Not only has Gillian Radcliffe devoted most of her life to wildlife ecology, but she has also embraced her love of raptors, birds of prey, to such an extent that she conquered her fear of heights and took up paragliding - literally soaring with the eagles in Nepal.
"It was a fabulous and inspirational experience to be moving on the same thermals as Griffon Vultures and Steppe Eagles, to be in their space and learn more about flight," she says.
Born on the Isle of Man, and raised on the Isle of Wight, Gillian has lived in a variety of places including London, Scotland, Borneo and Canada. As a child, she thought she wanted to be a vet because she was fascinated by nature and, in particular, predators.
"I love being outdoors, I love wildlife - always have," she says.
Not surprising then that Gillian studied to become a wildlife ecologist and pursued a life embracing nature, animals and birds, learning all she could about many creatures.
The conservation company she ran for about 20 years took her into all areas of B.C. conducting habitat assessments, observing and reporting on various species, including all types of mammals like bears and goats. But her fascination with birds of prey remained and when, in 1999, on a sabbatical in England, her son decided he would like to try falconry, she went along. "I got hooked," she laughs. Noting that there were birds of prey centres in the U.K., and there seemed to be nothing similar in B.C., Gillian decided it was time to start one. So, she sold her company and Pacific NorthWest Raptors took shape.
She already had suitable property and buildings in the Cowichan Valley, and with her previous business experience and extensive knowledge of birds of prey, the centre was soon under way. In 2002, they got their first birds and were open to the public in 2003. "We came a long way in a short time," says Gillian. The Centre hasn't slowed down, but continues to grow and expand.
Entirely self-funded, the Centre is not a zoo.
"Often people expect to see the birds in cages, but instead they see the birds in a more dynamic context - they see them actually flying in their own environment," she says, adding that, "it's exciting to see the birds fulfilled within themselves."
Visitors to the Centre are surprised at how much they learn about the birds. And Gillian, herself, despite the 16 hours a day she devotes to her work, never stops learning about the birds.
"I feel privileged to be close to them and work with them; each one of them is an individual. They are so different and live in such a different world to us." She ponders how she might be better able to understand them, and get further intimate glimpses into their unique avian lives.
Injured birds are often brought to the Centre, or come there because of liaisons with other wildlife centres. When possible, they are nurtured and then returned to the wild.
"If a bird comes in and can fly, well, it goes back into the wild," says Gillian. Sometimes, this is not possible and the birds take up residence at the Centre, as did Charlie a 38-year-old Bald Eagle who has a partly amputated wing following a collision with a B.C. Hydro wire. Other birds might be hand reared, like the three 3-week-old Barn Owl chicks comfy in a box residing in Gillian's office. They will be with people and one will eventually go to the Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre in Vancouver.
The Centre's goals are clear and important to Gillian:
- To further knowledge, respect for and awareness of birds of prey of all kinds.
- To foster conservation of birds of prey and their habitats.
- To promote high standards of care for captive raptors.
- To practice and apply falconry techniques to solve applied wildlife management problems.
- To offer training and education in falconry techniques for sport, for bird control, for public education and for rehabilitation work.
They aim to meet these goals by making sure those who work at the Centre are biologists, or training to be one, and that their loyal group of volunteers, who help with everything from cleaning to feeding, learn about the birds and their particular needs.
Schoolchildren are regular visitors to the Centre coming from further and further away as the Centre's popularity grows and fascination with the birds is enthusiastically embraced by the students. Letters, cards, pictures and drawings adorn Gillian's office in a testament to the exciting time the young visitors had observing the raptors.
Some birds have been featured in movies. Others, like the red listed Western Screech Owl, are part of reintroduction programs for rare species. There are flying demonstrations for visitors to the Centre, Kids' Summer Camps, captive breeding programs, educational programs and courses of varying length to actually learn how to handle, care for and manage raptors and most excitingly get a hawk to fly to an outstretched gloved hand!
What does the future hold for Gillian and the Centre? For the Centre, she'd love to build new pens, improve housing for the birds, have a properly equipped hospital, continue further research, take on ecology projects, and continue breeding programs for rare species to provide birds for release programs where appropriate.
Gillian would like to continue travelling, learn more about raptors and continue sharing her life with her beloved birds of prey both on the ground and on the thermals.