SAN RAMON -- The first time Cleopatra glided past Michael Pociecha, he fell in love. And his wife, Paula, had no qualms about it.
"She and I have a love affair," said Pociecha of Cleopatra.
Seven years later, Pociecha and Cleopatra are still fascinated with each other. It helps that Cleopatra is a rehabilitated eagle Pociecha nursed back to health at his San Ramon home after a bout with the West Nile virus. The eagle is one of three birds of prey that he and his wife care for.
"It is a quite a feat that (Cleopatra) overcame West Nile," said Pociecha, a falconer who also convinced his wife to take up his passion. Most birds who contract the virus die, he said, "but she beat it, and we hoped she'd go back to the wild but that wasn't possible."
Pociecha and his three birds, as well as other falconers and falcons from the California Foundation of Birds of Prey and West Coast Falconry, will host three birds-of-prey shows Saturday and again Sunday at the 148th Scottish Highland Gathering & Games.
The Scottish Highland Gathering & Games has been held for the past 20 years at the Alameda County Fairgrounds in Pleasanton. The two-day event features live music, food, sheep dog trials, rugby, "heavy" athletics and other events.
"The Birds of Prey are extremely popular with both kids and adults," said Floyd Busby, spokesman for The Caledonian Club of San Francisco, the cultural organization that hosts the Scotland-themed festival. "It is quite interesting and generates a full crowd every time."
Pociecha, 62, and his affinity toward birds of prey started when he was 10 while growing up in Southern California. Already fascinated with birds by then, Pociecha sought more than homing pigeons and turned his attention to raptors after reading about them in a newspaper article.
"It's not a hobby," said Pociecha. "It's a passion."
In addition to being a licensed falconer, Pociecha also spends time rehabilitating birds for the California Foundation of Birds of Prey, a nonprofit specializing in raptor rehabilitation and a variety of other avian services. Pociecha has been a part of the organization for years and serves on its board.
Cleopatra was a rescue bird Pociecha started working with seven years ago. Cleopatra came to the Pociecha and the California Foundation of Birds of Prey after being infected with the West Nile virus. After a tough bout with the disease, which is spread by mosquitoes, Cleopatra recovered. But the virus altered her vision, leaving her unable to return to the wild.
Instead, she became one of three birds that Pociecha now cares for. Cleopatra was named in a contest by visitors at the Scottish Highland Gathering & Games because she beat the "Nile," said Pociecha, who has shown birds at the game for the past 15 years.
"We work with birds and try to recondition them, so that they can catch prey on their own and be able to return to the wild," said Pociecha. "I care for the ones that can't go back to the wild and work with them to try and place them in education centers."
Becoming a falconer requires a two-year commitment. Potential falconers become apprentices to a general or master falconer. Apprentices can spend upward of four hours a day working with their birds during the first month, and usually work with either red tail hawks or kestro falcons, because the two species of birds adapt well to captivity well and have healthy numbers in the wild, said Pociecha. A wild bird that works with an apprentice also has a better chance of re-entering the wild if the apprentice decides not to fulfill becoming a falconer than a bred bird that has to be taught how to hunt.
Pociecha said Falconry, which dates back to 2000 BC, is a sport. But he enjoys it, he said, because it offers the chance to see the birds fly, and affords an opportunity to place some of the birds back in the wild.
"It is a warm feeling to know you help put these birds back in the wild," he said. "At the same time it is hard because you get to know a bird and it has gotten to know you. But you realize that they are going to have good life and second chance."
WHEN: Saturday and Sunday
WHERE: Alameda County Fairgrounds, 4501 Pleasanton Ave. in Pleasanton
ADMISSION: $12 for kids ages 12 and older, seniors ages 65 and older and the disabled; $20 for adults; Free for kids ages 11 and younger and military with active-duty identification. Two-day adult tickets are $27. Gates open at 8 a.m. and close at 6:30 p.m.
GAMES: The Heavy Events begin at 8:30 a.m. Saturday and Sunday and include world champions competing in the caber, weight for height, weight for distance, light hammer and braemer stone events.
MUSIC: Four stages of live music, ranging from Celtic rock to single balladeer to roll groups; 29 pipe bands will also perform. There will also be live dancing
EVENTS: The Birds of Prey will host three shows per day; opening ceremonies will be held at 12:30 p.m. each day in front of the main grandstands; sheep dog trials; rugby and shinty; Clydesdale horse team; highland cattle; soccer; British Motor Car Cavalcade; Kilted mile race; living history re-enactments; kilted-themed fashion on Saturday; and kids' activities. Venues open at 10 a.m.