Friday, 21 September 2012

An Afternoon at the Cumberland Bird of Prey Centre

Cadbury and Belle
My cousin Janet and I had planned this visit to the Cumberland Bird of Prey Centre at Kirtlebridge just over the border in Scotland (yet called "Cumberland"!) for ages and we were both excited at the thought of the visit.

We found the Centre which is actually in a lovely, large house set in a huge and very beautiful garden with the River Kirtle running at its foot. We were warmly greeted by Gary Swainson, the falconer, and his two dogs, a black spaniel with one white paw called Belle and a gorgeous chocolate coloured mini smooth dachshund called Cadbury

Gary invited us inside and made us a cup of tea and we all sat and chatted in the kitchen which had a gorgeous view over the large lawn to the river. Gary is a very friendly, open person and we felt very relaxed and at home. He also is very talkative, and told us of his plans to go to India soon to work with disadvantaged children for six months. You've got to admire people who do things like that. He got into falconry at the age of 15 and his knowledge amazing and enthusiasm infectious.

Bungle the Bateleur Eagle
After we'd finished our tea we went outside into the garden and Gary introduced us to the birds in the aviaries.  I don't remember all the names or types of birds they were so bear with me!  One of the most striking birds was Bungle the Bateleur Eagle. A very large, mainly black bird that was illegally imported from Africa and seized, then after quarantine came to the Centre. These eagles hunt snakes and are kept in villages in Africa as the people believe (wrongly) that they keep snakes away. Unfortunately to stop them flying off their wings are often broken and evidence of this in Bungle was one wing that was a little deformed. He's lucky now that he has a wonderful home!

Gary said that it was best not to touch the feathers too much as the acid on our hands destroys the waterproofing of the feathers. But Bungle just LOVES his head being tickled and as soon as you reach out towards him he leans really hard against your hand and goes into a rapture when you tickle him! He almost falls off the perch, so funny and touching - also humbling that this magnificent bird allows you to get so close.
We saw owls, including the gorgeous Molly who'll I'll write about later, falcons, a turkey vulture and hawks.

Me and the Harris Hawk
Our first hands on experience was with one of the Harris Hawks (Gary had to put the hens and ducks away before he got the bird out as it would have attacked them). We walked up the lane by the house  (accompanied by Cadbury and Belle who were having a whale of a time!)  and took turns to feed the hawk. It would swoop down, take the bait (bits of day old chicks!) and then fly off into the trees again. Sometime it would swoop by missing you by a whisker, you just felt the wind of his wings, he was so fast.  We were surprised at how light the bird was when he sat on our hand.

After this we spent some time with two young owls. Gary explained that they were still learning and it was interesting to see that they were at different stages of learning. They are supposed to sit on posts and then fly to you when you offer the bait, one was getting the gist, but the other found the world soooo interesting that she became preoccupied with everything that was happening around her and was easily distracted.

Molly in Action, Just Landing on Janet's Hand
Next came Molly, a fabulous, large owl, who I must admit, was my favourite. She was gorgeous and simply loved her tummy being tickled! She had big, intelligent orange eyes and huge feathery feet.  Gary stood at the other end of the garden and Molly flew to us swooping low over the lawn towards the bait. Her approach was silent, and Gary said that was because owl's wing feathers have serrated edges which the wind passes through and so doesn't make a noise. She did everything perfectly. Even though Molly was a large bird she wasn't very heavy. At one point Molly was on the ground and she and Belle were beak to nose. Belle just wanted to play but Molly was warning her off lol!

Gary told commented on the myths about owls. No they can't turn their heads 360 degrees, though they can manage 180 degrees.  Not all owls are nocturnal, approximately 50% are diurnal, usually, if an owl has orange eyes they are diurnal, and brown eyes for nocturnal . All Gary's owls had orange eyes and were definitely wide awake!

Molly and Belle, it Shows How Big the Owl is
The next bird we handled was Bungle the eagle.  He was such a handsome boy and the only bird that had some weight to him.  Mainly black with a bit of grey and a red beak and feet. He flew slightly lopsided due to his wing injury but was still amazing, you really felt the weight as he landed on your hand.

Finally I handled a beautiful Gyr Falcon and Janet a handsome Peregrine Falcon. They weren't flown, but just sat on our hands as Gary gave them whole dead day old chicks. I was amazed at how much my relatively small bird ate - three whole chicks. His crop gradually got bigger, they must have amazing digestive systems!

And that was it, we went back into the house for a cup of tea and more chat. We felt privileged to have been able to get so close to such magnificent birds. It was worth every single penny and Gary was a wonderful host, AND he has a dachshund!  I'd definitely recommend it for a special day out, you can get info about all the different activity days here.

Me with the Gyr Falcon

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