You might already know that an owl makes no sound when it flies in the dark of night. But to have an enormous Eurasian eagle owl swoop right over your shoulder from behind, to feel the breeze it makes on your neck and see it suddenly appear right in front of your eyes like a ghost, and still not hear a sound-well, that pretty astonishing.
That's just one of the many amazing experiences at the Center for Birds of Prey at the Avian Conservation Center in Awendaw.
The center, located on acres of forest, field and marsh just a few miles north of Charleston, was founded in 1991. Originally, the organization existed to care for and rehabilitate injured raptors, such as hawks, falcons and owls. Over the past 25 years, its mission has expanded. The Avian Conservation Center now includes the Center for Birds of Prey, which is open to the public, as well as the Avian Medical Center and South Carolina Oil Spill Treatment Facility. Along with its educational programs through Birds of Prey, the center continues to treat, rehabilitate and release more than 600 injured raptors and shorebirds a year, and houses the only permanent oil spill treatment center on the east coast, where oil-slicked birds are sent for treatment. Touring the Center for Birds of Prey isn't just an amazing experience for kids and adults of all ages; it's also the best way to support the center's veterinary and rescue work.
And what a great tour it is. The day we visited, we were lucky enough to meet an owl and a hawk (and their volunteer handlers) in the field where we waited to begin the tour. Once our guide arrived, we walked through the many aviaries that house birds that are unable to survive in the wild and remain under the center's care. The guide didn't just point out and name birds. Instead, she spun a world with her words, a world that describes what happens when raptors are no longer present. You'll never feel quite so thankful for birds. And I promise that you will never look at vultures, buzzards or other carrion-eaters the same way again.
The flight demonstration, in a sunny open field, was like no visit to a zoo or aquarium. Various residents of the center came to show us just what they could do, from falcons diving and hawks soaring, to those owls gliding soundlessly just an inch above our heads, to the Mississippi kites, the crowd favorite, who swoop from great heights to catch and tiny pieces of meat thrown up in the air, a skill they need to hunt their natural diet of dragonflies and cicadas, which they catch midflight.
The final stop of the tour is the Owl Wood, aviaries for the center's owls. The day we were there, we met two fluffy Eurasian eagle owl chicks, who at six weeks old, were already more than a foot tall. They hopped around and stared at us curiously until one of them discovered a line of ants marching across the brick walkway. There was no distracting them from their investigation of the insects after that.
Depending on when you visit, you might be lucky enough to meet some enormous jumping fluff balls, I mean, owl chicks, too. You'll surely leave with an experience to talk about for years to come.