Birds of prey deliver up-close education.
On any given day at the Torrey Pines cliffs, you’ll find paragliders riding the winds, harnessed under colorful, billowed sails and soaring up and down the coastline. But you’ll also find aviators of another sort—trained birds of prey swooping through the sky, speeding down to land on the leather glove of David Metzgar, PhD ’01, or maybe participating in one of his falconry demonstrations. Since 2014, Metzgar and his birds now make a second home at the Torrey Pines Gliderport just west of campus, a fitting location, as it was those cliffs that first brought Metzgar to UC San Diego.
Growing up in Montana, Metzgar was the son of a wildlife biologist at the University of Montana. “I was raised studying wildlife, and was especially attuned to soaring birds,” says Metzgar. His father was also one of the few hang gliders in the state and taught Metzgar how to hang glide when he was just 13. The pair eventually took a trip to La Jolla for the ideal wind conditions at the Torrey Pines Gliderport, and when it came time to apply to a PhD program, Metzgar thought of the prospect of having those cliffs at his doorstep. “I knew I could spend five years in La Jolla and be happy,” he says.
As a PhD student in biochemistry and microbiology, he also completed coursework for evolution, ecology and behavior. “I like all sides of biology,” he says, and the lab of Professor Chris Wills allowed for a combination of both: molecular evolution, as it were. After graduation Metzgar stayed in San Diego, doing molecular biology in the private and public sectors as well as for the U.S. Navy. When his work required travel abroad in places like Taiwan or Singapore, he would seek out new locations and environments for paragliding. It was on one such paragliding trip in Pokhara, Nepal, that he learned about a man, Scott Mason, who flew with rescued birds. Needless to say, Metzgar was intrigued.
Mason is known as the inventor of “parahawking,” a blend of paragliding and falconry in which one flies alongside raptors as a way of exercising and connecting with the birds. On his first visit with Mason in 2006, Metzgar went on tandem rides every day, soaring alongside birds of prey. The experience, he says, was life-changing.
“I’ve been flying my whole life but never felt anywhere near as comfortable and at home up there as I have when flying with an animal that actually belongs there,” says Metzgar. “They are masters of flight and I’ve learned a lot from them. They can find a thermal, or updraft, better than any of us and lead us to it so we can get up higher and go farther.”
Metzgar was determined to bring parahawking back home to the Torrey Pines Gliderport. After nearly a decade of work securing clearances and partnerships, in 2014, he co-founded Total Raptor Experience with his wife, Antonella Zampolli. Together, they began hosting interactive educational programs at the gliderport with their hawks, falcons and owls. And starting eight years ago, he began training his Lanner falcon, Bunco, to fly alongside him and the occasional tandem rider interested in parahawking.
“I can take people flying, to learn more about the birds and see them up close,” says Metzgar. “I’m happy to share this with others who wouldn’t have the opportunity themselves because it takes so much time and effort to get into these sports.”
The Lanner falcon, with a body mass about the size of a house cat but weighing less than two pounds, is built for precision flying. “They have jet-fighter wings,” says Metzgar, “long and pointed with tightly packed feathers that are built for speed, enabling it to sweep in on prey unnoticed at speeds up to 90 mph and from heights as great as 2,000 feet.” Because falcons are asocial and solitary like most raptors, it can take years to train a bird to fly freely and return to one’s arm, let alone fly alongside a paraglider. These days, Metzgar does more educating on the cliffs via interactive classes where participants launch and catch the birds on their arms.
Whether on land or in the air, Metzgar hopes Total Raptor Experience will lead to a greater consciousness of the role such birds play in the wild, as well as around homes, as their native habitats are increasingly encroached upon. “Active, top-level predators like birds are all around us and help make the entire ecosystem healthier. Birds manage the rodent and insect population naturally,” he says, “so pesticides are counterproductive because they kill everything, including the bird. We need birds to maintain the balance.”
Metzgar’s main takeaways from the class include using rodent traps instead of poisons, which ultimately make their way up the food chain and kill birds, avoiding lead sinkers when fishing and posting UV tape on windows to warn birds of glass. And by pairing this kind of education with an up-close and personal encounter with birds of prey, he’s glad to give participants a better understanding and appreciation for the birds such measures will benefit.
The Torrey Pines Gliderport is one of the only places in the world where you can soar with a raptor. Learn more about Total Raptor Experience and see the birds in flight: tritonmag.com/raptor