By Helen E. McKinney
Fairmont – From the time he trapped his first Red-Tailed Hawk, Ace, when he was only 14 years old, Collin Waybright has known what path he would take in life. Now at age 22, Collin is one of the youngest Master Class Falconers in the state of West Virginia.
In addition to this distinction, he is also Executive Director of the WV Raptor Center. The fascination with raptors began in 2012 when he attended West Virginia’s Celebration of National Hunting & Fishing Days at Stonewall Resort State Park. Through various demonstrations and activities, the goal of the event was to “try to get people back into the outdoors,” Waybright said. For him, it was a new avenue to explore.
While walking through the displays a falconry exhibit caught his eye. He immediately went home and began researching the trade. But at that time “you had to be 14 to pursue it and become licensed, so I let it drop and didn’t think about it anymore after that,” he said.
Two years later he went back to that same event. “I saw the demonstration and that re-kindled the flame.” He started researching once again.
“I learned a lot on my own,” Waybright said. By joining a few Facebook Falconry groups, he met people from other countries who shared the same interest. One of those contacts gave him advice on training and using telemetry, and how important it is to use when flying falconry birds. “It actually saved one of my birds by helping me locate him after he was separated from me overnight.”
Waybright has spent over $500 on books, DVD’s and falconry materials to “make sure I gave it my best shot,” he said. “It’s still a learning experience every day.”
In mid-December 2014, Waybright earned his falconry permit. A trek in the snow on January 10, 2015, during subzero temperatures, garnered him the thrill of a lifetime.
He left a rabbit as bait in a Swedish Goshawk trap that his sponsor had built and loaned him. The sponsor “never had caught a bird in it,” he said. But Waybright caught “the exact bird I needed.”
When he went to check the trap after dark that evening, he learned he had caught Ace, a small juvenile red-tailed hawk who was missing a talon. He could not have been more excited.
Waybright formed a special bond with Ace. It made him realize that falconry is “about the relationship with the bird. You’re able to trap a wild raptor, condition it, train it, then hunt game with it.”
But then Waybright ran into a major issue with Ace. “He kept losing weight, and I couldn’t understand why.” He and his mom, Marsha, contacted the West Virginia Raptor Rehabilitation Center (WVRRC) seeking advice on what to do for Ace. Unfortunately, the director of the center at the time told Waybright the center did not work with falconers.
Marsha explained to the Director that, “If you really care for the birds you will help him.” It was at that point that Waybright’s relationship began with the WVRRC. The director decided to help him and after listening to the situation his answer was to, “feed it more.” It was as simple as that.
With Ace, Waybright learned an important lesson. “Weight control is a big factor,” he said. If a bird has an appetite it will be ready to catch prey. “If it’s not hungry, it won’t hunt because it doesn’t need to hunt. But it also can’t be starving; if it is, it will not have the energy to hunt.”
Because of his interest in falconry, Waybright decided to volunteer at the WVRRC. He has been “the only falconer to work with the center,” he said. He wanted experience in other aspects such as bird husbandry, rehabilitation and training to “make sure I did everything correctly.”
His good friend, David Trenton, was “a huge help. He’s a friend I met through falconry.” Even though they were both beginners, they helped each other. When one learned something he would share his findings with the other.
Waybright has since used his experience to give programs as the Laurel Fork Falconer at the Laurel River Club B&B his parents manage in Jenningston, WV. Marsha said one of her B&B guests commented, “Collin took all the guests on a walk with his red-tailed hawk. It made the beautiful countryside come alive as the graceful hawk flew overhead.”
Through his presentations, Waybright teaches his audience about the natural history and environment of these special birds of prey, hoping listeners will gain a new respect for the birds. “Growing up, I only knew about red-tailed hawks and owls that were known as hoot owls. There are so many species just in West Virginia, not counting the US,” he said.
Waybright has presented programs to schools and loves the reaction he gets from children. Christina Storrick, a Guidance Counselor at North Elementary School in Elkins, WV said, “Collin is a tremendous role model for young students.”
Storrick became acquainted with Waybright in 2017 when an injured hawk was found on her property. “In assessing the hawk’s injuries, Collin seemed to instinctively know how to handle the bird and was truly concerned with its welfare.”
After the hawk was nursed back to health by the WVRRC, Waybright asked if he could visit North Elementary and share educational information with the students. When he had finished his presentation, Waybright went outside with the students and staff and released the hawk. Storrick called it “an emotional experience as we all witnessed this process. Collin has a true gift for handling birds.”
He has also given many programs at Canaan Valley Resort in Davis, WV. Kelsey Jefferies, Recreation & Events Supervisor for Canaan Valley Resort, said “we try to have Collin a couple of times a year. Summer programs are held in the resort’s pavilion and spring and fall programs in the conference center.” The programs are free to everybody, not just guests.
“He usually brings three birds to show,” for a program, she said. “He tells interesting facts about each bird and goes over the history of falcons and how he got started. They are really informative programs.”
Established in 1983, the West Virginia Raptor Rehabilitation Center is a 501c3 non-profit currently going through a restructuring process and relocating its headquarters to Tucker and Randolph Counties in WV. Waybright volunteered for seven years for the facility before becoming its Executive Director.
When the doors were in danger of closing in July of 2021 for good, he asked the center founder Mike Book what the odds were of Waybright starting his own small rehab center in Tucker County. Book replied with “great. All it takes is desire; you have the experience. You can have our facility.”
Waybright took on the daunting challenge of keeping the center operational. He sees nothing but promise in its future.
“We will still use the Fairmont location during the summer months after renovation,” said Marsha, who is also Chairman of the Board for the WVRRC (now the WV Raptor Center). “But it’s just too hard to run two locations at this time.”
She said, “we are ready to not only help the raptors in our area get the medical attention and care that they need, but we are very excited to move forward with educational programs, demonstrations, and scientific study in our great state of West Virginia.”
Throughout his journey to achieve the rank of Master Class Falconer, Waybright’s goal has been to “try to help people get to the point where they start looking up.”
For anyone interested in contacting Waybright for a program please call (304) 366-2867 or email email@example.com. More information can be found at wvraptorcenter.org or on Facebook at WV Raptor Center.