An Anchorage nonprofit that cares for sick and injured wild birds is about to take a big step toward a long-planned expansion, though there's one slight complication near the construction site — the nest of an eagle.
"It's possible that the eagle that's nesting up there is one we released sometime in the past," Tom Bennett, president of Bird Treatment and Learning Center's board of directors, said in a recent phone interview. "It's a very bizarre thing."
For more than two decades, hawks and eagles have regained wing strength in a weather-worn wooden structure tucked out of sight on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. The "flight center" run by Bird TLC was built by volunteers in 1991, two years after the Exxon Valdez oil spill.
But this month, Bird TLC got city approval to build a new flight center at property it owns near Potter Marsh. The 4.5 acres of land, bought long ago and bordered by a wildlife sanctuary, have long been envisioned as a permanent home for the nonprofit.
As fortune would have it, before construction could start — it was to begin as early as spring — the nonprofit learned of an active eagle nest nearby. That triggered federal wildlife protection laws that could hold up the project.
Guy Runco, director of Bird TLC, says the group is weighing its options, which might include seeking a special permit or even re-doing the design plans. But they're the first to note the irony.
Whatever the timeline, any kind of construction at the Potter Marsh property would mark a major step for the nonprofit after more than a decade of planning. After a 2003 rezone was approved, Bird TLC officials pledged that a new facility, which would include a clinic and educational center, would be up and running within three years.
The land remains vacant today. Runco said the initial designs were too ambitious and some partnerships didn't work out. He and Bennett said they hope the center will be fully based at Potter Marsh in five to 10 years.
The center was started by veterinarian Jim Scott in 1961, and became the nonprofit Bird TLC in 1988. It has about 75 volunteers, Runco said, and two paid staff positions. Since its founding, the nonprofit has split its operations between the flight center at Fort Richardson, now JBER, and a clinic in Anchorage. In January 2014, it moved from a borrowed warehouse on Nielson Way to a leased property farther south on King Street. The new space is smaller and costs more, Runco said, making a permanent move even more urgent.
Once a bird is treated at the King Street clinic and is healthy enough to start regaining its wing strength, it's driven to JBER, to the northern part of old Fort Richardson.
Tucked away in one of the military camps, the brown wooden structure sits inconspicuously, marked only by a peeling brown and white decal of an eagle on the door. It might be mistaken for a dilapidated training facility, except for the occasional screeching sounds.
On a recent afternoon, Katie Middlebrook, the nonprofit's avian rehabilitation coordinator, opened the door into a narrow, dimly lit hallway. It was cold and drafty. Signs read "Caution: Raptors Inside."
There's no running water. Volunteers haul in water in plastic cans.
In the large open-air cages, or "mews," where the birds roost, utility poles hold up nets. The planked wooden walls are starting to bend in slightly.
"It's time for a new facility," Middlebrook said, nodding at the walls.
In this particular mew, two eagles, a juvenile and an adult, perched on flat boards lined with artificial grass and mounted to the wall. The juvenile eagle was regaining its strength after swallowing something toxic at the Palmer dump. The adult won't fly again, Middlebrook said; it was found on the ground in Soldotna.
As a group of people approached, the juvenile lifted itself off its perch and soared, with only a trace of unsteadiness, to the opposite end of the mew. The quieter the flight, the better, Middlebrook said.
Back inside, in the small kitchen area, a chest freezer contained red meat and fish steaks. The top of the chest freezer in the small kitchen is the flight center's de facto exam table, Middlebrook said.
A new exam room and running water will be part of the rebuilt flight center at Potter Marsh, Middlebrook said. Another goal, she said, is to fill out the mews with more natural surroundings.
Over the years, the JBER site has had its advantages. Military security is excellent, Middlebrook said. And the building is well hidden from public view.
"There's a lot of people (who) don't know we're out here, which is exactly what we want for these birds," Middlebrook said.
A spokesman for JBER, Jim Hart, said Bird TLC's location wasn't widely advertised on base, making it "one of those best-kept-secret kind of things."
Hart also said the military is not asking Bird TLC to leave the base. He said Bird TLC, like a fish hatchery that used to be on the base, is a welcome addition to the military installation.
According to Runco, a previous executive director was told several years ago that the base might need the land for expansion. Even without pressure from the military, Runco said, the nonprofit would still like to move to property it owns.
Runco said the nonprofit is looking at ways to address the "people issues" that will come with moving off military land. The Rabbit Creek Community Council, a longtime supporter of the project, sent a letter to the city planning commission asking that Bird TLC consider electric fencing or other ways of keeping bears away from the property.
Mary Bethe Wright, a longtime Bird TLC volunteer and former board president, said relocating is important symbolically.
"The community will see that we are committed to that piece of property," Wright said.
Runco said the budget hasn't been finished but he expects the new "flight center" to cost between $100,000 and $500,000. He said the center has the money to move forward with the project but donations, whether in money or construction material, are always helpful. He said a funding drive will take place.
Bird TLC has been releasing eagles from its Potter Marsh property for years. If the eagle nesting near the construction site was indeed released by Bird TLC — and that's a "safe assumption," Runco said — it was probably released in the 2000s.
"We have done so many eagle releases from our property," Runco said. "It's not crazy to think that one of them would stay."