Friday, May 25, 2012

I went to Gleneagles, to play with some eagles!

Gleneagles was not named after eagles but there are sure a high number of Eagles found in this particular glen. Gleneagles is most famous for it's grand hotel, golf and spa resort but being a skint student I wasn't there to lap up    the luxury but to get to know some feathered friends thanks to an offer from  Groupon at  Phoenix Falconry.

The train from Dundee to Gleneagles is only about 30 minutes long and takes you through some of Scotland's classic rolling mountains you see in all the brochures. You barely notice rolling up to Gleneagles station as it appears from behind some trees, and for the train gateway to Scotland's most premier hotel it is pretty run down. However it has a rundown old fashioned charm and it so secluded it could be your own private station which I appreciated.

 I arranged a taxi to pick me up and expected your standard taxi to roll up with "Taxi" plastered over a Skoda but I was mistaken. I am in Gleneagles, the "town" where taxis are Mercedes and there are "shooting schools" on every corner. My driver took me into the Gleneagles complex as I had never been before and the building is huge let alone the golf course. There were numerous octogenarians wandering about in-between a sea of Range Rovers and Mercedes. Spreading out from the hotel were private residences and my driver pointed out one that had a huge aquarium running from the ground floor to the third.

As we rolled up to Easterton Farm I felt pretty terrible as the Mercedes dodged some massive potholes and collected some dirt, understandably I met the driver just off the main road on the way back. The Phoenix Falconry building looked nothing more than a bit of barn from the outside but when you walked into the reception you can to a front room any house would be proud of. Well, except that this one had to baby Peregrine Falcons sitting on the table.

After signing a consent form and being handed a falconry glove I sat and waited for the group to assemble. We were greeted by Adrian who was the main Falconer here and he was dressed like your typical Gleneagles huntsman; shirt and tie covered with a khaki huntsman waistcoat. He was very charismatic and knew his stuff as he gave us a briefing on the history of falconry and as a biology student I found no faults in anything he said. After the briefing we headed out and saw some of the birds in there larger-than-normal bird houses. As he explained aspects of avian anatomy and aerodynamics I realised falconry is potentially a perfect hobby for me as it combines two of my favourite interests; biology and aviation.

(I wasn't allowed to take my big camera out as apparently they attack handbags as they think they are full of food so I had to resort to my phone camera for most of it, so apologies for the poor photos from now on)

Although we were walking past impressive predators such as the Bald Eagle we started with something a lot less deadly, a Harris Hawk. The Harris Hawk is slow in the way of Birds of Prey but is very, very good at manoeuvring thanks to it's wing shape which was demonstrated by some close encounters with our heads. We each had our first attempt with the Harris hawk and I was pretty proud of my attempts as I did everything I was supposed to, plus it was the first time I had a bird of prey perched on the side of my arm, which felt pretty awesome.
Baby Peregrine Falcon

Following from the Harris hawk we were shown an baby Peregrine Falcon only a few days old but only briefly as a group of foreign onlookers could be as lethal to them as Avian flu is to us. We were then followed out by an Indian Eagle Owl, which looked like angry Johnny-5 from Short Circuit in bird form. He had only been flying for a few days so he couldn't go really far and seemed to prefer walking along the ground. Owls are also not very good birds for use in falconry as they tend to hunt close to the ground.
Indian Eagle Owl

The next bird was the extremely rare Striated Kara-Kara which is endemic to the Falkland Islands and considered one of the most intelligent animals in the world. This was demonstrated by the bird completing a toy that takes dogs weeks to figure out only a couple of minutes, and Adrian and co. wrote to the company and they send more toys for the bird, with the same result each time. 

After the exotic Kara-Kara we were greeted by the more familiar, ant tiny in comparison to everything else, Kestrel. Here we observed two things, one at the hand of the falconer; which was the great art of luring which is used to exercise the birds by waving bait from the end of a long piece of string but without ever hitting them, and one at the hand (wing?) of the bird as it displayed it's impressive hovering capabilities.
The Kestrel 

The next bird was a hybrid of a Gyrfalcon and another bird, from hot climates, to produce a highly agile and fast bird.  The Gyrefalcon is popular in warmer climates such as the middle east and Africa but it cannot withstand these high temperatures as it is from Greenland so this hybrid has proved highly popular in these regions.

The Gyrfalcon Hybrid.
The birds were progressively getting bigger and this was evident when Adrian took out a Bateleur eagle who is a huge vulture-like creature with a Tina Turner haircut. It is called such as when it comes down to land it swings back and forth like an acrobat (bateleur is french for acrobat/tightrope or something similar). It has the ability to change the colour of it's beak and feet depending on the presence of food AND they have ceramic-like scaled on their feet to protect them from snake bites.

Bateleur Eagle

Just as the weather turned and an icy cold wind started to rage, we were given the option whether to go inside or to have a go with the pièce de résistance, the bald Eagle and we were given the option to go inside or stay out with the bird, only a fool would go inside. When Adrian came out empty handed he answered our vacant stares by pointing into the trees where we saw a huge bird shape soaring above the trees. We were given an extra falconer glove to protect us from the birds talons and then given a shot of calling him in. It's quite hard to describe how awesome you felt with one of the worlds top predators at the end of your arm.

Me and the Bald Eagle.

My day at Phoenix falconry was a great experience and I would highly recommend it to anyone! Although I got my experience through Groupon I was told that Groupon kind of rips them off and they barely get anything from the offer whereas they have to pay Groupon to set up such an offer. They can no longer afford to open to the public and they will officially close their doors to the public come September so I would highly recommend everybody to go have a shot at falconry, it's something that is very rare  and unique in this day and age but it is unfortuneatly dying out rapidly.


Anonymous said...

Think this is awesome, my only comment/request would be for you to change the font that you're using, its nice, but hard on the eyes, especially with all the text. Otherwise keep on going!

Rose said...

When I work out how to, I will! Thanks though! Can't see me stopping anytime soon :D