A bald eagle eyes up its handler in the Valley of the Eagles.
A bald eagle eyes up its handler in the Valley of the Eagles. Jim Eagles

Day of the (big) birds

WHEN it comes to birds, I'm no chicken - to the contrary - but when I looked up from examining my shoes and found a giant bird swooping straight for my bald head, I ducked behind the guy in the row in front and hoped his bulk would protect me.

Unfortunately, he had the same idea and so did everyone else in the grandstand in the Valley of the Eagles, and by the time they'd all ducked the hooded vulture with its 2m wingspan, vicious beak and powerful claws had an unobstructed flight path about 2cm above my vulnerable scalp.

Welcome to the Hawk Conservancy Trust, near the city of Andover in the south of England, home to eagles and owls, hawks and vultures, kites and falcons, herons and secretary birds, and pretty much any other bird of prey you can imagine.

This is a charitable trust, founded by a local farming couple with an interest in wildlife, which for more than 30 years has cared for birds of prey.

Today, it occupies 9ha of woodland and wildflower meadow where it raises 150 species - from tiny pigmy owls to enormous Steller's sea eagles - as well as running a hospital that treats 200 injured birds a year.

We arrived just as the Valley of the Eagles display was about to get under way, so we raced round to the display area and, as I mentioned, I promptly had to dive under the seat to escape the hooded vultures.

I'd no sooner felt brave enough to sit up straight again when an American bald eagle - a bird for which, for obvious reasons, I've long felt a certain affinity - hurtled towards me from the back of the stand.

However, at least it showed sufficient family awareness to pass me about 2m up before heading out into the centre of the arena and landing on a cadger, or portable perch, held by medieval damsel on horseback (it's a task that used to be performed by elderly falconers - hence the term codger).

Next came a demonstration of falcon hunting (incidentally, the expression hoodwinked came from a bird that made a kill promptly being hooded and deprived of its meal), with the birds diving for baits whirled around on the end of a rope.

Then, just to prove that there are scarier things than a hooded vulture, an African white vulture with a wingspan of more than 3m came roaring overhead. It was like having a jumbo jet fly over the house.

Finally, there was an aerial feeding session featuring 13 black kites which dived about in spectacular fashion to catch bits of meat fired into the air with catapults. Their agility was amazing and, when the commentator suggested we might like to applaud, there was lots of clapping ... at which point the birds all buzzed off.

The commentator said that - unlike an APO concert when enthusiastic applause usually leads to an encore - for these performers "it's the signal it's time to go home".

But there was an encore of sorts because, wandering round the conservancy afterwards, we were able to meet all the performers, some in their cages, many sitting tethered to their perches.

I was given the eye by a beautiful young female bald eagle, came face to face with a giant bustard, the world's heaviest flying bird, met several owls, including a charming white-faced barn owl, probably my favourite birds after the bald eagles, said kia ora to the only New Zealand bird I could find, a morepork, and admired the deadly streamlined shapes of the falcons.

But I steered clear of the vultures. They're too scary by half.

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