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…)

Endearing Ennis – A special Great Grey Owl

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During the darker months, the bird team have the opportunity to work alongside our team of owls at the time of day when some owl species would be more active in their pursuit of prey.  For those who attended some of our winter events, you will have seen Ennis, one of our Great Grey Owls, an iconic and well-loved species, often recognised by their striking facial disc.  Ryan Stephens, who works closely with Ennis tells us more about Ennis’s endearing characteristics and why he loves working with her.


Jennie starts her apprenticeship

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We are thrilled to welcome Jennie Marshall. Jennie started her apprenticeship in October and has moved away from her home in Buckinghamshire for this opportunity.  She was so excited to be offered the apprenticeship, she screamed down the phone at Gary! (Gary Benton, Head of Living Collection).  After gaining some work experience with us in 2016 she was really keen to work with our birds “I absolutely loved it and wished I could start working here right there and then”

Reflecting on 2021

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We have all been presented with challenges over the last year. Gary Benton, our Head of Living Collection, reflects on 2021 from the perspective of managing the Bird Team during this time and the extraordinary challenges his team faced. Keep reading for a fascinating account from Gary about the humans and birds alike in his team, readjusting to the various changes of last year:

“Hello everyone,

What a strange and worrying time we all had in 2020/21 with the pandemic causing so many changes to the world we live in and certainly causing a wave of uncertainty and challenges at the Trust.

As we moved into the spring of 2021, things started to look a lot more promising at the Trust, so I thought I would reflect on a few of our experiences at a time when we were looking to lead a more ‘normal’ Trust life again!

After the most recent lockdown we managed to re-open our doors in mid-April, unfortunately this meant that we missed a really crucial part of our year; the Easter holidays. By opening towards the end of the Easter holiday time, we missed a key time for our customers to visit us, and obviously the income as a result (although I remember we were just thankful to be open at all so even a small part of the Easter break was a relief!). I remember very clearly that it was a very strange time, not only did the birds need to adjust to seeing more people again, but also our team of dedicated staff and volunteers, all of a sudden, became very public-facing again. This is something that I never thought would be a challenge for us, since it has always been so integrated into what we do on a daily basis, but it was a shock after such a long time spent in and out of lockdowns. It definitely took a bit of getting used to for all of us, but after a matter of weeks, everybody (birds and all) were in a fairly good flow again. Well, not quite all of the birds though…

Interestingly, one of the biggest challenges we faced with birds was with warm weather. In a normal year, we would be coming out of our winter season in late February to early March, and that means the majority of the sun-worshipping, summer season birds are finishing their well-earned winter rest (which is a luxury we can give our birds that they obviously don’t get in the wild) and getting back into the swing of things with flying routines. Even for the most experienced birds, it takes a few weeks for them to get back into a routine and cement that close relationship we have with them again. The advantage of a normal year is that this transition period is normally still at a colder time of year when thermals and good lift are seldom seen, so any birds that are still adjusting, just opt to sit in a tree if they are in the frame of mind of just doing their own thing! This is part and parcel of getting back to routine so you would just expect a little bit of hanging around waiting for birds as they adjust.

The BIG problem we faced in 2021 was aligned with VERY warm weather when we re-opened. So, instead of birds sitting in trees now and again, they found it much easier to just open their wings and float on the thermals while they decided what to do next. Needless to say, we found ourselves watching a lot of our birds flying very high, without the usual confidence that they would come home easily. Needless to say, there were a few long days and evenings waiting for birds to come back home. Never have we been more pleased to be in an age where birds are wearing accurate tracking devices so that we could at least rely on that if we lost sight of any of those birds.

Some repeat wanderers were our young pair of Northern Bald Ibis, Rafiki and Timone, who got into a real habit of high flying as the warm weather continued into the summer. It looked amazing and most days they came home as we called them, but there were the odd occasions where we had wandering ibis not sure where to land. Being youngsters, they weren’t completely familiar with the way home. We noticed that they started to target crowds of people as the closest thing to home, and had to collect them from a kids football match on the edge of Andover where they landed with spectators, a children’s sports lesson on the local village green and also outside the local McDonald’s! We had some very strange looks from people as we arrived to collect two ibis that just waddled back into their transport crates before heading back in the van for a taxi ride home with us.

Luckily, the high flying/wandering was fairly short lived and it wasn’t too long before all of the birds were back to full routine and doing us as proud as ever. Even the ibis managed to finish the summer with an amazing run of flying during the Wings of Africa display.

It was really nice to also start to welcome more and more of our guests back into the Trust as COVID-19 restrictions started to slacken off a little, and we could increase our daily capacity. As we moved into the summer holiday season, we were back to a decent daily visitor number which, aside from being very important for generating income for our conservation work, also allowed us as a team of people and birds to get back to an environment that felt like the old days. We had a very positive period of daily demonstrations during the summer, and also managed to undertake a very successful run of events with our African Sunset Safari events, which were very popular.

As we moved into the end of the summer holidays, the normal movement of children back to school (I can hear parents and grandparents alike cheering as they read this) meant that we would start to see the normal transition of guests that stay clear of all things summer holidays starting to come back through the doors and creating a very different feel around the Trust.

I really like the busy summer period for many reasons but I also like it when the crowd simmers down a little and we start to move away from summer and then spending my favourite month of the year (September) flying birds that are just loving the perfect conditions that September brings. Normally, that includes a boost in wild bird sightings as young birds start to move around and away from nesting areas to explore new territories. It’s a real joy of a month to be watching the skies!

Then as we moved towards October, with colder weather, Halloween and Owls by Moonlight evenings, there was a whole different offering again. November is the transition into the winter season where those high-flying summer birds start to wind down and have that well-earned rest again. The winter team start their season and now we are well into the depths of December and leading up to the Christmas period with our brand new Winter Woodland Lights event looming on the horizon as we edge closer and closer to January. A mix of excitement with a touch of the unknown is in the air as we prepare for that new venture!

Before we know it, spring will be on the doorstep and it will all start over again, but hopefully this time without the same challenges the pandemic put in the way!”

Gary Benton

Head of Living Collection


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