Monday 11 June 2018

Flying Kites 3rd June 2018

This year we decided to take a week's holiday in Galloway which is in southern Scotland and an area not known to us, as we normally go further north. We rented a cottage right by the sea at a place called Garlieston and from here we made various excursions to explore the surrounding area.

The sense of this area of Scotland being somewhat neglected by tourists who tend to head for the more glamorous and geographically exciting Highlands was palpable but suited us just fine as virtually all of the places we went to were devoid of the usual crowds  and in many cases there was no one about at all.

The RSPB has a number of their less publicised reserves scattered around Galloway and we explored some of them and one of their leaflets in the cottage, publicising the 'Red Kites of Galloway' caught my attention in particular. It told me there was a kite feeding station at Bellymack Hill Farm near the village of Laurieston, where Red Kites were fed every day at 2pm and for £5.00 you could go, watch and take as many photos as you wished.

Red Kites have been congregating at Bellymack Hill Farm since the kite release programme in Galloway got under way in 2001 and the farm  has proved singularly attractive to the gregarious kites due to the prevailing southwest winds which create updrafts from the hillside on which the farm is situated, enabling the kites to indulge in their flying skills. It is hoped that, as in other places in Britain, and where they are not persecuted, the kites will spread out and colonise other parts of Galloway and this would appear to be now happening. Today there was an RSPB Community Liason Officer on hand to dispense facts and information and he told us that a twenty four mile 'Galloway Red Kite Trail'  has now been established around the nearby Loch Ken.

I had always planned to go to one of these kite feeding stations one day but with so many Red Kites already in Oxfordshire I have become almost blase about them, so a special trip was inevitably low on my list of priorities, as, let's face it, with Red Kites flying over one's house on a daily basis and now commonplace flying over much of Oxfordshire, there seemed no urgency.

However a gathering of between a hundred to a hundred and fifty Red Kites, flying very close and creating a spectacular display of both numbers and flying skills, that both birders and the general public could enjoy was surely something not to be missed, especially as it was so close to where we were staying.

Bellymack Hill Farm is situated on a gentle hillside overlooking some spectacular scenery near to Loch Ken and one of the buildings has been converted into a kite viewing facility with a small shop selling various photos of Red Kites and other ornaments, and incorporating a basic cafe where you can get coffee or tea and a slice of cake. Outside, there is a comfortable verandah extending the whole length of the building with chairs, benches and tables to sit at. In front is a downward sloping grass field with a large wooden, platform like structure on which food is placed for the kites to swoop down on and pluck from the wooden surface.

The view from the verandah to the wooden feeding platform 
We arrived well before feeding time but the Red Kites were already massing, anticipating their daily supply of free food. Most were in flight, floating in circles over the building and obviously waiting for the time when the food would be distributed. 

I counted at least a hundred and thirty Red Kites swirling around above us at no great height, all the while accompanied by an endless chorus of whistling cries from the birds.

We purchased a tea and coffee respectively and sat down to await feeding time. Some of the kites settled in a nearby tree, while others kept up their patrolling above the building, swooping low whenever anyone emerged from the farm buildings, to check that they were not about to scatter food.

It was not difficult to know when the appointed time came as the Red Kites spotted the lady carrying a huge bowl of red meat chunks, long before we saw her emerge from behind the end of the building.The kites immediately came in very low from behind us, skimming over the roof, as the lady scattered small meat chunks across the grass, swooping in at great speed, so close you could hear the wind rushing through their long wings. The scramble for food was exhilarating as the kites hurtled down en masse but always managing to avoid any collision with one another, and without stopping grabbed a piece of meat in their talons and rose sharply up into the air to transfer the meat from talon to bill whilst airborne. 

Again and again they dived down to ground level, brushing the grass with their wings and feet before flying back up into the air. Sometimes they were successful in snatching a morsel and at other times failed to do so, in which case round they went in a big circle to make another attempt

Red Kites are large birds and their wings are very long and relatively narrow which gives them supreme flying ability, enabling them to carry out flying manouevres that are breathtaking in their agility. They fly with a loose limbed, almost puppet like buoyancy, as if they should be controlled by strings, their flexible bowed wings, long and narrow on that part that is called the 'arm', extending from the body to the beginning of the primaries, and then the wider 'hand' of primaries at the end with the splayed five 'fingers' of the outermost primaries, creating their wondrous aerodynamic efficiency.

Their flight is both languid and graceful as they float effortlessly in the air, supported by their incredible wings, but in an instant they can turn their flight from a gentle rowing motion into a high speed demonstration of flying, diving at great speed to the ground and swooping up again, sometimes tangling and interacting with another kite, both birds rolling onto their backs to present their talons to their rival.You get the feeling that this bird's natural environment is the free uncluttered airspace above the land and indeed they can patrol endlessly and effortlessly, remaining airborne for hours on end looking for food.

Their tails are long, distinctly forked and act like rudders, loosely swinging from side to side and sometimes angled at forty five degrees to their body to allow them to carry out their intricate flying skills. 

A number of the kites were in some form of wing moult with small gaps towards the outer part of their wing, where the 'arm' joined the 'hand' so to speak, but this did not seem to hinder their capacity to fly with any less dexterity.

The variation in plumage amongst individual birds was also marked. Some, presumably full adults, were a beautiful rich chestnut underneath streaked with black contrasting with their greyish white heads. Others were much paler, almost fawn in colour on both upper and underparts and were according to the RSPB Liason Officer, young birds. Others still sported wing tags from a programme which had ceased a few years ago. 

As we watched, the lady with the food proceeded to the platform and scattered the remaining food on top of it and the kites reprised their aerial display, diving and swooping down to grab food without stopping but eventually some settled on the platform to eat, but the majority preferred to remain in flight.

It was all over in twenty minutes but as a spectacle involving such magnificent birds it was hard to think of a better way to spend an early afternoon.

Please click on any of the above images to view an enlarged version

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