Stories from the mountain summer
Magnificent birds of prey
The Adlerbühne Ahorn is the highest bird of prey station in Europe. At an altitude of 2,000 metres, these Zillertal Alps sky aesthetes truly live up to their name. And they are only one wing flap away.
It may well happen that a young bird hops through the living room of Didi and Waltraud Wechselberger at their home in Mayrhofen. Not just any bird, but a bird of prey born just a few weeks earlier. Two or three weeks later, when the animal is old enough, it starts its first journey with this Zillertal couple – by cable car, on its way to its future home in an aviary on the mountain, where the Adlerbühne arena is located.
There, Didi, together with “Geier-Wally” (“Vulture Wally”, as he affectionately calls his wife), holds the sceptre (in the form of a microphone) in his hand and takes thousands of visitors into the fascinating world of birds of prey every year from June till October. “A big round of applause please!”, can be heard from a loudspeaker. Showtime for Lenny, the star of the Adlerbühne! One moment later, the Harris’s hawk glides so close above the heads of the humans that every visitor under its flight path can feel the swoosh of its wing flap. “I get goose bumps when I see my birds flying,” says the man responsible for Zillertal – at an altitude of 2,000 metres – having become home to the highest bird of prey station in Europe. “Possibly even of the entire world.”
Falconer Didi Wechselberger
Didi Wechselberger, hunter and falconer, is Lenny’s “father”. As he says so himself. He and his wife Waltraud have three sons “plus another seven children.” Besides Lenny, there is also the steppe eagle Steppi, Hansi the falcon, the two great horned owls Virginia and Billy, and red-tailed hawk Leika. “The technical terms are simply ‘falcon’ for the female and ‘tiercel’ for the male.” And he answers to the Indian name Ashok, “the one without worries”. Maybe this will help him in his relationship with Leika. “As with all birds of prey, the female dominates,” explains Didi. But today, Ashok is the one wearing the feather pants. He is about to hunt down a dummy rabbit being dragged across the ground by Didi as prey. The red-tailed hawk ascends on command, a whistle sounds, whereupon it swoops down on its prey at a speed of 200 km/h, protecting it with its wings from other hungry fellow birds.
Mount Ahorn, the home to these birds of prey, is the beautiful entrance gate to the High Alps Nature Park Zillertaler Alps. Where an unforgettable nature experience is what it’s all about. The mountain station is an ideal starting point for hiking and mountain tours, a stroller-friendly gourmet trail leads across the entire Mount Ahorn plateau. From there, it is only ten minutes to the Adlerbühne. A picturesque backdrop where you can get very close to the otherwise so distant birds. “As a matter of principle, we do not have as many birds as other bird of prey stations. This creates a very close bond to the animals. In the show, I talk about their habits as well as about the beauty and fragility of our ecosystem.” This can also be attributed to Didi’s teaching position. Falconry, which was declared an intangible cultural heritage in 2010, is the oldest form of hunting in the world next to bows and arrows: “Our falcons do not come from the wild, which is prohibited, but from officially approved breeding stations.” Falcon Hansi would only live eight to twelve years in nature. Protected by the small, fine bird of prey station, however, he has now made it to the age of 16. Didi cares for them together with his wife Waltraud. “I am married to ‘Geier-Wally’,” he proudly says. “Have been for 33 years.”
Majestic. Since 2004, the couple had leased an alpine inn in front of the Adlerbühne in the Stilluptal. “There was room for aviaries where I kept birds. This is how I got the idea to run a bird of prey station.” Together with Mayrhofner Bergbahnen, Didi realized his dream in 2009. Since then, Wally and he spend every summer with their birds on the mountain. “Once we come up here, we first talk to them, then we clean the aviaries and let them fly for the first time. Don’t we, Steppi?” The steppe eagle on Didi’s arm majestically spreads its imposing wings. “I have the most beautiful workplace in the world,” says the falconer. Then he allows Steppi to fly.
Image: Bernhard Huber and text: Barbara Reiter
Zillertal magazine Sommer 2021
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