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Foxtrot’s flying high!

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If you’ve been lucky enough to join us on an experience day, you’ll know the breathtaking feeling of a silent owl or majestic Bald Eagle landing on your fist – there’s nothing quite like it! Our Bird Team work closely with our amazing birds to build strong and trusting relationships. We caught up with Bird Team Apprentice Jennie, who has been working alongside Foxtrot the Black Kite over recent months, getting her ready to meet our visitors on experience days this year.

“Last year, as part of my apprenticeship, I was set the task to create a training plan for a bird here at the Trust. With guidance from fellow Bird Team member Katy we created a plan for Echo, one of our Black Kites, to re-join the flying team after a rest period.

Working on this plan helped me gain confidence working closely with a bird and training using positive reinforcement, as Echo has now successfully re-joined the rest of the Black Kite team in flying displays.

Since working with Echo, I have now had the chance to work closely with another Black Kite called Foxtrot. I am currently working with Ben from the Bird Team to ready Foxtrot for joining in with experience days in 2023.

To begin earning her trust, I started out by being the Bird Team member to feed her every day. I then slowly built the relationship up to going outside her aviary and giving her the chance to hop from a post to my glove for some food. We then worked with her to do some longer, circuiting flights before coming back to my glove for her dinner. Once she was confident doing this, we started introducing strangers in to the mix (i.e our lovely volunteers).

Every day she would have the opportunity to meet someone new and fly to their glove in Reg’s Wildflower Meadow.  Our aim at the Trust is to inspire those visiting and taking part in experiences to care about and support our mission to conserve birds of prey, and providing an opportunity for people to be close to our birds is an excellent way to do this.  We  began flying her with groups of volunteers at a time. She is now a pro at this!

The next step in her plan was to see how she felt flying to some members of the public, but she decided not to land with any of them – we can only assume that she prefers the dark green volunteer uniform!

We’re taking things at Foxtrot’s pace, so will see how she feels about meeting one member of the public at a time. If she is ok with this, we will then move on to introduce her to people wearing different clothes, hats and sunglasses as a new experience for her.  It is on her terms and if she decides this is something she is confident with, she may one day be a star of our experience days.

The Bird Team had a training day recently where we shared different ways of working with our birds. I wanted to put some of the new things I had learnt to good use and began learning how to use hand signals with Foxtrot as a way of communication. I wasn’t sure where to start, so Ben and I worked together to come up with a routine for us to begin that would incorporate this into our work together. This has been a learning process for both Foxtrot and I; it’s been a very enjoyable experience and helps me to create a positive relationship with Foxtrot. She and I are both learning a new skill too.

When I fly Foxtrot she almost constantly calls to me – this is called Contact Calling, and is her way of making sure I know she’s there and reminding me she wants her food! It is the call they would normally make to their parents when they are young.

Working with Foxtrot has been a very beneficial experience. I’ve enjoyed the learning process, especially working alongside Katy and Ben as they were previously apprentices so they have an insight into what I needed to learn and the best way to go about it, so a big thanks to them!”

Ryan’s year in review

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“Day to day life as a member of the Bird team and Registrar at the Hawk Conservancy Trust means sometimes the year passes by before you even realise that Christmas is on the doorstep again! Ryan Stephens looks back over the last year.

There have been so many highlights throughout 2022, but I have to put completing my first ever marathon for the Trust right at the top. Running the London Marathon had been a personal dream for many years and it was such an honour to be able to do this whilst raising nearly £12,000 for the National Bird of Prey HospitalTM.  I completed the run in just under 5 hours, and crossing that line was a memory I do not think I will ever forget. The support from the Trust team during the build-up and on the day itself was incredible, and definitely got me across the line. Few people knew that I was laid in bed just a week before the marathon unable to come to work with a back injury, so the mental challenge as well as the physical challenge took a great deal out of me. A special thanks to Alex at Strength Led Fitness in Amesbury for getting me through it all.

I think it is someone else’s turn next time!

Highlights of my work at the Trust, include working closely with Ravenclaw, one of our White-headed Vultures, who has now begun flying in demonstrations alongside one of our juvenile African White-backed Vultures, Simba. I have been working alongside Ravenclaw for a few years now and it is great to see him flying so beautifully.  To see the two vultures together coasting over our audiences’ heads is a very impressive sight. Next year Ravenclaw will ‘graduate’ as such, and start to work with other members of the Bird Team as well as myself. It is a bit like when you drop your kids off at school for the very first time! I am sure he will do fantastically.

Towards the end of the year, myself and fellow Bird Team members Ben Cox and Simon Christer have been working with a very special bird. Diego, our Blue-winged Kookaburra, is starting to make the occasional appearance in our Woodland Owls flying display! Having worked with this bird for many years, it is great to have her back in our shows over the winter. She is such a character and a crowd favourite. However, she is not a huge fan of the rain, so you are more likely to see her fly in our Woodland Arena on a fair weather day!


Working in this industry, you have so many positives but of course, there are the negatives you have to deal with as well. Sadly, in March, we said goodbye to our beloved Secretary Bird, Madeleine. Everyone at the Trust felt his passing, but having worked with this bird for so many years, I must admit it hit me pretty hard. At just over 30 years old, you can look back and see what a remarkable life he had and how much joy he bought to so many. I do not think he will ever be forgotten.

So, this is just a snapshot my year at the Trust. As always, it has been a busy year with lots going on behind the scenes. As we get a little quieter for the winter period it is always a good time to just step back and appreciate the year gone by. I hope to see you all next year and I wish you a Merry Christmas!”

Ryan Stephens, Registrar and Bird Team

 

Vulture Breeding 101

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This month, we caught up with our Head of Living Collection Gary Benton to find out all about our work to contribute to the survival of this wonderful species here onsite.

Breeding Programmes

“As many of you will know, we could be considered ‘Vulture nuts’ here at the Hawk Conservancy Trust! We have been a part of vulture conservation and research projects for many years, and are passionate about their survival in the wild. Although our projects across southern Africa and South Asia make up the majority of our work with vultures in the wild, we also contribute to their survival here onsite.

Breeding projects in zoos across the world help to create a healthy stronghold of birds in collections, which in turn could mean the survival of the species if they became extinct in the wild. The animals in collections can be key to repopulating the wild should their wild cousins be wiped out, so these breeding projects are very important and really do work.

Here at the Trust, we have been successfully breeding key species of vulture for many years as part of one of these breeding programmes. Not only are we involved in the EAZA (European Association of Zoo’s and Aquaria) programme for White-headed Vultures, but we are also committee members for the Cinereous Vulture programme, and coordinators of the breeding programme for African White-backed Vultures. These programmes are called EEPs (EAZA Ex-situ Programmes).

We have breeding pairs of both species of these vultures here at the Trust (in fact we are one of the most successful at breeding these species in the world!). You will have seen these birds if you have been to many of our talks, flying displays or taken part in an experience session – these vultures are birds that have either been hatched at the Trust or come to us from another collection across Europe that are involved in this programme too.”

Breeding Season

“We have certain processes in place when it comes to breeding season; what happens when our chicks fledge the nest, and how these birds then become a really healthy addition to the breeding programme themselves.

Firstly it is very important to create the right environment for these birds so that they are relaxed, confident and healthy, therefore feeling comfortable enough to produce chicks. These vulture species won’t begin breeding until around six or seven years old, so we have a really nice window to be able to get to know our birds and work with them for flying and fitness (which is a helpful aspect to their ability to breed).

Once they join the breeding programme, it varies where they may end up living. They may stay with us at the Trust, or it might be the case we say a bittersweet goodbye as they move to another collection to be with a suitable mate to successfully boost the population in collections across Europe.

When an egg is laid by a pair of our vultures, we monitor them very closely by viewing them from afar using CCTV cameras installed near nests as not to disturb the birds during the important incubation process.

For African White-backed Vultures and White-headed Vultures, you are looking at around 55-60 days incubation (which is a long time isn’t it!). The duty is shared by both parents, and when one is sitting  on the egg, the other is normally close by for protection (this is very important in the wild of course but not something that our birds have to worry about really).

These vultures will only lay one egg at a time, and this will only happen once a year unless the egg fails naturally or, if in the wild, the egg is predated or damaged by another animal. Vultures are super-skilled parents, and even though they are one of the largest birds of prey around, they manage to care for this very delicate little egg in the most precise way.

Should the egg hatch, we will leave the chick with its parents. They do a fantastic job of rearing that young bird until it is fully grown, which only takes around 12-14 weeks (this never ceases to amaze me considering they are such huge birds!).

When the chick eventually grows enough to use its wings, it will make the decision to leave the nest for the first time – a process called fledging. This is normally quite a clumsy affair but they quickly learn how to negotiate the art of flight!”

 

Getting to know your own vulture

“After a year left being reared with the parents, quite a reality check hits when the next breeding season comes along; Mum and Dad all of a sudden decide that they have done their job and it’s time for little vulture to move on to find independence (I think many parents will relate to this moment in life!).

At this time in the wild, the juvenile would normally be pushed away from the nest at this stage. So we closely monitor the birds for the signs this behaviour is starting to happen, and at the right point move the vulture from the breeding aviary to another vulture aviary here. This is a slightly different setup for each bird, but we try to give the birds as many opportunities to socialise with other vultures in order to get used to the complex hierarchy of being a social species of bird of prey. This is where they find their place within the structure and start to become their own bird.

During this next phase of the vulture’s life, what we call the ‘getting to know your own vulture’ phase, the young bird normally lives with other more experienced vultures that are already working very closely with the Bird Team. This is when a close bond with the Bird Team begins.”

 

Working with the Bird Team

“We have found that vultures are very good at watching what other birds do and learning from them.  Our research work underpins this too. So when we want to begin working closely with these young birds, it becomes a much smoother process.

We begin our closer work with these birds by starting to bring them out of their aviaries and into our arenas for flying and fitness. This is where the connection between Bird Team members and the bird is so important as we need to earn their trust so much so that they will fly back!

Vultures are always searching for a tasty treat, so working with them using positive reinforcement works very well. It’s a bit like having a greedy dog at home – we see the bird’s natural behaviour we are looking for and then reward them with some dinner at just the right time. The birds then remember this the next time, which enables us to build a routine for their flying.

When we are working with really large vultures like these, it can be difficult to work with them together as the space for take-off and landing needs to be quite big. To accommodate this, we have some brand new towers being installed in the arenas that enable a space high up off the ground so that multiple large vultures can fly together safely. This is hot off the press and only just in the final development stage, but all very exciting!”

Our Birds

“You will recognise some of the birds that have been a part of these breeding programmes at the Trust. Our White-headed Vultures Arthur, Mamba and Ravenclaw are all regular additions to the shows, and it looks like Arthur and Mamba are starting to create a nice pairing! We are hopeful to see how this develops. The White-backed Vultures, Clay, Simba and Melchett, our chick from last year, are all a part of this programme too.

It’s a very satisfying process to be a part of for us from the Bird Team here. We get to see this tiny little vulture hatching out of its egg and then, after lots of time, effort and close contact with that bird, it hopefully pairs up with another bird to one day lays its own egg; continuing that great circle of life.

Flying our vultures also helps us to inspire and engage visitors to the importance of their survival in the wild, and how we can play a part in this. I feel the environment we have created for our vultures enables us to mirror many of the life experiences that their wild cousins are doing; it’s an absolute joy to be a part of it!”

Working with Variable Hawks

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Over his time working at the Hawk Conservancy Trust, Bird Team member Mike Riley has worked alongside a number of Variable Hawks. If you’ve visited the Trust recently, you may have seen him working with one of our younger hawks, Cooper. But Mike was also lucky enough to work with Cooper’s mum, Mace! We caught up with Mike to hear all about his bond with these wonderful birds:

‘I’d like to talk about a species of bird I’m really fond of here at the Hawk Conservancy Trust.

It’s the Variable Hawk (Geranoaetus polyosoma), which you may also know as the Redback Hawk.  This is the first name I knew this species by, however this name is not used so much anymore. This species first arrived at the Trust in 2005, with four birds that came to us from Customs.  They soon settled in to their new lives with us.

In 2006, which was the year of the naming theme ‘Herbs & Spices’, we began working with one of the females from this group. We named her Mace and she flew at the Trust for a number of years. Due to her background, she was understandably a little unsure around people at first, and working with her required you to be very mindful.

Mace used to fly in our Woodland Arena displays in the afternoons, until on 27 February 2010 Mace decided to fly off and take a short holiday. Luckily she was wearing telemetry, which is a radio tracking device, which the Bird Team used to closely monitor her as she travelled all the way down to the New Forest! To get her back, two members of the Bird Team had to stay at a B&B in the New Forest for four days until she finally decided to come back to one of them. She was eventually brought back to the Trust on 5 March!

 

After her escapade, we decided to give Mace a rest period from the displays, and she was moved into an aviary with a male. They settled in well, and then in 2013 things started to change with the pair seen nest building, the pair were heard mating, but sadly nothing came of this.

In early 2018 we had a call from a friend of the Trust, Mark Dalton at the Cotswold Falconry Centre, who let us know he had a male Variable Hawk that could suit as a potential partner for Mace. Mace made the move to her new home in the Cotswolds, where she settled in well. In June 2020, we got the call that the pair had produced a fertile egg together! After an incubation period of 26 – 36 days,  our first Variable Hawk chick hatched after all Mace’s efforts.

As the chick grew, we were able to determine that due to her size, she was a female chick. In November 2020, once she was old enough, Bird Team members Ben Cox and Kathrine Fenger had the pleasure of collecting the chick from The Cotswold Falconry Centre. Mace still happily resides at this centre with her male partner.

Once the juvenile arrived here at the Trust, I was given the absolute pleasure of working alongside her. I also had the pleasure of naming her, and as she hatched in the year where our naming theme was ‘Conservationists’, I named her Cooper after Ernie Cooper. Ernie Cooper was formerly the Director for the conservation organization WWF-Canada (World Wildlife Fund Canada) and the Canadian National Representative of TRAFFIC the global wildlife trade monitoring network. He left WWF and TRAFFIC in 2014, and formed an environmental consulting business, specialising in wildlife trade issues. In 2009, an article in Canadian Geographic referred to Cooper as “Canada’s top wildlife-trafficking investigator.”

At the moment Cooper is having a rest period to moult through her new feathers.  She has recently been opening our Valley of the Eagles display as one of the pre-show birds, along with our Wahlberg’s Eagle Fawkes.

When flying in the display, Cooper absolutely shines on windy days. In the wild, Variable Hawks are often seen soaring on warm thermals looking for food which consists of mainly small mammals. We are hoping that next season, she will go up to soar to a great height on a more regular basis as she matures and gains experience – we saw this happen a couple of times already this season so know it’s coming!

Even though Cooper is currently having her rest period, I still maintain our bond by going into her aviary to weigh and feed her. Working with Cooper has been a good challenge, and we are already forming a good bond and I’m really looking forward to continuing our time together next season.’

Living and breathing the Hawk Conservancy Trust

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After moving to the Hawk Conservancy Trust nearly a year and a half ago, Bird Team member Owen Lincoln has been fascinated by the  wildlife that appears once the doors close and the Trust grounds go quiet. Join Owen as he tells us what it’s like to experience nature in the evenings when living onsite:

‘Since moving to the Hawk Conservancy Trust roughly 15 months ago, I think it’s safe to say I’ve settled in and found my feet! Living on site has certainly helped that process, and it’s a bizarre thing calling where you work home, but it most definitely feels that way now.

Being at the Trust has been a goal of mine for many years and to wake up here each morning is a brilliant feeling! Of course living here has its advantages, but what I’ve enjoyed most is the peacefulness of the grounds in the evenings.

Being able to walk down to the stunning setting of Reg’s Wildflower Meadow when the sun is setting just clears your mind and is certainly quite breath-taking. Even though it is only a stone’s throw away, the view over the East Cholderton Valley will never get old.

The atmosphere here in the evenings is a completely different feel to during the day. During the school holidays as I’m writing this article, the grounds teem with excitement and really feel alive! However come six o’clock when the other members of staff have left and the birds start to settle, a calm atmosphere settles around the Trust.

I feel that being here has really given me a much more relaxed outlook on life in general, and I think that being surrounded by nature has certainly helped that!

The grounds are home to wonderful wildlife that can be seen during the day, on this occasion, not referring to our birds of prey that reside on site, but I mean the wild animals and minibeasts that also call this place home. During opening hours the team and visitors have seen some incredible sights recently, whether it’s a wild Peregrine Falcon flying over during a show, a pair of Hobbys transferring food to one another, or most recently, and a first for me a Hummingbird Hawk Moth pollenating.

In the evenings a new group of animals take over the night shift, and it’s at this time it feels very different – it’s quite special as there is no one else around to witness it!

Heading down to do the evening lock up and check the park I regularly see Common Pipistrelle Bats, and even the occasional, seldom seen, Brown Long-eared Bats catching their evening meal over the pond in our Savannah Arena. I feel the insect life on that pond is surely plentiful, as at this time of year, they have the migratory swallows to contend with during the day and the bats by night! When do they ever get any respite I often wonder?

Moving around the park near the woods and by the Reg’s Wildflower Meadow the calls of Little Owls can be heard in the distance – a dainty whooping call which is always pleasant. More often than not followed by that iconic sharp squawk of a Heron flying overhead; If you’ve visited the Trust I’m sure you’re familiar with our local herons. This, mixed in with our resident Tawny Owls Sage and Troy calling away with that famous ‘twit’twoo’, brings a whole new feel and almost eerie vibe to the park as the night draws in.

A stunning, biodiverse, and glorious place I’m proud to call home.’

Keeping cool with Katy

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In mid-July temperatures soared, and we closed our doors to ensure the safety of our visitors, staff and birds. To keep our birds cool, our dedicated Bird Team helped the birds handle the heat. We caught up with Katy Barnes from the Bird Team, who told us about the fun ideas they came up with to keep our birds cool:

‘During the recent heatwave the Bird Team here at the Hawk Conservancy Trust did everything we could to ensure our birds were safe and comfortable in the unusual weather. Some of the methods we used for this also doubled up as fun activities for our birds in the form of ice blocks and the bird of prey equivalent of ice lollies!

Our kites (both Black Kites and the Yellow Billed Kites) were given ice chunks with some treats frozen inside to encourage them down to the ground to feed. With the number of birds in these aviaries, we decided to split the ice into many chunks so that all the birds had a chance to cool down with these ‘ice lollies’. However, most of the Black Kites decided that one piece of ice in particular was the best, and the majority of them went for that piece, while the others enjoyed the rest to themselves!

We also gave out just big chunks of ice to many birds for them to sit on or near to cool down. While this was enjoyed by many of our birds, Delores, our Cinereous Vulture, in particular loved having an ice block – so much so that she refused to let anyone else near it!’

Watch our birds tuck into their ice lollies!

Checking in with Pike

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During the summer season, our daily timetable changes and our summer flying displays begin. This means the stars of our winter displays get a well-deserved rest during this time.

Pike the Black Vulture and his girlfriend Chips are fan favourites in our winter display – World of Birds of Prey. Pike in particular is known to get a little distracted during show time, and will often wander into the crowd exploring the audiences’ shoes!

Other than that, Pike and Chips are pretty inseparable. They have been together throughout their entire lives. As you may have guessed, Pike is the more mischievous of the two; one of his favourite things to do when a Bird Team member is cleaning his aviary is to give them a swift peck on the bag of the legs before scurrying away!

During the summer months, Pike likes to kick back and relax. He enjoys the life of luxury, attended to by the Bird Team with lots of tasty food. The peace and quiet from this time period means he can moult through a brand-new set of feathers, ready to wow the crowds when he begins to fly again in the autumn.

Black Vultures are New World Vultures, and can be found natively across the Americas, and are colloquially known as ‘Buzzards’! They can be found in quite large flocks, and offspring stay with their parents in a social group into adulthood.

To keep themselves cool and clean in the hot summers, Black Vultures urinate over their own legs! This peculiar behaviour is known as urohydrosis.

On your next visit, be sure to say hello to Pike and Chips in their aviary. During hazy summer days, they can be seen cosying up together and drifting off to sleep on their perch.

Unsung stars of the Hawk Conservancy Trust

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Here at the Hawk Conservancy Trust, we’re all about birds. But it’s not just birds of prey that call our grounds home! James Knight from our Bird Team tells us about the fascinating songbirds that you can see, and hear, around the Trust.

‘As a member of the Bird Team that lives on site, I am incredibly fortunate to be able to wander around the grounds outside of opening hours.

As part of our duties once the Trust is closed, we make sure that all of the birds are healthy and safe before putting them to bed for the night. Often while completing our final checks we are treated to a very different side to the grounds; one as simple as seeing the myriad of oranges, greens and blues colouring the sky over Reg’s Wildflower Meadow as the sun sets, or watching the evening mists rolling in through the valley making the very ground around us disappear!

There are simply too many moments like this to note, but it is one of those magical aspects of the Trust that we feel so privileged to be able to share with our amazing visitors when you come along to our evening events, be it the setting sun on our African Sunset Safari, or actually seeing the full transition of the grounds from day to night during Sky Hunters at Sunset!

However with all this said, there is one aspect of the Trust that I believe often gets overlooked. Of course, when you come to the Trust usually it is to help support the work we do as well as to see and learn about our amazing birds – rightfully so, it is what we are all here for! But as I’m sure many of our regular visitors can attest, being surrounded by countryside is just as special as all the birds.

The Trust is home to some amazing wildlife, but none more so that the wild songbirds. They bring the grounds to life in such a beautiful way and sometimes it’s easy to miss or hard to fully take in at the time, recent studies are starting to show the calming and restorative effects that being out in nature and listening to bird song can have on us.

On your next visit I encourage you to come along to our Mindful Moment which takes place at the top of our grounds, which allows you a dedicated five minutes to getting in touch with the sounds of the countryside around you!

Of course, whenever you may next visit this incredible place, it’s always worth keeping an eye out for some of these amazing birds. You’ll see a variety of nest boxes scattered across the grounds which are home to all sorts; be it the common House Sparrow, the quizzical Robin or the stunning Blue Tits and Great Tits. You may also be able to see some of the rarer birds dotted around the hedge lines and amongst the trees, such as Greenfinches, Goldfinches and even Long-tailed Tits.

Seeing these birds is a special treat, but being songbirds of course, the orchestral symphonies that earns them that title is what brings the grounds to life. That is what we are all more likely to experience from these birds.

I know it can feel daunting trying to pick out individual calls from the collection of different calls that can be found out there (I for one am absolutely useless at it!) but you no longer need to be an expert on bird song to be able to do so. There are many helpful books with fantastic descriptions of calls, such as the elastic tic of a Robin or the two note phrases of a Great Tit. But a fantastic tool I have started to use are birdsong ID phone apps. These allow you to record snippets of bird song and based on the location you put in will give you incredibly accurate suggestions for what may be calling!

You’ll see a variety of numbered nest boxes for some of these birds scattered around the Trust grounds, and we are already starting to see and hear young birds getting ready to fledge into the big wide world!

I really hope that next time you visit you may now be able to see, and more importantly hear, the Trust in a totally new light.’

Wonderful Wallace, our juvenile Bald Eagle

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Simon Christer, a member of the Bird Team, gives us an insight into working with our iconic Bald Eagles:

‘When visiting the Hawk Conservancy Trust, you will have seen our incredible Bald Eagles in our Valley of the Eagles display or you may have had the privilege to have our Bald Eagle Orion fly to you on an experience day.

Wallace is the youngest of our Bald Eagles at the Trust, he is only two years old, so he looks very different to the others, they have the well-known white head and tail. It can take a Bald Eagle up to seven years to look like that! His head and tail are slowly going white as he moults every year. His beak will also change from black to yellow – you can already see the yellow slowly coming through in his beak. His eye colour will also change!

Wallace currently flies in our Valley of the Eagles display,  swapping with Danebury.  At 30 years old, Danebury is our oldest eagle and flying bird at the Trust. Danebury has flown for many years over the valley behind Reg’s Wildflower Meadow.  He is also famous for going off for a bath in the local valley, and coming home a few hours later after he has dried off!

Wallace is flown in a slightly different way to Danebury: he still flies over the valley, but flies from the Trust. It is fantastic to watch him as he looks for thermals and height, he keeps looking for more height until he’s called home.  Danebury is given a chauffeur service, and flies home from a spot in the valley to soar across Reg’s Wildflower Meadow.

Wallace is also a very talkative eagle, especially if he spots me! I’ve worked with him since he came to the Trust, and he is one of the friendliest and kind-natured eagles I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with.’

 

Get to know Darwin

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If you’ve visited the Hawk Conservancy Trust, there’s no doubt you will have seen Sirius the Striated Caracara star in our World of Birds of Prey flying demonstration. But did you know his parents, Lafonia and Darwin, also reside at the Trust? (more…)

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