Monday, August 15, 2022

Oak Island’s ‘bird lady,’ Mary Ellen Rogers, looks to grow rescue

Stella, a patient at Sea Biscuit eight years ago, still returns to the shelter almost every day for free fish. (Port City Daily photo/Alexandria Sands)

OAK ISLAND — Eight years ago, Mary Ellen Rogers responded to a call late one summer afternoon about an injured great egret that was struggling to cross a bustling road between a gas station and the Walmart in Southport. Around the southern parts of Brunswick County, Rogers is known as the “bird lady” — she’s often the first call when a person stumbles upon a hurt shorebird, songbird or raptor.

At the intersection, Rogers captured the animal and took her into her home, where she operates her rehabilitation center Sea Biscuit Wildlife Shelter. For five or six days, she cared for the egret and named her Stella.

Related: Authorities ‘dispatch’ injured deer after attracting attention in Oak Island

Once the bird was fed plenty of fish and proved capable of flying, she took Stella to the marsh at the end of the street and set her free.

Years later, on a cool December morning, the same great egret lands on a fence post in the backyard of Rogers’ pale orange house — as she has done for nearly a decade.

This morning three women are at the shelter, helping with the daily responsibilities that come with running the place. “Stella just showed up,” a volunteer of the rescue tells Rogers.

“Oh, did she? Oh, good,” responds Rogers, who’s wearing a light blue sweatshirt with a graphic of her favorite birds, pelicans. It reads, “Got Fish?”

The all-white egret isn’t startled when Rogers or the volunteers head outside and come close. Unbothered, she digs into her mullet breakfast. “Who could resist?” Rogers says of the meal.

Stella chomps down her breakfast along 19th Place. (Port City Daily photo/Alexandria Sands)

Sticking to the mission

Stella is just one of the thousands of birds Rogers has taken into her care at Sea Biscuit since she started the rescue out of her basement in 2007. Stella is a rarity though — one of the only animals to return to the property on a near-daily basis.

The goal of the facility is to return birds to the wild as soon as possible. Birds are only sheltered at Sea Biscuit until they have gained an appropriate amount of weight and can fly or paddle well enough to survive on their own in the elements. Then, like Stella, they’re released in the wetlands.

Each year Sea Biscuit helps around 500 to 600 birds and about 80 different species. Close to 30% of the “patients” that come to the shelter annually are from Oak Island, but Rogers travels as far as Myrtle Beach to pick up creatures in need of her help.

Sea Biscuit is the only rescue on its side of the Cape Fear River with a license to care for raptors. “It’s a really unique thing to have right here in town,” volunteer Erin Kirley says.

Rogers began Sea Biscuit about two years after moving to Oak Island in 2005. Previously, she lived on Sullivan’s Island in South Carolina, where she volunteered at the Center for Birds of Prey in Charleston for more than 10 years. She was one of the town’s original “turtle ladies,” founding a sea turtle protection program in the 1990s. She also served on the island planning commission, with her purpose being to protect the environment. 

“I always wanted to be outdoors and I didn’t like to see high rises like Myrtle Beach or something like that,” she says.

At the time, she worked as a real estate agent, which she acknowledges doesn’t usually mesh with a passion for maintaining natural habitats. It did, though, lead her to invest in her second-row Oak Island house. She never planned to live in it, rather she hoped to secure some income for retirement.

“But every time I came here, I liked it a little bit better,” she says.

When Rogers finally made the move to the beachside town, she searched for opportunities to put her environmental expertise to use but found the sea turtle program was already well-staffed. However, she noticed there was no facility that cared for coastal birds that got hooked or netted, struck with bullets, hit by cars, or taken in as “pets” and mistreated by humans.

She figured with her experience, she could tend to the injured birds of the island. But the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service required that she obtain hundreds of hours of avian medical experience for every species she intended to treat. For 17 months, Rogers traveled to the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport to volunteer, often taking hurt birds from Oak Island along with her on the ride. Once she reached the required number of hours, she received state and federal permits to care for coastal birds in her own facility.

Hundreds of birds, all with their own story

In the first year of Sea Biscuit’s existence, Rogers and the volunteers helped 250 animals. So far in 2020, it’s accepted 640 birds and counting. On Nov. 30 alone, Rogers took in eight birds.

“There’s definitely a need for it, and we can fill that need,” she says. “We just need more space.”

Sea Biscuit operates with a few thousand dollars from the Town of Oak Island annually, as well as donations and grants. It’s run entirely by volunteers.

Each morning at Sea Biscuit, a couple of locals join Rogers to feed and care for the birds. The helpers stick pills between fish gills and drop them into birds’ beaks. They rewrap bandages, clean pens and update the patients’ documentation.

Volunteers remove an Eastern screech-owl from its crate. It’s time for a hand feeding. (Port City Daily photo/Alexandria Sands)

Each bird has a file with a history of their time at the shelter. At the end of the year, Rogers refers to the records to fill out forms for the wildlife service. The files include details on their arrival, X-rays and vet visits, and other signs of progress.

One folder for an owl named Amber contains a photo of her with a bloody seagull in her clutches. Although violent, Rogers refers to the picture as a “success story.” The owl hadn’t been eating on its own, and Rogers thought Amber was bound to wind up a permanent resident until she proved she could hunt again.

“I said, ‘If you can do that, you’re going,’” Rogers says.

The files are kept in a room that’s part office and part hospital. Rogers has converted the downstairs apartment of her beach house into the rescue center. A living room has been transformed into a volunteer common area, and a kitchen is now a food prep space with multiple white refrigerators stuffed with dead fish.

There’s also an “intensive care ward,” a small space with crates stacked upon each other for the animals that aren’t in well enough condition to stay outdoors. In one kennel, a pelican is suffering from a hurt right foot, wrapped in pink bandaging. He’s not improving. Rogers thinks he might have to be euthanized soon, but they’re hoping for the best. 

“He’s not doing as good as he should,” she says, “but he’s pretty happy ‘cause we give him food all day long and painkillers.”

Along with the pelican, there are three loons living in the unit. An Eastern screech-owl is chirping away and an oystercatcher is waiting to break open his clam-filled meal. A ring-billed gull who arrived at the shelter unable to stand is strutting around his kennel.

“Huge improvement,” Rogers observes.

Cute pelicans and ferocious raptors

After checking on the feathered friends, the volunteers thaw frozen mullet and pogies, both vegetarian fish caught with nets. This ensures no swallowed hooks are hiding in their bodies.

Dead chicks and mice are plated for the vultures and owls. Those meats are expensive, about as much per pound as steak, according to Rogers.

Raptors are fed dead chicks and mice. The meats are expensive, about as much per pound as steak. (Port City Daily photo/Alexandria Sands)

In the backyard, multiple handbuilt enclosures provide sufficient space for inhabitants to fly around. There’s a small private area in case a fawn is in need, and a wooden shed for pelicans, including Tim, one of Roger’s most famous residents.

There are several birds, like Tim, living at the shelter permanently. Two barred owls, Bogie and Benson, both sustained wing injuries from car strikes and would fail to find prey in the wild. They are now considered education birds, which Rogers obtained permits for, and are showcased during public programs and local festivities (although many of those were canceled this year due to Covid-19).

This month the educational pelicans will make an appearance at the Oak Island holiday parade. “We’re gonna set them up with Christmas ornaments and stuff like that,” Rogers says. “Should be cute.”

Next to the owls, a red-tailed hawk stares the volunteers down as she wraps her talons around the gating. “Don’t get close enough to stick your fingers through,” Rogers warns. “She is ferocious.”

A ferocious hawk, named Maggie, attempts to claw volunteers through her enclosures’ gating. The young bird was shot in Ocean Isle, perhaps by a BB gun, but will be released soon. (Port City Daily photo/Alexandria Sands)

This young hawk — nicknamed Maggie because she arrived infested with maggots — has attempted to claw those who pass her enclosure, even killing a fellow bird. She’s mean, but she’s had a hard start in life. Maggie was shot in an Ocean Isle neighborhood, possibly by a BB gun. She has recovered enough to be set free in the next week or so.

‘Too many animals go without any help’

This year 46% of birds through Oct. 30 were treatable and returned to the wild. Another 40% died. Between 6% and 7% of animals were put down.

Sometimes birds with permanent injuries who are not in pain but still wouldn’t last in the elements are rehomed. Rogers has transferred birds to zoos in Ohio and San Francisco, an aquarium in Oregon and other facilities in Jacksonville and Daufuskie Island.

Rogers is planning to expand Sea Biscuit to a public space, where she can keep more educational birds for the community to visit. There should also be sufficient capacity to care for squirrels, bobcats, rabbits, possums and other small mammals.

“We need a big, major wildlife shelter in the area,” she says. “There isn’t one and entirely too many animals go without any help.”

Last year, Sea Biscuit signed a lease with Duke Energy for 4 acres adjacent to William S. “Bill” Smith Park, between a kayak launch and a dog park. At this time, though, the expansion is on hold because there is no road access to the property, no fire hydrant, and no water, sewer or power. Installing all the necessary infrastructure could run up to $100,000.

“I just don’t know where to proceed from here because everything looks too expensive,” Rogers says.

Sea Biscuit is on the lookout for another option that could work for the same amount of money, but the location also has to be close to the shorebirds. Plus, there is already money invested in the property by the park, including $10,000 worth of enclosures. In the next three or so months, Rogers will have to make a decision.

Regardless of where they go, though, Stella will still get her breakfast of mullet and pogies at Rogers’ home, every day.

To donate to the wildlife shelter, send a check to Sea Biscuit Shelter at 1638 East Beach Drive, Oak Island, NC, 28465 or visit their website.

View more photos of Sea Biscuit below. Click to enlarge and scroll:

Mary Ellen Rogers and volunteer Beth Green inspect a pelican’s injuries. A towel is placed over the bird’s head to keep him calm. (Port City Daily photo/Alexandria Sands)
Volunteers hand feed a recovering Eastern screech-owl. (Port City Daily photo/Alexandria Sands)
These two hawks are permanent residents at Sea Biscuit Wildlife Shelter. Scarlet was found with a wrist injury by park rangers at Lake Waccamaw in 2012 and Glenda was hit by a car on Oak Island in 2019. (Port City Daily photo/Alexandria Sands)
Pelicans and seagulls hang out in Rogers’ backyard. (Port City Daily photo/Alexandria Sands)
A barred owl at Sea Biscuit Wildlife Shelter (Port City Daily photo/Alexandria Sands)

Story idea? Email Alex Sands at alexandria@localdailymedia.com

Alexandria Sands
Alexandria Sands is a journalist covering New Hanover County and education. Before Port City Daily, she reported for the award-winning State Port Pilot in Southport. She graduated from UNC Charlotte and wrote for several Charlotte publications while there. When not writing, Williams is most likely in the gym, reading or spending time with her Golden Pyrenees. Reach her at alexandria@localdailymedia.com or on Twitter @alexsands_

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