Parks, Environment, Santa Clara County, Education

250 flock to first ‘raptor encounter’

Native birds of prey showcased at Calero County Park

The first “raptor encounter” to be jointly hosted by Santa Clara County Parks and the Peninsula Open Space Trust could scarcely have been more perfect — especially if you like surprises.

Mostly sunny afternoon skies and mild temperatures greeted the estimated 250 people who showed up to see a master falconer’s 10 raptor species up close. All his bird species are native to California, and many of them live in the park where he exhibited them.

A warm, steady breeze swept through the flowers and grasses carpeting the foothills, helping resident raptors soar effortlessly overhead.

Photo Credit Paolo Vescia

A girl’s eyes are nearly as intense as those of the great horned owl she’s petting. Photo Credit Paolo Vescia

A girl’s eyes are nearly as intense as those of the great horned owl she’s petting.
Photo by Paolo Vescia

On the ground, visitors to Rancho San Vicente, a fairly new addition to Calero County Park, oohed and aahed as falconer Antonio Balestreri pulled each bird from its portable enclosure. The birds’’ wild eyes and gorgeous plumage impressed, from the little 3-ounce American kestrel to the 3-pound great horned owl.

Falconer donates his time

Perfect though the event was, organizing it was no walk in the park. First, Peninsula Open Space Trust and the Parks and Recreation Department had to agree to work together to sponsor and organize the event, their first joint effort of its kind.

The Monterey-based Balestreri said he donated his time to put on the demonstration. He said this is because he believes strongly in the missions of POST and County Parks and wanted to help the organizations deliver this unique educational program to the community.

“I’m here because I love the birds and want the public to know about raptor conservation.”

Birds of prey ‘part of my family’

But even all the parties’ enthusiasm for the project didn’t make raptor encounter easy to pull off. The date was pushed back several times due to weather and other reasons. Shuttle buses had to be hired so that the Rancho San Vicente parking lot wasn’t overwhelmed. The amphitheater-shaped knoll where the program would be centered had to be mowed and properly marked for safety. A PA system had to be set up. Staff and volunteers had to be assigned.

In the end, it was worth the wait. Balestreri spent three hours enlightening the crowd about his birds, which he calls “part of my family.” He and park interpreter Kelsi Ju explained the critical role of predatory birds in the ecosystem and the importance of preserving their habitat. The presence of golden eagles and other raptors in the park is a sign of a healthy ecosystem, they said.

Conservation partnership

Photo Credit Ron Goldthwaite
One of the falconer’s birds chose an unlikely spot to perch toward the end of the program. [Photo by Ron Goldthwaite]

The falconer dived deep into the 10,000-year history of falconry and described modern falconers’ role in the conservation of raptors, which were once looked upon as vermin to be eradicated.

The program ended with a surprise. Balestreri let one of his tethered birds fly off into a tree. When it returned, the animal lighted on a man’s head instead of the falconer’s heavy leather glove, sending a ripple of laughter through the crowd.

Mark Medeiros, senior manager of community engagement for the Peninsula Open Space Trust, said the group would like to consider repeating the raptor event with the Parks Department again if the opportunity were to arise.

He said it was a wonderful showcase for the “spectacular success” of POST and the park system working together to conserve land.

POST acquired the 966-acre Rancho San Vicente tract a decade ago, saving it forever from development, and later turned it over to Parks to manage as part of Calero County Park.

“We hope to work together to bring County residents more special programming like this,” Medeiros said, “so that they can learn about their local environment and become even more motivated as open space and parks supporters.”

— Article by Chuck Carroll, video by Rabih Chahine

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May 16, 2019

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May 2019
Santa Clara County