Subi with Chilli.
It was like this. I was bored one day and so I decided to waste some money on my mobile phone and enter the competitions in New Woman Magazine. A few weeks later the postman rang the bell and delivered my prize - a day out of my choice from Red Letter Days. Well, at the time I belonged to gym and health club, considering my background the idea of a shopping day in London was a tad redundant, driving or sailing arenít really my thing and those were all just for one person anyway. So instead I opted for a day out for two people flying birds of prey at Eagle Heights. Kent is an awful long way from Manchester by train. Anyway, Subiís got most of the photo-call; as you can see from the last picture I wasnít having a very photogenic day!
Marty flying in to Mary
First up was Chilly, an American Bald Eagle. Eagle Heights has managed to breed a fair number of these fabulous birds and they keep trying to gift some back to the USA, but wars and stuff like that have kept the President too busy for the last few years to accept a couple of eagle chicks. American Bald Eagles arenít good at counting and so the idea is to add the chicks to existing nests of hatchlings, but of course thereís only a very small window of opportunity in which to do this. Youíd think he would make a bit of time for his country's national symbol, but well, there you go.

Chilly was a new-ish arrival at Eagle Heights when we met him, and he was being flown hand to hand while the staff got him down to his proper flying weight. As large vicious hunting birds go he was quite a sweetheart really - she says with undigested egg yolk from a day old chick running down her glove.

Marty - just being Marty
Next was Marty - a Tawny Eagle from Africa. We took him out onto the hillside and he shot off right across the valley; we could just about see him as a speck catching an updraft - and being mobbed half-heartedly by a pair of wild buzzards - about eight miles away. We flew him for around an hour, by which time heíd had a few chick legs and was beginning to be ďfed upĒ. Birds of prey only ever fly to hunt. The rest of the time they sit and, Iíd imagine, belch! Again, for a savage carnivore I thought Marty was quite a ďgentĒ. And then he ruined his image on the way back to his perch by swallowing an offered whole chick in one gulp. Gannet!

Before lunch we were given a brief tour of the centre. Some people might think that keeping the birds chained to their perches is cruel. But, as I just mentioned, birds of prey only ever fly to hunt and then only every few days, so they spend a fair amount of time roosting anyway. All the birds are taken out, exercised and fed regularly which, considering how many there are at the centre, is a full time job on its own, without all the various activities and public demonstrations the staff do as well.

Marty taking food from Subi
One exception was a Golden Eagle we met early on in the day. Iím mentioning no names but he was kept by a celebrity who is a parrot enthusiast. Unfortunately he kept the eagle as he would a parrot - in a cage - and as a result when the Eagle arrived at the Heights his nostrils were full of maggots and his wings were so badly damaged that he will never fly again. But they have nursed him back to health, they take very good of him and hopefully heíll have a happier life as part of their breeding programme.

We were taken to see a couple of chicks - a peregrine and a buzzard - who were being hand reared. (No photos around the babies, I'm afraid.) The peregrine was making an unholy racket when we arrived and looked ready to eat anything, including stray fingers, but we were allowed to hold the dopier-looking buzzard chick - awwww!

Eddie - female Gyr Saker Falcon
Eagle Heights has a reptile house as well with quite a few iguanas and some quite large snakes. This has happened more by accident than design; the local RSPCA tend to bring rescued reptiles to them as they are the only people in the area with any expertise at all in looking after them. And the only people with a dedicated supply of food. Reptiles arenít really the Centreís priority but they donít have the heart to turn them away, so please sponsor one if you can to help with their upkeep. Of course, you can sponsor the birds as well.

After lunch we took out two Harris Hawks for a long walk through the woods. Harris Hawks are from South America and are unusual in that they hunt in flocks. Usually you canít fly two birds of prey at the same time; they are far too territorial and would simply fight. Our two hawks were veteran Baggie (with me) and youngster Denzil (with Subi).

Alaska - female American Bald Eagle
We walked them round the fields and through the woods for about two hours. It was a bit spooky to look up and spot them in a tree both staring hungrily down at us - I think they were hoping we would flush out a rabbit for them. As we walked on theyíd fly ahead and wait for us; Baggie especially seemed to enjoy buzzing us and clipping us with his wings as he zipped past. At one point he decided to go after a pheasant - significantly larger than him - and then sat looking smug and ignoring the ticking off he was getting. Denzil kept trying to land on branches too small to support his weight and floundered around in the trees like a big brown moth, then he managed to skid off a perfectly sound fencepost and tried to perch on my head instead. They aren't called Bird-brains for nothing!

We got back to the centre just in time to catch the last show of the day. Then it was time for a quick scoot around the souvenier shop and back to the B&B in Eynesford.

Annie - Egyptian Eagle
Iíd certainly recommend giving this a try if you donít mind a little bit of blood and messiness. But I would suggest travelling there by car if you have one as itís about a four mile walk up a pretty steep hill from the nearest village.

I think the main thing I learned is the single-mindedness of birds of prey. We get used to the way our pets behave, and while we might know intellectually that wild animals are not the same, actually experiencing them at close quarters makes a world of difference. I think some of the misconception is the fault of fantasy films and dramas that romanticise the image of the mediaeval character with the hawk on his wrist.

In fact, the birds arenít particularly friendly, loyal or smart; thereís nothing really for you to bond with the way you would with a cat or dog. They are merely trained to tolerate human contact; as far as they care you're a perch. They certainly arenít tame and you canít afford to be squeamish or sentimental around them.

Harold - Griffin Vulture.
I had to remind myself constantly not to be tempted to stroke Baggie with my free hand - at the best he would have assumed I had food in it, at the worst he would have resented being touched and might even have gone for me.

The birds do exactly what nature designed them to do, and that is butcher small fluffy animals

Subi with Denzil, Mary with Baggie.