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.


1 comment:

  1. Yes they are incredibly beautiful as they sweep by on next doors lawn for the meat thrown out for them as the family watches from the front room window.
    But it worries me all this extra feeding. Are we producing numbers which the wider countryside can support.
    They are good at road kill and eating worms but what about the increasing observations of young Rabbits (Leverets?)and ground nesting young birds taken?.
    These birds will eat anything to survive and that's my worry.
    The wider countryside around here has nowhere for any animal to hide with its prairie like monoculture and its butchered hedges and lack of ground cover
    We're already over run with Corvids and to add a false population of another meat eater doesn't seem healthy
    History shows that they were killed by gamekeepers etc. but some of the old accounts recount that even then they would take goslings and chickens.
    I know that the RSPB have their feeding stations but here in rural Oxfordshire I'm concerned that we're doing the wrong thing

    I'm afraid that we're upsetting the natural balance of the wider countryside as it is today.