It’s 2019, and what better way to start the year than to organise some incredible experience visits? Our first visit of the year was to Willows Bird of Prey Centre (great name!) who were kind enough to invite us up to Sevenoaks in Kent to spend the day with their feathered friends. Gemma and I had never taken part in a bird of prey experience, so we were excited to see what the day would entail.
The drive from Brighton and up the A23 was short and simple - straight motorways, a few country roads, and we were there! Look out for Coolings Green and Pleasant Garden Centre; Willows Bird of Prey Centre is located at the back of the building. The car park is large and easily accessible. I was impressed to see how much was going on at the venue, including large nature trails, garden and aquatic facilities, and a cosy café (the menu looked delicious.) You could most certainly make a day of it! After a short wander through the garden centre, we found the Willows Bird of Prey ticket cabin. Once booked in, you’ll have full access to roam the 6-acre nature trail, as well as entry to see the beautiful birds up close!
Karl was our guide for the day. He met us by the ticket cabin, and led us through to the sanctuary. He was very friendly, and obviously had a keen passion for all the birds which was great to see and hear! The birds are carefully kept in a secure area of the centre, and all name tags are displayed on the front of their homes, so we knew exactly who we were being introduced to! Whilst Karl familiarised us with some of the incredible species, including a red-tailed hawk and an adorable boobook owl called Cosmo, the bird who really stole the show was a newer addition to the family: a raven. What a beautiful and incredibly interactive bird! An impressive part of bird handling – which I’d never heard about before – is ‘imprinting.’ This is used on birds once they hatch to associate them with humans, so they visualise themselves as being ‘one of us’, and is carried out because they don’t automatically know they are a bird when they are born, so they are easier to handle.
We were now ready for the first flying demonstration of the day! As we headed down through the nature trail towards the field we could spot a number of animals, including wallabies, goats, and ferrets! Yes, ferrets. We were told there would be ferret racing later on, so you can imagine I was rather excited to see what this entailed. Nick was taking the bird of prey session that day, and he announced each bird as they flew from post to post, greedy for snacks. My favourite would have to be Ratchet the beautiful little owl; I can’t deny we all sniggered at his fuzzy moustache! After finding out so much more about the birds, we were ready for the added excitement – that’s right, the ferret racing! Mario, Luigi, and Biscuit were super flexible and ready to race around the tubes for their winning treat. Everyone was cheering, and it was a great laugh to break up the day.
Gemma and I were now booked in for our personal meet and greet with the birds, to learn exactly how to handle and fly them. Gemma had Rio the Harris hawk, and I was introduced to a very gentle barn owl. Gemma was up first. Karl pulled out the thick bird-handling glove and Rio instantly flew straight over and perched on her arm - obviously wanting a snack! Rio was smooth and delicate, and watching him fly freely around the field was incredible to see. I was up next with the adorable Scrumpy the Barn Owl. The 5-year-old owl was a delight to handle, and a great model to take up-close photos of. The final part of our bird-handling experience was exceptional. We were introduced to Delilah, a beautiful falcon built for speed and precision. She darted through the sky, pinpointing her moment to soar towards Karl with the food swinging about. He mentioned that just a few minutes’ flying would be the equivalent of a human running a marathon! Not bad a for a couple of minutes of exercise…
Our session came to an end, so Gemma and I had to say goodbye to the birds. We’d like to say a huge thank you to Lauren for organising our visit, as well as Karl and the team for being so friendly and welcoming. We had an amazing time and will most definitely be visiting Willows Bird of Prey Centre again!