Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Halifax center displays 180 species of waterfowl


SCOTLAND NECK -- The black-headed duck of South America is a lousy parent.

Rather than build its own nest, it simply lays its eggs in ones built by other birds, regardless of species, and never looks back. Left to fend for themselves, the ducklings somehow know to hatch at the same time as their stepbrothers and sisters.

"How it knows to do that, I don't know," said Mike Lubbock, founder of the Sylvan Heights Waterfowl Center on the edge of this small town 85 miles northeast of Raleigh.

This 18-acre zoo for birds - primarily ducks, geese, cranes and other water birds - has about 180 species on display. Each, like the parasitic black-headed duck, has a story.

The waterfowl center opened in late 2006 as an outgrowth of Lubbock's breeding center next door, where he produces birds, some extremely rare, for zoos and collectors. Lubbock has done 18 "first breedings," meaning he was the first to coax 18 species of birds to reproduce in captivity.

With his wide-brimmed hats, the accent of his native England and 45 years of work with water birds, Lubbock is the image of the globe-trotting naturalist. But the center is his home base, the place where he has chosen to share his love and knowledge of birds with the public and to encourage people to protect the habitats that sustain them.

Sylvan Heights takes its name from the town in the mountains of North Carolina where Mike Lubbock's breeding business got its start in the 1980s. After his partner in that business died, friends who lived in Scotland Neck suggested he move it east.

Lubbock says that besides having a milder climate, the area had what a waterfowl breeder needed, including hardware stores and a good supply of well water.

"It's a farming community," he said. "And I was farming birds, if you look at it that way."

The center may not yet be the tourist draw that some in Scotland Neck have wanted. On Sunday, there were few enough visitors that one could be alone with the birds at times, surrounded by their various honks, laughs and quacks and the sounds of flapping wings on water.

The birds are grouped by continents into five walk-through aviaries, each enclosed in netting held up without internal poles to make it easier for birds to fly around and for people to see and photograph them.

Surprisingly large

Melissa Phillips of Greenville liked the openness. "The birds seem happier," she said. "It's a more natural setting."

Phillips and her husband, Scott, had heard the center was a good place to bring a picnic and walk around, and they were pleasantly surprised. "We didn't expect it to be this big and have so many birds," Scott said.

Lubbock says the best time to visit Sylvan Heights is from October to April, when most of the waterfowl have finished molting and their drab new feathers become more showy.

"If you came back here in two months' time, you'd think these were different birds, because of the bright colors," he said.

Though the center specializes in waterfowl, there are other birds on display, including laughing kookaburras, parrots, an emu, a toucan, turkeys and a family of eagle owls, the largest owl in the world. These are a concession of sorts to the tastes of visitors, particularly school groups.

"To a kid, one duck looks like another one after awhile," Lubbock says.

Seven-year-old Tabitha Suzanne Shrader of Pine Tops said her favorite birds are owls, blue jays and flamingos, as she and her grandmother looked out over an enclosure containing 86 flamingos Sunday. Most were various shades of white and pink, but a gray, fuzzy baby approached the fence where Tabitha stood.

"That is a real strange one," she said.

The center is a family affair; Mike's wife, Ali, is operations manager, and their son Brent handles memberships and marketing on behalf of the N.C. Zoological Society, a partner in the venture. Brent notes that more than half the income for the nonprofit center comes from memberships and donations.

The center gets about 30,000 visitors a year, Brent said. It hopes that grows to about 50,000 in coming years. As it is, though, the Lubbocks say the tranquility is one reason to visit.

"There are probably 30 to 40 people in the park at the moment," Mike Lubbock said Sunday. "And you don't really run into anyone."


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