Monday, December 1, 2008
Most people visit Leeds Castle to see the historic buildings, the aviary, and the beautiful gardens. But on Saturday my family headed to Leeds Castle with a very different agenda. We went to Leeds Castle for the birds.
Yes, you read that right. We drove all the way to Kent just to see some birds. But these weren’t just any birds, and we really weren’t just there to watch them. They were birds of prey and we were there to do some falconry. For obvious reasons, it was the perfect activity for my family. We were pretty excited about it.
We arrived at the castle in the morning and were met by Leigh, the director of the Hawking Centre and our guide for the day. After a quick ride on a tiny train, we found ourselves outside the Falconry Office. Leigh took us in, made us tea and coffee, and gave us an overview of the day’s activities.
Tea in hand, we went back outside and walked from bird to bird as Leigh introduced us to each one. We met two beautiful owls named Ozzie and Gwen, a South American bird named Darlene the Snake Killer, a pair of Harris Hawks and pair of Peregrine Falcons, a giant vulture named Lurch and a smaller one named Maggie, and number of their other avian friends.
Our first challenge of the day was to fly Ozzie the owl around the Mediterranean Garden (which in the dead of winter was not looking all that Mediterranean). We took turns holding out our arms and waiting as Ozzie flew up to get his reward of chicken feet, chicken wings, and other parts of the chicken I try not to think about.
When Ozzie finished his circuit around the garden, we took Gwen the Barn Owl out to the vineyard. More energetic than Ozzie, Gwen had herself a good time flying from glove to glove without waiting for the lure of food. As we sloshed through the muddy field, Gwen flew back and forth between our group and the grape vines and we each vied for the title of Gwen’s Favorite Human.
After flying Gwen we were on the verge of frostbite. We took a break to warm up in the office before heading out for more falconry. As we were experiencing a bit of tea fatigue—a rare but serious condition to which Americans are susceptible but to which the English are completely immune—Leigh served us some Bucks Fizz (American English: Mimosas) instead. Apparently alcohol is an acceptable substitute for caffeine if the end goal is warmth.
Our next bird was Maggie, the smaller of the two vultures. We took her out to a meadow and flew her up and down the length of it. Luring her with appetizing chicken heads, we managed to get her to fly to each of us several times before she lost interest.
Lunch was served at 1pm. I was glad to get indoors and warm up with a hot meal of Toad in the Hole (American English: doesn’t translate. Think two sausages in a Yorkshire pudding on a bed of mashed potatoes with gravy. Very healthy.). I also drank my third cup of tea for the day, which launched me squarely into caffeine orbit. Perfect for our next activity: a trek through the forest.
Walking out of the restaurant, we discovered that it had started to rain while we were eating. Leigh didn’t let that stop us from taking the two Harris Hawks out for a walk, though. The forest trees provided a bit of protection as we strolled around the grounds, but by the end of our sojourn even the lure of a tasty chicken wing wouldn’t get the hawks out of the trees. They were flying like wet paper bags.
Our last bird of the day was ironically a bird that couldn’t fly. Darlene the Snake Killer was somewhat akin to a tiny ostrich with her wacky feathers and tiny wings. But she made up for her non-existent flying skills with her amusing ability to annihilate rubber snakes by picking them up with her beak and slamming them against the ground. She could also jump 12 vertical feet without breaking a sweat. This was especially true when a chicken head was involved.
As the day wound down, we were handed our Certificates of Achievement and sent back to the restaurant to have dessert and more tea. We were too late to see the castle, but we knew we would return another day to visit our new feathered friends and say hello to the falconry team.