There is an Australian hobby in the kitchen when I arrive at Leigh Valley Hawk and Owl Sanctuary. Martin Scuffins and Talia Barrett run the sanctuary from their home in western Victoria, and Talia tells me that a raptor in the kitchen is not an unusual sight in their household. The hobby’s name is Pickle, and she sits hooded on a perch while Martin gets her ready for her flight that day. She’s just coming out of her annual moult, as are many of the sanctuary’s permanent residents, so the work that goes into exercising their eleven feathered family members is about to pick up once again.
Leigh Valley Hawk and Owl Sanctuary is a rarity. Closed to the public, the sanctuary is one of a mere handful of places in Victoria where birds of prey are kept for rehabilitation and display purposes. Falconry is illegal in Australia, so each of the raptors that calls Leigh Valley home has been meticulously applied for by Martin and Talia and approved by the government. They are one of very few businesses licensed to give mobile raptor displays to school groups and members of the public. In other words, they offer a truly unique experience in Victoria: the opportunity to see our native raptors up close.
Martin became fascinated by birds of prey at an early age. Trailing around gymkhanas after his three horse-crazy sisters, Martin recalls sitting down one day beneath an old, dead tree on the edge of the Pony Club grounds: ‘A black-shouldered kite landed in the tree and looked down at me with these amazing red eyes… That changed the course of my life, that one incident.’
Determined to become a raptor trainer, a young Martin succeeded in teaching a duck and a family chicken to sit on his gloved hand. It was only when he was older and began getting involved in wildlife rehabilitation that he was finally able to enter the world of raptors. With the help of a couple of mentors, Martin received a wildlife shelter licence and began taking in rescued birds of prey for rehabilitation. In the late 90s, after completing a degree in Environmental Sciences and spending several years researching abroad, Martin and Talia bought the property which was to become their sanctuary.
Their work as a shelter over the years has seen many injured birds of prey returned to the wild, but wildlife rescue is often a questioned act. ‘It’s a tricky one, because if you look at it from purely a cost-benefit point of view, environmentally it makes little difference,’ Martin explains. ‘You will hear people say ‘It is only a gesture’. But the question to me is, ‘Are gestures important?’ And I think they’re incredibly important. Because the gesture is an acknowledgement that the way we live our lives has an impact on the creatures around us. So by returning an animal that’s been injured in the course of human activity back to the wild, we’re acknowledging the impact that our way of life and our technology has on the wildlife that is now living cheek by jowl with an ever-increasing human population.’
‘With some species it may be that returning individuals to the wild does make a difference, when the gene pool is low,’ he goes on. ‘I’ve returned a number of grey goshawks to the wild, and black falcons. These are birds that are either rare or vulnerable, so I think it’s important to get those birds back. And practising on the more common species helps you to rehabilitate the endangered ones, because the care is often exactly the same.’
Martin and Talia have seen many wedge-tailed eagles come through, which they put down to the fact that they are at the top of the food chain, so when they’re injured, they aren’t eaten by other creatures. Their great size also makes them easy for members of the public to spot and report. The rehabilitation process varies depending on the species; many will need regular flying to build up their strength and fitness. ‘I’ve got a little male peregrine that I’m taking out flying every day possible at the moment to give him experience and exercise,’ Martin says. ‘As soon as he’s showing the inclination to actually catch things, he can go straight back to the wild.’
It’s difficult work. With his scientific training, Martin always considers the natural carrying capacity of the area before releasing a bird. Recently, he travelled to the area where an injured bird had been found in order to release it – only to find that a new housing development had sprung up there. Talia laughs in shock as he tells her that the streets had actually been named after birds of prey. ‘Harrier Drive,’ he recalls. ‘I thought ‘God, that’s ironic.’’
‘If we’re going to take away we’ve got to accept responsibility for what we’ve taken away,’ Talia says. It is this attitude in part that informs their educational displays, which they began giving only a few years ago. In these displays, schoolchildren and members of the public have the opportunity to watch the birds flying at close quarters, to learn about their adaptions and ask questions of their handlers. Martin mentions again the impact of his encounter with the black-shouldered kite as a young boy: ‘There’s no reason not to believe that children who have a close-up encounter with our birds won’t have a similar experience, and hopefully it will change their attitude to the environment around them.’
Talia echoes his sentiment: ‘The hope is that connecting with these birds at such an intimate level will make them actually realise that they are real – they’re not just things we see on a screen, which can create this incredible distance… I think if people understand the diversity of birds of prey that actually exist, it will open their eyes; they’ll be looking out more.’ Talia hopes their displays will result in people ‘being more conscious when they do go for a walk in the bush. They might actually keep their ears and eyes peeled, and be much more engaged with their surroundings.’
In every display Martin and Talia give, they make sure to tie it all back to habitat protection. ‘We’ve never been better educated about the natural world, and yet we live in one of the most environmentally destructive times in our history,’ Martin says. ‘These creatures are perfectly adapted to their natural environment, but that environment is the world they share with us. So we’re now the biggest threat that they’ve had to face.’
‘The agents of injury and mortality are mostly man-made,’ he explains. Road collisions, power lines, barbed wire fences and glass windows are the major causes of the incidents Martin and Talia have dealt with. ‘Everything is connected via this complex food web that surrounds and connects all creatures: peregrine falcons, and sparrows, and human beings,’ Martin says. ‘Sometimes very unexpected things can happen as a result. Technology can be very damaging unless you really understand what the implications are going to be.’ He often uses the example of DDT, the pesticide which famously caused eggshell thinning in peregrine falcons, to educate young people on the widespread effects a seemingly isolated decision can have.
I ask what we can do as individuals to help our native birds of prey. ‘Think more about your place in the natural environment and your impact upon it,’ Martin suggests. On a practical level, this can start with simply driving more slowly to prevent unnecessary incidents. If you do collide with an animal and kill it, Martin advises moving the animal off the road, if it is safe to do so. Raptors are often secondary victims of car accidents, hit while feeding off roadkill. Martin also gives an impassioned plea against the use of barbed wire. At one point, his statistics indicated that approximately 8% of the birds brought to him had been entangled in barbed wire, and it’s a tool that can easily be done without.
‘There are little things,’ Talia adds. ‘Join your local Landcare group. Support the species that are in your local environment. Even if you do live in a neighbourhood where there are few trees, or even if you have a small backyard, little birds will visit if you’ve got the right environment set up for them… All of those little species will ultimately feed those other birds that are further up the food chain.’
I watch as Martin works with their little eagle, Tyriel, who flies from perch to glove, takes a short break on a tree branch, and chases the lure that Talia pulls for her. Martin takes me through the sanctuary, introducing me to the various species they both feel privileged to have on their property. Some he brings out to feed on the glove, including Cleo, his peregrine falcon, and Yarrum, one of their wedge-tailed eagles, who tears up and gulps down a dead mouse in a matter of seconds.
Only one morning spent in the company of these two passionate individuals and the incredible birds that they share their home with has already had an impact on me. A few days later I watch, enraptured, as two pairs of black kites soar overhead. Would I have paid as much attention to these silhouettes against the blue sky if I hadn’t so recently been mesmerised by their fellow raptors at Leigh Valley? I have caught the bug. And that is, ultimately, what Talia and Martin hope for, particularly in their work with schoolchildren; as Talia puts it, ‘hoping that we’ve planted a seed that they might keep with them for the rest of their lives.’
Discover more about Leigh Valley Hawk and Owl Sanctuary by visiting their website.
Alex Mullarky is a writer and environmentalist from the UK who has called Melbourne home since 2014. She is a graduate of English Literature and is particularly interested in the connection between language and landscape.
You can find her on Twitter at @saesteorra.
All images courtesy of Alex Mullarky.