Out of Context

Notes From Nature: Jun., 2011

I’m standing quite still in a grassy, tree-cloistered alley. Just yards away, something is emitting a thin, grating shriek, over and over. So haunting is the call, my young son grabs at my legs and wants to return the way we’ve just come. And this despite the fact that we’ve just, quite literally, come eye-to-eye with a wedge tailed eagle, one of the largest, most powerful, sternest-looking birds of prey in the world.

We’re not on the African plains, nor in the Andean foothills. Rather, we’re just a few kilometres north-west of Vienna’s city centre near an unassuming little place called Unterkirchbach, nestled between the gentle undulations of the Vienna Woods.

We’re here out of curiosity more than anything else. A walking map of the area marks the spot with a bird of prey graphic, but an internet search threw up a blank.

So after a short car journey, past increasingly rural settlements of chocolate box houses, green meadows and inviting Gasthäuser, a winding road drops us down into the aforementioned village and we take a tight right down a narrow, single track lane.

At the end of the track, we pull over next to a cluster of wooden buildings and a large red and white geoffnet sign. We have found Greifvogelzuchtstation Hagenbachklamm, a private breeding centre for birds of prey that is open to the public.

After handing over an entrance fee of five euros, we’re presented with a large, rather rudimentary-looking folder: a guide to the birds. There’s an impressive variety here: We watch an African fish eagle bask in the sun, its wings outstretched; Egyptian vultures primp and preen; and a snowy owl looks thoroughly unimpressed by today’s temperatures. There are many more species besides.

Greifvogelzuchtstation Hagenbachklamm is an interesting place to visit, but like many zoos and other institutions for captive birds and animals, there’s a certain context missing. Looking at these birds, I remember Austrian wildlife biologist Dr Richard Zink telling me about seeing his first bearded vulture in the wild.

Hiking in the high meadows of the Tyrol in Western Austria at the age of 14, there was no one else around. Suddenly, the huge bird (it has a wingspan approaching three metres) began circling above him, slowly coming closer.

“It was within 20 to 30 metres and it really looked into my eyes,” he said, still with a sense of awe in his voice many years later.

We round a corner to find the bird that’s emitting the shrieks: It’s a magnificent golden eagle. As I tell my boy that this species can sometimes feed on prey as large as a young fox, and that it was reportedly the ‘Goldie’s’ reputation as a lamb-killer* that drove its extermination in Ireland, Wales and most of England by the mid-eighteenth century, he scurries past without so much as a sideways glance.

“We passed a playground just up the road,” he says. “Let’s go there.”


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*According to Birds Britannica by M Cocker and R Mabey, the bird’s contribution to overall lamb mortality in spring is negligible.

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