Wildlife Rescuers

Planting a Seed: Close Encounters with Raptors

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.

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.

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.’

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...

‘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

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. 

Wildlife Emergency: Melbourne's Wildlife Rescuers

“I was inspired by the 2009 fires. I was watching a news report – I still tear up – and a kangaroo was running down the road. A helicopter came down and it turned around and skipped back into the fire and ran through a wall of flames.”

“So that was my big one. I don’t know why it gets me. There was a heap of horrifying stuff around the loss of human life on that day and I thought – someone’s got to do something for these animals. I’d always wanted to, but that was my point. And here I am.”

Sharon Boccini has been a wildlife rescuer for nearly seven years now: a volunteer who dedicates her free time to taking reports about injured wildlife, then driving out to help in any way she can. Heidi Still, another member of the Wildlife Rescuers who joined around the same time, has a similar story.

Volunteers from the Wildlife Rescuers transport an injured kangaroo to safety.  Image: Wildlife Rescuers

Volunteers from the Wildlife Rescuers transport an injured kangaroo to safety. Image: Wildlife Rescuers

“I’ve always wanted to, and it wasn’t until the 2009 fires … I actually found a dead wombat that had a live baby in the pouch, and I scooped it out and took it off to a shelter. They gave me a tour of their facility and I said: that’s it."

I’m sick of saying I want to do it, I’m doing it. And I haven’t stopped, ever since.”

The Wildlife Rescuers are a group based in the northern suburbs of Melbourne, although their reach is growing as their volunteer base expands. It is one member of an informal network of wildlife rescue groups around Victoria who look out for the injured animals in their area. Members of the public can keep the group’s number saved in their phone, and if you come across an animal in need of assistance, all you have to do is call it in.

“A call will come in, we’ll get the details, we’ll get as much history as we can,” Sharon explains. “We get a rescuer on the way or we go out ourselves depending on what’s happening. I know when I’m driving there I’m trying to think of 3000 scenarios that could happen … It doesn’t matter how many I think of, it’s always different.”

“Every rescue is different, every animal reacts differently,” Heidi adds. “You’ve just got to be ready to adjust to whatever happens.”

Once the rescuer has a handle on the situation, they must decide what course of action is best for the safety and wellbeing of the animal. “You contain the animal, assess it, and then decide where you go from there,” says Sharon. Rescuers are trained to apply first aid, but if the animal needs medical attention, it’s taken to a vet. Once it has been treated, the rescuer will transport the animal to a registered wildlife carer.

Sharon helped this kangaroo down after it found itself in an unexpected situation. As this house is on a slope, Sharon believes the roo must have jumped from the neighbouring garden which is at a higher elevation - not from the ground!  Image: Wildlife Rescuers

Sharon helped this kangaroo down after it found itself in an unexpected situation. As this house is on a slope, Sharon believes the roo must have jumped from the neighbouring garden which is at a higher elevation - not from the ground! Image: Wildlife Rescuers

It’s difficult, unpredictable work, and Heidi and Sharon’s dedication is remarkable. Working by day for Wildlife Victoria, a statewide emergency response centre for injured wildlife, Heidi volunteers the rest of her time: “I wake up in the morning and I get calls or texts to go out and do rescues, and then generally I start work at Wildlife Victoria on the phones around about 1 o’clock. I work there until about 8 o’clock at night and then I drive home and by the time I get home the Wildlife Rescuers phone gets diverted to me… And then we start it all again the next day.”

Sharon works full-time as a teacher, but her passion for wildlife is what keeps her going: “I can do a day at work and it’s six hours and it feels like it goes forever and I’m exhausted at the end of it, and I can finish that day at school and do 8 or 10 hours of rescuing straight after it and feel fine. It’s like a puzzle piece that fits.”

Heidi is often asked how she can drag herself out of bed in the early hours of the morning to go to a rescue, but for her, it isn’t a chore: “I don’t do it because I have to. I do it because I love doing it.”

“I work so I can afford to go out and rescue animals.”

These two women are exceptional, but it doesn’t need to be a 24/7 commitment. If a member of the public is interested in learning about wildlife rescue and transport, Heidi and Sharon advise participating in a basic skills course offered by the Wildlife Rescuers. After that, it’s up to you how much time you commit. “It can be one hour a week. It can be one hour a month!” says Heidi.

“If you’re available for that one hour and you can save one animal – to that one animal, that one hour counts.”

“Even if you’re not available for rescues, it’s a really good skillset to have,” Sharon adds. “Just in case you come across something. Know how to check a pouch – you could save a life.”

Agro the tawny frogmouth was found on the ground after being blown from his nest.  Image: Wildlife Rescuers

Agro the tawny frogmouth was found on the ground after being blown from his nest. Image: Wildlife Rescuers

In the meantime, there are plenty of things Victorians can do to ensure their lives have minimal impact on our native wildlife.

“You generally find 99.9% of rescues are caused by humans in some way. Whether they’ve been hit by a car, they’re entangled in rubbish that we’ve left behind, they’ve flown into our window – whatever it is, it’s usually because we’ve put something in their way,” says Heidi. “Don’t leave rubbish behind,” she advises. It’s also helpful to leave a bowl of water outside on hot days to help local wildlife fight dehydration."

If you do come across an animal in need, don’t hesitate. “Plug our number into your phone so you’ve got it,” says Sharon. “Make the call.” Both advise that accidents happen, and you aren’t going to get in trouble if you’ve hit an animal in the road. “Just call it in so that the animal doesn’t suffer.”

For Heidi and Sharon, rescuing wildlife isn’t just a hobby - it’s a compulsion to do right by other living things. “It’s the thought that if I’m not here doing this for this animal, who is going to?” says Heidi. “When I’m there and I’m looking at a living animal that has feelings and is suffering, I’m going to do everything I can.”

“For me, it’s very similar,” says Sharon. “Every critter – they have a soul, they have feelings, they have connections, they have relationships. It’s not an animal I’m rescuing, it’s a being.”

“Every life matters.”

Make sure to log the Wildlife Rescuers’ number in your phone in case you come across a wildlife emergency: 0417 506 941

For wildlife rescue course updates and news on recent rescues, like the Wildlife Rescuers Facebook page: www.facebook.com/wildliferescuersinc

Alex Mullarky

Alex Mullarky is a freelance journalist and works part-time in threatened species conservation. Her other passion is ex-racehorse rehabilitation and she is currently completing her Masters.

You can find her on Twitter at @ajmullarky

Banner image is of tranquilised kangaroos rescued from Epping firegrounds and is courtesy of Wildlife Rescuers.