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Hawks: Up close and personal

On a visit to the Hawk Conservancy Trust, Norman Wright has a close but entertaining encounter with majestic eagles, vultures, owls, kites and kestrels

With a whoosh of near silent wings, the Eagle Owl swooped low over the audience, heading right for me, missing by a foot on its way to perch on one side of the arena with a haughty shake of its feathers.

It was the first of a series of low-level passes by various birds of prey at the Hawk Conservancy Trust near Andover, Hampshire,, and just one of the ways you get to see these magnificent bird up close.

It was one of the most interesting and enjoyable days I can remember.

Tolkein the Milky Eale Owl was one of the stars of the Wings Over Africa flying display at an arena made to look a bit like the Africa Savannah.

Othello the Fish Eagle was the first to appear, arrowing in across the grassland and, with a merest splash, taking a piece of fish from the water right under the noses of the audience.

After some more low-level work from some Yellow-billed Kites and a pair of White-Backed Vultures, in flew one of the most bizarre of birds f prey, Dr No, the Secretary Bird. With an orange face, grey hood and long gawky leggs, featherless and leathery up to the knee, this looks an unlikely killer but it is deadly.

In the African Bush it preys on insects, lizards and small mammals, all of which it stalks on foot. But it specialises in snakes, hence the scaly legs to guard against bites. It demonstrated its techniques when a rubber snake is dragged nearby. In an instant, it begins to stamp on the head of the snake with huge force. Again and again it hits the snake wiht its broad foot. This bird takes no prisoners.

To complete the display and reinforce the African theme, a pair of Storks circle and some Meerkats pop their heads up from a group of rocks. 

Our brilliant day started with the Vultures' breakfast. A mixture of varieties live together in a spacious enclosure. Their keeper explained that Vultures are probably the most unloved bird in the world. 

not in this corner of Hampshire, And as the birds tear at a couple of sections of ribs, we learn why they should be loved.

Contrary to their reputation Vultures are the cleanest birds. They have to be. Because they clear up the carcasses of dead creatures they have to protect themselves from bacteria by keeping their feathers super clean.

Their digestive system also is powerful enough to kill off bacteria. This means they play a vital role in the eco-system by clearing up dead and rotting creatures, usually after large predators have eaten their fill. I was already beginning to love them, too. The trust has a special interest in Vultures and plays a part in their conservation overseas and in scientific research.

There was a chance to wander around the various irds of prey in their enclosures and visit the restaurant and shop before the next flying display- The Valley of the Eagles. The audience is seated overlooking a wild flower meadow in front of a glorious English country vista. 

Two miles away, two Bald Eagles were put into the air; they were visible against the sky from time to time above the trees. The commentator explained they might come straight in to the gauntlets of their trainers or if they found some thermals they could road above the countryside for a couple of hours. 

This time they came unerringly to their reward of meat clenched in he fist of the handler. We were then entertained by some Vultures and Back Kites swooping back and forth over our heads.

There were as many as 16 birds in the air at any one time. Who knew that Vultures could perform like this?

The Kites then performed aerobatics as they caught morsels of meat in mid-air fired by catapult. Kites also feed on the wing so their treats were quickly dispatched. A highlight was a native wild Red Kite who joined in a little above their European cousins. An extra high catapult shot gave him his reward for impromptu show.

One of the newer members of the team, a Kestrel, performed superbly, flying low and swiftly to the lure and even going into its trademark hover with tail fanned out. The third display was in the trust's woodland arena with flying by a series of woodland Owls. The displays change between seasons. We were there in May.

The trust does much scientific conservation work as well as running the national birds of prey hospital at the park. TV naturalist Vhris Packham is its president.

A day spent there comes highly recommended by myself and photographer Clive Nicholls. WE sampled the day they run for photographers. As well as the routine displays, members of the small group get behind-the-scenes opportunities plus a chance to meet and photograph birds close to.

Our first encounter was with Whisper, a Southern Boobook Owl from Australia. It's a small bird bred and raised at the trust. James Knight put Whisper through its paces flying to various photogenic perches and then through a piece of hollowed out tree trunk.

While photographer Nicholls was getting his close-ups, Whisper took the initiative and hopped onto his lens where it perched happily.

James then flew Walter, a much larger bird- a magnificent Great Grey Oql which in the wild is found across the Northern Hemisphere,mainly in cold climates.We also had close-up photo-opportunities with Orion the Bald Eagles and Drifter the Saker Falcon.

It was a privileged end to a fascinating day in which we learned lots about birds of prey both far and near, It's wonderful for photographers but also excellent for a day out.

Passport to the Hawk Conservancy Trust:

Getting there:

  • The trust is situated four miles west of Andover, Hampshire, just off the A303 and 20 minuted from Stonehenge. From the A303, follow the brown tourist signs
  • There is plenty of free parking and designated disable parking near the entrance of the park


  • Until October 29, 10am to 5.30pm (last admission 4.30); October 30 to January 4, 10am to 4.30pm (last admission 3.30)


  • £14.65, concessions £12.95, children (ages 4-15) £10.30, under-fours free. Family tickets are also available.

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