At first glance, it appears to be just a nice lakeside bungalow residence. But as one gets closer, it's not only the sign that denotes something special here; at the Audubon Center for Birds of Prey, every day brings another story of survival and awe – and sometimes heart-breaking loss.
Since 1979, the Audubon Center for Birds of Prey in Maitland – less than eight miles north of Orlando and a short jaunt off Interstate 4 – has treated more than 17,000 injured or orphaned raptors, averaging about 650 admissions a year.
A North American leader in specialized eagle care and rehabilitation of sick or injured birds of prey, the center releases roughly 40 percent of its raptor patients back to the wild. That includes eagles, hawks, falcons, osprey, kites and owls. Those unable to survive on their own are either placed in nature parks around the country or become residents here.
Visitors to the Center, whose admission fees help pay for the raptors' care, can see up close more than 20 resident raptor species, and enjoy the grounds' butterfly gardens, boardwalk, lake and the Audubon House – a 1920s bungalow with original hardwood floors that holds artifacts, information and a back porch that is home to small owls and falcons. They might also catch the staff and volunteers in action.
On a weekday morning under a blue Florida sky, a team of handlers loads a Bald Eagle into a truck, preparing for the drive back to the eagle's territory and its release after several months of rehabilitation from a leg wound. Meanwhile, staff and volunteers make ready for the arrival of an injured hawk as visitors amble outside through self-guided tours.
"What's next? A Cooper's Hawk," says Gwen Zinck of Oviedo, Fla. Zinck is here with sons Kelvin, 10, and Griffin, 8, both home schooled. "OK, why are these here, where's the book?" Zinck says.
She's standing before the large outdoor wooden enclosures, reading from the guide book that tells stories of recovery from illness and injuries – like that of Lily, a Mississippi Kite admitted in 1995 as a nestling with a severe respiratory infection that the staff spent two weeks saving.
X-ray images of a Red-shouldered Hawk with a pellet in the right ulna posted on the trauma clinic window reveal another frequent source of injury – gunshot wounds.
"About 85 percent come in from human-wildlife interface," says Katie Warner, the center's director. That includes vehicle strikes as roads encroach further into wildlife habitat.
A video in the Audubon House shows behind-the-scenes work in the trauma clinic – where raptors are examined and treated for eye injuries, broken bones, dehydration and poisoning. Surgeries are performed at the nearby veterinary hospital of Dr. Robert Hess. When healed, birds are moved to outdoor mews. Those ready for flight training then go to larger enclosures to strengthen muscles before release.
"They're coming to see the big girl," calls rehabilitation supervisor Dianna Flynt, who is wearing a thick glove up to her elbow. She stands next to Paige, a majestic Bald Eagle sitting on an outdoor perch. Flynt is referring to a group of four people, including 4-year-old Lucy Roberts and her father, Steve, of Lake Mary, rushing toward Paige.
"It's awesome," says their family friend Adam Gravett, visiting from Texas. "It's so cool to be able to see them up close. You can't see them in the wild."
Unlike residents like Paige, birds rehabilitated for release get numbers, not names. "They are wild animals. We don't anthropomorphize our patients," Flynt says. But residents do get names. Their distinct personalities are impossible to ignore, she says.
Like T.J. and Prairie, two Bald Eagles, a "pair bond," the center's only eagle couple. They had mated for life. Prairie had been brought here by Audubon member Doris Mager in 1979 when the center opened with a Baldwin family donation following Mager's five-day awareness campaign – perched inside an inactive eagle's nest.
Prairie had been shot with an arrow, which led to the amputation of her right wing. T.J. was brought in a year later, his left wing severed at the shoulder, likely by a power line. The two young eagles courted between their enclosures, passing branches to each other. The center staff put them together. They became inseparable for the next 30 years. Though they never hatched their own eggs, they once served as foster parents, incubating an egg from a fallen nest. Once, when Prairie needed treatment at the clinic, she stopped eating, says Flynt. The staff brought T.J. in beside her, and she started to eat again.
Now the staff and volunteers are keeping a close watch on Prairie because T.J. died the weekend before, she says. He lay down the previous Friday night after dinner and never woke up. A necropsy showed no obvious signs of illness, just age. Prairie has not been the same.
"She didn't eat the first couple of days," Flynt says. "She's not as sassy. She's pretty unlike herself."
"It's heartbreaking," she adds, as visitors pass Prairie's enclosure, unaware of what happened.
Though the center experiences triumphs of releases like the one that morning and research breakthroughs such as prosthetic beaks and whirlpool bath therapy, Flynt predicts only time will reveal if Prairie will recover from this sort of blow.
"How is she going to cope, or will she? We don't know what to expect," she says. The humans, she adds, will continue trying to give the best life possible for their raptor residents: "It's all about quality of life for these birds."
If You Go
The Audubon Center for Birds of Prey is located at 1101 Audubon Way in Maitland. Center hours are from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays. It is closed Mondays and holidays. Admission is $5 for adults and $4 for children, except for those under 3, who enter free.
Every year the Center reaches more than 20,000 visitors, students and teachers with its environmental educational programming on birds of prey and habitat conservation. For more information about the Center, its volunteer and educational programs or how to adopt a bird or otherwise contribute, visit fl.audubon.org/audubon-center-birds-prey or call 407-644-0190.
Directions: From Interstate 4, take exit 88 and head east on Lee Road. Take the first left onto Wymore Boulevard and then a right onto Kennedy Boulevard. Turn left onto East Avenue. Audubon Way will be the third left, and the Center is immediately on the right.