Rotorua: In rapture over our rare raptor

By Alex Tully

Getting up close to NZ's native falcon was an all-time family highlight, writes Alex Tully.

Poster girl Millie (or Millennium) will happily sit on the hand of visitors to the Wingspan Bird of Prey Centre in Rotorua. Photo / Alex Tully
Poster girl Millie (or Millennium) will happily sit on the hand of visitors to the Wingspan Bird of Prey Centre in Rotorua. Photo / Alex Tully

Whoosh! Something passed so close to my head that I felt my hair part with the breeze.

My eyes searched left, then right and up to the skies for the missile, but it had moved on.

And then suddenly there it was, perched metres away, looking nonchalantly around with its large dark eyes - a New Zealand falcon.

If you want to catch sight of our elusive native falcon, or karearea, you'd have to be lucky to see it in the wild, but you're guaranteed an encounter at the Wingspan Bird of Prey Trust in Rotorua.

Tucked away among the trees 10 minutes from the centre of Rotorua, Wingspan is almost as elusive as the endangered falcon it seeks to protect, but it's well worth a visit.

We first explored the complex where the falcons, moreporks, barn owls and hawks live. My boys were delighted when a falcon flew down and seemed just as interested in them as they were in it.

A display nearby allowed us to compare our arm spans to the wing width of the raptors, or birds of prey, including the now-extinct giant New Zealand eagle, which was huge.

Then we investigated the museum on the history of falconry, including a new Mongolian display, where we delighted in learning the special names for groups of raptors - such as a convocation of eagles, a cast of falcons, a kettle of hawks and, my personal favourite, a parliament of owls.

Before we knew it, it was time for the daily falconry display. We all watched in rapture as raptor residents put on an amazing acrobatic show.

One of only a few people in the country holding a permit to practise falconry, Wingspan staff member Andrew Thomas told us interesting facts about falcons while swinging a piece of meat on a string.

He explained Wingspan used the ancient art of falconry to rehabilitate injured, orphaned or captive-bred raptors to hone hunting skills prior to their release into the wild. Through the training, the birds learn if they chase moving objects, they will be rewarded with something tasty.

Although we regularly see the Australasian harrier hawk, or kahu, gliding while searching for carrion along roadsides, Andrew said the chances of seeing the smaller, speckled falcon hunting in the wild were low. The bird is endangered.

At the end of the display, Andrew invited visitors to hold a falcon on a gloved hand. Dozens of hands shot into the air. It was a unanimous decision in our family that getting face-to-face with a NZ falcon was a highlight of our lives.

CHECKLIST

Further information: Wingspan Bird of Prey centre is in Paradise Valley Rd, near the Agrodome, Ngongotaha, Rotorua. Admission for adults is $25, children $8, seniors $20.

Alex Tully paid her own way to Wingspan.

- NZ Herald

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