At Wingspan, they run a program which rehabilitates injured wild birds, rescues orphaned eggs and chicks, and breeds birds for release into the wild. They do some really good, worthwhile work for the native birds of prey in New Zealand. I was really impressed by their dedication and efforts. I was pleased to be able to support them a little bit by paying my entry fee and learning about the conservation they are involved in.
I visited Wingspan with my dad in April 2017. Upon arrival we looked through the museum which has information on the history of falconry, facts about the birds of New Zealand, and stats on how the breeding and rehabilitation is coming along. At the right time of year you can see eggs and chicks here too. Unfortunately we visited at the wrong time of year, but as I always say, you've got to have a reason to come back.
Next we checked out the aviaries which were mostly home to New Zealand Falcons; beautiful (and small) birds of prey which are threatened with the risk of extinction. There were also Australasian Harriers, Barn Owls and Moreporks on display. We were quite taken with a little Morepork called Whetu-Kura who sat right at the fence entertaining us by bouncing around, bobbing his head up and down, and eating his dinner. He was such a little cutie.
At 2pm it was time to go outside to watch the falconry display. It was fantastic! The trainer got Hisan, a New Zealand Falcon, to show us just how fast and agile these birds are. She used food rewards to demonstrate the speed and precision at which he is able to hunt. Sometimes she threw pieces of meat into the air while Hisan who was perched a good ten or twenty metres away would fly in and grab before it hit the ground. Absolutely amazing to watch (if you could keep up with him as he sped by)! At the end we (the audience members) got to hold Hisan while he ate chicken off a glove. Weighing only 250 grams, you could barely feel that you were supporting him at all.
As the aim with all the birds at the centre is to eventually release them into the wild the trainers must help recovering birds get strong enough to fend for themselves again. They form very trusting relationships with one another, but at the same time these birds are not domesticated nor sentimental. If a trainer feeds the bird enough during the show so they are not hungry anymore there is a risk that the bird will fly off and not return. The trainer we saw told us this happened to her once, and she had to camp out for a few nights waiting for him to return to her. To give the birds their best chance, it's not ideal to accidentally release them ahead of schedule. When the time does come for their release into the wild, it must be very tough for the trainers who naturally would become attached to the birds. It's another testament to their professionalism that they are able to do what is right for the animal.
There are only an estimated 10,000 New Zealand Falcons left in the wild making it less common than the Kiwi. Apparently, 200 per year are still shot by people trying to protect their chickens which boggles my mind completely. I don't know how anyone could shoot a native animal that is this endangered for the sake of a couple of chickens which are a dime a dozen. Stats like these really illustrate the need for education about conservation. If a species goes extinct there's no getting them back and it would be a terrible shame to lose something as beautiful as the New Zealand Falcon.
In summing up, Wingspan was a really cool little centre with lots of information and operating for a really good cause. I hope if you are in the Rotorua area you will make an effort to go along, support the cause and learn about these amazing animals.
Note: I recently read on their website that they are currently relocating their premises and are closed until further notice. They are aiming to be opening their new doors in August 2018.
Would you like to visit Wingspan or have you already? Let us know in the comments!