Thursday, November 12, 2009

Fly like an eagle

Jean's question was: Do you ever see falcons being flown for sport when you are out in the desert, running up sand dunes?

First of all, a total disclaimer: I rarely run up the dunes, and let me tell you, that's one of the hardest exercises you can do. Most of the time I'm pounding asphalt. Not as romantic, I give you.

The falcon is the national bird of the UAE, and absolutely beloved by the Arabs. The symbol of the falcon is everywhere (not unlike the Bald Eagle in the USA), and while I had seen one falcon at Souk Madinat, with whom you could get your photos taken, I have never seen a bird of prey of any kind out in the wild. Flamingoes, mynas, ravens, partridges, doves, even ravens can be seen in our neighborhood. But not falcons.

In the days of yore, Bedouins used to catch a falcon in the early fall, train her, hunt with her during the winter to suppliment their diets with meat, and also for the enjoyment of the sport, then let her go in the spring. As the birds became rarer and much more expensive to purchase, (in the thousands of dollars today), falconers began to keep their birds.

Concerned about the health of the species, the late leader of the UAE, HH Sheikh Zayed, who was an avid falconer himself, began a program to encourage the registration and release of falcons back into the wild. He also wrote Hunting with Falcons, which I hear is considered the definive work on falconry.

The truth is, I have never seen an Arab out flying his falcon, or any wild raptors. Hawk and eagle spotting was one of my favorite sports back in the Pacific Northwest, (Mike was entirely sure I was going to crash the car craning my neck to admire one of the beautiful birds along the road, yelling "Look kids! A Redtail!!") so when I heard about a local Birds of Prey show on the outskirts of Dubai, we had to go.

Eagle Owl. This photo does no justice to its stunning orange eyes.

It was the best. There was a small audience in a lovely outdoor setting,finally pleasantly cool now that it is November, and the birds were right there. Their trainer Zoli flew them very closely over our heads with a silent swish of feathers, (Thomas would scream with delight, loudly,) enthusiastically teaching us (in a charming Hungarian accent) all about each of the kinds of birds as he showed them.

The falcon was unbelievably fast. I can see how anyone, watching them hunt, would covet that kind of firepower. The Arabs hunt with Perigrine falcons, like the one above, and also the Saker, and Gyr falcons, and are issued their very own passports to be transported abroad.

We were introduced to owls, falcons, eagles, vultures, and even my favorite, the tiny Kestrel. The husband and wife duo do a fantastic job with real pride. I really, really recommend this program to anyone, kids or no. At 50 AED for adults and 25 for kids it was a steal. I also picked up a beautiful little leather falcon hood for 25 AED. ($6.80).

Interesting, fun, and we got to get very up close and personal with these beautiful creatures. Not only were we allowed to stroke the feathers of most of the birds, but we were encouraged to don the leather gloves and actually hold them.

How cool is that?

Now I literally can't wait another second to show you the photos:

My idea of bliss

Thomas and Natalie and a falcon

Bethy and Spooky, the Black Barn Owl. So gentle and soft.

Thomas and Otto the Kestrel. I was totally in love with Otto.

Bethy holding a 4 month old Snowy Owl and feeling very Harry Potter

Very heavy, slightly intimidating Golden Eagle.

I was geeking out. You can tell.

Thanks Jean for your great question! Additional thanks to Sariya for finding the way there and taking great photos of us.


Joanna said...

Great pictures! What a treat to see. I need to come up with a question for a blog posting!

*Paula* said...

You definitely look like you were in your element! Sounds wonderful!

Julia said...

How very cool! Woodland Park and Point Defiance NEVER let you touch any of the animals. You should definately go pet tigers now ;)

Jean said...

Thanks for the great report, Natalie. Who knew that birds were your bliss? You will definitely have to visit the World Center for Birds of Prey the next time you are in Boise.

Abid said...

Looks sick!!!

Still can't come up with a question though :o

Your Friendly Neighborhood Librarian said...

That's so cool!
Bush Gardens in Tampa, FL had tropical birds sit on your shoulders to get a photo. I don't know if they still do, but I remembered that looking at your fantastic pictures!
Thanks for sharing them.

Mom2ABJ said...

Thanks for letting us tag along! Who knew we lived so close to such greatness! :)

BTW!! I can't believe it didn't dawn on me before, but there is a bird park in Singapore you may want to visit if you have room on your itinerary. It's kind of a hidden gem, much like this place was. It's called the Jurong Bird Park and that is where I might have seen that 4 ft tall owl ... ??

Happy and safe travels to you and yours!

Jill said...

Wow... that is VERY cool, and oh-so scary too.

Fab photos!

camelland said...

i hope that you and sariya will be there when we finally make it out - and we can all go. i agree, the kestrels are great!

Natalie said...

Did you notice that Sariya is my model for the first photo there? :)