Falconers train birds of prey at Torrey Pines Gliderport

When David Metzgar, a falconer and biologist first tried parahawking in Nepal, he thought, “It just struck me that Southern California is such an amazing place to fly, as are the foothills of the Himalayas ... so the Torrey Pines Gliderport was the best place to try and teach some birds to fly with me.”

Parahawking is an experience offered in very few places in the world. It consists of  tandem paragliding with an instructor alongside a bird of prey, which is used to help find the thermals (columns of rising air) during the flight. Metzgar explained, “Birds have a yet unexplained ability to sense where that rising area is in the atmosphere, and they lead us to it. It’s also a really unique opportunity to just commune with birds by actually flying around in their environment with them.”

This experience is not yet available at the Torrey Pines Gliderport, but Metzgar is working on it. His wife Antonella Zampolli left her career as a biologist at The Scripps Research Institute three years ago to become a full-time falconer. She is trying to familiarize her birds with the world-famous flying site.

“This is a fantastic place all around to get them trained, socialized, acquainted with gliders and seeing a lot of wings up in the sky. There are not that many places where you can do that, but you only have to look around and see how perfect this place is,” she said.

A Peregrine Falcon population in the area is an obstacle to flying free for the couple’s Lanner Falcons. “The Peregrines are very aggressive and territorial, and they dive bomb the Lanner birds when they see them because they are competition. While the Lanner Falcons are trained not to hunt, they attempt to defend themselves ... but there is little defense against the (bigger) Peregrine Falcon. Our hope is that eventually the Peregrines will tire of chasing them around, and realize they are not doing any harm,” Metzgar explained.

Metzgar and Zampolli both hold doctorates in biology and are paragliding pilots. They met flying at the Torrey Pines Gliderport. Zampolli, who hails from Italy, said the Gliderport has a special meaning for her. “I became a paraglider pilot because I came to work at The Scripps Research Institute and I would walk here and see people flying all the time. I said, ‘Oh, I have to try that out,’ so five or six years later, I met Dave.”

Zampolli, Metzgar and Terry Lockwood are the founding members and instructors of Total Raptor Experience, a company created in 2014 that combines their three passions —paragliding, birds of prey and ecology — to spread knowledge about wildlife and conservation. They offer education services with group experiences, flight demonstrations, owl encounters and ecology discussions.

“There’s less and less environment and natural places for these birds, so what we’re doing here is bringing these birds for up-close experiences, so people will better remember them and their needs,” Zampolli said.

The company’s headquarters are based out of Lockwood’s home in Ramona, where she has built habitats for the birds and farm animals exclusively from recycled materials. “We do some of our programs there, we do an owl encounter, the hawk/falcon/owl, and we also add farm fun,” Lockwood explained.

Falconry

Lockwood has been a falconer for 14 years. “Falconry is 4,000 years old, the oldest sport in history, and the most amazing form of bird watching you can ever experience,” she said, adding that the specialty doesn’t consist of teaching birds how to do tricks. “By definition, falconry is using a trained bird of prey to catch wild quarry.”

Birds of prey were widely used in the past as a way to put food on the table, she continued. “People recognized that this was a way of feeding their family, because other than that you had bows and arrows (to kill game), and if it was up to me with a bow and arrow, I’d starve (laughs). It became very popular up until the invention of the gun.”

Being a falconer is a commitment of time and money. Lockwood takes her birds hunting four times a week when it’s the season. “I go hiking, sometimes into some very un-nice areas, because where the bird goes, so I go. The bird flies free, following me in the field, as I’m beating on the bushes and shrubs looking for game to run out. The falcon flies after it and catches it. Then my birds get their daily ration of food, and I take the rest of it and freeze it,” she said.

Metzger added that birds of prey can also be used for pest control. “These guys are the most effective pesticide in the planet,” he said. “People don’t realize when they poison their prey items, the birds eat the poisoned animals, and they are much more sensitive than the mammals are. In the long run, people who use poison usually end up with more rats and mice.”

Total Raptor, 326 Oak St., Ramona, 92065, offers programs from $60 per person with group discounts. Contact them at info@totalraptorexperience.com or (619) 535-7307. totalraptorexperience.com

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