Alfredo Nicolas set out to move his car to the Deering Oaks parking lot during a snowstorm Jan. 20. Terra Fletcher was in the Portland park with her husband trying out new Nordic skis. Their worlds collided when they came upon the great black hawk that had traveled from South America and taken up residence in the park before it fell victim to the cold.

When Nicolas found the wayward hawk, it had a balled-up talon and had sunken into the snow. It hissed at him. But in his desire to save the bird – the first of its kind ever seen in Maine – Nicolas didn’t falter.

He was on his stomach with a box when Fletcher’s path crossed his. Calling on training she had as a falconer, she covered the bird then flipped it into the box before taking it to her apartment and calling a wildlife rehabilitator. Volunteers for Avian Haven in Freedom helped transport the bird there – an hour-and-a-half journey that took over four hours in the storm. It perished days later, but only after creating a maelstrom of public interest in its story.

“When we handed him over to the next driver in Topsham, he opened his eyes. We were thrilled and hopeful,” said Diane Davison of Portland, one of Avian Haven’s volunteer drivers. “People came from all over the country to see that bird. But he was not suited for winter climates.”

Alfredo Nicolas found this great black hawk during a snowstorm Jan. 20 in Portland’s Deering Oaks. Photo by Alfredo Nicolas

Maine Audubon, which gave educational talks about the hawk during its time here, said the efforts to protect the bird illustrated Maine’s strong love of wildlife – and Fletcher and Nicolas exemplified that love.

“The appearance of the bird with no warning was a test for the citizens of Portland, and they responded with kindness, respect and selflessness,” said Nick Lund, Maine Audubon’s outreach and network manager.

Nicolas and Fletcher not only shared in the raptor’s rescue, they also share a deep love of animals that reaches back to childhood.

Fletcher, 29, of Portland, grew up on a small dairy farm in New Hampshire, where her family always had horses, chickens, dogs and cats – and, at times, pigs, llamas and a cockatoo. She thinks it was the intimate relationships she shared with a few farm animals – like an orphaned baby cow she bottle fed – that touched her heart. In high school, she had an internship with a master falconer who taught her to hunt with a red-tailed hawk and rehabilitate a barred owl.

Because of the great black hawk rescue, Fletcher started volunteering as a driver for the Center for Wildlife in York.

“We are obligated, to the capacity we can, to help wildlife,” Fletcher said. “I have to help. I don’t have an excuse. I would feel guilty if I didn’t.”

Nicolas, 59, who lives across from Deering Oaks, was raised by a mother who loved animals. In his native Cuba, his mother took in every stray dog she could and almost was blinded by a turkey vulture she tried to help. Like his mother, Nicolas still chases stray dogs in Portland that he suspects are homeless, “until I realize they’re not.”

When he saw the great black hawk buried in the snow, Nicolas reacted by instinct – dropping down to his stomach and taking a position that was less threatening.

“I was going to stay down there until I got the hawk in the box,” Nicolas said. “My car would be warmer than where it was outside.”

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