This Saturday marks the end of June camp’s honored camping tradition raptor week. Steve Longenecker, Local naturalist and US Fish&Wildlife raptor educator, brought 7 rescue birds to their seasonal mews here at Falling Creek for the fourth consecutive year for the boys to have a chance to join the ranks of esteemed Falconers of Falling Creek.

Steve’s new recruits have had their work cut out for them, having to take care of every aspect of the birds upkeep: checking the locks, giving them water, make sure they have food, organizing the schedule. But he didn’t take just any candidate.

“I’m not going to announce where we’re meeting tomorrow,” he tells the group of 13 campers who assembled Monday morning. “If you’re not there, then that’s because you weren’t listening. That’s how I’m going to filter out the group. I need you to listen to everything I say.”

Longenecker began Monday by taking his first group out to the raptor pens (known as mews) scattered around the woods around the Nature Hut. After taking care of a pair of screech owls (named Yoda and Harley), Steve had his falconers of Falling Creek in training open the box up of a full-grown kestrel. The bird, named Princess Leia, is the size of a giant crow, with white speckled feathers and a rosy-red wing-span.

After showing once his helpers the proper method of tying the leash’s knot loosening the bird’s leather-straps, he finds a brave volunteer to step forward to de-leash the bird in his hand. As the bird started to fret, Steve cood it, giving Leia his trademark "good girl.”

“I named my dog ‘GG’ since I spent my whole life ‘good-girling’ things,” Steve says to the kids as he quietly chuckles to himself. Feeling more comfortable, the boy finished work on the knot.

After the kestrel settled down into its mew, the flock of campers moved up the hill to “Fort Knox", a complex dubbed so to denote the house of the Great Horned Owl and Peregrine Falcon. “I need someone to bring me R2,” said Steve. The campers took a visible step back as the brown mega-owl called R2 peeked out of its carrying cage.

“Peek-a-boo. You’re just such a sweet thing. Yes, you are,” says Steve to the owl like an old friend. The bird leaps from the box into Steve’s waiting glove. “Usually I have to bait him. But since I don’t have any bait. We’ll see what it does.”

Just as Steve says this, the owl flutters off the perch of his glove and strains on the leash. Steve clasps the owls ankles as it does a roll. He takes the time to show off the bird’s feathery claws. “Look at the size of those talons compared to the other guy.”

After everyone got a good look, Steve invited someone from the group to help him. As a timid young falconer stepped up to loosen the leash of R2, Steve nodded at him with respect. “You’re hesitant. I can appreciate that.”

Steve placed 5 birds in their mews that hour alone (7 birds in total), leaving the bulk of the responsibility in the hands of the older campers. All 13 boys returned the next day. Steve didn’t lose a single recruit. He even retained 3 campers from last year. Later in the week, after the campers spent time helping him to care for and feed the birds, he took them to Looking Glass Rock, a local attraction near Brevard where they can see the birds out of their cages and in the wild. Looking Glass, a traditional nesting sight of Peregrine falcons, is an opportunity too for the boys to see the birds outside the context of camp.

Saturday, Steve has planned for each of them to give their own presentation after having researched one of the birds in front of the entire camp.

Raptor Week

For Steve, this is just the end of another Raptor Week. But for the campers, this is the first step toward being a Falconer of Falling Creek Camp.

- John Granatino