British Columbia·PHOTOS

B.C. raptor rehab centre set to break its annual rescue record

A raptor rehabilitation centre in Delta is trying to keep up with the number of rescues it gets each year, and that number keeps going up.

Hundreds of birds of prey — most injured by human activity — are brought to OWL's facility each year

OWL volunteer Colin Iverson stalks a bald eagle in one of the centre's cages. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Colin Iverson creeps up on a mighty bald eagle in one of the many big cages at the Orphaned Wildlife rescue centre in Delta, B.C.

The 72-year-old volunteer, who sits on OWL's board of directors, wears thick leather gloves and wields a large fishing net.

His first attempt at netting the eagle misses. It's close, but the bird narrowly avoids Iverson's reach and flies away. Several other nearby eagles flee.

He stalks the bird across the cage, and once it's cornered, it doesn't put up much of a fight. The bald eagle and another in the cage are brought into OWL's clinic. They're weighed and then put into dog kennels to be shipped back to northern B.C. and released where they were found.

Martina Versteeg and Colin Iverson carry two bald eagles out of a large cage. The birds have been rehabilitated and will now be shipped home to Northern B.C. for release. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)
Colin Iverson weighs a rehabilitated bald eagle at OWL's facility in Delta. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)
Staff at OWL sort through the birds that have been rehabilitated and need to be shipped back to the various parts of the province where they were found. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

"After they've been injured and they've been rehabilitated, it's very rewarding to know they're going back to the wild and were doing some little thing to keep the birds alive," said Iverson.

The eagles are just two of the hundreds of raptors OWL will rehabilitate this year, and they're the lucky ones. On the counter in the clinic, three dead birds lie in a bundle. The merlin, red tail hawk and barred owl all had to be put down due to the extent of their injuries.

Three birds that couldn't be saved, a merlin, a red tail hawk and a barred owl, lie wrapped in a towel in OWL's clinic. They were all put down by a veterinarian. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

"Those have all been humanely destroyed," said raptor care manager Rob Hope. "It's done by a veterinarian and it's an injection."

According to Hope, OWL had 626 birds come through its facility in 2015. That was about 50 birds more than 2014, and this year the centre is on pace to break its record by about 30 to 50 birds.

"Year over year we seem to be getting busier and busier," he said. "We had five birds that came in just today."

Raptor care supervisor Martina Versteeg said it's a constant effort to keep up with the rising number of rescues.

Martina Versteeg gestures to the huge list of birds in OWL's care on Tuesday. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)
A bald eagle that has been rehabilitated is prepared for release — but not before it's shipped home to northern B.C. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

"Hopefully it just means that more people know about us and hopefully it doesn't mean that more [injured birds] are needing help, but we never really know," she said.

"Obviously human involvement is part of it, getting hit by cars and people using poison is still one of the major causes of, you know, why wildlife comes into rehab care to begin with, but we're trying to just make up for the human footprint that is put on them."

(Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Iverson points out that even seemingly benign human behaviour, like throwing a biodegradable apple core or banana peel out a car window could lead to injured birds. The fruit waste attracts rodents, which in turn draw various raptors to the highway where they get struck by vehicles.

"Most of the injuries are man made," he said.

OWL volunteer and board member Colin Iverson holds a bald eagle after catching it with a fishing net. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)
OWL's raptor care supervisor Martina Versteeg, who eats only a vegan diet, cuts up pieces of raw quail to feed her feathered patients. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

OWL is currently building a new wooden cage to try to keep pace with the increased rescues. 

"It's about 50 feet long and it's a direct flight," said Hope. "We'll be using this mostly for falcons and Cooper's hawks."

The flight cage will be used to make sure rehabilitated animals are healthy and flying normally before they're released back into the wild. 

A huge proportion of OWL's operating cost is gobbled up by the birds. According to staff, even a baby barn owl (the facility has seen 25 this year alone) will eat three or four mice a day. each mouse costs about a dollar. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

"It does take a lot of time and money to care for these animals," Hope said. 

Veterinarians often donate surgeries and OWL gets breaks on shipping costs, but with the new building, constant medication costs, seven regular staff members and enough food to satisfy the ravenous patients, the costs add up to nearly $500,000 each year, according to Hope.

"[We're] trying to be more professional at the fundraising and go bigger," said Versteeg.

For the first time, the organization is holding a $150-per-plate gala to raise cash. 

Follow Rafferty Baker on Twitter: @raffertybaker