpreter talks about how they train the birds to fly again. On our visit the demonstrator was Colin Weir one of the founders. He described how the birds are trained and had an eagle fly back and forth. Colin wears a protective leather gauntlet and the eagles have leather straps attached to their feet called jesses. Jesses allow the bird handler to keep control of a bird while it is perched on the gauntlet. The weight of the straps also discourages the bird from deciding to chase something it shouldn't’t. During the flying demonstrations you can try to photograph the birds in flight - something that is more difficult than it looks.
Colin Weir demonstrating how they train injured birds to fly again. CS
We were also introduced to a beautiful golden eagle named Spirit. The eagle was brought in on a cold February in 2007 by women who brought the injured bird in the back seat of her vehicle. X-rays revealed the bird had been shot and a pellet went through his eye and one was lodged in the back of this head, two more pellets were discovered in his chest. The bird is almost completely blind, but he learned to eat after his caregivers would gently touch his beak with morsels of food. Because of his strong will to live the caretakers named him Spirit. My wife below had a close encounter with this beautiful bird as I took several portraits of him. Unfortunately, Spirit can never return to the wild, but he will at least be comfortable and he serves as an ambassador for the protection of other birds of prey.
My wife Donna in a close encounter with a Golden eagle named Spirit
For photographers of all abilities the center offers a wide variety of birds of prey that can be photographed up close. Some of the birds are behind cages, but by holding your lens close to the cage you can take pictures without revealing the cage wires. Any digital camera will allow you take great pictures, but if you want real close-up shots of the eagles and other birds a 200-300 mm telephoto lens used at the widest f-stop opening will get you the best shots.
Bald eagle in flight - I removed the Jesse straps using Photoshop to make the bird look more natural. CS
Eagle lands on Colin's gauntlet and receives a piece of soft meat as a reward. CS
Flying field where flight presentations are shown daily.
The top of the eagle aviary is covered with netting to protect the injured birds from attack by other birds of prey. There are benches in the aviary where you can sit and watch and some of them are even covered so that in the event of rain you can continue to observe and photograph the birds. The center also has young birds on display and you can talk to volunteers and interpreters to learn more about the bird biology, what they eat and how they came to be at the center. In the gift shop they offer a variety of bird feeders, T-shirts, books, photos and other mementos for sale.
Eagle aviary where visitors can sit watch and photograph these majestic birds that are being cared for.
Snowy owl photographed in 1998 and an injured Hawk photographed recently inside its cage.
Young Great horned owl - photographed in 1998 at the Birds of Prey Center.
Wild Yellow-headed blackbird photographed in the surrounding wetlands.