Birds of Prey & A Mogul Palace

Friday dawned cloudy, cold and windy – a blustery British day.  But, intrepid travelers that we are, the bluster didn’t stop us. We drove to Moreton in Marsh to visit the Cotswolds Falconry Centre and Sezincote. 

We stumbled on the Cotswold Falconry Centre quite accidentally on our very first visit to Great Britain 35+ years ago. We have returned every time we are anywhere nearby.  The Center is co-located with the Batsford Arboretum, which was our original reason for stopping.  The Arboretum has magnificent grounds and a terrific garden centre where we picked up this lovely little duo and schlepped it home in the overhead luggage lo, those many years ago. (Those were the [baggage] days!)

The relatively new Falconry Centre was also present on the Arboretum grounds. We in wandered for a falconry display, fell in love, and ended up staying to see all three of the day’s shows. The Centre is dedicated to preserving birds of prey and educating people about these magnificent birds.  It is wonderful to see how it has grown over the years, expanding its breeding capabilities across several dozen species and now housing more than 150 birds. (They also have an active Facebook page where hatchlings and new arrivals are featured.)

The Centre is housed in a set of unassuming outbuildings constructed from the typical warm yellow Cotswold stone. Behind the buildings are several dozen aviaries and an outdoor seating area and  field for flying displays, next to a large meadow and copse of trees which the birds frequent regularly.

In addition to the 3 daily public displays, the Centre also offers hour-long private sessions where people can book ahead to get more first-hand experiences with a range of birds. All proceeds go to support the Centre’s breeding program, which increasingly focuses on endangered species.  Here’s Chris conducting a private session with a Brahminy Kite and a Peregrine Falcon, and Amy with a smaller owl.  It was at one of the Centre’s displays that I learned about the crucial role falconers played in restoring Peregrine Falcons to the wild: birds raised for release into habitats in the US and Europe were obtained from falconers.

On our Friday visit, the morning display featured Took the Peregrine Flacon, Petra the Turkmenian Eagle Owl and Ivy the Common Buzzard. The afternoon show included Louie the Palm Nut Vulture, a young Ferruginous Hawk, a pair of African Fish Eagles and – everyone’s favorite – Hattie the Secretarybird. Generally, birds are lofted into the air by their handlers and return – or not, as they choose – to collect bits of food offered on the glove. (Hattie is an exception.)

Took was too fast to capture in pixels. Look closely and you can see him lifting off just in front of the two handlers.

Petra is a member of the world’s largest species of owl.  These Eurasian Eagle Owls originated in Turkmenistan but today are only found in parts of Russia, Kazakhstan and western Mongolia. Petra and Kelli put on quite a show.

Here comes Hattie! A secretarybird is carved in the decorative handle of a predynastic Egyptian knife (c. 3200 BCE), demonstrating how widespread this species once was. Today they are critically endangered due to loss of habitat, visibile in the wild only protected areas like the Okavango Delta, where we were fortunate to see them some years ago.

Hattie was hatched at the Centre along with three siblings as part of a worldwide program to conserve these giants. Secretarybirds kill their prey by stomping really, really fast: each stomp takes 150 milliseconds, just 1/10th of the time it takes for us to blink. Snakes are a favorite meal, and the feathered headress, which the birds raise when striking, is designed to distract prey into going after the wrong end of the bird. They are also expert flyers, a skill Hattie demonstrated not long ago by flying all the way into Moreton on Marsh. It took a full scale hunt to track her down and convince her to return.

African vultures are also critically endangered, and the Centre now has breeding pairs of several species. The Palm Nut Vulture lives in central African forests, woodlands and mangroves, where palm nuts are readily available. They are the only Bird of Prey capable of living an entirely vegetarian lifestyle. 

The African Fish Eagles are intended as a breeding pair. The handlers were carefully flying them together as a form of dating, with the male expected to show the ropes to the younger, less experienced female. The eagles had such a good time together that they declined to leave the trees when the show was over. The handlers were unconcerned, and the birds came down before we left.

Even though it was a “rubbish day for flying” (pretty rubbish for humans, too), we all enjoyed the shows and learned a lot from our visit.

In between flying displays, we slipped across the road to visit Sezincote, a unique local great house. (Sezincote was the name of a medieval settlement here. The name derives from Old English for “place of the oaks.”)

As its website states, “nothing quite prepares you for Sezincote.” Built in 1805, when fascination with “the Orient” was all the rage, the house was designed in Neo-Mughal style – or Northern India adapted to the English countryside. Mughal architecture blends Islamic and Hindu elements and Sezincote reflects this heritage in its red sandstone walls, onion domes and crescent fan arches – plus many pieces of Indian art scattered around the grounds. The house and gardens are open to the public and bookable for private events. (Images immediately below on sunny days from Wikipedia and Wild Weddings Photography.)

The estate is huge – 3500 acres, of which 2000 acres are still farmed as a family enterprise.

Charming as the cows may be, the gardens are Sezincote’s chief delight. Covering only seven acres, the layout around a series of spring-fed pools feels like a much larger space. Let’s wander!

The Lower Thornery

Circling back from the Lower to Upper Thornery, I took a closer look at the Snake Pool.

The Upper Thornery and Surya Temple.

Deodar Lawn and North Grove

The Persian Garden

Tea and cakes in the Orangery.

Back to the Cotswolds Falconry Center via the Wildflower Meadow.

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