Thursday, June 12, 2014

National Aviary a birders' - and photographers' - dream

"This place really is for the birds," I thought to myself.

And since it's the National Aviary, that's a good thing.

I spent my final full day spent in Pittsburgh during my late May-early June visit there at the aviary. This place had been on my radar for at least eight years, so when I found out I would be going to Pennsylvania, I had to make sure I could spend some time there.

I ended up opening it up and closing it down my first day there, roaming around, taking photos, watching flying shows and just generally indulging my "bird-brain." I spent half of a second-day there in the company of Kurt Hundgen, director of collections; and Robin Weber, director of marketing.

When I first walked through the doors that led into the "Grasslands" area of the facility, I knew I'd come to the right place.

There, sitting on some tree-like perches were a pair of Congo African grey parrots. They were not unlike my own two CAGs, Nikki and Coco; they were grooming and one of them hammed it up for me, even imitating the beeping noise my camera makes while shooting images and video.

Time for some pelican preening!

The aviary is divided into different "eco-regions," and from the Grasslands I went to the Wetlands area, where a feeding demonstration was in progress with a touring school group. The "swamp" was alive with roseate spoonbills, flamingos, kookaburas, pelicans, a few different kinds of ibis and - heard, but not seen - a screaming piha. (It doesn't really "scream," but this South American rainforest bird does make a very distinctive call.) Several smaller birds also flitted about through the vegetation.

Of course, no aviary experience would be complete without a stop at the penguin pool. In this case, the "African" theme continued, as the penguins who live here are South African penguins. And very playful penguins, they are.

The penguins are ready to "test the waters" once again.
Every time I leaned over the short wall to try to take an unobstructed photo of one of the penguins swimming around, the bird would pop his head up out of the water towards me. It made it really hard to focus! I figured he was either expecting food - or really didn't care to be caught on film by what he might have perceived as the "penguin paparazzi" (me).

From there, it was just a short walk through the cafeteria to the Tropical Rainforest area.

Like the Wetlands, there were numerous small birds flying and flitting around in the area. I also saw a feeding take place, as one of the staff members handed out mealworms for people to hold in their hands for the birds to fly down and scoop up.

Like the Grasslands, though, the main attraction for me was a pair of macaws in a large holding area at one end: a green-winged macaw and a hyacinth macaw.

These two species are not normally found in the same habitat, but these two were obviously very bonded. They played and groomed each other affectionately, making for some great shots and video footage.

In talking with Hundgen and Weber, I learned how the aviary holds regular programs focused on teaching people about the pitfalls of living with parrots as pets. Hundgen is working toward ensuring that visitors perceive the parrots here more as wild creatures in a natural environment than as potential pets, something that can only help both wild and captive parrots.
Although not the same species, these macaw are real pals.

The aviary is a member of Associations of Zoos and Aquariums, so it meets the highest standards of care for its inhabitants. It is involved in the Species Survival Plan to help prevent the loss of rare and endangered species as well as the loss of genetic diversity within those species.

Its programs extend far outside its walls. Scientists from the aviary are involved in field research and conservation programs of international scope, including work aimed at restoring the populations of Andean condors, an iconic vulture of South America.

And speaking of vultures...

A trio of vultures were among the free-flying birds featured in the "Talons!" show that required the purchase of advance tickets, as seats usually fill up quickly. They were joined by an owl, crows, a bald eagle, seagulls, and hawks. Combined with a multi-media presentation, the show displays some of the grace and power of these avians while educating spectators about the birds and ongoing conservation issues in the world.

It's a real crowd-pleaser, for little kids ... and big kids, too.

Like all good programs, the aviary is planning future expansion, both in terms of the infrastructure (parts of the building are more than 60 years old) and programs in and outside the facility.

Even without expansion, the aviary is a real gem in the crown of Pittsburgh attractions, and it was so well worth my time and effort to make sure I had a chance to explore it - and given the presence of parrots in the aviary, 
it was - coming on the heels of a day spent paddling - the absolutely perfect way to cap off my 12 days in Pennsylvania.

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