A Friend of Wildlife
Sea Biscuit Wildlife Shelter on Oak Island is expanding to rehabilitate more wild birds and animals.
It was old and needed some work. Hurricane Hazel kited its roof in 1954. But a savvy real estate agent who did very well selling upscale Charleston, South Carolina, suburban beach properties had a vision. She loved that cute little house at 1638 E. Beach Drive on Oak Island. I’ll buy it for a song, she thought, and sell it later as an investment toward retirement.
She did buy it, but then she didn’t sell it. She didn’t retire and she’s no longer in the real estate business. Instead, Mary Ellen Rogers moved in and turned her comfortable professional life upside down.
At age 77, Rogers is the founder, volunteer clinic director and president of the board of directors of the Sea Biscuit Wildlife Shelter, Inc., located in that very house built nearly 70 years ago.
She lives upstairs, and the business takes over the first floor and the entire quarter-acre backyard. The place has become, literally, for the (wild) birds!
Rogers transformed her life and her island property, she says, to contribute “something back to our native habitat to compensate for all the stuff that we humans take away from it.” From its official opening in 2007 until now, she and more than 30 volunteers have worked to rehabilitate and release thousands of hooked, line-tangled, cat-caught, gun-shot, boat-or-window-struck, netted, diseased and otherwise injured or orphaned wild or endangered birds.
Rogers developed a passion for helping distressed wild birds because there was a need for it and she was distraught because at that time there were no other facilities within a hundred miles to assist all kinds of federally protected species. After putting in 200 hours, gaining experience with the Center for Birds of Prey in Awendaw, South Carolina, and the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter on Cape Hatteras, she received federal certification to aid seabirds and shorebirds in March of 2007. She tended to 250 birds in the company’s first nine months and 538 in 2019; she expects to set a new record in 2020.
It is a 24/7/365 devotional, but Rogers says she’s grateful to be able to make good things happen, and there’s nothing better than doing it at the beach. She gives full credit to the able assistance of her three-member nonprofit board of volunteers; a dedicated clinic staff of 12 people, who each work a two-hour shift one day per week; and some 20 rescue and transport volunteers who receive training to capture and deliver injured birds.
They rescue and rehabilitate everything from owls to ospreys, pelicans to herons to red-tail hawks. They do receive endangered species, but not often. “We have several veterinarians we work closely with that specialize in them,” Rogers says.
When the birds come in, the staff tries to mimic their normal environment as much as possible.
“There are huge enclosed spaces for raptors to stretch their wings and safely fly,” Rogers says. “And large quiet cages with perches enabling peaceful recovery, one bird at a time. There’s even an intensive care unit.”
The scope of hands-on care is quite complex.
“We use simple antiparasite treatment for feather mites, maggots and flat flies on the outside, and worms on the inside,” Rogers says.
Depending on the problem, they use pain relievers and antibiotic medications, get X-rays from local vets and even transplant feathers to get them back into the wild as quickly as possible. They deal with vibrio bacteria (respiratory disease) in most debilitated pelicans, aspergillosis (molds) in migrating waterbirds like loons and gannets. Herons and egrets often have parasites in their mouths and digestive tracts. Fledglings often come to the center because of the birds’ inexperience at foraging for food or ingesting something harmful. Raptors frequently eat small animals like mice and rats that have been poisoned, in turn causing them to be poisoned. The team even wraps broken appendages with a kind of cast so legs can heal straight.
Hurricanes, such as Category 1 Isaias in 2020, bring many a patient to the shelter. “We got 14 baby birds in two days after the storm,” Rogers says. “Juvenile pelicans had been washed off their nests and needed over a week to learn to fish and fly. If left to the elements, most of them wouldn’t have survived.”
Prepping for storms at the shelter is also very difficult. Getting ready for Isaias involved moving 40 birds inside the clinic, including hawks and owls, pelicans, Canada geese, ducks, gulls, marsh birds and songbirds. The birds remained safe, even after a wave of water made its way down the street and into the first floor. However, water and power were out for a week, forcing the use of generators and a plea to the community for water and money for supplies. Donors provided the much-needed help, and Rogers explained that the shelter is truly fortunate because they always come through with the funding needed to keep Sea Biscuit’s doors open.
Recalling Hurricane Florence two years ago, she says they actually had to evacuate the shelter, and it was a “disaster.”
Rising waters forced her to the second floor of her hurricane shelter, with 10 big birds in the attic. The Cajun Navy came to their rescue in the middle of the night.
Rogers says people drop off all kinds of displaced and hurt animals after storms — everything from raccoons to alligators. The volunteers take them in and try to find groups to help them, but the little house on E. Beach Drive is at its limit. It’s time to move to a bigger location, and they have found a good place.
Duke Energy granted the shelter three decades of use of 4 acres of higher ground at Bill Smith Park in Southport, and the company’s volunteers have already built three sturdy enclosures for the hawks, owls and pelicans. There’s no power, water or sewage services at this time, but Sea Biscuit is collecting donations and using what they have so far to build a driveway, erect fencing and move the birds to the site. Rogers hopes to have the birds available for public view before winter.
They also plan on constructing “a pretty country cottage-type building” to accommodate small groups for meetings and provide space for rehabilitation and an intensive care area for very sick birds and other wild animals. And that’s a new twist to things.
“We want a facility for other wild animals as well as birds — bears, bobcats, whatever people bring to us,” Rogers says. “Total cost is around $300,000 in addition to the $2,000 to $3,000 we need monthly for normal operations. And we hope to have it all ready within three years.”
Once the new facility is up and running, Rogers looks forward to hiring a clinic director and remaining as a volunteer for animal care only.
“There are no living quarters in the new place, and I am not going anywhere!” she says. “I’ll remain at my beach house. I might decide to rent out the downstairs apartment or just keep it as guest quarters for friends and family.”
So, the saga of the cute little house on E. Beach Drive on Oak Island will carry on.
Can you help?
Rogers invites anyone wishing to donate to send a check marked for expansion or maintenance to:
Sea Biscuit Shelter
1638 E. Beach Dr.
Oak Island, NC 28465
Check out the website at seabiscuitwildlifeshelter.org