Debbie Stewart, founder and manager of 'Wingspan'.
Near Rotorua is a remarkable place. It is the location of the New Zealand Birds of Prey Charitable Trust "Wingspan". It's also where I went last Friday. I went for the purpose of talking taxidermy, and I wasn't prepared to be mesmerized and delighted by the real birds.
At Wingspan there is a cafe and shop, and a small museum containing some beautifully mounted exhibits and a display depicting the art of Japanese falconry. And there are the aviaries that house the birds - the Morepork owls and Karearea- the New Zealand Falcons.
Karearea is a rare bird in New Zealand; even rarer than the Kiwi. It is estimated there are no more than 1500 pairs left. So it was a real thrill to watch these beautiful, alert and fierce-looking birds from up close. They are New Zealand's fastest birds and, in the world, second only to the Peregrine Falcon. They can reach speeds up to 200 km per hour and can see eight times better than we can.
The short article below is good if you want to learn a bit more about them.
We walked through the aviary at about 1 pm. The birds were distracted and alert, looking out the windows because it was near to the time when they are let out to fly.
Now if you are like me and have never been close to one of these raptors before, you'll know what I mean when I say they are almost frightening. They are not very big but have large dark eyes, and a bill that really looks like it means business. They have huge black talons, and they can move really, really fast. When one of these turns its head around, looks you in the eye and then flies straight for you, you are glad there's two layers of wire between you! It is a primal response and hard not to flinch. I felt as though I was just a little furry mammal in its sights.
At 1.30 pm each day visitors are invited to hear a talk and watch the falcons flying free and being trained by their falconer to take their food on the wing. It was wonderful. I was especially interested in the fact that at the start of the session an Australasian Harrier Hawk was gliding over the ridge of a nearby hill and the falcon was extremely interested, craning its head around and unresponsive to her trainer. We were told that if it had come any closer, the falcon would have defended its territory and possibly even killed the harrier.
If you're feeling bold, you can slip the glove on and have them take meat from your own hand. What a thrill! They are not very heavy, and have been trained at an early age to be very gentle with their claws. But they are so obviously wild, it felt almost a honour that they would sit on my hand.
Afterwards when the centre closed, I was pleased to have all my taxidermy questions answered by Noel. And then a very special treat: Debbie brought in a delightful two-month old falcon fledgeling which she let run around the floor while we drank coffee and chatted. It was only about two weeks off flying, and was so endearingly funny; running about like a kitten, exploring things with its bill - the edge of the carpet, a piece of rope, mewling now and again in a cute questioning tone, falling sideways and struggling to right itself back onto its huge blue feet and so very curious about everything!