(Editor’s note – Kevin Zak is the founder of the Naugatuck River Revival Group and has been instrumental in generating awareness of the unique ecosystem that flows directly through Waterbury)

Column By Kevin Zak, Photographs By John Murray

   A Red Shouldered Hawk was trapped in the bucket of a cherry picker with water up to its chest. The clock was ticking. How long this raptor was in his watery tomb, or how he got there, was anyone’s guess. The hawk was not going to live through the night. Heavy thunder storms overtook Wolcott the previous week and somehow, bizarrely, this raptor had trapped itself in a narrow bucket and couldn’t spread his broad wings. The sides of the bucket were too steep and there was nothing for him to dig his sharp and powerful talons into so he could climb out. With each day the hawk grew weary and with each new down pour the water got deeper. Without food for days his condition was like a Chinese finger trap – the more he struggled the weaker he became. This magnificent creature was injured, weakened, and about to drown.

   As the hawk fought for its life a Schmidt Electric employee, Dave, was doing a required check of the truck before starting his day. This particular truck was off site in Wolcott and had not been used in weeks. Climbing up to the bucket Dave stared down and was startled to see a hawk looking back up at him.  Acting quickly he retrieved a towel and without injury to himself or the hawk he reached into the water and wrapped the towel around the listless bird and placed him in a shallow red tray. The hawk offered no resistance so he brought the hawk to his shop in Naugatuck. The hope was that it would just fly away, but the bird appeared to be falling asleep. His eyes rolled back into the sockets and he closed his eyes. Though no doubt happy to be out of the water, the hawk was too exhausted to contemplate the danger of being in the company of humans. This hot June morning the hawk’s primal fear instinct  was gone. He was dying.

   Temperatures were nearing 90 degrees on the morning of June 21st. I had a Naugatuck River Forum meeting at the Connecticut Community Foundation to create a Naugatuck River website. The plan was to go to work directly after the meeting. I was feeling guilty about leaving Sondra Harman to spread over a ton of wet wood chips around the new Naugatuck River information kiosk on Platts Mill Road, so I decided to delay work another hour or two and help her. As temperatures steadily climbed Sondra received a text from Ryan Glick that his co-worker Dave had found a hawk. No one knew what kind of hawk it was. Sondra and I assumed it was too young to fly. Ryan informed us they had someone to take the hawk off their hands, but that proved to be a dead end. Ryan texted a second time and asked if we could help. Without hesitation Sondra asked Ryan to bring it to the river. We would figure out what to do.

   While Ryan placed a live raptor, uncovered, in the front seat beside him, we got on the phone with the Ansonia Nature Center. Because of the Naugatuck River Forum in February the Naugatuck River Revival Group (NRRG) was familiar with the center and its wonderful work with wildlife. The NRRG participated in their Earth Day event and knew they had a facility to treat injured wildlife. When Ryan arrived we could see the hawk was gravely ill and initially thought it as a juvenile. We covered and transferred him to our car. We named him Rave after Ryan and Dave who were instrumental to his rescue. Because of the extreme heat we incorrectly thought to keep him cool and turned on the AC.  We had made two mistakes – Ryan never should have had an injured raptor seated next to him in his car because if the bird had regained its energy Ryan was in big trouble. Secondly, after being in water for an extended period Rave was suffering from pneumonia. He needed heat, not air conditioning.

   At the Nature Center the Red Shouldered was rushed to their animal rehabilitation room and was triaged by Alison Rubelmann and Wendy Sabol. Following an exam, warm fluids were prepared for feeding and a heating pad was placed under his temporary cage. The best sign was his weak attempt to bite Alison and Wendy. It is here we began our new appreciation for these magnificent creatures, we discovered Rave was a 2-3 year old Red Shouldered Hawk and the AC was not the smartest thing. Sondra and I were both embarrassed. Alison and Wendy never made us feel dumb or dumber. We just watched in awe as they examined this beautiful raptor. We were equally impressed with Alison, Wendy and the wonderful facility that has been built from a once small family-owned dairy farm into a 104-acre-park laced with two and a half miles of nature trails. They had us fill out a report that would help in releasing it back into the wild as close to where he was found, if he were to recover.

  We were told Rave needed to be transported to a place that specializes in raptors because his condition was serious. Sondra and I left with mixed emotions and replayed the morning’s series of events. How could we have missed connecting the dots? We knew Rave had been in water for days. We confused our sweating wildly from shoveling heavy soggy wood chips and thought the bird must feel similar and would die of heat exhaustion in a car. We felt good about getting it to the Nature Center, but felt terrible about the AC. Stupid, actually. Later that evening we called to inquire to his condition. They said he had been brought to the specialist, that the night will be critical to his survival and they would know more in the morning. But it did not look good.

   The next morning we called the Nature Center and learned that Rave had made it through the night after being taken to A Place Called Hope in Killingworth, Connecticut, run by Todd and Christine Secki, who are well versed with bucket trucks. Countless times they have used the forty foot boom to reach high into trees to build nests and gently return displaced or orphaned raptors, but never had they received an ill raptor having been trapped in one.

    In the hands of this gifted and dedicated couple Rave was able to soon join three other rehabbing juvenile Red Shouldered Hawks in an enclosed custom built aviary. Over the next 20 days Sondra and I kept in contact with A Place Called Hope regarding Rave’s condition. In May we had experienced a close and personal release of a Golden Eagle that had been hit by a car. It was a heart-pounding experience. Because of this Sondra and I asked if we could be witness to Rave’s release. They agreed and the weekend of July 4th became the target. Due to his condition that was postponed, Rave needed more time. The new date was set for Monday, July 11th.

  The most pressing reason for his release was to relieve his mate from the sole burden of protecting and caring for the 3 or 4 fast growing fledglings he left behind. The chicks are born helpless, naked and blind. The female will cover them with her body and wings for the first week. Rave’s mate was dependant on his bringing small snakes, squirrels, reptiles and amphibians to her and the nestlings for the first six weeks. Rave’s mate would be vulnerable to Great Horned Owls, Red Tailed Hawks, Raccoons, Peregrine Falcons, fishers, and martens while in the nest. The young leave the nest at about six weeks but depend on their parents for up 19 weeks. Red Shouldered hawks collaborate and peacefully coexist with American Crows (usually enemies of most birds because they steal eggs) to drive off Great Horned Owls and Red Tailed Hawks.

   A week before he was to be released Sondra and I studied the area where he was found. We used satellite images and then did a ground search of the area. We hiked around Southington Reservoir # 2 and #3 and the Farmingberry Golf Course. In vain we searched for Rave’s nest.  Dodging golf balls we did find a gorgeous female Red Shouldered Hawk in a tree close by. We settled on a release spot because it was our belief Rave would be able to quickly recognize where he was based on the two reservoirs, golf course, power lines cutting thru the forest and I-84. All within a few short beats of his wings. The release was to be on a grassy dam between the two reservoirs. The shape of the lakes, golf course and interstate 84 from the air would be an exciting image for Rave. The nearby tree line of the reservoir would offer familiar cover.

   We arrived at A Place Called Hope early in the morning of July 11th. Greeting us was Christine, Todd and their Husky to give us a tour before the Center opened.They wanted to lessen the drama to Rave and place him in his final carrier before the general public arrived. Important to the equation was to release him so he could have plenty of day light to re-acclimatize himself to the area. 

   This place of hope is not just a few words strung together to sound catchy or cute. It really is such a place. They had released over a hundred birds in one year alone. Volunteers are trained, abundant and enthusiastic. Todd tended to business as Christine continued on with us. The first stop in the tour was three juvenile American Kestrals with stories unto themselves. In fact each phenomenal creature there had wild, heartwarming and sometimes tragic stories of their own. As Christine took us around, each animal became individualized and personal. As she introduced each bird by name and told their story you cannot but see each wild creature as separate and unique.

   Each of these animals became worthy of your respect and compassion. I do not think you can find a more knowledgeable, caring and better custodian to help these creatures when no one else could. Unfortunately they house permanent residents, those that cannot be released but have found a caring home. There are raptors that return like family for the occasional free meal after being released, a testament to their care. In other enclosures are Black Vultures and Turkey Vultures. All sorts of owls, Great and small, for example, a 20-inch Great Horned Owl named Chestnut, two 6 inch Northern Saw-Whet Owls named Lunar and Sage and a few Red Tailed Hawks. The vultures that were injured have family that actually tracked them to A Place Called Hope and visit and land outside the vulture enclosure. The resident Raven named Loki has six different voices. She talks to the crows and squirrels, except when Christine asks her to. One volunteer has Loki’s dissertations as the ring tone on her smart phone. Loki has a neighbor named Crowe, an American Crow. The two exchange toys and food under the fence. This is an amazing place.

   And then there is Todd. He is a musician, photographer, Native American flute maker, carpenter and extraordinary human being. Since I had just returned from a flute school and festival in Zion National Park in Utah I was just as interested in playing his unusual copper Indian flute as I was in his well designed aviary and his talent and passion for saving raptors. He ascends into trees on ropes to return raptors like he was part of Cirque du Soleil. If you go to aplacecalledhoperaptors.com you can see Todd and Christine’s passion in several on-line videos. Though the images are beautiful, it does not tell the whole story of the great things they do and the personal sacrifices they make. The music is performed by Todd.

Then we came to Rave’s enclosure. Rave stood out amongst his fellow hawks. In fact he stood out amongst all the raptors in all the other cages. His size meant nothing. What made Rave stand out was his constant flying into the wire walls and ceiling trying to escape. He seemed to scream to let him out or else. His hospital mates were quiet. Christine said the sign that he is ready for release is the bouncing off the ceiling. There was no question about Rave, he was knocking feathers off the top of his head. In his passion to head back to Wolcott he lost a few tail feathers making him easy to identify at long distances.

   When the tour was over we were left stunned and amazed. Feeling privileged to get so close to wildlife we have never seen before. We were able to get inside an enclosure or two with owls. It was time for Christine to capture Rave in his 10 x 20 x 12 foot high temporary home. We exited the enclosed buffer area and watched and filmed as Christine alone artfully played chess with Rave. She calculated all his moves until checkmate. This would be his last physical contact with humans. After a few quick photograph’s he was placed in a small soft carrier for the trip to Wolcott and covered with a blanket.

   Sondra and I had no doubt our selected release spot was good for Rave and a beautiful place for us to watch. The hour drive to Southington Reservoir #2 was filled with 3 weeks of anticipation and excitement. My sister Fran was with us and was just as thrilled to be part of this as Sondra and I.

   The scouting trip a week earlier paid dividends since Sondra and I had to walk through woods and poison ivy to find a spot. The parking was no picnic either. But that experience led us to make things easier for everyone when it counted, including Rave and John Murray who met us at the site. I cannot speak for everyone but when we were taking Rave’s carrier out of the car my heart began to beat faster. I carried two video cameras while Fran and Sondra carried Rave a hundred yards down a grassy runway to the edge of the water. Under Christine and Todd’s direction the carrier was placed away from us. Sondra removed the calming blanket, unlatched the door from behind and stepped back. It is my experience that many wild animals do not always come running or as in this case flying out of a cage when released. It sometimes takes patience. You do not want to assist. The hawk in this case can injure himself if frightened. Rave’s instinct of fear was in full play.

   In this case Rave backed up into the back of the carrier and would not come out. We all stood around waiting with four still camera’s and 2 video camera’s ready. It was like waiting for water to boil. I also knew from experience that when he goes he could be gone in a moment. As everyone was relaxing and releasing their own personal tension and distracted away from Rave I saw him come out without anyone’s notice. I tried to get the word out in a whisper to everyone without frightening Rave. He hesitated, took one more step and off to the tree line in three blinks of an eye and disappeared into the woods. I was lucky. Rave paid John Murray and I a favor. He flew exactly in the direction our camera’s were set.

   It was noon and we decided to take lunch at the Farmingberry Golf Course. While entering the restaurant we saw Rave and his missing middle tail feathers gliding a short distance above the fairway. I think it safe to say he was already home before we were served and drank a toast to freedom. Then we drank a toast to his explanation to his mate to where he has been for the past three weeks. Good luck on that one, Rave, I think I’d rather face the Great Horned Owl.