Lake Norman & Mooresville

Carolina Raptor Center aided by The Carolina Brewmasters

Lisa Johnson, left, and Michele Miller Houck, associate executive director at The Carolina Raptor Center, release a broad-winged hawk into nature.
Lisa Johnson, left, and Michele Miller Houck, associate executive director at The Carolina Raptor Center, release a broad-winged hawk into nature. TOM HENDERSON PHOTOGRAPHY LLC

About five dozen people stood outside Lisa Johnson’s home in South Charlotte’s Walnut Creek neighborhood about noon April 4, waiting to see something new.

The anticipation was palpable, like fans waiting for a rock star to arrive.

Word spread that the day’s celebrity, a broad-tailed hawk simply named Bird was close to arriving, albeit by automobile. People came to Johnson’s home to catch Bird’s re-release into nature.

It would be an act guided by the Carolina Raptor Center in Huntersville, whose staff and volunteers nursed him back to health after Johnson found the injured raptor in her backyard in August.

At 12:37, Johnson unfolded the flaps of a cardboard box secured by the Raptor Center’s Michele Miller Houck and out flapped Bird, who quickly took refuge in a cypress tree at the corner of Johnson’s front yard.

“I thought it was really awesome,” said Johnson, 47. “Honestly, it was the coolest thing I’ve ever done.”

The release was sponsored by The Carolina Brewmasters, of which Johnson is a member. The Brewmasters is a Charlotte club of craft beer brewers whose events often benefit charity.

The Brewmasters have given the Carolina Raptor Center support during the past five years, including a donation of $667 in celebration of Bird’s release into the wild.

Johnson and other Brewmasters honored Bird’s new freedom after the release by hosting a brewing demonstration and drinking craft beers.

The last time Johnson had seen the Raptor Center release a bird was at the Brewmasters’ 2011 Oktoberfest. Johnson was the festival director and the Brewmasters donated $20,000. Last year, the Brewmasters partnered with the Raptor Center for one of its Thursday Nigh Flights fundraisers.

Bird’s journey to good health began in August when Johnson noticed her two black Labrador mixes paying attention to something hopping around in her fenced-in backyard. Because of some previous connections through the Brewmasters, Johnson phoned the Carolina Raptor Center who sent an expert to retrieve it.

The following day, Johnson called the Raptor Center to check on its status and was told it had a broken wing. From that moment, Bird became patient 18201 and Johnson was able to track the hawk’s progress through the Raptor Center’s website.

The Raptor Center tends to a thousand raptors a year, more than any raptor center in the country, according to Miller Houck, the center’s associate executive director. The center releases about 500 birds to nature each year.

“This is my favorite part of the job,” said Miller Houck. “It’s a culmination of the hard work of the hospital staff and the volunteers.”

During its rehabilitation, Bird suffered a broken foot, which required surgery and the insertion of a pin that was later removed. It slowed the rehab process and delayed Bird’s release.

But Bird’s injuries weren’t the only hold up to his return to the wild. Miller Houck explained that broad-winged hawks are migratory birds and normally fly south for the winter. By the time his injuries healed, all of Bird’s friends had left for Florida.

In the final month before his release, Bird was confined to a flight cage – his 12-foot tall, 12-foot wide, and 50-foot long home in which he could stretch his wings and get acclimated to flight.

About a week prior to the release, Johnson decided to invite her friends, fellow Brewmaster members and her Walnut Creek neighbors to the event. One of those looking forward to it was neighbor Caitlin Williams, 10, who aspires to be a veterinarian.

One of the ways the Brewmasters collected money for the Raptor Center was through a 50/50 raffle. Caitlin’s grandmother Janice Crum bought her the winning ticket.

Caitlin donated half of it, $77, to the Raptor Center, per her grandmother’s encouragement. Caitlin says she’s saving the other half for a trip she’s taking with her Palisades Park Elementary school classmates to Charleston.

By the time Bird arrived, someone had already played a loop of bird-themed songs on an iPod and a set of speakers: Steve Miller’s “Fly Like an Eagle,” the Beatles’ “Blackbird” and “Surfin Bird” by Big Bird, also known as the “Bird is the Word” song.

Moments before the release, Johnson announced that Bird’s name was being changed and that it would share a moniker with another appropriate song for the day: Freebird.

Joe Habina is a freelance writer. Have a story idea for Joe? Email him at joehabina@gmail.com.

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