Willow the red kite is angry. Sandra won’t be taking her to the field because she’s Rhiannon’s. Fair enough. In this family business each bird has a particular carer. But Willow hates it when Leon, on a perch beside her and a touch smaller because he’s (a) a black kite and (b) a he, is flown before her. There’s a solution. Take Willow inside while Leon is made ready: weighed (he won’t fly to the baited glove if not hungry) and small transmitter fixed to his back. Will it help catch him if he does a runner? No, but it’ll locate him. These birds are costly, some at thousands of pounds, and may not survive. An adult kite has few natural predators but Leon and Willow have been with SMJ Falconry since infancy. Instinct only takes a raptor so far. There’s much they would have learned from parents they never knew. Not being seized as prey is half the story but without prey of their own they starve.
Spud the little owl sits on a fence post, refusing to fly to me. I shouldn’t take it personally says Sandra. Food gets them to fly; not our winning personalities. But here the trouble is not that Spud isn’t hungry. He’s the right weight so should be up for it. No, at issue is his acute hearing. (Those tufts some owls have and we call ears direct vibrating air onto the real ears, one higher than the other, to fix its origin as the rustle of a mouse half a mile away.) Sandra thinks Spud, peering up at the azure sky of the best day since my return from Taiwan – the day I with brilliant prescience chose for this falconry jaunt – hears a plane way beyond our auditory range. Planes fascinate and distract Spud. We’ll fetch Candy instead, the much larger mackinders eagle owl.
And so it goes. In moorland splendour above picturesque Oxenhope in Bradford’s wild Bronte hinterland I meet Peter the harris hawk (“lovely temperament, real gent”). And Dusty the african spotted eagle owl, Twilight the barn owl, Maurice the lanner falcon, Tiffin the kestrel and Julie-Anne the hooded vulture (“such a sweetheart”). All shown here. What a day. I didn’t quite know what to expect but having these magnificent birds fly to you, gazing into limpid eyes and sizing up at literally arm’s length the fierce efficiency of forms honed over aeons of natural selection; that, take it from me, is really something. Slides advance manually.