BY NIGEL BEAN
I was very lucky growing up alongside birds of prey. I was brought up in a village where the local lads were obsessed with them and a few had kestrels. I suspect they were heavily influenced by a famous film of the time called ‘Kes’ based on the novel ‘A Kestrel for a Knave’. I read the book but have never seen the film. Sad to say it ends up with a dead kestrel in a rubbish bin over a horse racing bet that wasn’t placed.
On a happier note, I remember once a local lad in the village found a young barn owl that was injured, his parents took on its recovery along with the vet bills and nursed it back to health. They named him Ollie and on release back into the wild we would see him flying amongst the trees when we played in the woods below, I guess he remembered the hands that fed him while he recuperated.
My favourite memory though was a mate of mine who had a buzzard, and this was when buzzards were so rare his was the only one I had ever seen. He would knock on my door with the buzzard on his hand and see if I wanted to come and watch him fly his bird, most of the time it was a ‘yes please’. He loved his birds of prey and made a career of flying and looking after them.
It was around 1994 while watching the local point to point races over in the Chilterns at a place called Kingston Blount I looked up and saw a huge bird I had never seen before. It had a V shape in its tail. A friend of mine from around that area enthusiastically told me they had been recently reintroduced from Spain and the Chiltern Hills provided an ideal habitat for their reintroduction. What a roaring success that turned out to be for both kites and buzzards, they spread like wildfire across Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire. Whilst out riding the other day I had three close encounters. (For those of you that don’t ride horses you can usually get up closer to wildlife because they see horses all the time and don’t regard them as a threat.)
It was also that reintroduction back in the nineties that stoked my good lady’s passion for birds of prey. They have done so well they have left their stronghold in the Chiltern Hills and colonised the vales below. We occasionally have a kite soaring above our house but a quick walk into the fields behind and you will usually spot if not two then at least one. My good lady takes the dog walking and gets the opportunity to spot them through binoculars as they float effortlessly above. A close encounter is always a source of delight to us.
So for both of us it was a welcome surprise when our daughter bought us an Eagle Experience half day for two at a local falconry centre. It was only on the day itself that we found the two, which was relayed to us verbally, as start at 2:00 – we arrived to find it was for two starting at 1:00, we had missed the first hour. We dashed down to our group and apologised for being late, our punishment for our lack of punctuality was for my partner to be handed a glove and an American bald eagle, and a nod to say they would sort something out for the missed hour.
As wow factors go for my good lady this was off the scale, she had waited all her life to hold one of these birds and what a start, a bald eagle.
The group then broke for tea and cake included in the price. However, we didn’t bother, we walked and gazed at the lines of eagles and owls on display. From the tiny little owl up to the largest bird on site – the Steller’s sea eagle. My favourite has to be the grey owl, his face is so shaped like a dish to pick up the slightest sound, and it is claimed they can even hear your heart beating when you handle them. Owls have very fancy hearing – they can shut off one ear to better locate a sound or even both if they want peace and quiet.
We met back around the show arena at 3:00 for a display and were told to remain seated and not to move. They then bought out a peregrine falcon that skimmed just above our heads as it went for the lure with meat. A peregrine falcon has been recorded in a dive at 242 mph, the fastest living creature on earth. All the while you marvel at the birds, you are being bombarded with really interesting facts about them.
With the peregrine leaving to applause, two owls were summoned to the arena – enjoy how I saw their entry in the film below!
Again you’re told interesting facts as the duo of falconers send the birds up into the trees and summon them back skimming the tops of the crowd. Owls with yellow eyes hunt during the day, those with orange eyes hunt at dawn and dusk and those with dark brown or black eyes hunt at night. It becomes apparent just what a ferocious predator they are, they can fly in without making a sound and the victims usually never see their attacker because of the light.
We finished the demonstration and our group then stood around while a kestrel, tawny owl, eagle owl and Chilean grey eagle were passed around. As well as providing a great photo opportunity you got to see them close up and could marvel at the magnificence of their plumage. Nature sure made a fine job of these birds.
That was the end of the group demonstrations and you were free to then wander around the centre and gaze at the hundred plus birds of prey they had on display, keeping in mind they are all flown and exercised on a regular basis and some are used for pest control.
Our day was not over just yet as we had missed the first hour and that hour so happened to involve flying a bird. We were taken around to the display area with a Harris hawk and given a glove each. The hawk was sent away onto a nearby perch, my partner raised her hand with a bit of food and the hawk swooped down and landed perfectly on her hand. Next it was my turn, I was also amazed at how delicately they land. We were told they train them to land in that way. Their natural instinct is to land hard, so the talons dig deep into flesh.
The falconer could see my partner was gushing with enthusiasm so went and replaced the hawk with an owl. Seeing that great big round face coming towards you at speed, eyes fixed on your hand was a sight I won’t forget.
A great day out, something for everyone, I thoroughly recommend it, well worth the money and we are definitely going back for the owl experience.
Article Edited by Paul Read