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Birding tours in Wales

Red Kite Safaris is the bird tour company of Elfyn Pugh, author of this article.

The Red Kite

Elfyn Pugh

"With a wingspan of five & a half feet (nearly 2 metres) the Kite is graceful and elegant in flight; pale grey head and striking almost translucent white underwing patches and black tips on the primaries contrast with warm orange or russet coloured feathers on the body and upper tail which in good light appear to glow like red embers as if touched by some earthly fire gives the kite an almost ethereal appearance. With twisting deeply forked swallow-like tail and long slightly angled wings it turns this way and that soaring and spiralling forever skyward catching the unseen breath of wind or an uplifting warm air thermal. Its golden orbed eyes surveying all below it to catch sight of the unsuspecting prey or the lifeless carcass to feast upon"

The Red Kite is an impressive bird of prey which thankfully nowadays is a familiar sight to many people living in some areas of the United Kingdom. It is a diurnal raptor and a member of a family of birds called ‘Accipitridae’ which includes the kites, old World vultures, harriers, hawks, eagles, buzzards etc; Both sexes of the Red Kite are similarly coloured but as in many birds of prey the female is slightly larger than the male but this is difficult to discern in the field. The present day name for the kite is derived from the Anglo-Saxon ‘cyta’. In Britain it was known in the past by a number of local names the most widespread being “Glead” or “Gleade” and “Puttock” a name which Shakespeare knew it by. In Wales it is known as “Boda Wennol” (Swallow Buzzard) or “Barcud Coch” (red kite) or even “Boda Chwiw” (whistling kite) which is a reference to its distinctive call. It was once a common sight in the towns and cities of medieval Britain; but then during the 18th and 19th centuries there followed a period of relentless persecution at the hands of man almost to the point of extinction of the species in the British Isles. The Kite fell out of favour due to its predation on young domestic fowl and game birds. The development in the manufacture of firearms made the task of extermination easier for the hunters. Its lack of fear of man made it an easy target.

By the end of the nineteenth century the last remaining birds- no one knows exactly how many, perhaps no more than 10 or 12 pairs survived against all odds in a sparsely populated region of central Wales. The Principality remained their stronghold until very recent times where it hung on precariously to an existence plagued by persecution especially by the unscrupulous activities of egg collectors, they were also shot for their skins and for adornments as stuffed birds in glass cabinets. Their trials & tribulations at the hands of man were compounded by the vagaries of the Welsh climate. Then the early years of the twentieth century proved a turning point in the fortunes of the kite. The tale concerning their survival is a noteworthy one and involved a considerable amount of effort and dedication by a determined group of individuals, landowners, and later the R.S.P.B. Concerted efforts were made to protect the kite population of Wales in what was to become one of the Worlds longest running species protection programmes. But it has not been an easy road by any means. Gradually it was brought back from the abyss and the numbers have increased to the present day level of about 500 breeding pairs in Wales. This has proved to be an outstanding success story for the Conservation movement. Those pioneering and visionary individuals of the early 20th century would have been delighted with the situation as it stands today.

In 1989 following a great deal of deliberation a reintroduction programme was commenced in England and Scotland. Kites were removed as nestlings from parts of Europe particularly Spain, Sweden and eastern Germany. A few chicks were translocated from Welsh nests too. The young nestlings were then nurtured and acclimatized in specially constructed pens before being released into the British countryside. This long term project has been immensely successful. Currently there are about 460 breeding pairs of kites in England & Scotland as a direct result of the re-introduction initiative. So in 2005 the probable total breeding population in the United Kingdom is in the region of 960 pairs. The future looks good for the Red Kite in Britain which now has a healthy breeding population but this should not allow us to become to complacent about the situation. Recently the I.U.C.N. (The International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources) has ‘Uplisted’ the status of the Red Kite on its current ‘Red List’ from ‘Least Concern’ to ‘Near Threatened’ so this in effect means that Conservationists must remain vigilant with regard to any harmful developments which have an impact on the Red Kite population of Europe as a whole.

The Red Kite has a tenuous relationship with its close cousin the Buzzard and a particularly strained relationship with that formidable member of the crow family the Raven but that notwithstanding these birds share the same hunting and nesting areas. They can often be seen associating together. I have seen kites and ravens spiralling upwards on a thermal until almost out of view and all one hears is the occasional ‘cronk’ calls from the Raven its as if they were competing for aerial supremacy. During my wonderings in the wilds of mid -Wales kites buzzards & ravens have often been my companions I never cease to be delighted by the elegant beauty and aerial prowess of the kite. To me these birds are an icon, it has such strong associations with Wales that many people regard it as our national bird; indeed the Powys County Council has adopted it as their symbol.

Wales is still worth visiting to see the Red Kite. Set against the background of wild and rugged landscapes, of wooded valleys and uplands. The winter months are undoubtedly the best time to visit. The visitor can see the wonderful spectacle of “wild” kites being fed at feeding stations located at Gigrin farm on the outskirts of the town of Rhayader and Bwlch Nant-yr-Arian Forest Centre at Ponterwyd 10 miles east of Aberystwyth. It is at these places, seeing many birds together in graceful flight, that one can really appreciate why they rank as one of Britain’s favourite birds.

The Red Kite has a varied diet consisting of live prey and dead carrion but it is a renowned scavenger. In the U.K. It’s diet consists of small Mammals especially field voles, mice, rats, moles, shrews, young of hares & rabbits. It feeds on a wide variety of carrion the best known being sheep carcasses. Birds too form an important part of their diet especially the vulnerable nestlings of a wide range of birds species which include Carrion Crows, Rooks, Magpies and Woodpigeons. It will take ‘dead’ game birds too. It also occasionally feeds on Reptiles & Amphibians. Earthworms form an important part of the diet too especially in the spring when the Kite can be seen on the ground together with buzzards which also utilise this food source. It also occasionally displays behaviour known as ‘kleptoparasitism’ by which it attempts to snatch food from other bird species such as birds of prey or Corvids (Crows). This form of aerial piracy can be dramatically witnessed at the Kite feeding stations in Wales when birds chase each other calling noisily. One form of behaviour I have read about and have actually witnessed is the habit kites have adopted of following tractors and combine harvesters during agricultural operations. During the summer I watched 6 kites lingering over a field where hay had been cut. The birds were unperturbed by the activity of the tractors operating in the field or the men walking about. The kites were probably keeping a keen eye out for small mammals or invertebrates which had fallen victim to the hay cutting process.

The Kite has excellent eyesight and hunts by soaring and circling over open country often at a considerable height and it also frequently adopts the strategy of gliding low over the ground. When feeding on a dead carcass it will settle on the ground at some distance from it before finally walking or flying to the carcass. But the kite has a weak bill unable to break the tough skin of a dead sheep it therefore relies on a Fox, Buzzard, Raven or even a dog to make inroads into the carcass. Natural decomposition will also weaken the flesh of a dead animal and the kite is not averse to eating putrid flesh that would soon kill the likes of you and me if we consumed it but it may well be that kites like their close relatives the vultures have highly specialised digestive systems which produce powerful acids to neutralise rotting meat and may therefore make them resistant to bacteria which cause Salmonella & E.coli. The young nestlings are particularly prone to these diseases. The kite catches live prey by the element of surprise rather by speed and pursuit. It kills its prey by using its bill rather than its claws. Food may be eaten where taken or carried to the nest site, a feeding perch or a ‘plucking’ station. Small birds may be taken in flight and I have seen kites plucking and eating small birds on the wing holding the dead animal in its claws whilst riding effortlessly on the wind.

Red Kite in flight The kite normally first breeds in its second or third year of life very close to its natal birthplace. Established pairs loosely occupy their territory throughout the year and courtship resumes in earnest during March. Nest building is carried out by both sexes but the male brings most material for the female to build with. The preferred tree species in Wales at least is hardwoods such as the sessile oak and Beech but they will nest in conifer trees to. In the oak the nest will be constructed in the main fork or crotch of the tree or on a horizontal branch. They will readily use old nests of Buzzards & Ravens. The nest is constructed of dead twigs, lined with grass and other vegetation and the final touch being the addition of sheep’s wool or fur prior to egg laying. All manner of bizarre items have been collected by kites to adorn their nests ranging from paper, plastic & rags and in one instance a teddy bear! Established pairs may use the same nest for many years particularly if breeding success has been consistent at that site. Eggs are laid from late March to early April and the clutch size is between 1 and 4 with 2 or 3 being the usual number in Britain. The eggs are incubated chiefly by the female for a period of about 32 days. The male may sit on the nest for short spells during the day when the female is off feeding or preening. The young are cared for by both parents the male initially brings food to the female at the nest site which the female then feeds to the young. The parent birds will vigorously defend the nest site against all avian & mammalian intruders who venture to close and pose a threat to the young nestlings. The young will fly independently of the nest aged 7 to 8 weeks but will remain close and maintain their dependence on their parents to provide them with food for several weeks thereafter. In some years there are a few breeding failures at least in the Welsh population and the causes may be attributable to a number of factors ranging from prolonged spells of wet and cool weather whereby the eggs or young chicks become chilled, infertility, disease or starvation, predation by crows and squirrels, accidental disturbance by man, and in the past the unscrupulous activities of egg collectors or the deliberate taking of the young. 2 kites nests were robbed of their eggs in Wales in 2004 and a man was convicted for committing these offences. There were no “known” nest robberies in 2005 which is encouraging news. However the public should be vigilant and report any suspicious circumstances to their local police or to the R.S.P.B. Investigations department.

The indiscriminate and often illegal use of poisons continues to be a serious problem in causing kite mortality. There are instances where introduced kites have been poisoned by those with interests in the rearing of game birds. This is a particular problem in Scotland. Poisoned bait left on the ground for the intended targets of foxes, crows, or raptors such as the Golden Eagle are inadvertently taken by kites. Incidents of secondary poisoning occur by the use of rodenticides put down to kill common rats. Kites are particularly vulnerable to this form of poisoning as rats often form part of their diet and they may scavenge on a poisoned dead rat they find around farm buildings. There have been a couple of instances in Wales where kites have been killed or mortally injured by being struck by the blades of wind turbines which are now spread over a wide area of the Welsh countryside and this may warrant further study to establish the true mortality rate. A few years ago there was an instance whereby a kite was killed following a collision with a jet fighter aircraft and part of the thick glass cockpit cover of the aircraft was shattered as a result of the impact. If the Kite survives all the challenges that man and nature bestows upon it then they can live to an average age of 20 years.

In the Welsh population of kites there are examples of ‘white’ coloured Red Kites. These are the offspring of normal coloured kites. Some people have inaccurately described them as ‘Albinos’ (Albinism) but in fact the correct scientific term for this form of aberrant plumage is ‘leucism’ whereby there is a reduction in the pigments in the plumage of the individual. These birds are generally an ‘off white’ colour. At the time of writing there are probably only about eight of these ‘white’ kites in existence but they have proved popular with the general public, again the best chance of seeing one are at the Kite feeding stations at Gigrin farm or the Bwlch Nant-yr-Arian Forest Centre in Wales where they are regular visitors. This abnormality in the plumage can be caused by disease or a poor diet but the most likely cause in Wales has its roots in the genetic make up of the individual. It is believed to be a throwback to the time when there was a bottleneck in the Kite population during the early part of the 20th century. Sadly these rather unique and highly attractive individuals may not be recognized by their contemporaries or ‘conspecifics’ to use the proper term, and indeed may even be attacked by them. In 2005 a white bird paired with a normal coloured kite but they failed to breed. It is thought that the ‘leucistic’ individuals may be infertile due to a genetic disorder in their physiology.

Outside the breeding season the kite is habitually a gregarious species and can be found in communal night time roosts at favoured locations. A great deal of social interaction can take place at these pre-roost gatherings which has been described as play behaviour. In Britain up to a 100 individuals have been counted at these night time roosts but in Spain where large numbers of European kites spend the winter, roosts containing 500 birds have been counted! What an incredible sight that must be. Many other individuals will roost within their established territories which they occupy throughout the year.

The European population of kites is mainly migratory especially those that breed in the North or Central Europe. In the autumn they migrate south to France, Spain, Portugal and North Africa. Some of the birds which have been reintroduced to parts of Britain since 1989 have exhibited migratory tendencies because they still instinctively retain that trait. The Welsh population are by and large resident although some juveniles will disperse eastwards into the English counties and may remain there during the winter months and return to their natal area in the spring. Continental birds will reach Britain too, in fact the theory is that it was a migratory Kite from the continent which found its way into the native Welsh population sometime during the 1970’s and therefore brought new genes into the remnant population. Inbreeding was prevalent during that period of the kite’s history. In the 1980’s blood samples were taken from a number of chicks in Welsh nests and subsequently D.N.A. tests were conducted on those samples by scientists from Nottingham university they came up with the fascinating fact that the whole population of Welsh Kites are descended from one female or matriarch.

It is a sobering thought but it is now clear that the remnant “native” British population of the Red Kite came perilously close to the brink of extinction. If that had been the outcome then we in Britain would have been deprived of one of our most magnificent and majestic birds of prey.

Elfyn Pugh
November 2005

Footnote- Apart from Wales of course Red Kites can be seen in other parts of the U.K. where they have been reintroduced these areas are Wiltshire, East Midlands, Yorkshire, The Chilterns (where there is now a strong breeding population) Tyne & Weir, Dumfries & Galloway, Central Scotland and Northern Scotland in the Black Isle area.

If you wish to make a personal contribution to Kite Conservation then why not support one of the charitable organisations which are directly involved in monitoring and studying the population in the U.K. You can join ‘Friends of the Welsh Kite’ scheme by writing to Mr. Tony Cross, ‘The Welsh Kite Trust, “Samaria”, Nantmel, Llandrindod Wells, Powys. LD1 6EN. Visit the website at www.welshkitetrust.org for more information.
A similar scheme recently set up in England is ‘Become a friend of Red Kites in the Chilterns’ for further information contact Cathy Rose on 01844 355506 or visit the Chilterns website at www.chilternsaonb.org

I have listed below suggested reading material for those who wish to further their knowledge on the Red Kite.
1. ‘The Red Kite’ by Ian Carter (was published by Arlequin Press but now out of print)
2. ‘The Kite’s Tale’ - The Story of the Red Kite in Wales by Roger Lovegrove (was published by the R.S.P.B. but now out of print)
3. ‘Red Kite Country’ by Colin Woolf & Mike Read (published by ‘Wildguides’ currently on offer (December 2005) for the price of £19.99p
4. ‘The Red Kites of Wales’ by Tony Cross & Peter Davis of the “Welsh Kite Trust” priced at £4.95p
5. Handbook of the Birds of Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. (Vol.2 Hawks to Bustards - Cramp, Stanley & Simmons) Published by the Oxford University Press.

Elfyn Pugh runs birdwatching and wildlife tours and day trips in Wales through his company Red Kite Safaris