Sharp-shinned hawks are members of a group of hawks called Accipiters — fast, agile flyers that prey on smaller birds by pursuing them acrobatically through the forest. (Kelly Keenan Photo)

Sharp-shinned hawks are members of a group of hawks called Accipiters — fast, agile flyers that prey on smaller birds by pursuing them acrobatically through the forest. (Kelly Keenan Photo)

Local wildlife rescue runs on volunteer power

  • Thursday, September 19, 2019 9:14am
  • News

By Kathryn True

Every morning in Lynnwood, a doctor and her team hold rounds for a special set of patients — some of them from Vashon.

Like in other area hospitals, they assess the needs of each individual, discussing who is ready for discharge and who needs new interventions. The difference is that these patients are all of different species and on any given day they might include an orphaned baby harbor seal, a black bear recovering from smoke inhalation or a great blue heron with a broken wing — the hospital is PAWS and the doctor is a vet.

Since 2010, PAWS specialists have cared for 65 patients from Vashon-Maury, representing 26 species including varied thrush, black-headed grosbeak, Douglas squirrel, mallard, barn owl, river otter and belted kingfisher. This is in addition to injured animals found on the island and delivered for care and rehabilitation to West Sound Wildlife Shelter on Bainbridge Island or to Sarvey Wildlife Care Center in Arlington.

These animals are gifted a second chance at life thanks to a group of island volunteers, including Kelly Keenan, Vashon Nature Center’s (VNC) wildlife first responder.

“In an emergency situation, getting the animal to the facility is half the battle; sometimes it’s a matter of life-or-death,” she said. “The animal needs care in a timely manner so it’s less stressed and has a better chance of survival — the goal is for them to recover, return to the island and to be set free.”

Transportation is Keenan’s biggest obstacle, and she is looking for islanders willing to act as an animal ambulance service on a moment’s notice. PAWS has twice-daily pickups at Seattle Animal Shelter in Interbay, making it easier for those who can’t make a trip to Lynnwood — though Keenan prefers to deliver animals directly to PAWS so they receive medical intervention immediately.

Though each situation is different, a rescue usually begins with a phone call.

On Aug. 2, Keenan was contacted about an injured sharp-shinned hawk someone had found on the ground near Fisher Pond and brought to Fair Isle Animal Clinic. The clinic does not care for wild animals, but staff there called Keenan, who picked up the hawk in one of a fleet of animal carriers she uses for this purpose. It was late in the day, so there was no time to head to PAWS.

“I didn’t think the hawk was going to make it. It wasn’t perching at all but was lying down and I worried about it all night,” she said. “When I checked on it in the morning it was alive and tracking me with its head, but still lying down.”

Early that morning, a volunteer-delivered the hawk to PAWS. Keenan says transporting a wild animal is always a powerful experience.

“Anyone who has done it feels a particular energy. It’s hard to explain or put into words,” she said. “Even though you can’t see the animal because it’s in a covered carrier, you feel this connection.”

Keenan, who also runs the VNC Salmonwatcher Program, became a wildlife rescuer because she loves people and animals.

“I’m a life-long learner and wildlife is important to me,” she said. “I like learning as much as I can about the animals’ habitat, food sources, how they were injured, and maybe how to prevent injuries in the future.”

One of her information sources is Jeff Brown, a PAWS wildlife naturalist and biologist whose job includes assessing animals before release to determine the safest release location for returning the animals to the wild.

During the busy season from April through September, Brown and his PAWS colleagues care for up to 400 animal inpatients a day, from hummingbirds to ospreys to bobcats.

“We are a nonprofit without resources for transport so we rely on the public, and the majority of our patients come from people who bring them in,” he said, stressing that people should always call first before they approach or move a wild animal. Often well-meaning individuals “rescue” juveniles that are being cared for by parents nearby or intervene when the best thing to do is to leave an animal alone.

“Fledgling crows, for instance, are often misidentified as injured at the stage when they can’t fly well and are still being regularly fed by their parents,” Brown said. “We receive multiple calls per day during the fledgling season about healthy fledglings.”

He encourages people to call for advice, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. seven days a week (8 a.m. to 5 p.m. during October through May), including holidays (see above). A PAWS specialist can provide tips whether to disturb the animal or how to safely capture an injured animal.

Thankfully, the Vashon hawk survived the trip to PAWS, where the vet determined she was a first-year female, likely hit by a vehicle. The veterinarian suspected that head trauma was impairing her movement, causing weakness in her legs that prevented her from standing. The hawk’s treatment plan included medication for nerve pain and inflammation, fluids, food and a safe, quiet place to recover. She was perching and using her legs normally after four days of care and continued to improve after that.

Sharp-shinned hawks are members of a group of hawks called Accipiters — fast, agile flyers — with top speeds recorded at 60 miles per hour — that prey on smaller birds by pursuing them acrobatically through the forest. Brown says these birds are especially energetic and react to human presence more than other birds of prey, so he takes special care when working with them to keep them from harming themselves.

The young sharpie’s recovery went smoothly, and just 10 days later, she passed her final flight test, indicating to Brown that she could function normally back in the wild. Once the hawk was cleared for takeoff, Brown contacted Keenan and invited her to witness the release the following day.

“I try to contact the finder and see if they want to come out for the release because it wouldn’t be happening if they didn’t put in the effort to bring it in,” Brown said. “One of the most enjoyable parts of my job is getting to see animals returned to the wild. It’s amazing to see how many people in our community are willing to help wild animals in distress.”

During the spring and summer, Keenan receives a call or two a week from people with wildlife injury questions. Keenan and her youngest son, Brody, 6, who has grown up being Keenan’s amenable rescue assistant, met Brown at Fisher Pond, where the hawk was found originally. After the carrier was opened, the young bird took only seconds to see open blue sky above, launch up and out of the box and away into the trees surrounding the pond. As she scanned the trees with her camera to catch a glimpse of the hawk, Keenan — who has also been at the release of a few bald eagles, a barn owl, and a belted kingfisher — reflected on this latest success story.

“It’s always a pleasant surprise when you think it didn’t go well and then the animal recovers and can be released — it’s like you win the lottery for that one,” says Keenan, who helped launch VNC’s barn owl cam and has a special fondness for birds of prey. “They are such majestic, amazing birds — so captivating.”

She appreciates islanders who are always looking out for animals and encourages people to call with any questions about an animal that may be injured.

“I am so happy people are out there noticing nature, watching out for animals and doing their best to help when a situation looks dire,” Keenan says. “I am thankful for everybody who helps out and encourage anyone who wants to get involved to volunteer to join our transport team.”

— Kathryn True is an island writer and Vashon Nature Center communications and outreach specialist.

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