High Flyers: Lottie Williams comes face to face with some magnificent raptors at the British Bird of Prey Centre
You’d be forgiven for not noticing it, nestled just above the tree line and cocooned within the canopies of the deciduous woodland that frames the sides of the gently sloping valley. I walk along a gravel path lined with oak, sycamore and hazel until I see the outer walls made from gently ageing timber.
They create an illusion of tree continuation that allows your eyes to travel higher, further, without the abrupt interruption of man-made form. Perched with pride, I have reached the British Bird of Prey Centre, located within the grounds of the National Botanic Garden of Wales, Carmarthenshire.
Walking through the entrance I am immediately struck by the size of the courtyard followed by the individual aviaries that occupy three sides of the rectangle. It is an ample space, each enclosure looking remarkably like the next; clean, chalk walls, nature’s paraphernalia, each one housing a different bird of prey.
Lily, the bright-eyed Little Owl. Troy, the inky eyed Tawny Owl. A Long-eared Owl named Rusty. Allan, the Barn Owl who stands facing away, indifferent to the wide eyed public. Hector, an Eagle Owl. Midas, the Golden Eagle, who lazily stretches his long neck around to spy with one beady eye before preening under his right wing. A Peregrine, a Merlin Falcon, a Sparrowhawk. A White Tailed Sea Eagle.
Turning right as I enter, Busby, a Common Buzzard, flies directly at the wafting net fronting his room, hooked talons outstretched. He’s been in the shed a while, I’m told, he’s just starting to get used to people again. Meanwhile his little round feathery ball of a neighbour, the Short-eared Owl Kasupi, is quieter.
She crouches safely on the ground underneath a leafy branch, turning her heart shaped mottled face slowly from side to side as though trying to gauge my presence. She’s beautiful. Further up the line lives a Gyrfalcon, Puddle. Strange name, I thought, until it was explained how he loved water as a chick, muddy liquid often coating his shining feathers like dirty armour.
He looks at me, deliberately cocking his Arctic white head from left to right and hopping excitedly up and down the front of his enclosure. ‘He’s really friendly,’ Owain, a member of staff, tells me. ‘Have you got ants in your pants?’ He directs this amusement to the bird, not me. Although I have to admit I am itching to see these glorious creatures in action during the flight demonstration later.
Owain is dressed in navy blue corporate wear, as are the rest of the staff, but he has teamed this with a bright red British Lions bobble hat. This marks him as an individual personality, just like each bird. I ask Owain his favourite and immediately he gestures towards another Common Buzzard. ‘Flint’, he promptly offers with affection in his tone. ‘I feel bonded with her.’
He softly chirrups and she shuffles slightly along her wooden bench towards him, one dark brown eye gleaming, the other lost to a cataract. ‘She recognises my voice. Some birds gravitate more towards certain people the same way that people gravitate towards certain birds.’ His tenderness towards her is warming. ‘She’s already three years past her expected captivity age so that makes it all the more special.’
The centre flies two shows a day at 11.30 and 1.30 alongside additional personal experiences. At 11.25, I am ushered onto one of the damp smelling wooden benches in the demonstration area that overlooks the Botanic Garden. There is a sense of anticipation in the air. A whistle blows. The display begins.
It is mesmerising. First up is Nyyrikki, the naturally elusive Goshawk, who demonstrates with ease the simulation of a hunt. Described as the Usain Bolt of the hawk world, he swoops in low to the ground, tail fanned, and, as staff members Alex and James throw the ‘kill’ above, the air slicer suddenly swerves upwards, flashing, talons charged, before dropping to the ground with his prize.
Nyyrikki’s flecked feathers splay in an exhibition of mantling (spreading his wings over and around the prey to prevent other birds from stealing it) as he hunkers hungrily over the meat, ruffled and tufted and splendid.
Other birds fly. The Red Kite pair who proudly swoop slowly and gracefully above us with striped russet plumage. Margaret the impatient Snowy Owl who screeches in readiness of food, high in pitch yet slightly raspy at the edges, her sharp black beak panting at the exertion.
Meany the Kestrel who zips and skims, loops and dives in a swoosh of air among the audience, an exhilaration of flight. There are five wild Buzzards, Bwncathod in Welsh, high above us at one point. These locked wing thermal soarers cruise and watch and wonder as Puddle, who can fly at 90miles/hour, attempts a gravity defying zoom up towards them but falls rather short.
The star of the show however is Atlantis, the fabled White Tailed Sea Eagle, Haliaeetus albicilla. Extinct in the UK wild for 400 years due to heavy persecution, they have since been reintroduced to Scotland and the Isle of White, and a feasibility study to determine whether West Wales could accommodate them again by Eagle Reintroduction Wales and Cardiff University is underway… and looking positive.
As she soars divinely over the crowd one can only marvel at the magnitude of her broad powerful wingspan (measuring 178cm-245cm) and huge contour feathers that splay. She slopes down to the autumnal tree line for an eagle tailored lift back up into the thermals and out over the spellbound crowd. I can understand why writer Horatio Clare has previously described his encounter with this species as ‘griffon’ like. Atlantis is astoundingly beautiful.
After the display, I speak to Emma, the host. She is radiant, her bright blue eyes twinkling and looking skywards as I ask for her favourite. ‘Oh gosh, it really depends upon my mood’, she considers. ‘I love Puddle for his cheekiness, I love watching falcons fly and if I’m in a chilled-out mood I love taking a barn owl for a walk in a field.’
What is really important to Emma though is people’s education about the birds, especially those which are endangered. It is their mission to inspire communities and ensure their longevity, and it is very clear to see that protection and love are paramount for her and the team here. I leave feeling a little bit humbler and a lot more in awe.
“No one will protect what they don’t care about; and no one will care about what they have never experienced” – David Attenborough
The British Bird of Prey Centre is located within the grounds of the National Botanic Garden of Wales, Carmarthenshire and is open 10-5, 7 days a week. Admission prices start from just £1 per person with entry to the Garden extra. They can be found on all social media platforms and at www.britishbirdofpreycentre.co.uk.