Tuesday, 21 May 2013

A truly memorable birthday present, Thanks hun... 27th April 2013.

***Apologises for not blogging lately. Been on holiday and had alot of work.***

We all have profound moments in our lives. Some are because we become parents for the first time, your first flat or house and the pride of knowing its yours, getting married, passing your driving test and having that sense of independence. Getting your first wage. Your first kiss from your boyfriend or girlfriend. The point I'm making is that it leaves a memory that rarely is forgotten throughout your life. Some are so poinient that they shape things to come for the rest of your life, no matter how large or small.

One of those moments happened to me when I was ten. It was a school day like pretty much any other, except for one difference, we had a falconry display coming to the school for the afternoon and my parents had paid for me to see it. I disliked school alot, tell me someone that didn't at some point. But I was bullied for the majority of mine, sometimes through my own silly actions but most of the time just because I happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. But this day was going to be different. Well it wasn't, not until we got outside to watch the display. I was left alone for a while, which was lovely.
I don't really remember too much of what the man was saying or of what flew that day, except for one particularly moment that has stayed with me for 27 years.
I remember we were all asked to lay on the glass of the playing field side-by-side. After much giggling and silliness we all settle down and listened to what the man was saying again. I couldn't really hear what was being said because people were whispering close by, much to my annoyance.
Without warning the man stopped talking, and I had a sudden sixth sense feeling of something impending, my senses all went on alert and I could feel the light breeze across my face and the smell of freshly cut grass in my nostrils. The sky was clear and that lovely blue that only the sky can produce. Then out of nowhere this silhouette came across me. It cut the sun out for what felt like an age. Like in slow motion is flew over me, large, silent, imposing, deadly. I was transfixed with its dark browns and small flashes of yellowie-orange. In the distance I could hear the odd scream from a girl or laughter, but for that brief moment I was total alone,  immersed in my little world of a ten year old boys fantasy of whatever it was that had just flown past me. I later learnt the bird was a European Eagle Owl.
That was the moment that I knew I would have a fascination with wildlife, birds in particular and especially birds of prey for the rest of my life. Little did I know that as time went on, I would see, photograph and experience things not many other people would.
As time has gone by I have seen other displays and visited falconry centres. I've even considered owning my own bird. Still do. But nothing has ever remotely got close to that feeling I had when I was ten.
Last year I got the opportunity to see a very special spectacle whilst on Holiday in Wales. There was a forestry commission that at certain times of the day throughout the year would feed the wild Red Kite population. People would come from far and wide to see it. Myself, my wife and son attended one of theses feeding bonanza's and were left feeling very humbled by what we saw. The sky was full of wild Red Kites where ever you looked. I took about 200 photo's and once I had gone through them I had been rewarded with some lovely shots.

That was back at the end of October of last year.
The month before that we had been to a zoo fairly close to us called Banham Zoo. It was just me and the wife and we had a great time there, especially watching the bird of prey display. In fact it is this that leads me up-to-date with the present. For while that show was on we were both paying attention to the falconer when I got that same feeling I had way back when I was ten, it was only briefly but enough to bring the memory back vivid in my mind and make my skin goose bump, just at the same time the same bird that had flew over me when I was that boy did it again to me 27 years later as a man sitting on a bench watching another display. Once again another European Eagle Owl was to blame. A member of the public was also having some sort of experience day with the team and was helping hold and fly the birds. I turned to my wife and said I would love to do something like that myself. Of course you tend to forget what you say after time.

The wife didn't.

Its Saturday the 27th April 2013. A fairly nice day of which we have planed to take our grandson to Banham Zoo for his first zoo trip. We were packed and ready to go, as I had been down to my local patch to photograph a rare species that came into the country the day before. (Read about this in the previous blog entry about the Eastern Subalpine Warbler.)

We arrived at the zoo, unpacked and at the entrance where we paid, my wife produced some sort of folder with Banham on the front a a piece of paper, which she handed to the lady in the booth. Curious I waited till we got in and then asked what was that all about.
It was then that my wife dropped the bombshell on me that at 2:00pm that afternoon I was going to be collected from the souvenir shop and spend the entire afternoon with the birds of prey at the zoo on an experience just like I had seen the member of the public the previous year having!!!
God she knows how to surprise me!!!!
We went and had something to eat and then had a quick look round before I went off to the shop.
I was met by Andy Hallsworth who was the head falconer and after a bit of paperwork and discussion on what would happen we headed down to where the birds were kept. I had asked if I could use my camera, which they agreed to, and I'll come back to that later.
Straight out of the gun I was in the action as we were to assist in the display that was going to take place at 2.30pm. I on the other hand was still coming to term with that was happening and what my wife had done!
I was going to hold one of the birds as it flew to and throw over the heads of the crowd. His name was Yogi and he was a Great Grey Owl. He was a big bird but surprisingly he was very light when he landed on my hand. He went backwards and forwards between me and the other falconer just missing peoples heads which made people laugh. What impressed me the most was the size of his head. It was massive!

Once Yogi had done his bit, I was asked to sit down for a short time and got the chance to photograph PJ the African Harrier Hawk. He's a bit special in the respect that he can hold on to the side of trees and find prey by looking in holes and so forth.

After PJ, Andy collected me and we headed down the bottom of the arena which was a large field with a pond in the middle of it. I could just about hear what Steve, the other falconer was saying over his microphone. He was about to release Gadget and Poe, the Black Kites. Out they came and they did their part of the display with grace and beauty that only a Kite can perform. I stood at the end of the field and photographed the Kites flying around.

After them came Hooch the European Eagle Owl. He's quiet the character and wont do anything without reason. Especially when he is supposed to fly the length of the field towards me and my camera and land on his fence post. Just goes to show that these birds are wild and not trained puppets.
Because he was just not interested in doing so. It became clearer later that it had been the way the wind was blowing that had put him off. It was coming from the wrong direction which would have meant it would have been very difficult to fly the line he is supposed to follow and land safely. Just goes to show their intelligence.

Eventually Hooch came down to the bottom of the field and did part of his display. Then returned to the audience to show how poor their eye sight is unless the subject is moving which was demonstrated when Steve had to flick a piece of meat in front of Hooch for him to see it.
Once Hooch went back to his home they brought out a Peregrine Falcon. Unfortunately it was way to fast for my camera to even attempt to try and photograph flying about. However it was pretty awe inspiring to watch arguably the fastest animal in the world flying around and above me.

Then came the funny part. We made our way up onto a hill and prepared ourselves for the pending arrival of 9 Vultures that the zoo look after. 3 Hooded and 6 Ruppell Griffin Vultures. They all have names but most of them escape me now I write this. I was more interested in not being knocked over by them as they landed at my feet. Weirdly they were cute in an ugly sort of way. Perfectly well behaved (but what you expect, we had the food.)
They flew back and forward to Steve at the front of the arena and then back to me and Andy on the hill with little or no effort at all. These massive birds looked so majestic in the air, sometimes millimetres off the ground!

That was the end of the display for the public and after a few conversations with the audience the falconers and me chatting to my wife, we then closed the gates and it was time for me to spend time with the birds on my own. I can't explain my emotions at that point but Sufis to say that I didn't know whether to cry or just conbust on the spot!
We feed the Vultures first inside their massive home where they even have room to exercise and fly about, which considering the wing span of the Giffins which is about 6ft, gives you some idea of the size of their house. They rather enjoyed their beef bone and polished it off in no time. It was a shock how quick they stripped the bone I can tell ya. It was all a bit....well, organised. You could tell there was a pecking order.
After that it was time to make a life long dream come true. I was going to be introduced to Lofty. Lofty is called Lofty because he was found in a loft and his parents were no where to be found. Of course the worse was feared and realised some days later when they were both found perished. He was then hand reared into the adult bird he is today. Lofty had been doing indoor displays for most of the year and not really been outside, so it was uncertain to how he would react to it. However, Andy decided to see how he would do. To all our delight he performed brilliantly if a little slow to get started. All the noises were a bit overwhelming for him at first but he coped.

This is all so well and good John, but what is lofty!! I hear you saying.

Lofty is a Barn Owl!!!!

Ahhh the memories I have of this moment are difficult to put into words. I'm not going to even attempt to. All i say is it will stay with me for the rest of my life.

Lofty was magnificent and a bit of a charmer. He even charmed my wife!

It was time for Lofty to go have a rest, but Andy was very pleased with him and felt it could be soon that he would be reintroduced to the BoP display in future weeks to come.
Next came a very humbling experience and left both me and Claire feeling quiet inferior. It was at this point that I realised that Andy was doing far more than the experience would normally allow. Letting Claire hold Lofty and be around when I was feeding the birds gave me the first incling but now Claire was hold other birds too.
Anyway, humbling, that's what it feels like when your being stared straight in the eyes by a 7kg (14lb) Male Bale Eagle called Sam.

When Sam looked at you it felt like he was searching your soul. Making judgement on you whether you should be allowed to live or die at his talons. It was a truly uplifting moment of totally intimidating. His beak was massive and looked like it would just remove my nose in one swift movement, his talons were massive. We both had to wear a special re enforced glove so he didn't crush our hand or wrist, that is the power of his claws. He weighed so much both me and Claire had to wedge our elbows into our body to hold him up! Amazing creature.

Time was flying past and we had done so much. There was one last experience to share. Andy returned Sam to his perch and then went off to collect the last bird we would spend time with. Myself, steve, Claire and a sleeping Riley ventured off onto the arena and was greeted by Andy again shortly after with Aaron. We were to take Aaron off to do his daily exercising. However we had such fun with him inside the arena we didn't actually get him to do what he is best at, which is catch rabbits over the far side of the zoo. Instead we played games of chase and got him to fly straight at me so I could photograph him. Andy got his to all but land on my hat!!
Oh Aaron is a Male Harris Hawk.

Once again Claire got the chance to hold another bird, making this experience just as rewarding for her as it was for me.

The end of an amazing day, an amazing experience. And yes, my face is very red, that was the sunburn from a few days before when I photographed the Grasshopper Warbler.

 This final shot was taken after alot of laughter as Aaron had by now had enough and didn't want to fly no more. He sat on Rileys pushchair for ages then we made our way back to the sanctuary where Aaron hopped back onto his perch.

We thank Andy and Steve for the whole afternoon, and to my surprise they asked if I was happy for them to take my memory card and go copy the photo's I had taken. I of course agreed with the promise that they let me edit them at home and send them in better shape in the weeks after.
We all agreed to this and have since sent the images in. I have heard back from the zoo and they were very pleased with them and am now interested in me making regular trips to the zoo to take more and not just of the BoP.
I'll let you know what comes of it.

Kind regards


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