Thursday 20 July 2023

That Black winged Kite in Norfolk 18th July 2023

c.Adrian Webb

It always happens this way with twitching. One minute everything in your world is fine the next it's turned on its head and turmoil ensues.

On Monday evening I was very tired and, slumped on the sofa, was relishing going to bed early and having an extended lie in on Tuesday morning before going out to check some Barn Owl boxes near to my home in Oxfordshire.

July is by tradition a quiet month for birding around my way. A few early returning Common Sandpipers and a lone Dunlin were all my local Farmoor Reservoir could muster so I was fairly relaxed about life and looking forward to a trip with Mark to the RSPB's Bempton Cliffs in Yorkshire next week.

Just before 22.30 that evening I checked my phone before heading for bed and there was a message from Mark sent at 21.59.

It consisted of three words 

Ring Mega Urgent

I sat up as this could mean only one thing.Thoughts of bed and blessed sleep were now on hold.

I called Mark and was informed that an adult Black winged Kite had been found in Norfolk in the late afternoon and had been 'mega'd' on the bird news services at 21.54.

The kite had been watched from the Stubb Mill Viewpoint at Hickling Broad NWT (Norfolk Wildlife Trust) Reserve from 19.30-20.45 hunting over fields and reported to be showing well.

If  correct and there was no reason to believe it was not, then this sighting would be immensely popular amongst birders and twitchers alike and bound to draw a huge crowd..The first Black winged Kite for Britain had been seen as recently as the 18th of April by only two people when it briefly flew over some farm fields at Newtown in Powys. It soon disappeared and was never seen again, even as Mark, myself and the rest of the twitching fraternity geared up for a mad dash to mid Wales only to then collectively sigh in resignation at what might have been.

Now here, unexpectedly in Norfolk, was a second chance to catch up with this ultra rare visitor to Britain. Could it be the same bird that was seen in Wales? It did not really matter. All that mattered was to see it if possible.

Black winged Kites  or as they were formerly called, Black shouldered Kites, have been expected to reach Britain, much as Great, Little and Cattle Egrets have done with the rise in global temperatures.They are normally found in sub saharan Africa and tropical Asia, but its range is expanding northwards with colonies in Spain (500-1000 pairs) and Portugal (100-1000 pairs) and now it is breeding as close to Britain as the Calais area of northern France. I predict it  will not be too long until they are regular in southern Britain. 

A speculative phone conversation between Mark and myself discussed the fact the Hickling kite had been watched well into the late evening and therefore was likely to have roosted in the area where it was last seen. We surmised that if we got there at dawn on Tuesday we might be in with a chance of seeing the kite as it left its roost. The worry being it would disappear as rapidly as the Welsh bird had in April.

I was in a quandary as conflicting emotions assailed me.Desperately tired all I really wanted was to go to bed, it was the sensible thing to do but when if ever did common sense factor in twitching. I was now confronted with a situation which suggested I do the exact opposite to being sensible. I struggled with my inner conflict and in the end told Mark I was just too exhausted to cope with immediately going to Norfolk, even for such a very rare bird.Having made my decision, for an all too brief moment I felt a sense of relief.

If only it were that easy. Almost immediately doubts set in. It was a new bird for Britain after all, how would I feel if it was seen by Mark tomorrow and not by me. I began to seriously waver.

Mark then sent a text saying we could wait for news on the kite until the next morning but that may well prove to be too late as the bird could leave its roost and be gone forever.

Ever more riven by doubt and uncertainty, a familiar feeling for twitchers, my resolve collapsed. 

I called Mark and reversed my decision.

'OK Let's do it!'.

Mark told me to get to his house in Bedfordshire at 03.00. It was now 22.30. This would give me two hours sleep at the most before I had to leave my house. Better than no sleep at all I supposed.

I got into bed and laid my head on the pillow with relief.

My phone rang.It was.Mark.

'What's up?'

'We need to go to Norfolk immediately to get there as early as possible as parking is limited and I do not fancy the long walk to the viewpoint if the car park is full.Also there will be hundreds of birders and we need to get a good viewing position.'

'I've just got into bed!'

It was useless as now there was no way I could get any sleep even if we stuck to the original plan..My head was buzzing with those familiar foes, anxiety and over excitement.

'I'm on my way.I will be at yours in  ninety minutes'.

The now all too familiar drive to Mark's house was a bleary eyed crossing of middle England, dodging the endless diversions and road closures as HS2 laid waste to great swathes of countryside.

My mind raced trying to justify what I was doing. It's just a bird after all but like an alcoholic I had to accept I am a twitcher and.I am addicted.

I got to Mark at around 01.30 and transferring to his car we were off into the night in double quick time, heading east.

Dog tired I laid my head on the car seat head rest and tried to doze.Half an hour later we came to the inevitable major road closure, now an added and regular hazard for anyone foolhardy enough to venture onto our  major highways at night.

Overtired, both of us suffered a temporary emotional crisis and melt down at the misleading diversion signs but after Mark calmed down I made a placatory consultation of Google Maps on my phone which put us on a course that took us around most of the City of Cambridge before delivering us back on track, having added thirty minutes to our journey in the process.

The sky was visibly lightening  as we crossed from Cambridgeshire into Suffolk. Finally we were in the right county, Norfolk, and now in the plain light of dawn headed for the small NWT car park at Hickling. Another worry arose. Would the car park already be full of birders cars who had got there earlier than us, leaving nowhere to park and as a consequence having to make a very long walk?

No, there was still space.Stepping out into full daylight we walked for a mile down a narrow lane towards the viewing point. It was going to be a nice day but it was damp underfoot from the rain showers of last night,.the wheat fields on either side of the hedgerows that bordered the lane were already ripening to gold as a Yellowhammer sang his simple and plaintive song.

We got to the viewpoint..There was no mistaking it as on top of the raised bank was a solid mass of birders and telescopes. I did not fancy looking through a forest of heads and tripods so positioned myself at the near end of the bank, slightly lower than most of my fellow birders but still with a view of the extensive marshy field in front. Mark being taller opted to force himself in amongst the throng. 

With a relatively clear view of the field in front of me I was confident that if the kite did appear I would be able to see it although some bushes in the middle might prove a problem.

Adenalin alone was now keeping me awake as I clung to my telescope tripod for support..I looked out across a landscape that I had only previously ever visited in winter to watch the large Marsh Harrier roost..Now in the height of summer it was a much more verdant landscape, the reeds and hedgerows covered by a layer of spectral mist that lay across the marshland and created a scene of translucent beauty, the distant tree line beyond but a blur through the veil of mist.

Slowly the sun rose, bright fiery red and then turning to gold, shining directly into our eyes and searingly bright.The birder beside me put on sunglasses.The mist slowly dissolved in the sun, becoming less opaque and there came from afar the distant bugling of awaking cranes..Ignoring about  fifty birders standing elbow to elbow to my left, one could almost imagine one had entered into another land and another time.

The cranes, seven of them, rose above the far treeline and flew higher, circling, their angular profiles stark against the pink tinted sky before they were gone from sight but still audible.Other.birds were awake too but it looked  too chill and unwelcoming for any raptor to take to the air. Latecoming birders were still arriving  and our number swelled to about a hundred, some spilling out onto the grass to the left of the viewpoint.

An hour had passed, then another,.with litttle excitement. Not a sign of the kite. I, with  others, stood waiting and hoping, a trifle morose maybe but more contemplative than disappointed. It still could go either way concerning the kite and all hope had not yet been lost. I looked at my phone. 

It was 06.30.

Ye gods. Is that all

It felt like I had been up for hours and on reflection I realised I had!

Everyone waiting.Everyone with the same thoughts and unanswered question. Was the Black winged Kite still here?The crowd remained expectant, not exactly hushed but with the passing of time, nervous, overloud conversations had lapsed into quite murmurings, even silence. The sun rose higher still, a burning white orb in a clear sky, warming the land and dazzling our eyes. If the kite did appear it would be difficult viewing conditions but little could be done about that.

During our vigil there had been much conjecture about the veracity of the sighting that had brought us  to stand here in rural Norfolk in the early hours of Tuesday..No one quite knew who had seen and reported the kite. Apparently there was a photo of it but no one had seen it. Could it be a hoax? Such things have happened before  As time passed so the speculation increased.

It was a few minutes before seven am when the kite was first seen, flying and hovering above the distant treeline.The transformation amongst us was startling and instantaneous.Everyone was energised. a buzz of excitement as, of one, we leapt to focus scopes or raised binoculars, trying to follow the finder's directions to the kite. It was at first impossible for me to locate as I was way out of position as well as  having to cope with the full on glare of the sun. Shouts for more definitive guidance came from along the viewpoint, everyone crowding towards the finder to try and point their scope at the right spot. I still could not see the bird and realised I never would unless I moved position. 

Desperate stuff. It was impossible to get higher onto the viewpoint due to the crush of over anxious birders. I let it go and relaxed, letting the initial panic play out. The kite was now perched and seemed settled according to others who could see it. Somehow I knew I would get to see it eventually.Easier said than done! Rescue to my fraught state came in the form of a birder to my left who had it in his scope and let me have my first look at this very rare visitor to our shores. I noted a small,  grey and white, falcon like bird, slightly bigger than a kestrel  perched below the tree line on the far side of the field.Not hugely satisfactory as views go but good enough for me to at least claim to have seen the bird. 

I decided it was not worth the hassle of trying to find a space on top of the viewpoint where I could endeavour to see it through my own scope and stood aside.Others had the same idea and we formed a breakaway group and walked behind and  past the viewpoint, through a hedge and out onto the edge of the marsh. Eventually most followed us.

This was much better as we had ample space and a clear view of the entire field and after some initial difficulty I found the kite for myself perched in the trees, fairly low down. It looked superficially like a small male hen harrier, dressed in similar colours of pale grey, white and black, also having a similar owl like face but with eyes of red rather than yellow.and was clear enough in the scope although still distant. Its upperparts were mid grey, with prominent black shoulders and wing tips.while the underparts were white.

It commenced preening and then overbalanced causing it to open its wings wide and display striking pure white underwing coverts and black tips to its underwings.

For twenty or so minutes it remained in its tree and then flew low to the left, below the treeline, before rising higher into the sky and at regular intervals stalling to hover with fast wing beats whilst looking down at the ground, very much like a Kestrel does.  It worked its way left and became ever more distant and we thought it was departing for good but then it returned to once more land in the trees where it was hidden from view.

We waited for quite some time, entertained by passing Marsh Harriers, more cranes and a couple of Great White Egrets, before the kite re-appeared and flew briefly in front of the trees, landed and became invisible once more.

Due to distance and the limitations of my camera and lens I could not get any pics so contented myself with just watching the kite which in a way was no bad thing.

It was only a short while after nine when we decided to make our way back to the car  park,triumphant in the knowledge that another huge gamble had paid off. Tiredness was all but forgotten now and we chatted to other birders, both familiar and unfamiliar, and came to the rescue of Sussex birders, Richard and Matt, who had suffered car tyre problems and needed a lift to the garage replacing the tyre. The twitch, as all successful twitches do, had slowly become a bit of a social occasion, one of happiness and laughter as everyone who had seen the kite relaxed and the tension eased.

The kite gave good and slightly closer views from the other side of the marsh at Horsey until around 1100am but then was seen to fly high to the north and was not seen again, although there was a report of it flying over Trimingham in the mid afternoon, after which there were no more reports and it was assumed it had left the area.The next morning, Wednesday the 19th of July,to much surprise it was found back at Horsey and watched in the early morning before once more disappearing only to be re-found there in the evening.The next morning Thursday the 20th, it was still at Horsey until around 0800am when it did a bunk and evidently moved south as it was  re-found in the evening at Felixstowe Ferry in Suffolk. It roosted there and was seen the next morning up until 0930am when it again was lost sight of and eventually reported in the late evening yet further south, from St Osyth in Essex..It was last reported from there at around 0830am on Saturday the 22nd of July but there have been no further sightings since.Its movements seem to suggest it is gradually moving southwards and although conjecture on my part it may well be making its way back to France or Spain where they are resident.

It is unusual for adult Black winged Kites to move far as they are assumed to be resident while juveniles are known to wander.This bird was an adult so maybe it was blown over the Channel by high winds..We will never know and yet again are left to ponder on why individual birds do what they do and often confound our supposed knowledge of their ecology.

I am rather glad, as I am sure are the many people who connected with it, some after enduring quite a run around, that this bird decided to break the mould.

c Adrian Webb

The above images were taken by my twitching pal Adrian when the kite left its roost at Felixstowe on 21st July. They are truly superb and I wish to record my extreme gratitude for his kindness in allowing me to use them to illustrate this blog. 


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