One recent Sunday, a bird call sent Millie and me 60 miles from Annapolis to Montgomery County’s Black Hill Regional Park in Boyds, Maryland. My friend Nancy McDonald, an avid rescuer of injured birds, organized an event at the park’s visitor center to celebrate the Owl Moon Raptor.
The Wildlife Rehabilitation Center is located in the nearby home of its principal operator, Susan Shoemaker. I once helped McDonald rescue an injured juvenile Osprey, and the Owl Moon Center is the only place in the area where you can pick them up. Shoemaker and her volunteers rehabilitate sick and orphaned birds of prey and return them to the wild in what she calls a “healthy sporting condition.” Events like the one we attended help educate the public about birds of prey.
I was surprised to find at least a thousand people in the park – mostly families with young children – participating in children’s activities such as painting owl masks. It was the first grudgingly cold day of the season, with sharp winds blowing from Little Seneca Lake.
I came hoping to meet Shoemaker. I only spoke to her on the phone. I’m on a list of volunteers who pick up injured birds around the area and have done two missions so far. But in each case, the bird was either already saved or disappeared before I got there. But the crowds were such that I never got close to them.
At one point Shoemaker was at the bottom of the hill, along the edge of the lake, surrounded by throngs of raptor lovers. I was on top of the hill, trying to make my way through the crowd, when Shoemaker launched a birdie that she had successfully nursed from injury to recovery. To my surprise, it flew straight up the hill and right above my head, moving so fast that I just saw a gray blur.
Millie and I made our way to the front of the group watching the volunteers show off some of the center’s resident birds of prey. While onlookers enjoyed the close-up view of owls, hawks, and hawks, Millie poked her nose through a forest of knees with her eyes closed with one of the owls. The owl frowned, then flapped its wings menacingly. Mielle shouted and jumped back. Luckily, I had a firm grip on her leash, so I pulled her away and found a park bench where we could cool off. I’ve always thought retrievers were bird dogs, but this so-called retriever was spooked by a bird — and a leashed bird, too.
I was pleased and surprised to find another group where my friend, Tom Newquist, was showing off a small painted hawk, North America’s smallest hawk, also known as the sparrow hawk. Newquist’s day job is with the City of Annapolis Department of Public Works, but his heart is in the creatures he cares for and the children he shares with. We met up after the event so I could learn more about his special educational program, which he calls “Eye of the Raptor.”
“I started doing birding programs 25 years ago,” he told me, “but have only had my own setup for about 10 years. My granddaughter Lily (Newquist) has been helping me. She takes ecology classes at Anne Arundel Community College. We do festivals all over across the Chesapeake Bay Area.
Newquist got her start working with turtles, helping kids raise Maryland diamond terrapins in school rooms for release into the wild. He worked at what is now the Chesapeake Bay Environmental Center in Grasonville, where he had a lab for raising, labeling, and releasing terrapins. He was asked by the center’s director, Liz Smith, to fill in for the Raptor.
“I had this great horned owl on my arm,” he recalls, “and I was hooked. When she didn’t try to bite me, I knew. I realized kids love her, but it was a great experience for me, too. I started volunteering with Liz Smith, I learned a lot from her. I learned how to take care of these birds and that turned into my calling.”
Newquist has gone through rigorous procedures to qualify for permits from the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources to purchase and care for birds of prey for educational programs.
“To put on a good show,” he said, “I try to make sure I have an owl, a falcon, and a falcon.” “I want that group, that diversity of animals, so that I can show the unique features of each one.”
Newquist has nine birds in his care, a merlin, a peregrine falcon, two American kestrels, two western screeching pumas, and four eastern rocky owls. “I’m a professional naturalist,” he said, “but he’s evolving into an ornithologist.” “Hopefully, when I leave the city of Annapolis, I can do it full time.”
Watching Newquist interact with his audience—especially dazzled children—with an owl perched on his gloved hand and a smile on his lips, it’s easy to see him making that dream come true.
Millie and I left the crowds to wander the trails along the lake. Once we entered the forest, the trees protected us from the fierce winds. Black Hill Regional Park contains more than 20 miles of solid surface and nature trails for hiking, mountain biking, and horseback riding on more than 2,000 acres of forested hills. The visitor center offers nature programs and interpretive tours. Many areas are ADA accessible. We chose not to check out the half acre dog park.
The Little Seneca Lake Reservoir was completed in 1984, according to Susan Soderbergh, president of the Germantown Historical Society. As the water rose, it covered a prehistoric site, a one-room schoolhouse and a log cabin for slaves, along with the home and plantation of James Boyd, for whom the town of Boyds is named. The lake covers 505 acres. It is 68 feet deep and holds 4.5 billion gallons of water. The reservoir serves as an emergency water source for the Washington, D.C. area.
Oddly enough, the park is named after the Black Hills of Dakota. The connection, believe it or not, is that there used to be a gold mine on the property. Again, according to Soderbergh’s history, when George Chadwick purchased this farmland north of Germantown in 1947, he found a set of deep pits that he later learned were abandoned gold mines. Apparently, there is an underground rock formation called the Appalachian Gold Belt that stretches from Georgia to Maryland, with branches extending all over Montgomery County. While there were working mines at Great Falls and Olney, none of the drilling at this site yielded much gold.
Millie and I walked the pebbly shore of the lake. As if on signal, a lone bald eagle soared across the sky, followed by a noisy flock of Canada geese. These birds were far enough away that Mielle wasn’t startled even once.
20926 Lake Ridge Drive
Boyds, Maryland 20841
The Visitor Center building is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. Restrooms are available in the center and in a separate outbuilding.
The park’s outdoor trails and trails are open from dawn to dusk daily.
Founded in 2002, the Owl Moon Raptor Center is a statewide licensed wildlife rehabilitation center that specializes in birds of prey. It is located in Boyds, Maryland, in the home of its chief operator, Susan Shoemaker. If you find an injured bird of prey, call them at 301-908-7249.