Red Kites are a frequent sight in the skies over Pembrokeshire. I have often stopped when out on my calls as a vet to watch one gliding over the fields. They often visit our farm, especially after the grass is cut at silage time. I guess it could be easy to become blasé about them but my years of city dwelling mean I get super excited over anything that isn’t a sparrow.
When F said we could go to the Red Kite centre, I felt like Christmas had come early. We had to get there by 3pm, which is when daily feeding occurs.A variety of meat is put out (Today’s menu included a rack of beef ribs!)which attracts buzzards, crow, ravens and magpies as well as the Red kites. As per usual it was a bit of a battle to get everyone washed, dressed, fed and into the car, along with packing a picnic, baby changing bag, my camera and binoculars. We finally crammed everything in and set off.
The centre is a 2 hour road trip away, so I had plenty of time to read up on the biology and conservation history of Red Kites, or to give them their ‘proper’ name, Milvus milvus. They belong to the Accipitridae family, along with Hawks and Raptors. A distinctive forked tail along with their red and grey plumage can help identify them. The bulk of their diet is formed from carrion and worms , but they can act opportunistically to take rodents and small birds. Breeding begins at 2, with both the male and female sharing nest building duties. I found it amusing that pairs will decorate the nest with found objects (including plastic bags, underwear and toys!) before eggs are laid. It reminds me of the ‘nesting’ phase I went through with both of my pregnancies, although my nursery decorations tend to come from Mothercare! It takes around 32 days for each egg to hatch, and as they are laid over a few days there is a slight age gap between the siblings. For the first fortnight females stay on the nest, with all food being provided by the male (human fathers take note, this is a GOOD move to win brownie points!). Once the birds fledge, they stick around for a short period before setting off for a while. They return home as adults, ready for breeding.
The history of Red Kites in the UK is a bit of a tragic tale.Initially they were venerated, and even protected by Royal decree. The tables had turned by the 16th C, when they were considered vermin. Over the years UK numbers dropped further due to taxidermy, egg collection and game keeping. By the late 1800’s they were extinct in England and Scotland. Continental populations didn’t fair much better, and they disappeared from many countries in Europe. Fortunately they managed to cling on here by retreating to the oak woods of mid Wales. However due to poor habitat and low number of chicks this population was not able to expand outside wales.Conservation of the species started in the early 20th C, and is the longest running project of its kind. Reintroduction of birds has involved adding kites from Sweden, Germany and Spain.
I was also intrigued to learn that genetic studies have shown all welsh birds to be descended from a single female. There is a slight variation in genes noted between Northern and Southern populations, the divide running along the Towy valley. This shows that the birds have chosen to remain sedentary and breed where born.
Just outside Carmarthen I spotted a solitary Red kite hovering over a field. “Great, you’ve seen one, now we can go home” exclaimed F, gleefully. I glared at him from the passenger seat, and turned Radio 4 on to drown out his silliness. The countryside whizzed past as we journeyed east, the landscape gradually changing from relatively flat, green fields to rolling hills, green forests and eventually the moor covered mountains on the edge of the Brecon Beacons. By the time we reached Llandovery I was literally bouncing in my seat with excitement. F took a short cut, then missed our turning. “It’s fine” I said, through gritted teeth” We’ve still got 45 minutes to find it before feeding starts”. “Hmmph”replied F. This did not inspire confidence.
Fortunately the centre is well sign posted and it didn’t take us long to find it. We pulled up in the car park, and I got JoJo settled into her sling. C was quite enthusiastic, as she got to carry the ‘noculars’.
There were already kites gathering overhead as we walked up the lane to the hide. Twisting and turning they rode the thermals, whistling and mewing to each other noisily. I nearly fell over, tipping my head back to get a better view of their acrobatics. Not a good idea to lean backwards when carrying a 22lb baby on your hip!
This was the closest I have ever been to a Red kite. I could count the number of feathers on their beautifully forked tails, and see their golden irises glinting in the sunlight. We hadn’t even got to the hide yet, I was grinning with anticipation. Without a doubt, this was the most red kites I had ever seen.Once in, we settled the girls on the lowest bench overlooking the feeding area. I glanced around at the information posters and my heart sunk “Children must be kept sat down and quiet during feeding.If they make too much noise, they will have to leave.””Shhhhh!” I’d stupidly left the bag full of distractions in the car, and C was already getting a bit antsy. How were we going to keep them still and quiet? I had a brainwave and managed to keep C happy by building a ‘den’ with the sling. JoJo was happily gurgling at the 2 swallows that had built their nest in the hide.
I breathed a sigh of relief and got back to birdwatching. I counted 10 red kites perched in an oak tree about 150 yards away, and another dozen soaring over the sheep field next door. I stuck my head out of the hide and looked up. The sky above was thick with red-brown birds.
About 20 juveniles, distinguished by their lighter plumage, mixed with fully grown adults. The odd buzzard hovered amongst them. Then it was time. Food was carried out onto the small field directly in front of us. Kites came in from every side, folding their wings behind them as they stooped to the ground. Chunks of meat were grabbed in curved talons and carried off to be devoured. Scuffles broke out occasionally, with birds tackling each other mid air. Meat was dropped, snatched, scooped back up then dropped again. Those of us in the hide jumped out of our skin as a huge piece of beef landed on the tin roof. I think I must have whispered ‘ this is amazing’ twenty times in the hour we were there.
My bird watching reverie was broken by a distinctive aroma coming from about JoJo’s person. Uh -oh! Time to go. We made our exit as quietly as possible and headed back down the lane. From the car park I could still see the kites gliding around over the hills and fields of sheep. In the distance a shepherd on a quad bike gathered in his flock.
It is sad to think that these birds are still persecuted in Britain. The main threats come from poisoning and shooting. Power cables also pose an issue. Nevertheless the future does look bright for these gorgeous creatures.There are now 1800 breeding pairs in the UK, 7% of the worlds population. Hopefully with further measures, this number will continue to grow.