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Hidden habitat

Over 400 attend Macbride Raptor Project family day

SOLON– You may not know it exists, unless you’ve been there.
From a bird’s eye view, the Macbride Raptor Project, nestled into the Macbride Nature and Recreation Area, seems to be situated on the tip of a gravel wing; down below it is home to more than 20 birds of prey– three of which have been featured in the project’s new family day. The third event was held Saturday, May 7, and featured the American kestrel, North America’s littlest falcon.
“The reason I started family day is so that as a staff and volunteers we’d have a chance to focus on just visitors once a month,” said Laura Semken, Macbride Raptor Project (MRP) assistant coordinator.
Since its inauguration in March, the free event has brought in nearly a thousand people to view the MRP and surrounding woodland, which boasts a prairie walk, butterfly garden and bird blind. While a voluntary sign-in sheet makes it difficult to put a number on any surge in monthly visitors, Semken said most family day attendees are first-timers.
More than 400 kids and adults got their would-be first look at the 30-year-old raptor haven on May 7, in addition to an up-close encounter with the MRP’s two female kestrels, Cricket and Sereele. The first family day, held in March and featuring the turkey vulture, attracted around 500 visitors; April’s Swainson’s hawk brought in a little over 100 people– the low turnout likely a result of poor weather.
Jeff Zavala, a medical student at the UI College of Medicine, took a break from the books to bring his two children, Oliver, 2, and Gavin, 4, to the May event.
“I thought it’d be a nice weekend to come out and enjoy the outdoors,” he said.
He spent the afternoon chasing after Oliver and Gavin, who couldn’t get enough of the hawks, falcons, owls and more– all indigenous to Iowa– in their enclosures.
Inside the center, kids built their own nests out of paper bags, dried grass, and homemade playdough for the eggs. A few volunteers– out of the more than 30 that regularly care for the raptors– helped the kids research which birds’ nests they would like to replicate. There were also instructions available on how to attract American kestrels by building your own nesting boxes.
Next month’s family day, to be held Saturday, June 4, will feature the osprey. Semken said the event will highlight osprey nesting in Iowa and the craft will likely have something to do with fish, as the osprey is sometimes referred to as the “fish eagle.”
The osprey is just one of the many raptors Semken could tell you about. While both fairly new to the center, she and MRP Coordinator Shawn Hawks have joint experience in raptor research and environmental education and hope to merge those two skills together.
A management change last fall brought them both to the MRP– Hawks from Hawk Watch International in Salt Lake City, where he was a research biologist, and Semken from the Agape Café in Iowa City, where she served as volunteer coordinator for 20 years.
“I never dreamed that I’d actually end up working here,” said Semken. “I really just wanted to learn about raptors.”
Semken had interned at the MRP while in Kirkwood Community College’s parks and natural resources program. She has also helped coordinate the University of Iowa wildlife camps for years. When not caring for the raptors, she’s also working on a master’s degree in environmental education.
A jointly sponsored program of the University of Iowa (UI) Recreational Services and Kirkwood Community College, the MRP has been involved in rehabilitation of raptors since 1985. With Hawks and Semken now overseeing the program, there has been a shift away from rehabilitation and more toward preservation education and research.
“(The MRP) has always been doing education,” Semken noted. “We just continued in their footsteps all the wonderful work they’ve done in the community.”
Hawks said he is looking forward to more research opportunities and would eventually like to see a raptor-wide banding program.
“Shawn’s tried to make (the birds’) lives very valuable here,” said Meredith Caskey, assistant director of UI Recreational Services wildlife camps. “He’s been open and welcoming to make this a popular place for the community.”
While Hawks said the MRP is no longer taking in new birds for rehabilitation, the RARE Group (Raptor Advocacy, Rehabilitation and Education) of Johnson County– started by former MRP coordinator and assistant coordinator Jodeane Cancilla and Luke Hart, respectively, rescues, treats and releases raptors.
The Kirkwood Raptor Center, where MRP birds were cared for, is no longer operating.
Hawks said the MRP will likely maintain its state and federal rehabilitation permits for a couple of years so that he can work with veterinarians to learn more about raptor husbandry.
“As far as taking in birds, we’re not going to do that,” he said. “We were spending a lot of time on individual raptors, rather than working on a population level.”
Some programs he would like to see implemented are the modeling of winter raptor populations, nesting patterns in urban versus rural landscapes, and migrating raptor populations through counts and banding projects.
Learn more at recserv.uiowa.edu/mrp.