A Red Kite comes calling

One of the inevitable consequences of the Covid-19 lockdown is that we’ve spent pretty much every moment of the last three months at home. Planned visits to Cornwall (2 weeks), Norfolk (10 days) and Liverpool (5 days) have all been abandoned, while day trips we would have done to places closer to Platypus Towers have also been impossible. Our horizons have been severely limited by the crisis.

However, it’s not all bad news. Spending more time chez nous has enabled us to better appreciate the wildlife that visits our garden.

We live deep in a suburban housing estate, and our private outdoor space isn’t big – just 90 square metres. Nevertheless, ten species of butterfly have passed through in recent weeks, and despite the best efforts of visiting cats Milky Bar and Malteser to have them for dinner, various birds have also dropped in, tempted by a well-stocked birdtable. A few months ago I wrote in this blog that birds don’t come here anymore, so the return of our feathered friends has been very welcome.

But the very best garden wildlife encounter has been courtesy of a Red Kite, swooping so low over us that it almost seemed we could reach up and touch it. It didn’t stay long, probably no more than 30 seconds, so no chance for photos or video, but the encounter is etched indelibly into the memory. We have been in this house since the mid-1980s, and if anyone had suggested then that one day we’d experience a fly-past by a Red Kite we’d have assumed they were completely out to lunch.

Amongst our collection of books about birding we have a field guide published in the year we moved into this house. It describes the Red Kite as uncommon, with fewer than 45 breeding pairs in the country. The distribution map shows the species confined to the mountains of mid-Wales, around 150 miles (240 km) from Platypus Towers.

But fortune has looked kindly upon the Red Kite over the last 30 years, thanks primarily to a spectacularly successful reintroduction programme.

Red Kites were once found throughout England, Wales and Scotland, both in traditional countryside haunts and in urban settings. They were so common that William Shakespeare described London as a “city of kites and crows.” Kites were welcome visitors to towns, where they scavenged waste discarded by the inhabitants, and this avian garbage disposal service was so highly valued that the birds found themselves protected by an English Royal Charter in the 15th century!

But times changed, and these impressive raptors were transformed from heroes into villains, being seen as a threat to food supplies and to game shooting interests. Intense persecution followed, and around 150 to 200 years ago Red Kites became extinct in England and Scotland, clinging on only in remote, mountainous areas of mid-Wales. Remarkably, genetic fingerprinting tells us that the entire relict Welsh population were descendants of a single female, an indication of how close the bird came to extinction in Wales too.

Numbers of Red Kites stabilised in Wales, but although the bird was given legal protection and some nests were protected from egg collectors it seemed unlikely that the growth in numbers would ever be sufficient to allow successful recolonisation beyond its borders. Further intervention was required if England and Scotland were to re-establish their own populations, and eventually the RSPB and English Nature (now Natural England) stepped up to the plate.

Their ambitious reintroduction programme began in 1989, with birds taken from Sweden – and later, Spain – released at sites in southern England (Buckinghamshire) and northern Scotland (the Black Isle). Other release sites came on stream later in the project, which lasted more than two decades, creating extra hubs from which the rest of the country could be recolonised.

By any standard, the Red Kite reintroduction programme has been a spectacular success. Under the heading “a triumph for conservation,” the RSPB website reports that there are now around 46,000 breeding pairs in the UK.

The birds still face threats, in particular “illegal poisoning by bait left out for foxes and crows, secondary poisoning by rodenticides, and collisions with power cables,” but the Red Kite’s situation has improved out of all recognition since the reintroduction programme began.

Although we were lucky to get good views of a Red Kite flying over Platypus Towers a few weeks ago, I imagine it will be some time before they become a regular sight here: recolonisation is a gradual process. However there are places in the UK where sightings are pretty much guaranteed, particularly in Wales, which is home to around 50% of the entire UK breeding population.

Indeed, Red Kites have become a tourist attraction in Wales, with one enterprising farmer turning them into a major business opportunity. Gigrin Farm’s website says:

We are a 200 acre family-run working farm, now famous for our Red Kite Feeding Centre. Hundreds of Red Kites feed here every day. It is a truly breathtaking spectacle which we hope you will come along and witness for yourself.

SOURCE: Gigrin Farm website, retrieved 12/06/2020

They do not exaggerate. I’m pleased to report that Gigrin Farm offers spectacular, close-up views of an extraordinary number of Red Kites, as well as a glimpse of the rare white-morph Red Kite and sundry other birds including buzzards, ravens and rooks. The photographs illustrating this post were taken by Mrs P when we spent an afternoon at Gigrin in November 2018.

Although the farm is currently closed to visitors due to Covid-19 restrictions, the birds continue to be fed. When regulations allow I would happily recommend anyone with a passion for Red Kites to visit Gigrin Farm…you won’t be disappointed! Meanwhile, click on the link below to see the YouTube video I made during our visit.

My video of feeding time at the Gigrin Farm Red Kite Centre

16 comments

  1. nationalparkswitht · June 17

    I’ve noticed more birds here too. Are. There more, or are we just slowing down enough to notice them?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · June 17

      Both, I think. Definitely, spending more time at home has increased our chance of spotting birds (and butterflies) that only drop in occasionally. But also, I think there are more around at the moment. Whether that’s simply a response to the way human behaviour been thrown into disarray by the pandemic, or whether it reflects a real increase in numbers, I just don’t know. Whatever, it’s great to see them, and lifts our spirits at a time when things have been tough 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I predict that the residents of Platypus Towers one day soon will take a photo or two of a Red Kite. Keep your cameras ready!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · June 17

      I think you’re right. The lesson has been learned, and a camera sits on the table next to the laptop as I type this. All we need now is for that Red Kite to make a return visit to the Towers…

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Ann Mackay · June 17

    What a spectacular visitor! It’s great to know that the red kite numbers are increasing. I hate it when birds and animals are killed because man is greedily trying to extract everything possible from the environment – hopefully we are gradually becoming a bit more enlightened.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · June 18

      Totally agree. More enlightenment is definitely needed, but things are moving in the right direction.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. T Ibara Photo · June 17

    What glorious views! Reading some positive news made my day – thank you 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  5. tanjabrittonwriter · June 18

    I’m getting goose bumps reading about your unexpected encounter. How refreshing to hear about the kites’ success story. Where there is a will, there is a way! I hope all the implemented changes will be maintained, and that you and Mrs. P will continue to enjoy more avian visitors at home.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · June 18

      Yes, it’s great to come across positive conservation stories amidst all the doom and gloom.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. krikitarts · June 26

    I enjoyed your post very much and send compliments to Mrs P on her photography. Catching decent images of fast birds in flight is always a challenge, and these birds are beauties!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man · June 26

      Thank you. Mrs P’s fired off hundreds of shots that afternoon…we’d be bankrupt if it weren’t for digital photography 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • krikitarts · June 26

        Haha! I understand all to well. Before 2000 I traveled with three 35mm and two medium-format cameras, three lenses for the 35s, filters, reversing rings, tripod, and 40 rolls of film, and had a full B&W darkroom. Tell me about the joys of the digital world!

        Liked by 1 person

      • Platypus Man · June 27

        To quote Bob Dylan, “times they are a changin.” I don’t think youngsters can fully comprehend what life was like before tech took over just about every aspect of it. What we have now would have been unimaginable to my teenage self.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. aussiebirder · July 6

    Thanks for your informative post on the Red Kite 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s