Meeting owls from Apollo Falconry

I mentioned in my good things in November post how I’d found some things for us to do on Groupon. One of them was the owl wander with owls from Apollo Falconry. It’s worth checking on Groupon too if you’re thinking of going because the deal that I got may still be there.

The experiences are run from a couple of locations, so don’t get confused as we did. If you book via Groupon, you need the address in Oxfordshire on the Groupon page, not the address on the falconry website, which is about a 30-minute drive away.

When we arrived at the hotel, we checked where the birds would be and walked down to where we met Konny and her birds. She brought the owls out one at a time so that we could meet and find out about them. We were the only ones there that day – there are good things about booking in the middle of the week during school term time – so we had plenty of chances to handle the owls and ask questions.

Billie the barn owl

Actually we heard Billie long before we saw her! It wasn’t the kind of sound you expect from an owl, more of a screech, but she seemed to want to be out and interacting with us.

We were given thick gloves to wear so that our hands were protected from the talons and the owls had somewhere to land. The idea is that you lift your hand up and make a fist, then the owl will come, land on it, and take the food from Konny. Some of the owls were happy to stay around for a while after taking the food, whereas others flew straight back to the perch.

Billie needed no encouragement. She flew straight to the glove and was happy to chill out there for a while. The only thing she wasn’t sure about was a dog, off the lead, whose irresponsible owner didn’t call it back. S ended up herding it in the other direction. But seriously people, take notice of what your dog is doing and if it’s potentially causing a problem for others, or could be in danger itself, call it back and use your lead!

So, Billie was the smallest, but probably the most up for interaction, and of course food. The owls don’t really care about the people who have come to see them – their main motivator is the food – but this natural instinct to fly for food can be used to train them. It’s also important that these owls get exercise by flying, because this prevents them from becoming overweight. They have learned that flying to the glove will be rewarded with food, so that’s what they do.

They don’t hunt for food themselves and see people as the food provider, but they will fly to get their food – mainly chicken, which has been killed and chopped up in advance.

Billie has been socialised from a young age, being introduced to lots of different environments and noises so that she can become accustomed to them and is less likely to be spooked at events with the public.

River the tawny owl

River is a tawny owl, the one that makes the sound most of us think of when we think of an owl calling late at night. I didn’t realise until yesterday that this call is made up of two parts – the female, followed by the male (or males). We didn’t hear the mating call from River, but she made cute little trill sounds when she was being fed!

River the Tawny Owl

River was a bit bigger than Billie, and she the tawny owl shape is more short and squat than the barn owl. They blend in well with the trees and if they feel threatened, they will make themselves thinner to hopefully blend in even more and stay undetected by predators.

River was a bit less sure of herself than Billie, partly due to another dog – this time on lead – but still something to look at and worry about. There was quite a lot going on too – a train going by, some workmen building etc. She was a little hesitant at first, but after a while she got the hang of it and was happy to fly to the glove. A bit like me before the first coffee – it takes a while to get going, but after that it’s ok!

She didn’t land as solidly as the others, but she kept trying, and in some ways that’s more admirable. It’s easy to do something when you know you can do it, but not so easy if you aren’t so sure.

Of course the owls don’t go through these thought processes – they just want the food. But I still think it takes more effort and determination to do something if you’re not quite sure you’ll make it!

Koby the European Eagle owl

He was the biggest and the star of the show! He answered back in a way that made him sound a bit like a cat saying “no”, although really that was just his way of interacting. Konny talks to her birds a lot, and they all communicate in their own way!

Koby the European Eagle Owl

Koby is much bigger than the others and I could feel the air as he flew by, occasionally being bopped on the head by a wing as he flew back to the perch! That’s what you get for having short arms! He seemed happier on the perch – his safe place – but he would come over for food, his favourite being chick’s heads, and then fly back.

He has a five and a half foot wing span, which means in flight, he is wider than I am tall! A big, impressive guy!

Final thoughts

I thought it was great that they all had such distinctive personalities. Barn owls are my favourite anyway, and Billie was full of confidence, despite her tiny size! River was quite sweet and her initial lack of confidence made us keep willing her to do well! Koby was big and loud and a bit like a teenager who didn’t feel like doing as he was told, until he was tempted off the perch!

Spending an hour with Konny and her owls was a really interesting experience and one that I’d recommend to any of you who like owls, experiences that get you out into nature to learn something, or learning who just want to learn more about animals.

This Groupon link for Opollo Owls is correct at the time of publishing.

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An afternoon at Hogwarts – Harry Potter studio tour

It’s been on our list of things to do for a while, and on Tuesday S and I went to the wonderful world of wizardry in Watford! We drove to Watford for an afternoon of spells, magic, and snowy owls!

Outside you can see the wizard chess pieces, which are enormous. I was only able to reach a hoof. Ok I’m not very tall, but they weigh around 226 kg, so you can imagine how big they are.

If you need a signed tour or one with audio description, these are available, but you need to book two weeks in advance because people are brought in specifically to do them. We booked quite spontaneously and wanted to go during our week off, so we didn’t have audio description, but S described what he was looking at, and there was also a lot of information available on the digital guide. The guide is mainly interviews with people who worked on the film, designers, make-up artists, directors, and the cast themselves. A person with no sight will not be able to interact with the guide independently as it’s a touch screen, but it certainly saves someone else with you from doing a lot of reading!

I think my favourite interviews were with the animal trainers – no surprise to anyone who has been reading my blog for a while. How they trained the dogs that played Fang, how the ravens were easier to train than the owls, and how a large hare patronus was actually a deerhound in a glowing coat. The owls took six months to learn how to carry the letters. In dangerous scenes, part of it was done with real owls, but when it came to an owl flying into a window, the real owl flew through an open window, and the bit where it connected with the glass was done using special effects.

Yes, I loved all the information about the animals, but it was also good to hear from the characters themselves about what it was like to basically grow up on the set during the 10 years in which the films were produced.

Everyone seemed really passionate about their work and about getting every little detail right – every prop, costume, and set. It didn’t just seem like a job to them. They wanted to recreate the Harry Potter world and make it as good as it could be on screen.

You watch a short video first, and then you are taken into the great hall, where so many important scenes took place. The floor is made of real York stone – they needed something robust that would stand up to so many feet walking over it. You then visit other places such as Dumbledore’s office, the potions classroom, the Weasley’s house, the night bus and Diagon Alley with its cobbled streets.

Portraits were used in different ways by different directors, but what we didn’t know before was that many of them were based on crew members, including one guy and his … you guessed it …dog!

Oh, and while we’re on the topic of dogs, here’s another fun fact – Dobby’s ears were based on a dog called Max, who used to hang out under the designers’ desks!

Halfway round we stopped in the café for a butterbeer – well we got the drinks that we wanted and shared a butterbeer, which is actually cream soda with butterscotch on top. I was glad I tried it, but I preferred my coffee!

There are three gift shops throughout the tour. One at the beginning/end, one in the forest, and one at the railway platform. They sell different things, so if you see something you like, you need to buy it in the shop where you see it. I ended up with quite a few things to remind us of our day, including an owl mug (of course!), a Gryffindor top, and a chocolate frog for my slider bracelet. I also got an enormous chocolate frog – which is cute in its own little way and I don’t want to eat him – but I’m sure I will!

I was conflicted about whether to take my white cane or my crutch with me. As S was guiding me, I couldn’t manage both, so I opted for the crutch because I thought we’d be doing a lot of walking. I was definitely glad of it by the end! The staff were helpful and friendly. Other tourists didn’t care and shoved into it several times. It’s good I am not putting too much weight on it now. I resisted the temptation to give people bruised ankles, but it made me think of how difficult it must be for people who genuinely have balance problems or need a crutch/cane for support. People really don’t pay attention to where they’re going.

If you are blind, I would recommend trying out the audio described tour, although I can’t tell you anything about it. I had a good day and was able to get a lot out of it from the descriptions, information, and sound effects. If you like a really hands-on experience, this may not be as good for you as most things are behind bars and you are asked not to touch, and I’m not aware of any touch tours, but I don’t think you need this because there are other ways to enjoy the experience, such as the interviews and the sound effects.

The most impressive thing for S was the huge model of Hogwarts, which is the last thing you come to before leaving the tour. You can walk all the way around it and see every little detail of all the parts of the castle and its surroundings. Every external shot of the castle was filmed using this model, and it kept being remodelled as new parts of the castle were described in the books. This is until the final scenes when parts of the castle were destroyed – that was done with computer graphics so no harm came to the actual model.

I think my favourite part was the enchanted forest – partly because it’s about animals, but also because it was a more immersive experience. You could feel the forest flor under foot, and hear the animals and the wolves howling. You’ll see buckbeak and a centaur as you walk through. Watch out though if you’re not a fan of spiders, because you know that a massive one lives in the forest!

Around the exhibition there are 6 stamp machines, which you can use to collect six stamps to go in your Harry Potter passport. It’s good because the stamps are raised and I could feel them, especially basic shapes, such as the snitch and the 9 on the platform 9 3/4.

If you want photo opportunities, you can take your own, such as pushing a trolley through the wall on the platform, or sitting in the flying car. You can also get pictures in robes for a wanted wizard poster, or you can sit on a broom and watch the scenery as you fly over.

I certainly hadn’t realised how different the wands were. You could buy them in the shop, and there were also wands on display. I knew they were all unique, but not that they were made of so many different materials with different shapes. Also, we learned that the real wands had to be reinforced with strengthening material to make them safe when the actors were using them.

It was a fun day out and I’d recommend it to anyone who loves Harry Potter and who wants to spend a few hours in his world! The tour takes around 3.5 hours, although apart from the first room and the video, you can go at your own pace. I like this because then you’re not stuck with a big group the whole way round, and you can spend more time on the things that particularly interest you. Also if it’s a bit too loud, like the fight with the death-eaters, you can move on. Or if you’re really interested in something, you can spend a bit longer finding out about that.

I’ve actually only read the books and not seen the films – I thought they had not been audio described. Amazon Prime has them with audio description, But it appears only in the US. Grr! Hopefully that will change, but it didn’t matter for the tour as I knew all the characters and film plots. In fact with the books I think you get inside the characters’ heads more, but that’s a debate for another day!

Afterwards we stopped off at Nana’s, a Lebanese restaurant nearby. We got a mixture of small dishes and I can highly recommend the baba ghanoush (smoked aubergines with tahini, garlic, and lemon!)

Have you been to the Harry Potter Studio tour? If so, what was your favourite part?

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