June 23rd, 2024

Birds of Prey centre ready to take flight on new season


By Al Beeber - Lethbridge Herald on May 17, 2024.

Herald photo by Ian Martens - A bald eagle named Jefferson comes in for a landing while tethered for a recent flying demonstration at the Birds of Prey Centre.

LETHBRIDGE HERALDabeeber@lethbridgeherald.com

Colin Weir and staff at the Alberta Birds of Prey Nature Centre in Coaldale are ready for visitors to start flocking back for the summer.

The centre opens this Saturday in time for the May long weekend and will be welcoming guests until early September, open daily, including on statutory holidays, from 9:30 a.m. until 5 p.m.

The Alberta Birds of Prey Foundation, which was started in 1982, was the first privately licenced raptor rescue and conservation organization in Alberta.

The foundation was started by Weir and Wendy Slaytor who approached the government of Alberta, which at the time had no provisions for individuals to have wildlife in their possession, even for rehabilitation.

They were helped with their endeavours by then Taber-Warner MLA Bob Bogle to get the duo permission to start their rescue operation.

They began rehabilitating birds in 1984 with construction starting in Coaldale on the centre in 1989 on a reclaimed wetland.

Weir, a southern Ontario native, had a dream of starting a bird centre so he headed west and ended up in Coaldale.

Weir, whose professional background is in accounting, has run the centre full-time since the early 2000s when he left an insurance agency job.

Before the facility was created, the property it sits on was flat farmland, a far different landscape that visitors now see.

While many things have changed over the years, one constant is Sarah the golden eagle who Weir said in a recent interview once sat on the arm of British ski jumper Michael David Edwards, better known as “Eddie the Eagle,’ when he competed at the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary. Sarah this year will be 40 and has been with Weir for 39 years.

“It’s a lot of work to get the place open,” said Weir as the May rains began pummelling southern Alberta.

He said that rain will be helpful to the centre because the wetlands suffer somewhat like farmers and ranchers in dry conditions.

“We depend on the rain quite a bit for the vegetation and the wildlife we get in and around the centre,” Weir said.

While the centre staff hasn’t seen different species of birds with climate change, they have noticed that the seasons are getting longer with birds arriving earlier and staying later.

“Their breeding cycles are changing a fair amount,” Weir added.

But there are good stories, too. One of them is that bald eagles are present at the site 12 months a year.

“Thirty or 40 years ago I would have said that’s never, ever going to happen,” said Weir.

With the wetlands and fish in the centre ponds and plenty of ducks and geese, the area is good for feeding passing eagles and some do now stay there.

There are even bald eagles nesting in the river valley which he said never happened in the 1980s.

“They’re definitely expanding their range.”

Weir and Slaytor took in their first injured and orphaned bird in 1983, he recalled.

The visitors centre opened in 1991.

While the centre is only open until fall, staff answer calls about injured and orphaned birds year-round, he said.

Centre staff are working on a couple of new projects including a picnic shelter and wildlife viewpoint.

The second is ‘turtle cove.” The centre now has breeding painted turtles in one of its ponds.

For Albertans, painted turtles are exotic, said Weir, because they’re not seen very often, an exception being at the Elizabeth Hall Wetlands in Lethbridge.

Since its inception, the Birds of Prey Foundation mission been focused on several elements.

The primary focus of the foundation is the rescue and release of injured birds including hawks, owls, eagles and vultures with the organization working with Alberta Fish and Wildlife to give birds a second chance at life back in the mild. Most birds come from southern Alberta but some have been to Coaldale from across the country.

The centre offers various programs which help adults and children alike gain the knowledge and skills needed to take positive actions to support ecosystems.

Guided tours are also offered ranging from one to two hours. They include an interpretive walk-through, photo opportunities, a flying demonstration and a chance to feed the centre’s own flock of domestic pekin ducks.

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