Monday, 18 May 2015

Falconry Experience at Eagle Heights Wildlife Foundation

I've recently earned myself the nickname of "Bird Girl" from my close family members. Although it could be a lot worse, I can't help imagining myself as some kind of pseudo-superhero and I'm quite thankful that I wasn't presented with a stretchy Lycra suit emblazoned with the initials BG on the front for Christmas last year! What I got instead, from my dad and step-mum, was a Red Letter Days "Introduction to Falconry" experience. Needless to say, my excitement was not very well contained.

Birds of prey fascinate me. They are such a diverse range of species with a huge variety of skills that they have honed and learnt to use to their advantage in the wild. They are the definition of survival of the fittest and that really is something to be in awe of. If you have read my past posts, you may have already picked up on my captivation with raptors; I've certainly mentioned the peregrines enough times! 

Chippy or Sparky the barn owl-I can't remember which!

My raptor experience was booked with a fantastic conservation park called Eagle Heights Wildlife Foundation in Kent. I've visited the park only once before, a couple of years ago, and had a brilliant time so I was thrilled to be going back and getting even closer to their birds. They have over 150 birds of prey as well as a collection of other rescue animals including a camel and a pack of huskies. The flying displays are really well put together, full of information and very entertaining for all ages.

Before starting the experience, myself and my dad managed to catch the first half of the midday flying display. We had the delight of feeling Kayla the Bald Eagle narrowly missing the tops of our heads as she sailed across the audience, watching Mr Butthead (!) the Caracara refusing to use his wings, instead choosing to comically jog around after his trainer Ron, and witnessing the impressive flying skills of Anubis the tribrid Peregrine/Gyr/Saker falcon. 

Mr Butthead the Caracara

Following a quick spot of lunch, we, and a couple who were also doing an experience day, were met by falconer Emma. She kitted us all out with food bags and flying gloves then introduced us to the four Harris Hawks we would be taking out for the day, following a few all-important safety rules. My hawk Ollie was a juvenile, only about a year and half old, and still had the younger pale brown plumage around his head. He was beautiful and very relaxed, as they all were. 

Once we were all tethered to our hawks, we headed out into the stunning countryside that the centre backs on to. Quite honestly, the weather couldn't have been better, which was a relief since I was convinced to leave my coat behind! We strolled through the fields with the sun beating down on us and a comfortable breeze rustling the feathers of the hawks. 

Ollie the Harris Hawk with Emma

After we had walked through a couple of fields, it was time to untether the birds and start flying them. Emma showed all four of us how to call back the hawks when it was required, then we released the birds up into the trees, where they slowly followed us as we carried on walking. The gentle tinkling of the bells attached to their jesses told us where they were and when they were following, although we made sure we could always see all four animals. They were fitted with transmitters just in case they decided to fly off but that wouldn't have been an ideal situation! Eyes were kept on them at all times.

At times, when all four birds were sat in a tree above us, I felt almost as if I was prey being watched by vultures! I never felt threatened by them, it was just the way they were all intently watching, clearly looking out for signs of food coming out of our bags. So it proved a tricky task to load up our gloves with chicken but keep it out of sight when it came to calling them back. Ollie was particularly cheeky and would snatch the leg from between my fingers before I'd even got hold of his jesses. It took several attempts before I had successfully managed to secure one of the birds in my glove.


We carried out several releases and call backs, all with varying degrees of success. Later in the afternoon, all three birds were back on the gloves but Ted, who had gone out of sight, although I could still hear his bell. Ted was easily identified as he had plucked some of his belly feathers out of boredom a few days beforehand, only because it was raining heavily on the day and he wasn't able to fly! Emma spent several minutes calling him and gesturing with food, and eventually he appeared. When we got him back on my glove, we noticed he had blood all over his beak and talons; a possible sign that he had found himself a snack in the form of a mouse while he was in the thicker trees.

We started crossing the field back in the direction of the centre and were serenaded by the unmistakable Skylark's song as we went. I have heard the song many times before and glimpsed the faint shape of the birds high up above the fields in the past but never had a close view of them. This time, I was treated to the sight of maybe six or seven Skylarks much lower down, singing their hearts out. We suspected they had nests in the field we were walking through and that they were singing so vehemently to distract us from finding their eggs/chicks. Not that the larks knew it but we weren't a threat and neither were the four hawks, who were all showing signs of starting to tire after all of the flying they had done.


Myself and Ollie



Dad with Gwen

One thing both my dad and I noticed was that, by the end of the session, we had really grown comfortable with having the hawks so close to us. I think once I had established that these were trained, happy and reasonably docile birds who were not going to attack, I could relax and enjoy the privileges of being at such a close proximity to them. Emma gave each of the hawks a whole chick to eat at the end of the afternoon, before we returned to the Heights. We had our gloved hands out, palm up, so they could eat comfortably and Ted was perched on my thumb, his talons wrapped round loosely. He wasn't hurting me and he wasn't applying any pressure but I was just aware of the power that these birds have and how they must apply that when they are out hunting in the wild. 

Having grown so relaxed with the hawk on my hand, I didn't want to go back! It had been such a wonderful way to spend an afternoon, witnessing four very happy birds in a natural environment. I will point out that birds of prey in the wild can be very lazy. When they are not hunting, they are more likely to be sat in a tree than expending any great amounts of energy. They are treated incredibly well at Eagle Heights and are flown every day when this is possible and, of course, when they want to! You can't force them to do something they don't want to do.

I can't praise this experience highly enough. There wasn't a moment that I didn't enjoy and if I could, I'd do it every day. Our falconer, Emma, was incredibly knowledgeable and patient with us. We even got back to the centre to find tea and cake waiting for us. That's a bonus in my book!

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