Friday, September 6, 2013

Students Gather for CLAWS Hawk Release

Text and photos by Erika Zambello

The late morning was already warm when the pack of five of us graduate students followed the signs for “Hawk Release” into Sarah P. Duke Gardens. It was our first official Saturday on campus, and even a full night of sleep hadn’t fully stopped our heads from spinning around extracurricular activities, paperwork due dates, course requirements, and the names and faces of about 160 new classmates. A full week of the Nicholas School of the Environment’s first year orientation had launched us into our Duke careers, and we were excited to explore Duke Gardens in our free time.

We were definitely not the first people to arrive. As we crossed the grass towards the crowd, kids chased bubbles, students discussed their classes, and local community members talked quietly or set up their photography equipment. We joined the crowd of nearly 50 and growing who had converged on the lawn to form a loose semicircle around the two rehabilitators and their five conspicuous cages. Milling around for a few minutes, we all enjoyed the beautiful morning in the gardens.

CLAWS Inc., a local nonprofit whose mission is to help “wild and exotic animals, through educating the public as well as rescuing and rehabilitating those animals in need,” had three young red-shouldered hawks ready to be released into the wild.

A hush fell over the crowd as Kindra Mammone, executive director of CLAWS, began to speak. The hawks had been raised by CLAWS since they were chicks and this would be their first free flight ever, she said. That amazed me. The first flight of a bird into freedom can be considered a pretty apt metaphor for new students beginning their undergraduate or graduate studies. I’m sure the other students in the audience felt the strength of the comparison. But more than that, we were watching a wild being returned to its natural habitat. Humans had helped!

The first hawk was carried down into the center of the lawn by rehabilitator Vinny Mammone, Kindra's husband. He was followed by a lucky woman whose name had been drawn to release the bird. Both adorned in heavy gloves, the rehabilitator gently transferred the red-shouldered hawk from its cage to the volunteer’s arm. After a brief pause to allow the hawk to acclimate, the volunteer turned and raised her hands to the sky. The hawk was off in an instant, swooping up and away and out of sight. My friends and I exhaled the breaths we weren’t aware we had been holding, and then collectively beamed at each other and everyone around us.

One by one, the hawks were transferred from their cages to a volunteer, and then just as quickly they were gone again. It’s possible that one of the three hawks could settle in Duke Gardens, but part of the territory is already spoken for by another pair of nesting red-shouldered hawks. Oh, well. I know if I see a red-shouldered hawk in the Gardens I can always pretend it’s the very same creature I saw spread its wings for the first time.

Luckily for us, the CLAWS staff had brought two birds we could keep watching, birds that are too injured to return to the wild and thus live with CLAWS permanently. If I thought seeing hawks in flight was amazing, seeing two species so close up (without fear of a beak or talon poking my eye out) was almost as incredible. It’s nearly impossible for me to tell hawks or any raptor species apart when they are soaring so high, but on the ground the differences between the red-shouldered hawk and the red-tailed hawk were easy to see. Most notably, the red-tailed hawk was so much larger than the red-shouldered!
Red-tailed hawk
Eventually, the wonderful CLAWS staff and their two feathered friends had to leave. My fellow students and I wandered the gardens for a while, and then each of us had to return to the piles of unpacking we still had to tackle. Though none of us said anything, I think we were each privately scanning the tree tops for any sign of the resting red-shouldered hawks. We couldn’t spot them, but we are all hooked – the next time CLAWS releases a bird at Duke Gardens, we will be clapping in the audience! 

Blogger Erika Zambello is a graduate student studying Ecosystem Science and Conservation at Duke's  NicholasSchool of the Environment.  

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