Happy Birdday Owl be seeing you

I slept terribly on Saturday night. Woke up repeatedly throughout the night, often with no feeling in one of my hands and having to shake it back to life. I have a sneaking feeling the bed is on a slope.

But! I was hoping not to let that ruin Sunday, the centrepiece of Helen's Christmas present, what with it being her birthday. First up: presents. I presented her with the one physical object I'd bought her: a book for 3 year olds called "That's Not My Owl", around 12 pages of tactile owls which are not my owl until the owl at the end that is my owl. This is the only book I've bought her since we've been going out that she's actually read from start to finish.

A somewhat better present next: in a couple of weeks we're going to see Bat Out Of Hell: The Musical. You heard! So, birthday over with time to get back to Christmas, meaning another day trip away from Hannover. Time to go to Walsrode, via some pizza and a big pretzel with bits of ham.

Also, a remarkable visit to the loo. Neither of us were surprised that it costs €1 to enter the toilets, but what was unexpected was the €0,50 money off voucher you get in return, plus all the paraphernalia about how amazing Sanifair are. Seriously, it's like getting "frequent pisser" benefits. Turns out they were recently voted brand of the century in the 'public toilet' category, and they're proud of the services they provide for

  • Families
  • Business travellers
  • Lorry drivers
  • Groups

Groups? They're toilets! What? Their website is something special.

Aaanyway. The train to Walsrode left on time, being a smaller local service than the double decker train to Bremen. 50 minutes of almost entirely straight rails through perfectly flat farmland dotted with wind farms and here's Walsrode, home to the world's largest bird park: the Weltvogelpark.

At the station there are no facilities, no shops, no maps. There's a cab rank with no cabs, and a bus station with no buses. Not just now, but at all - they don't run on Sundays. No-one else got off the train with us, or if they did they were quickly whisked away by folk in cars, and suddenly we've got the whole place to ourselves.

I've already looked up the walking route, while Helen had spent most of the journey attempting to find something in her size in the H&M sale on her mobile. This doesn't stop her from entirely mistrusting my sense of direction, and us having almost what amounts to an argument because I'm frustrated she doesn't believe me. Eventually she squints at her phone's Google maps app telling us to take the direction I've been saying we should walk from the start.

First up, another empty bus station. Two schools, one of which seems derelict, then a cross roads with signs to the town centre. Over a bridge and beyond, another school and some aggregates. Eventually the path reaches a road, at which there is a helpful sign.

Up here then right, like I said.

So far we've seen just 2 other people. But now we're on a fairly big residential road full of large houses. It's a beautiful warm almost cloudless day. There is no-one around. It's almost eerily quiet. No-one is tending to their gardens, presumably because they're already so well tended. Someone cycles past us, then some horses appear in the distance.

We don't know what's going on there. It's just someone driving two horses attached to a big cart. OK then.

Eventually the road finishes and turns into a path through a forest. There are two people out running, and no-one else. Soon we stumble across a weird, and deserted (of course) clearing with cabins in and a sign saying something about young owls. Don't really know what's going on there, it all feels a bit Freitag das 13th to me.

At the very end, we meet a proper main road with lane markings and everything. There's a bridge linking a hotel and the bird park, and a small queue to get in. We've already got tickets in advance for entrance to the park, but I have to pay for some extras at the gate. Then, we are through and immediately into the gift shop where Helen tries to decide which of the hundreds of pieces of owl tat she wants to buy.

Then we look at some real birds. Quite a lot of them, as you might expect.

This daft thing was in a hurry.

Cleaning another bird's bum with yer beak seems a little unsavoury to us humans.

Quite a daft duck-thing.

These black swans made a huge racket and gave us an impressive show with their necks.

Next up: flamingos. Loads and loads and loads of flamingos. Did everyone already know that flamingos make an almighty racket? Because they do. Pink ones, other-shde-of-pink ones, and white ones (which reek of shit), all of them are mental.

They, and their duck friends, like to come over when being fed.

And being fed they were, because Helen bought the 50 cent futter for them.

After a while, for reasons unknown, they all kinda tried to fly but really just walked on water, away from us.

We'd also seen penguins and owls and hornbills and loads of other birds whose names we didn't note down or recall.

Aww, why so grumpy little fella?

Clearly this knobbed hornbill is the greatest bird ever.

There's more, of course. We went into the very very dark kiwi enclosure, with a sign on the outside imploring people to be very very quiet. Once inside, my eyes couldn't adjust to the darkness at all, and within seconds we were joined by a group of very loud Germans, so we just gave up and went to get a beer next to the owl castle.

The owl castle itself is a fun building, but inside very few of the birds were out and about and visible, or at least in a position where we could take a shot. There were a couple of owls snuggling up together at the front of one cage, which made them the star attraction and we didn't have the patience to wait our turn in order to get close for a pic. The lazy eagles were quite cool.

We ordered chips and beer entirely in German. Look, I know it's really not that difficult, but each interaction where we don't have to resort to any English really does feel like a win. Perhaps it shouldn't, but it does.

Anyway, it was almost time for the flight show by now. A quick look at some birds of paradise and then we took our seats in the outdoor arena, listening to panpipe covers of Michael Jackson's Earth Song before the show started. It was entirely in German, and started with a brief video depicting a flight in a small plane over top of Walsrode, which crashes due to a bird in the cockpit chewing through some rather important cables. This did not do much for Helen's current fear of flying.

Once the plane crashes, the survivors stumble out from behind the bushes and tell us their story. Best we can tell, they pretend to be worldwide ornithologists, ready to tell us a tale of all the birds they've seen across the world. What follows is 35 minutes or so of 3 or 4 handlers essentially throwing birds towards each other, by which I mostly mean letting big fuck off vultures and falcons and pelicans and stuff fly very close over our heads.

This one made us flinch a bit.

Not everything flew over us. They had a rubbish intransigent owl that wouldn't fly more than 50 centimetres, a toucan (which reminded us of that time we each held a toucan), and some other birds they ran around with. The way they put them away again was for one of the staff to wave lots of food at them, or dress and act in a way that made them give chase.

We learnt basically nothing, of course, because not a single word was uttered in English. But it was still a mesmerising show of grace and power and etc. At the very end, they released tens of birds at once - parrots and macaws and who knows what else, alongside a firework-esque show from the fountains on the lawn and the release of some bubbles. Sounds tacky but was actually an enormously moving "aren't birds amazing?" finale. Helen was welling up!

After the flight show we had a place to be, at 3.45pm. They'd used those words at the gate: "after the flight show", but we now realised we didn't know if they meant "after" in location of temporal terms. I was convinced we had to be at the owl castle, so we hurried back there and there was no-one about, so we went back to the flight show where a friendly Dutch man named Harley spotted the wristband, said "are you Helen?", and took us backstage.

I'd bought a "meet & greet with owls" session, see. Helen really does have a thing about owls so I thought getting up close and personal with them at the world's biggest bird park might be a thing she'd enjoy. But first, we were shown the birds of prey. Here, put this glove on and hold a falcon, will you?

This next one is the secretary bird. It has crazy "hair".

This is a baby condor. Seriously. He popped his head round but got scared of us and ran back to his cot.

Then came the owls! Finally. Honestly I was a bit surprised that we were being shown so many non-owls in the owl meet & greet, but the best things come to those who wait. First, a barn owl.

Then, um, some other kind of owl, followed by a third which I think was the Eurasian. She declined to hold either of these, because they were a bit frisky or big, so she reckons. Can't see any evidence of that meself.

OK so maybe that last fella was really quite large, heavy, and moving a lot - at one point he managed to almost escape the glove, and smacked Harley in the face with his wing. He's too big to put food on the glove, so to feed him he had to throw dead animals for it to catch with its mouth, at one point loads of blood spurted out onto the ground. Perhaps a wise choice not to hold it after all. Magnificent animal though and amazing to be so close to it.

Throughout the tour we were informed how they look after the birds, shown the weigh-in sheet, given some insight into how they train them for the shows, reward them with food, etc. At the end of the day we wrote down a list of BIRD FACTS we'd remembered, and here they are.

  1. Some birds piss on their feet to cool down, because they can't sweat
  2. Owls have cone shaped faces to act as amplifiers for incoming sound
  3. Condors and vultures are bald so as to not get blood and entrails stuck to their heads when they're gorging on carcasses
  4. Owl eye colour betrays whether they are nocturnal or not; the more presence of light, the more active they are in the day
  5. Some falcons can fly at 300 kmph(?), as measured by scientists in hot air balloons
  6. Some birds headbutt things to death at the end of a dive
  7. The secretary bird has long legs so as to avoid being bitten by snakes
  8. Young owls don't know how to let go of things, and sometimes spend their whole day clutching food before they figure out what to do
  9. You can tell what mood an owl is by how vertical or horizontal its ears are
  10. Barn owls would be tiny without their feathers, which are very deep and feel like candy floss

That's it. I'm not doing educational stuff any more. Instead, take a look at this daft shoebill.

We had a table booked for a meal at Pier 51 in Hannover for 8pm, but frankly couldn't be bothered hurrying back to the city so sent them an email to cancel. This meant we had time to see more birds, because there was still plenty of the park left.

There was a large greenhouse full of waterborne birds, including a fake beach with waves for some of the sea birds. Also a room full of lories(?), in which I was getting close to taking a photo of two on a branch when Helen said "Darren, look behind you".

Oh! Turns out she'd just held her arm out on the offchance some would land on her, and they did, immediately. After numerous photos we were then wondering how exactly she should get rid of them, the answer to which was: I'll hold my arm out and they'll hop across, right? Right!

My heart rate jumped a bit - I'm not great with animals - but this was excellent. The pair of them just happily stood on me, walked up and down a bit, had a bit of a chat, and it was great. But then I had the same problem as Helen, not knowing how to get rid of them. Thankfully a reticent looking German man with his girlfriend had been watching, so I gestured for him to hold his arm out and offloaded them. Tschuss!

Then, more beer. We went to the beer garden by the lake but the bar was shut, so grabbed etwas fur trinken up by the top end of the open space where the show took place. We still had so much to see, and ended up missing out on loads. Did see an incubation room full of chicks though, which might have been food for the birds of prey... :-(

The last bird of the day had very stupid 'hair'.

And then, the shop. In the end Helen bought zero owls, and we wandered back through the still dead streets of Walsrode and to the station. Stupidly, we had no water, and there's no shops anywhere. Bah. A 20 minute wait for the train, which itself took nearly an hour to get back to Hannover. I was shattered. Helen spent most of the journey looking at her photos and giggling at how awesome everything was.

Back in the city, we bought a raft of soft drinks, popped back to the room, then headed out for a somewhat disappointing burger in the place next door. Blue cheese not strong enough, chipotle sauce not strong enough, burger not tasty enough... but it filled a hole, and we had plenty of time left to sample our glorious Lidl booze haul from the previous night.

Turns out Lidl prosecco is actually really quite nice. The lager, however, was disgusting. BBC world showed a fantastic documentary about early documentaries, and Helen spent a couple of hours reminiscing about that time we each held lories and she held an owl.

Created By
Darren Foreman
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