“ Address: The English School of Falconry, Old Warden Park, Nr Biggleswade, Bedfordshire SG18 9EA „
~For the Birds~
My husband and I love birds of prey. We used to be members of a birds of prey centre in Suffolk and went several times a year. A few years ago we spent a full day at the birds of prey centre at Holdenby Hall in Northamptonshire and had a fabulous time, just the two of us and the staff, taking the birds for walks, weighing and feeding them and flying lots of different owls, falcons and other birds. When I saw that the 'offers' company Groupon were offering vouchers for a half day at the Birds of Prey Centre near Biggleswade in Bedfordshire for just £18 each, I snapped up a pair. At the time the offer ended they had sold just over 30 vouchers so I was optimistic that when we finally got to the centre there wouldn't be too many other people. Sadly I was wrong. I think they must have done another round of offers since we bought ours as around 50 people turned up for our session.
The Birds of Prey Centre is in Bedfordshire, near to the village of Old Warden which is not too far from Biggleswade. Actually I'm making that bit up as I have absolutely no idea where Biggleswade actually is but the address is 'near Biggleswade'. Don't trust your sat nav to get you to the right place as it seems that the same post code covers a massive country estate. Our Tom Tom was way off target, delivering us to a blocked bridleway in the middle of some fields. Instead you need to keep an eye out for the brown signs showing the logos for a garden centre, aerodrome and bird centre. Follow the signs, not that there are many of them, and just keep to the main road until you find the aerodrome. Drive past all the hangers to the back of the site and follow signs to the Birds of Prey centre.
The car park was pretty muddy and messy and was reassuringly not too full when we arrived. We handed over our vouchers, received some sticky labels to wear so the staff would know which group we were in and were told to return to the reception area at 10 o'clock.
~Flocking to the Centre - Far TOO Many People~
The Birds of Prey Centre is one of the largest I've seen and has a lot of birds of all shapes and sizes. To maximise the "Wow, what the heck is that?" factor, their first aviary contains a whopping great female white-tailed sea eagle, the Jumbo Jet of the bird world and the kind of beast that makes you marvel that something so large can ever get off the ground. Across from the eagle are a row of display perches with a variety of owls tethered and squawking and screeching. Dozens more aviaries and perches are laid out around the site with a large variety of birds. The aviaries were clean, well maintained and the birds didn't appear to be particularly stressed by their environment. Most of them have been hand reared in captivity and (rather sadly) know no other life.
The group gathered and we were divided into three groups, each with a member of staff to guide us through the morning. Our group consisted of sixteen people - in my opinion far too many to be handled by one person. Our guide was a cute little chap of around 20 years old who clearly adored his birds and was adored by some of them in return. He started by introducing a little grey scops owl called Little Sid who instantly charmed all who met him. This was the ultimate 'starter' owl as he weighs only nine ounces and nobody will get arm ache holding Little Sid. Next was a scruffy barn owl with a bad attitude called Trevor. Perhaps Trevor's attitude has something to do with being female and being called Trevor. The star of the bunch was his third owl, a male Turkmenian Eagle Owl called Dusty who viewed Little Sid as not so much a little bird as a little snack. We had to keep them apart. Dusty had been hand reared from a chick by our guide and clearly doted on him both as a source of food and a surrogate mum. We were told lots about the owls and everyone who wanted to got to hold each of the birds which with such a group meant nearly an hour of our visit was spent just meeting the three owls.
~Come Fly With Me~
Next step was to go flying in the 'arena', a field behind the aviaries. The field was very exposed and it was a very cold and windy day and the wind was clearly going to be a challenge to the birds. Our guide brought out a Harris Hawk called Chaplin who hadn't flown in wind. He explained why Chaplin was wearing a bell on his tail, how it was attached and that it caused no pain or discomfort to the bird. When released from the glove, Chaplin headed straight off to hide in the trees. He flew three or four times before the handler realised that it was just too stressful for the bird and he apologised and took him back to his cage, returning with Trevor whose attitude was much improved by the prospect of flying. The actual flying was pretty lame with the birds covering a distance of no more than 30 feet each time. Poor little Trevor was just too light for the wind and several times she attempted to land on a perch only to be literally blown away which was funny in the 'man slips on banana skin' way that makes you feel a bit bad about laughing. Trevor flew to the glove for each of the 16 customers without showing any sign of getting bored or annoyed. By this point some of us were getting pretty cold and the morning was dragging a bit. It took another appearance from Dusty the Eagle Owl to perk us all up again.
Dusty loves to fly even when it's windy and he fought the weather to gobble down a lot of day old chick legs. At one point he got a bit ambitious when he spotted a swan on the river nearby but I think even Dusty knew that was a bit too much of a challenge. By contrast, the distance he had to fly from perch to glove was no challenge at all for such a big bird and towards the end of the sixteen flights Dusty was pre-empting the calls to the glove by flying back and beating the handler to get to the food. It was as if Dusty was saying "Come on guys, get a move on". For each person to get a flight with two birds took up our second hour.
~Tea, Cake and Eagles~
Next stop was the shed with the water boiler for tea or coffee and cheap cake and a chance to warm up a bit before we went to see the eagles. Display perches held two juvenile bald eagles, a weird stroppy snake-catching eagle who hated our guide, a Chilean blue eagle and another who wasn't introduced. We spent the rest of our third hour all holding the least aggressive of the bald eagles, a big fella by the name of McCoy. An American Bald Eagle is a hefty lump to have on your arm so the amount of time people held him was a bit shorter than the other birds. Most people were quite intimidated by McCoy and weren't entirely reassured by the claims he was really reliable and not aggressive. I love eagles and I'm not afraid at all but I did get a bit of a surprise when McCoy took a liking to my teeth and decided to investigate.
When everyone had had a go with McCoy our session was over. The guide was happy to take requests to see particular birds and we headed off to see a golden eagle and the baby condor - a massive soppy grey beast by the name of Tiny. Apparently the owner of the centre likes giving them daft names and they have a stork by the name of Marge (or maybe Marg). I was a bit shocked by the golden eagle's cage which was tucked away in an area that the public weren't really supposed to visit - I say that because we had to clamber over all sorts of rubbish to get there and the aviary was much more stinky and dirty than the more public display cages.
~Happy Birds but not a good offer~
With the exception of the stinky cages at the end, I felt that the birds were really well cared for. The staff and volunteers all clearly loved the birds and there were a lot of people around to help with any questions. In the warmer months of the year I would assume that visitors would get the chance to see flying displays but on the day we visited we were just two of the very many people being treated to 'production line' birds of prey experiences.
To book a half day session with the birds at full price should - if their website is to be believed - cost £78 per person. What we received was just about worth the discounted price that we paid of £18 but was by no stretch of the imagination worth the list price. I believe that most Groupon suppliers get only half the 'deal price' so I can understand that they need to cut corners and with 50 people generating £9 a head after Groupon took their slice it would still be a good earner for the centre. However to describe what we had as having a value of £78 was very misleading. I would accept that it's perhaps unfair to judge them in this way BUT if they choose to pitch the offered product as having such a high value then I can only judge them by what we got.
If you would like to book a half day session, a full day or a hunting trip with the hawks I would strongly suggest to check what the maximum group size will be and how many birds you'll get to fly. Anything more than 4 people and I would recommend to shop around and find a place that can offer a more personal experience. For that money I would expect a lot more time with the birds, more techniques for flying them and a better piece of cake with my polystyrene cup of coffee. For £18 we got fair value but if I'd have paid full whack I'd have been furious.
Birds of Prey Centre
Old Warden Park,
Bedfordshire SG18 9EA