Swooping in for an awesome display

By Dan Santy Thursday 03 January 2013 Updated: 05/02 08:16

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Buy photos » Observer reporter Dan Santy meets Kielder the golden eagle.

THINK of birds in Britain and you are likely to picture robins, sparrows and, of course pigeons - not much to get excited about then.

But a little corner of Warwickshire is home to a veritable oasis of eagles, hawks and falcons and is inviting people to get up close and personal to a degree they would struggle to find anywhere else.

Observer reporter Dan Santy went along to make some new winged friends.

BEFORE arriving at Pro Falconer, I must admit I had not really given much thought to what I was going to do once there. This changed when I walked in and beheld the awesome size of the Baginton aviary's newest arrival, the golden eagle.

Sitting proudly atop her perch, eyeing her surroundings and somehow looking both intense and disinterested at the same time, I willingly reveal I felt slightly intimidated when I realised she would soon be sat on my arm - huge talons and all.

It helped having Rick Gerard there. The man behind Pro Falconer - born in Leamington, bred in Kenilworth and living in Coventry - his knowledge of the birds and their mannerisms is such he could credibly call himself an avian psychologist if he wanted to.

Before getting started Rick talked me through the birds' routines. Those used to flying first stand poised and ready for action, heads bobbing and feathers puffed up, while those flying later look relaxed, almost asleep.

Ordinarily we would have started small, but a photographer on a tight schedule saw me pushed straight in at the deep end as I prepared for photos with Kielder, the golden eagle.

Hand in big glove, I took her from Rick who then removed my support stick, leaving me to hold Kielder and her surprisingly heavy weight - all the while hoping she would not take a disliking to me.

I felt tense at first, but soon relaxed when I realised Kielder was comfortable. Then, to get her to show off her impressive 6ft wingspan, I rotated my arm backwards and forwards, marvelling at the display going on just a few short inches away from my head.

After Kielder it was almost comical moving on to the far more diminutive Captain Caveman, a 15-week-old southern white faced owl from South Africa, for my first flying experience.

Sat atop a wooden post several feet away, Captain Caveman waited patiently for his food - or wages, as Rick calls it - to appear in my hand before flying over to see me and his breakfast.

Now suitably warmed up, we moved onto the most awe inspiring experience of the morning, Ice the American ferruginous hawk.

Ice is undoubtedly Rick's pride and joy having trained her despite the bird's reputation as being notoriously untrainable, but a recent illness had us unsure of whether she would have the energy to fly.

Happily she did, and Ice made her way to the starting point before taking to the skies to fly a few circles.

As she appeared in our line of sight, Rick placed the food in my hand and Ice immediately spotted it, swooping in to claim her prize.

Wings extended and talons up, I felt my body stiffen as it braced for impact, so I was pleasantly surprised by the graceful landing Ice made as she touched down on my arm.

Next up was Zulu, a north African lanner falcon who demonstrated the understanding Rick has with his birds. As he swung a lure over his head, the bird took to the skies before putting on a breathtaking show of acceleration to dive and claim his prize.

Unfortunately for Zulu, Rick wanted to show him who was boss and snatched the food away at the last moment, telling us he wanted the catch to be difficult for the bird as it would be in the wild.

When Zulu was eventually fed, my personal favourite of the morning, Jester the north American Harris hawk, came out to play.

For this one we walked around the site with Jester following, sometimes in the skies and, rather comically, sometimes walking next to us on the ground.

Come feeding time, Jester was but a small shape at the top of a tree. But, showing off his impressive eyesight, just a hint of food in my hand saw him swoop in for the kill in seconds. It was marvellous to witness.

Throughout, Rick talked me through the training and psychology of the birds. As hard to believe as it may be, the birds actually prefer not to fly and only do it where necessary.

Under Rick's care, the birds fly every day - more than they would in the wild - and so are much fitter as a result.

He also explained the importance of not feeding them until they have performed as he wants them to, making sure they earn their keep - hence his use of the word wages.

Rick, a falconer from the age of nine, was fascinating to listen to, and is keen to share his passion and knowledge with others.

Visit www.profalconer.co.uk or call Rick Gerard on 07768 521958 for more information.

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Buy photos» Expert falconer Rick Gerard with golden eagle Kielder.

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Buy photos» Ice the ferruginous hawk in flight. (s)

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Buy photos» Zulu the lanner falcon climbs to 500ft before diving at speeds over 150mph when in flight. (s)

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