Raptor festival draws flocks of bird-watchers to southwest Manitoba

Hundreds of birders flocked to the small, southwestern Manitoba town of La Rivière Saturday morning to count migrating hawks, falcons, eagles and owls as they fly north en route for their summer breeding grounds.

5th annual La Rivière Raptor Festival a chance to form 'personal connection' with birds of prey

In past years, upwards of 5,000 red tail hawks have been counted migrating through the Pembina Valley in the spring, Evelyn Janzen said. (Associated Press/The Cincinnati Enquirer, Glenn Hartong)

Hundreds of birders flocked to the small, southwestern Manitoba town of La Rivière Saturday morning to count migrating hawks, falcons, eagles and owls as they fly north en route for their summer breeding grounds.

"The purpose is to raise awareness about how important birds are to us as humans and how they are indicators of a healthy or a poor environment," said Evelyn Janzen, an organizer with the fifth annual La Rivière Raptor Festival.

La Rivière is situated in the Pembina Valley, about 170 kilometres southwest of Winnipeg. It falls inside one of the main flightways for migratory birds of prey heading north to nest every summer. Red tail hawks are especially abundant in the area in the spring, Janzen said.

In 2014, more than 11,300 raptors and 16 species were identified in the area. About 7,720 red tail hawks were spotted that year, as well as almost 1,500 bald eagles. This year on the day of the festival, 11 red tail hawks, five bald eagles, two American kestrels, and a turkey vulture were spotted, Janzen said.

Local interest in the festival has been on the rise. In the festival's inaugural year, 125 bird-watchers came out for the count; last year, almost 600 volunteers took part. Almost 470 people attended this year's festival.
A young rough legged hawk tries to get a piece of snake as another sits and eats on top of a power pole. A rehabilitated rough legged hawk will be released at the start of the fifth annual La Riviere Raptor Festival. (The Associated Press/The Wyoming Tribune Eagle, Michael Smith)
Each year, the event gets underway with the ceremonial release of a rehabilitated bird of prey. This year, wildlife officials released a rough legged hawk to mark the start of the count at 10 a.m. on a treed hill off Highway 3 north of town. Down below, the counters stood, binoculars, scopes and long-lens cameras cricked to the skies. A few seasoned birders were appointed to identify raptors down to the species level.

The festival is one part education, one part spectacle. Representatives with the Prairie Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre (PWRC) and Wildlife Haven Rehabilitation Centre had booths and a few feathered friends on hand.

There was at least six winged-wildlife ambassadors on display in the community recreation centre, including an American kestrel, red tail hawk, barn owl and great horned owl. 

It just kind of makes you wonder: if you could fly and you had eyes like that, what would you be able to see?- Evelyn Janzen

"When they see these animals, they make that personal connection with them and they care a little bit more about environmental issues," said Heather Mitchell, education co-ordinator with the PWRC. "Raptors are very sensitive to change in their environment, so we can kind of touch on bigger picture issues."

Janzen loves birds, and while she admits she doesn't know much about raptors in particular, she said being mindful of the land and the wildlife it sustains is something rural Manitobans consider second nature.

"It's just part of the way we live out here and so it's important to know," Janzen said.

"You have to be able to look into one of those birds' eyes — it's almost mesmerizing. It's amazing just to see their eyes and look into their eyes. It just kind of makes you wonder: if you could fly and you had eyes like that, what would you be able to see?"

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