Tuesday 24 January 2023

Red Kites 23rd January 2023

Once a year in the winter months I find the time to travel over the county border to see up to forty Red Kites which congregate at a small farm in Northamptonshire where they are fed each day in the mid afternoon. For the most rewarding experience the day needs to be fine and sunny as that is when the kites look at their best, the sun imbuing their predominantly chestnut plumage with that extra degree of saturation and depth of colour.

Red Kites are now becoming a reasonably familiar sight in our skies but it was not always so.

I can recall forty or so years since when these birds were very, very rare in Britain and to see one required travelling to the wild heart of mountainous mid Wales, where a few pairs had hung on since 1903.They were the last remnants in Britain of a bird that was once very common. In Tudor times the red kite was so valued as a scavenger that kept the London streets clean,  it was protected by royal decree and anyone trangressing would allegedly be put to death. Sadly by the sixteenth century the pendulum had swung one hundred and eighty degrees and it was considered to be vermin and a bounty was placed on its head. During the following two centuries it continued to be persecuted, mainly by gamekeepers who wrongly accused it of taking game and poultry (sound familiar?), with the consequence being it became ever more  rare which in turn then attracted unscrupulous egg and skin collectors. By 1871 it was extinct in England with only a handful of pairs hanging on in the remotest parts of mid Wales.

These Welsh birds remained unprotected until a protection effort was instigated in 1903 and this programme continues to this day, forming  the longest running conservation programme in the world.The Welsh population remained at less than twenty pairs for the next sixty years before it slowly began to increase. I can recall all too well having to make a special trip to 'Kite Country' in mid Wales to see them in the 1980's as there was nowhere else to find them in Britain.

Various other re-introduction attempts were made but all failed until a re-introduction scheme commenced in July 1990 with thirteen young birds from Spain. It was centred on the Chilterns in Buckinghamshire not very far from my current home in neighbouring Oxfordshire.This exceeded all expectations and with the introduction of more birds from Spain and Sweden, thirty seven pairs were breeding there by 1996. The reintroduction in The Chilterns was so successful that six other schemes commenced during the next decade in Northampton and Yorkshire in England and The Black Isle, Stirling and Dumfries and Galloway in Scotland, with mostly equal success to the original project in The Chilterns. Today there are estimated to be ten thousand Red Kites and eighteen hundred breeding pairs distributed throughout Britain. 

Red Kites are now familiar to many people who are not necessarily interested in birds but recognise this easily observable magnificent bird of prey as a part of our landscape once more and with the burgeoning growth in kite numbers  they are a familiar sight over many villages and small towns, even along major roads and motorways, and wherever they occur they bring a sense of the wild to our now predominantly urban population. Ian Carter an integral part of the kite re-introduction programme states that 'the bird has been hugely successful in helping to re-connect people with the landscape and encouraging a greater interest in wildlife'. A recent poll by the RSPB ranked it along with the golden eagle and song thrush on the nation's list of favourite birds.

These days they are so frequent in Oxfordshire they have become almost commonplace and are no longer remarked upon. I can lie in my bed and watch them pass my bedroom window most mornings and they seem to be everywhere.Truly their re-introdution is a welcome and positive success story where so much is not as far as wildlife is concerned.

The red kite is not really a bird of the Welsh mountains although that was its last stronghold. They are ideally suited to the rolling landscape, farmland and scattered woods of the re-introduction areas and now search the open countryside to scavenge for dead mammals and birds.Our roads with their large amount of roadkill are another source of food  as are landfill sites.

A young kite in its second year of life. Note the oveall duller plumage
and pale fringes to the wing coverts.It will mout into adult plumage at the
end of this year and breed in its third year of life

It is fair to say that red kites have irrefutably caught the public's imagination in a positive way and as a result no longer suffer such intense persecution as in earlier times although shamefully it still exists where game interests and estates are involved. The main threat is the widespread illegal laying of poison bait in dead animals to eradicate predators such as foxes and crows which are perceived as a threat to game shooting interests.The kite being a scavenger inevitably becomes a collateral victim along with other birds of prey. 

On a more positive note there are now a number of well known kite feeding stations around Britain that have tapped into the bird's general appeal to the public and where one can pay to go and watch hundreds of kites congregate before the appointed feeding time. I have been to two such feeding stations, one in Wales and another in Scotland. The kites arrive well before feeding time from a wide area and how they know when to come is a mystery but come they do at the same time day after day to everyone's delight.

I am fortunate in that the place I go to watch them is for free and I am invariably on my own. I stand in a small layby on a country road to watch and photograph the kites as their numbers slowly build up towards feeding time, which is usually around three in the afternoon.The kites perch in the surrounding bare  trees whistling loudly or circle around checking that feeding time has not been brought forward.

When the food is put out for them a frenzy of kites, called a circus, descends on the food, each bird circling amongst its compatriots before choosing a time to dive down to the ground through the throng to grab at the food with its talons. Such is their supreme flying agility they manage to maintain some kind of order in an apparent mayhem of flying birds and I have never yet witnessed a collision with another kite. 

Inevitably there are minor skirmishes between birds but it involves little more than grappling with their weak talons before they separate and circle once more.

Red Kites  are true masters of the air. Their flight is bouyant, majestic even, on long, narrow, angled wings with a long flexible tail that swings like a rudder to guide the bird on its course. For long periods they can soar and glide, without hardly a wing flap but if they have a mind to they can flex their wings and gather the air into them to propel them forwards at speed

Adult birds are truly colourful, with rich chestnut underparts, a ghostly white head and pale yellow eyes while the underwing flight feathers are patterned black and white. Perhaps the most remarkable feature is their tail which when closed is deeply forked but when spread not so.The tail is rich chestnut too and when the bird flies gives it supreme manouverability. Today I watched them flying slowly over the fields in their customary slow languid flight, the tail being switched and tilted from side to side while the long wings with an occasional flap seem to scoop the air into an embrace as the bird passes serenely over the land

I spent two happy and fulfilling hours watching and photographing the kites This was our annual reunion and hopefully they will be here when next I come which may not be this year but more likely the year following. These small birding anniversaries are becoming of increasing importance to me in this ever changing unsettling world.


Thursday 19 January 2023

Sabs Revisited 19th January 2023

Today I returned, in the company of Peter a fellow Oxonbirder, to Havant and the Sabine's Gull. The day was a classic mid winter combination of crisp cold air and a bright sun shining from the outset with not a breath of wind to stir the still blue waters of Langstone Harbour. Such a contrast to Sunday when there was a strong and troublesome wind.

I had also arranged to meet two other birding colleagues, Mark and Les here. There had been no news on whether the gull was present as myself and Peter drove south from Oxfordshire and we were still none the wiser on getting to the small car park by the seawall at Langstone Harbour. However the number of birders milling around told us that surely the gull was still here and immediately on getting out of the car the Sabine's Gull conveniently flew past us and along the seawall before settling on a pebble beach virtually below us.

I rang Mark and Les who were half an hour behind us, somewhere in the clutches of the M27 motorway,  to inform them the gull was still here, so they could at least relax in that knowledge as they headed our way. 

A female stonechat perched on a post just in from the seawall, her plumage turned to ginger in the strong sunlight while a Little Egret was a shock of white as it waded in the blue waters of the marshland beyond.

The Sabine's Gull flew from the beach and we followed it southwards along the seawall to the area of saltmarsh and lagoons that it most favoured. Mid morning and the tide was full but on the ebb. Far out  on the shining waters of the harbour were four Black necked Grebes, a Great Northern Diver and a diving Long tailed Duck. On the receding tideline Grey Plovers and Curlews called evocatively, their melancholic voices ringing out in the still air, a vocal prompt of the wilder summer homes they will seek when winter departs. Smaller waders were on the move too, stirring as the shore became exposed. Turnstones and Dunlins mainly, flying at speed in tight groups across the silver waters with no time to lose in these short hours of feeding opportunity.

The Sabs meanwhile, regularly flew back and fore along the seawall, dipping down to the sea to snatch a morsel, sometimes passing over the heads of unsuspecting arriving birders on the seawall, while we positioned ourselves by the saltmarsh to wait, as we knew for certain it would return here.

There is little more to say except that we sat or stood in the sun  for the next four hours watching the gull on the shingle before us or intermittently flying around, charming us with its beauty and charismatic presence

Here are some more images that I took today of the Sabine's Gull. 


Tuesday 17 January 2023

The South Coast Sabines 15th January 2023

A Sabine's Gull (Sabs for short) in full summer plumage was found on the 10th of January at a place called Budd's Farm Sewage Works which is at Havant on the northeast side of Langstone Harbour in Hampshire.

I have seen a good number of Sabine's Gulls over the years, the majority in juvenile plumage so one in adult summer plumage, in winter and showing exceptionally well, inevitably proved impossible to resist.

On Friday the 13th I set off early to make the two hour drive to Budd's Farm and all went well until half way along the M27 and just a few miles to the turn off for my destination the.four lanes of heavy traffic came to a halt nose to tail and there we remained for the best part of an hour. The police had closed the motorway due to a fatal accident earlier and as usual the resulting traffic chaos was left to sort itself out. It was hopeless with cars jammed on all the other surrounding roads as they sought a way round the closure and in the end I gave up and drove back to home, there to renew my acquaintance with the wintering Yellow browed Warbler at Donnington in Oxford. It was hardly a consolation.

The Sabs continued to be reported throughout Saturday and I resolved to make another attempt to see it on Sunday the 15th, leaving home at 5.30am, knowing the day was going to be sunny but very windy. This time there was no motorway incident to impede my southward progress and eventually I passed through a large shopping complex, then turned down Southmoor Lane and as instructed drove to the far end and found myself in a small car park by the seawall.

Even at 8am on a Sunday there was no lack of birders, virtually all intent on seeing the Sabine's Gull which has rapidly attained celebrity status due to its obliging nature, overall attractiveness and easy accessibility. Not sure where to go a helpful departing birder told me to head left along the seawall as the gull was loafing on an area of brackish salt marsh that contained a shallow lagoon rather than at the sewage outfall which was off to the right.

On taking the track along the seawall I received the full force of a strong southwest wind blowing directly in from the huge harbour. Dark bellied Brent Geese, immune to the elements were feeding out by the edge of the sea while Oystercatchers and Common Redshanks examined the rocks and pools being exposed by the falling tide.

A brisk walk for a quarter of a mile  got me to the lagoon and saltmarsh, an area called Southmoor where the sea has breached the seawall, creating some very nice habitat.

I could see about a dozen birder's stood out on the mud looking at a small white gull sat on an island of green weed and mud just beyond and opposite them. A look through my bins was all that was needed to confirm it was the Sabine's Gull.

Joining the group I stood and waited to see what the currently squatting gull would do. The answer was not a lot as it continued to sit whilst being visibly buffeted by the wind it was facing into. It was not the only one being inconvenienced by a wind continually coming at some force from the harbour, passing over the seawall and battering at my back in vicious gusts. Thankfully well insulated I was mostly immune to the wind chill and with the sun at my back was all set for some camera action.

There were twenty or so Black headed Gulls flying into the wind and every so often dipping down to the lagoon to delicately pick a morsel from its surface. Reaching the far end of the lagoon they would turn and be swept downwind only to bank at the other end and repeat their performance.The Sabs seemed little interested in joining this activity but eventually roused itself, flew into the wind and promptly disappeared towards the sewage outfall. After the wait and growing anticipation this came as something of a disappointment to put it mildly.

With the star attraction now absent I turned my attention to the lagoon, searching for any other birdlife to bump up this year's birdlist. Two Common Greenshanks were a pleasant surprise, their pale plumage a razzle dazzle of white courtesy of the bright sunshine while a female Goosander, that went to sleep on a distant mudbank, was equally unexpected. Apart from this there were just the usual Common Redshanks and a small group of Dark-bellied Brent Geese.

Fifteen minutes later the Sabs was back, looking noticeably small and tern like as it flew amongst the feeding Black headed Gulls, the latter keeping a respectful distance from us birders clustered on a bank of shingle. Not so the Sabs which flew past us and then turned into the wind and came very close before dropping to the surface and gobbling a scrap of fish, which I was to learn had been distributed by one or two of my fellow birders .

It came extraordinarily close at times, no more than twenty feet away, standing on patches of mud and weed in the shallow water and gobbling up the fish scraps. It was so near at times I was forced to reduce the zoom on my lens but I was hardly going to complain about having such a beautiful gull so close to me. 

Of course, as is now customary, virtually everyone present had a camera and many of my fellow birders prostrated themselves on the gravel and mud to get that eye level shot. Maybe it's a macho thing, the coating of mud and grime serving as a badge of honour.

Rather them than me as they would do just as well by crouching or kneeling and save themselves the bother but each to their own.

Most small gull species are remarkably beautiful in breeding plumage and the Sabs was no exception, even more so in the early morning light. Its head was hooded and depending on the angle at which it was held appeared either  charcoal grey or darker with a distinct black collar bordering where the hood joined the white feathers of its nape. Its black bill was generously tipped with sulphur yellow, while  its slender body was the standard gull combo of medium grey above and white below. When it flew however it revealed a startling wing pattern of contrasting triangles of black, white and grey with predominantly black on the outer primaries, white on the inners and secondaries and grey wing coverts. The tail was markedly forked and white.

Looking at my images of this bird it would appear that the feathers were very worn. Noticeably the white spots on each of its primaries were much abraded as were the tips of the primaries and its tail was similarly worn and ragged.The upper body feather tracts also showed wear. So was this an adult that aberrantly had not moulted out of its summer plumage? Due to the obvious feather wear it surely had not prematurely moulted into summer plumage.

Sabine's Gulls have a circumpolar breeding distribution ranging from Alaska and the Canadian Arctic to Greenland, and Spitzbergen to the Taimyr Peninsula in Russia. Most North American birds spend the winter in the Pacific Ocean off South America while populations from Greenland and eastern Canada cross southwards in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean to winter in the Benguela Current off southwest Africa. There is also conjecture, due to the number of inland records, that some birds from North America, Europe and even Siberia may move overland to their winter homes at sea. Many are also driven east in gales and storms to fetch up on the coasts of Ireland and Britain.This may well be responsible for the arrival of this individual I went to see on Sunday. Presumably caught up in an Atlantic storm it had been blown northeast by gales and like many another of its kind made landfall on the coast of Britain. Could the gale that enveloped it have resulted in the retension of its worn plumage? Unlikely but possible, the bird concentrating on survival and putting any moult on hold.

It seemed happy enough in its temporary albeit alien environment and  why not as Southern Water are disgracefully continuing to pump industrial quantities of raw sewage into the sea off the southern counties of Britain,  including Langstone Harbour, as the hundreds of gulls around the sewage outflow nearby made all too obvious.I could not help but reflect that the juxtaposition of a beautiful and romantic gull feeding on gallons of discharged human excrement  acted as an allegory for our human world and the way we continually abuse it

For the first hour the gull was continually on show, either making brief sorties over the lagoon to pick up morsels of fish or to stand on one of the many mini islands of  exposed weed, braving the wind by using its wings to balance. Opportunities were so numerous to watch and admire it at close quarters one almost became blase, almost but not quite as this was virtually a unique event and therefore to be savoured.

After several forays to the sewage outfall  it settled to its original resting place on the little island of mud and weed as meanwhile a continual procession of birders arrived to admire it whilst others departed to explore further areas of the harbour.

For over an hour it remained immobile, squatting on the weed and mud, only its head moving constantly, looking this way and that. It was attritional standing in the buffeting and cold wind as we all waited for it to do something, anything but it resolutely refused to play ball. Obviously stuffed full with fish bits donated by various birders it was not even tempted when yet more fish scraps were cast upon the water.

Finally it stood up and now we felt was the opportunity for the flight shots we had all been waiting for and anticipating but no, it flew steadily into the wind to the far end of the lagoon, cleared the trees there and headed for the sewage outfall once more. Cue a mass departure of birders and toggers. I joined them as frankly it was a joy to move my limbs and regain some warmth.

I went back to my car for a quiet sit and scan of my photos. It was a relief to leave the wind outside and when sufficiently revived in body and spirit I did not want to leave and succumbed to the lure of more Sabs adoration. Well who wouldn't? Walking back to the lagoon I found the gull had returned to its little sanctuary of mud and weed and was, as per usual doing very little.I hung on until it made a move and as before it headed off to the sewage outfall but unusually it was back in just a few minutes and settled once more on its island.

One more image of it sat on its favourite spot and I decided that four hours of admiring the Sabs at close quarters had done both it and myself justice.