Well, summer is certainly coming to a very rapid end. It isn’t even September yet and jackets and scarves are appearing, it’s grey and drizzly, minimums have got down to 10 or 11 degrees and maximums have dropped below 20 degrees (although this week does look like it’s looking up a little… 22 degrees on Wednesday apparently!) Last week some of the girls at work had fan heaters plugged in beside their desks! Leaves have not begun to drop yet though so hopefully that’s a good sign.
A few weekends ago we popped up to Bedford for the day to visit the birds of prey centre we were meant to visit in February. Fortunately the day was clear for us, although a bit windy.
Our half-day experience started at 2, so we caught a train from London at about 10. Fortunately the trip was only about half an hour, because there was some uncontrolled screaming child in our carriage (child who obviously just liked the sound of his own voice, not a baby). I felt sorry for anyone else stuck on that train with him for much longer! We walked into the town centre from the train station and had an early lunch at the rowing club, which was a bit disappointing… my ‘burger’ was actually just two rather uninspiring burger patties with chips and peas. The place was run by one old guy by himself though so I would have felt bad complaining. The chips were good though!
From there we caught a bus out to Cotton End, just outside Bedford, where the falconry was located. We accidentally got off the bus two stops early, so added a few hundred metres extra onto our walk!
We arrived a little bit early, so after registering we went to watch the tail end of a flying demonstration which was in progress. Our favourite part was a peregrine falcon hybrid who ‘hunts’ a lure on the end of a rope swung around her handler’s head. It’s a game where the handler tries to keep the lure from the bird, but has to surrender it if the bird hits it. She was a very clever bird, circling so far out that we would lose sight of her behind trees and the aviaries, and all of a sudden she would come tearing in from nowhere, right over our heads (you could hear the air rushing through her feathers) or 3 feet from the ground between the seats. It obviously made her handler just a little uncomfortable not knowing where she was coming from! Before too long she had caught her lure and was allowed to land and eat her prize.
At 2 we moved off to begin our tour. Our first stop was to handle some owls and eagles. I was a little bothered by the shelters some of their birds were housed in. They were right on the ground and about 1m high by 1m deep and 1.5m long. The fronts were completely open and the birds were tied to their perches. I hoped it was just during the day while they were switched in and out for demonstrations and handling, as other birds were in much more appropriate aviaries.
We got the opportunity to hold a Great Grey Owl, Long-eared Owl and another whose name I don’t remember! We were not allowed to stroke them as they’ve not been trained to let people stroke them (so they will bite if you try!), in order to preserve the natural oils they produce for their feathers. Only the aforementioned nameless owl was allowed to be stroked, just on his last remaining baby feathers on the top of his forehead, which he quite enjoyed.
After the owls we moved on to the eagles, and they had two out for us to handle – a blue chilean eagle, perhaps about 2 – 3kg (I can’t really think of an australian raptor of similar size) – and a bald eagle, about 5kg (about the size of an average-sized wedge tailed eagle). The bald eagle tried to fly off a few times because he was eyeing off a staff member at the other end of the yard feeding other birds. He would launch off the person’s arm only to be caught by his ankle strap, flap around upside down for a minute until he realised he wasn’t going anywhere and would just pull himself back up onto their arm again!
We then headed into the field to watch a flying demonstration of our own. The wind had picked up some more so some of the birds had a bit of difficulty in the wind, especially some of the younger ones who’d not had any experience flying in wind before. We saw another hybrid falcon perform the same game we’d seen when we first arrived, but this one was perhaps not quite as experienced or clever – he circled much closer which made for some impressive steep dives, but meant his handler could see him at all times and he never caught the lure. At the end she still let him have it to reward him for trying! We also saw an african fishing eagle, juvenile turkey vultures, a brahminy kite and a yellow-headed caracara with a lot of attitude!
After the demonstration we had the chance to fly some birds ourselves. First we flew two owls, a barn owl and a brown wood owl (I think!). The handler would set them on a perch for them to fly across the yard to land on our arms, where she was waiting with some food for them.
Then afterwards, we flew the bald eagle between two groups of visitors who had been working at different ends of the field. This was certainly the most spectacular bit!
This finished our visit, although on our way out we stopped to have a look at some of the other birds we had not seen. We were concerned to see that as they closed up for the evening, the birds in the small shelters on the ground were not moved and just had makeshift gates fastened across the entrances to stop any foxes or anything getting in. I did wonder if they get rotated in the large aviary building though, because the company has only recently moved premises and I would assume that setting up the new premises would require approval from inspectors.
All in all we enjoyed our day, although I don’t know if it’s worth the full price. We got a special deal off Time Out London – I think it was two of us for about £45 – but full price for one person is £78, and I don’t think it’s worth that much. Some of the more specific experiences might be worth it as I imagine they have smaller groups and potentially one-on-one which would give you more time with the birds and less time waiting on other people. However, we attended the Introduction & Activity experience which obviously a lot of people had bought vouchers for, and so there were about 3 groups of approximately a dozen people in attendance that afternoon. We were very glad to have the opportunity to do it at the discounted price though. We then caught a train back in to London and were home by 8!