By Cassandra Bramucci
When representatives from the Ojai Raptor Center (ORC) arrived at Meher Mount on August 15, 2019, to release an American Kestrel and a Red-Tailed Hawk, Jaclyn DeSantis, wildlife rehabilitator and ORC supervisor, warned all of us to have our cameras ready.
“…so don’t anybody blink.”
Her 11 years of experience in doing bird releases taught her that these gorgeous creatures take their chance at freedom very seriously. “This will be over in ten seconds once I open the box,” she said, “so don’t anybody blink.”
Anyone who has ever seen a nature program showing a bird release — or the release of any wild animal for that matter — knows that events unfold quickly. There is no looking back on the part of the captive birds. As soon as they are released, every instinct propels them to get away from their captors and shake off the memory of cages and carriers by immersing themselves in the wildness they were born into.
At Meher Mount though, things tend to unfold in unusual ways.
For the raptor release, the small group headed out to Avatar’s Point to test a raptor release atop Sulphur Mountain Road in the Upper Ojai.
Once everyone gathered at Avatar’s Point, cameras quickly focused on the blue cardboard carrier holding the American Kestrel, first up for release. Carefully, gently, and speaking in a calming voice, Jaclyn lifted out the nervous male, pointed him toward the vast expanse clearly visible on this remarkably mild day August day, and set him free.
“Odd that he is not flying away…”
He immediately flew up to the lowest branch on the nearest pine tree and looked around at his audience. “He’s just getting his bearings,” Jaclyn assured us. Indeed he was making the head-bobbing motion birds use to measure distance.
But he was mainly looking back over his shoulder toward Baba’s Tree. “Odd that he is not flying away, I’m not going to lie,” she said.
Two minutes went by, then five, then 10 minutes. The arms of those holding cameras began to tire and tremble. Finally, the Kestrel appeared to take off, only to land once again on a higher branch of the same tree.
It was time to turn to the Red-Tailed Hawk. Perhaps his release would spur the Kestrel to take a chance.
“Usually they just want to get as far away from us as possible.”
The group shifted over to the left about 30 feet, and once again, cameras were raised with anticipation. The group was not disappointed. This gallant raptor took off in a graceful, wide arc to the gasps of onlookers.
He flew right toward the tree where the Kestrel still perched, then continued his flight in a wide arc past Baba’s Tree and came full circle to land on the lowest branch of the another pine tree directly behind Baba’s Tree, just to the left of where his audience stood.
“I’ve never seen this happen…”
And there he perched. And continued to perch. “I’ve never seen this happen, especially to land this close to us!” Jaclyn remarked with clear astonishment in her voice. “Usually they just want to get as far away from us as possible.”
As we waited, speculating whether the birds were just happy taking in Meher Mount and Baba’s Tree, the hesitant Kestrel found his courage and took off, circling around the field below the point and finally landing out of sight.
At about the same time, the Red-Tailed Hawk took full flight, soared out over the valley, and down the hill to the left of Baba’s Tree.
We all put down our cameras, contented that we had been given such a beautiful gift. The sight of freed birds choosing to linger with us until our own hearts soared with awe and gratitude.
Hopefully, there will be more raptor releases at Meher Mount. These releases tend to occur as soon as the birds show they are ready to go, and Meher Mount and the Ojai Raptor Center will stay in contact.
In the meantime, there are two beautiful young raptors in the skies above Meher Mount that may just decide to take up residence here – perhaps even in the raptor boxes awaiting new tenants.
“You’d be surprised at what doesn’t bother these birds.”
In the early 2000s when Ray Johnston and Elizabeth Arnold were caretakers, the Ojai Raptor Center had released raptors at Meher Mount, but there had not been any similar activity since then.
Then in response to the 2017 Thomas Fire, Meher Mount renewed its relationship with the Ojai Raptor Center. Board members James Whitson and Robert Turnage responded to a Raptor Center announcement recommending that landowners consider installing perches and boxes to support the local raptor population and simultaneously help reduce the rodent population which was proliferating after the fire.
Due to their efforts, two boxes (one designed for owls and the other for kestrels) were installed at Meher Mount on July 27, 2018. (See related story blog “Let’s Hope the Birds Move in Soon!”)
Since then, volunteers, visitors, and various caretakers have kept watch in the hopes those boxes would attract some raptor residents. So far nothing. It may take several years, or it may be that the boxes will need to be relocated further from the Visitor Center.
When asked if that might be necessary, DeSantis said, “You would be surprised what doesn’t bother these birds. I’ve seen them take up residence inside noisy factories!” She still felt it was too early to worry about it, though hopes were high that the new releases would decide to take up residence.