Birds of prey are the Australian version of lions and tigers and bears. Also known as raptors, they sit at the top of the food chain and act as caretakers for the environment, cleaning up carrion and keeping rabbits, feral cats and foxes under control.
Decisively the strong but silent type, you rarely see them up close, but you can be sure they see you: owls have better eyesight in darkness than humans do by day, and a wedge-tailed eagle could – in theory – read a newspaper headline from a kilometre away.
But there is one place you can see these charismatic creatures up close, and that is Eagles Heritage in Margaret River, an unassuming wildlife sanctuary that is also home to owls, falcons and hawks.
Set in 29 acres of peaceful state forest, the pathways between the simple corrugated iron bird enclosures are shaded by red gum and jarrah trees, with native orchids, banksia and Swan River myrtle creating a familiar environment for the injured birds that live here, many brought in by volunteers across the state.
Peer into the darkness of the cages and you’ll see the still shapes of sleeping boobook owls perched on tree branches. Look closer, and you’ll notice a Powerful Owl eyeing you with disturbing intensity – so called because they can catch and kill animals three times their own weight, this one is eighteen years old and was brought here from Victoria after being hit by a car.
In the next cage along, two Grass Owls, the rarest species in Australia, have shy, heart-shaped faces that look almost human – owls have flat faces and huge eyes which give them their famously wise appearance, but actually serve to aid their nocturnal hunting.
Further along, the adorably named Tawny Frog Mouth Nightjars huddle together in such a deep, cosy slumber that you feel your own eyelids start to droop. Although these aren’t birds of prey, they are also rescued and bred at the centre.
All the birds are identified by hand-painted portraits that were the creation of a passing backpacker, with information about each species underneath.
The sanctuary is the life’s work of Philip and Kathy Pain, who founded it in 1988 and have lived and worked here ever since. Phil started out as a zookeeper in his teens, and became fascinated by birds of prey while working at Taronga Zoo in Sydney, where he used to find them in the aviaries.
A Churchill Fellowship gave him the opportunity to visit bird sanctuaries in the UK, Singapore and California, before returning to Perth and establishing his own rescue centre.
“We had 70 birds in our back yard, and eventually we decided to turn it into a lifestyle and a business with a move down to Margaret River, where we leased this state forest land from the Shire of Augusta-Margaret River,” says Phil. “Opening it to the public meant we could pay for all the mice and chicks the birds eat, while also educating people about the importance of birds of prey and funding our rehabilitation work.”
The sanctuary runs a captive breeding programme, releasing around 40 healthy offspring back into the wild each year.
“Injured birds of prey can’t return to the bush, but what they can do is breed in captivity. So we are able to replace a little of what gets killed by feral cats and cars,” says Phil.
It’s worth timing your visit to catch one of Phil’s skilful demonstrations, which are held twice daily. See the wedge-tailed eagles flying, hold Ivy, the beautiful barn owl, on your arm and watch black kites dive bomb and snatch meat in mid-flight at impressive speeds.
It’s a display that stuns viewers into a respectful silence, and this, along with the one-kilometre pathway through the shady bushland, makes the sanctuary a great outing for restless kids in need of a run and some entertainment.
Phil and Kathy live on site with their friendly Labrador, Maya, and rarely leave. Unlike most tourist attractions, which quieten down once the doors are shut, at Eagles Heritage the place only comes to life once the last visitor departs. “Everyone comments on how peaceful it is here,” says Kathy, “but as soon as we close all the owls start to wake up, so it can get pretty noisy at night.”
First published in Your Margaret River Region magazine Winter 2018