A Flight To Remember

Yesterday afternoon Wildlife Media students were given a real treat – a visit from local falconer Gary Swainson from the Cumberland Bird of Prey Centre in Thurstonfield, Carlisle. We all got to meet Gary and his raptors for a magnificent display of the birds’ agility and speed.

African Spotted Eagle Owl (Bubo africanus)

At first, the birds posed beautifully for us on their perches, gazing into the surprisingly warm afternoon sun. We couldn’t have asked for better weather. The cold still numbed our hands, but there was no wind and the sun shone brightly, giving us the chance to capture some beautiful shadows as the birds flew.



First up was Meg, a stunning Harris hawk. Unique among raptors, Harris hawks are gregarious, meaning they hunt in groups. This allows them to bring down large prey that would be impossible for solitary hunters (BBC, 2014). As Meg demonstrated her flying technique, Gary explained that Harris hawks fly close to the ground to prevent their silhouette being seen by their prey against the sky. This allows them to approach unseen and ambush their unsuspecting victims.

Harris Hawk (Parabuteo unicinctus)

Next to take to the air was Willow, a camera shy but beautiful Barn Owl. She hunts in a different way to the Harris hawk, relying heavily on sound. Described as “crepuscular” (Svensson, 2009), barn owls are twilight hunters. Their flight feathers have a comb-like fringed edge to them, which effectively muffles sound and allows them to fly in complete silence. This enables them to hear their prey – usually mice, voles or shrews – at much  higher frequencies. Barn owls, along with some other species, have a very pronounced facial disc, which works like a radar dish, “guiding sounds into the ear openings” (The Owl Pages, 2012).

Willow getting some limelight
Gary guiding Willow to a member of the group
Barn Owl (Tyto alba)


Finally we got to see Bungle stretch his wings. Bungle was a Bateleur eagle, a magnificent bird 60 cm long. Their name comes from the French meaning “tight-rope walker”, referring to the way their wings rock from side to side as they come in to land. This individual was the only bird we saw who was born wild. He came to the Centre as a rescue, after having been illegally imported into the country. Bungle was suffering “cut primary feathers and broken wings” (Cumberland Bird of Prey Centre), but has recovered well.

Bateleur Eagle (Terathopius ecaudatus)

I feel extremely privileged to have seen and been able to photograph such beautiful birds of prey. Gary’s enthusiasm and passion was contagious and I was inspired to write about my experience so others can see and appreciate the good work that the Cumberland Bird of Prey Centre does. Please visit their website for details on how you can book a day with these incredible birds.


  • BBC (2014) Harris Hawk. Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/nature/life/Harris’s_Hawk (Accessed: 12 February 2016)
  • Cumberland Bird of Prey Centre. Gallery. Available at: http://www.birdofpreycentre.co.uk/gallery (Accessed: 12 February 2016)
  • The Owl Pages (2012) Owl Ears and Hearing. Available at: http://www.owlpages.com/articles.php?section=Owl+Physiology&title=Hearing (Accessed: 12 February 2016)
  • Svensson, L. (2009) Collins Bird Guide. 2nd edn. London: Harper Collins Publishers


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