Sweet Freedom: The Rehabilitation Work of Audubon Sharon
Sunny Bettley releases the red-tailed hawk.
By CB Wismar
It’s an incredible thrill… a pure adrenaline rush… and it’s over in an instant.
The elegant bird, in this case a juvenile red-tailed hawk, has been in the care of the rehabilitation unit at Audubon Sharon for over a month. It’s about to be released.
Sunny Bettley, wildlife rehabilitation and outreach specialist at the Sharon Audubon Center, has supervised the raptor’s recovery from injuries that were the result of being hit by a car on the back roads of Lime Rock.
“He had some head trauma and was really thin,” Bettley says as she reaches into the carrying case with heavy leather welding gloves and carefully extracts the patient. “As he gained strength, the bruises healed.”
Bettley is calm, almost serene, as the powerful bird sees the open sky for the first time in a month. “We let him gain strength in the fly cage,” she says, “then it was off to ‘mouse school.’”
Only when the rehabilitated bird can fend for itself, hunt and forage for its own food, will the center staff affect its release. “We provide quiet, heat and hydration to the birds, and pain medication if they have fractures,” Bettley explains.
The outreach specialist supervises the 30-plus volunteers who undergo extensive training before they deal directly with the birds. Great care is taken to not let the patient birds “habituate” and learn to rely on their caregivers.
“Stress is the number one killer of birds in captivity,” says Bettley, so the center works diligently to minimize the trauma of captivity and speed the healing process.
With no fanfare, just a gentle release, she lets the hawk move into the prevailing breeze, then watches as the young red-tail turns, soars, finds its bearings and settles into the top branch of a nearby oak. The moment of release, when the hawk regains its freedom, is pure magic… and over in the blink of an eye.
In the past year, over 750 animals — predominantly birds — have been brought into the rehabilitation unit at Audubon Sharon’s main center on Route 4. Quickly diagnosed and triaged, the “patients” are assigned cages and treated, carefully and respectfully, until they are ready for release.
“Some of the animals have been too badly injured,” says Sean Grace, the center director who also serves as team leader for Eastern Forests. “And some will never be able to survive on their own.” Outplacement and careful selection of nature centers that can accept the birds is another activity of Audubon Sharon.
Unsurprisingly, the facility’s comprehensive services come at an impressive cost. “We’ve been fortunate to get grants from organizations such as the John T. and Jane A. Wiederhold Foundation,” Grace says. “And the generosity of our community of friends is very important, as well.”
The annual Raptors and Riesling fundraising reception that benefits the rehabilitation program at Audubon Sharon will be held Sunday, May 28. Guests will enjoy the social aspects of the reception, but also will be able to explore the Center grounds and see, firsthand, the work being done there.
The Center manages over 3,000 acres of wild lands in the Northwest corner of Connecticut and offers 10 miles of hiking trails. Educational programming is tied to area schools, and is supplemented by a summer camp and traveling programs. More than 5,000 students each year experience the conservation and rehabilitation work of the Center.
Walking back through the open field, Bettley and Grace look up to a cloudless sky and watch their latest release begin the great, looping turns of a hawk hunting for its prey. “Beautiful, isn’t it?” asks Grace, as they watch their skilled handiwork blend back into nature.