CASTLE HAYNE — As a federally licensed wildlife rehabilitator, life in town just wouldn’t cut it for Amelia Mason. After adopting her first rescued bird, “that was it, lights out.”
Originally from South Africa, Mason grew up around the Kruger National Park. A close connection with wild animals was constant and natural.
Her husband, Charles Wright, is all in on the lifestyle as well.
“In the early days, there was a herring in our bathroom that was being rehabilitated,” he said. “When you start something and you’re in love with it, you’ll do what you have to do.”
For three years, the Mason-Wrights searched for property that met their family’s unique needs. By 2014, 3600 Lynn Avenue in Castle Hayne, NC was everything they’d been looking for.
First built in 1927, their brick, American Craftsman style home sits on 10 acres of working farmland in the rural agricultural district of New Hanover County. Now home to a couple of dogs, a few cats and horses, a goat and nearly 200 rescued birds, the property serves as headquarters for SkyWatch Bird Rescue, a non-profit organization founded by Mason.
Relaxed rural regulations
Within city limits, residents are not permitted to own game birds or water fowl. “You can’t even have a duck,” Mason said “In the city of Wilmington proper you can’t do anything like this.”
The New Hanover County Zoning Ordinance permits land in the Rural Agricultural District to be used for single family residential purposes, farming activities and the preservation of open space.
“It’s not too far out of town. It’s about as close to town as you can get and still have land and not be restricted by zoning issues,” Mason said.
For nearly a century, a family of Dutch immigrants occupied the home and worked the land as flower farmers.
“When you drive around in the springtime, there are tulips and daffodils in everybody’s yard,” Wright said.
The two work sheds which sit behind the main house were left untouched for over forty years. After the Mason-Wrights moved in, it took them over a month to sort through artifacts which appeared to be from all over the world.
When digging up the ground for the electrical line, contractors discovered Prohibition-era bottles.
Currently undergoing intensive renovations, the Mason-Wrights are wading through construction on the interiors of the 1920s structures.
“The framework of the house is good, its solid, but we’re working on more of the cosmetic things,” said Mason.
Citing the nature of owning an older home, the family looks forward to building a new dwelling towards the back of their 10-acre property and converting the original home into an education center within the year.
A sanctuary for birds
Over fifteen makeshift enclosures surround the 1,801 sq. ft. brick home. “Every structure, every roof, every walkway was built by Charles,” Mason said.
With a background in the elevator industry, Wright makes use of available donated materials to craft enclosures for various bird species.
“If you asked me to draw what you needed me to do, that would be very difficult for me to do, but if you give me the tools I could put it together.”
The structures have evolved through trial and error. “Because it’s wood it doesn’t last forever. Every few years we update the cage,” Wright said. “Everything you see now has a lot more longevity because it is pressure treated wood.”
Most recently, flooding from heavy summer rain has thwarted progress in developing new enclosures and renovating standing ones. “We’ve learned a lot of lessons trying to work this land. You learn you’re not in charge,” said Mason.
With dozens of wild species cycling in and out of the property, enclosures are far from standardized.
A pelican aviary was created to mirror a dock or pier environment. Wright even went so far as to include an old surfboard and pair the birds with recovering seagulls.
Adjacent to the home is a 100 by 50 ft netted, marsh-like aviary which hosts various shore birds. The heavy clay soil permits a shallow fresh water marsh to remain steady and flourishing with vegetation.
A great blue heron, pheasants, egrets, swans and various shore birds enjoy the spacious enclosure with room to fly and nestle. Marsh birds prefer privacy and overgrowth, so the Mason-Wright’s mock marsh is the next best home away-from-home for injured and rehabilitating wildlife.
Some birds are passing through, some are rehabilitated and welcomed for a permanent stay. The couple makes a point not to allow breeding to prevent overpopulation.
Hoarding busts, overbreeding, abuse, and injury are the most common circumstances which bring wildlife to their property.
“Every animal on the property comes from a situation where they’ve been rescued,” Mason said. Due to their unique position in the community, they are often called into court to testify in animal cruelty cases.
Although facing cruelty and negligence on a daily basis could give leniency to a pessimistic perspective, Mason believes the people who are willing to help outweigh the bad.
For the residents that are non-flighted or unreleasable, “we call this their retirement home.”
SkyWatch Bird Rescue has nearly 50 volunteers and community partners on call for rescue missions and daily assistance.
Volunteers filter in and out of the property, tending to the animals and keeping up the grounds. SkyWatch has an official partnership with the University of North Carolina at Wilmington which grants students in biology, pre-med and related fields learning service work hours and summer internships.
“They come here, they get the vibe, they sense what’s going on, and they personally invest in it. It’s an amazing switch that flicks in people,” said Wright.
The organization remains in need of donations and volunteer manpower. “We spend $100 on crickets a week,” Mason said.
The bell rings from the side entryway, and fresh roadkill, unused bait, fish and produce is delivered by anyone willing to donate throughout the day.
A couple of times a week, Mason picks up a truckload of donated items from Costco and Trader Joe’s.
One of the original brick storage structures has been insulated and converted into a veggie cooler. The other functions as an animal hospital for incubation, emergency care and rehabilitation services.
Over decades of heavy rains and flooding, the hospital’s concrete floors had settled approximately six inches below ground level. With the help of an engineer, the hospital no longer experiences flooding and is currently undergoing further renovations.
Mason and Wright’s 13-year-old daughter, Savanah, arguably has the best view of the property. Her second floor room faces the backyard and she is occasionally visited by peacocks pecking on her window. “I’ve caught it on Snapchat a couple of times,” she said.
Rogue chickens, Canadian geese, emus and peacocks float about the grounds as they please. “The best pest control in the world,” Wright says.
With nearly 200 wild animals as neighbors, the Wright-Mason family have acclimated to their surroundings. “It gets pretty noisy sometimes with the chatter,” said Mason. “The guineas are chattering and the chickens start making a lot of noise at dusk.”
Aside from sunset and sunrise, chatter remains calm.
Looking to the future
From a Dutch immigrant’s flower farm to a wildlife sanctuary, Mason’s vision for the property is just getting started.
The next steps involve further development of the land, increasing public education and community involvement. Her ongoing goal is bridging the gap between wildlife and community.
“We purchased this property with the intention of developing all 10 acres,” Mason said. “We’ve only just begun.”
For more information on SkyWatch Bird Rescue, visit http://www.skywatchbirdrescue.org/ or call (855) 407-3728 for an injured or rescued bird, donation inquiries and information on how to volunteer.