Red Kite Wildlife

Red Kites – their circle of life

I started my Red Kite diary just one week ago. I had gone down to the village hall a couple of miles from home, to see if I could watch and photograph the pair of Kites that I knew had a nest in a field by the playground.

What a difference a week makes.

Last weekend the scenes were shocking. Covid-19 was recognised as a very real risk to the health of people in the UK, yet the local beauty spots were teeming with visitors, desperate to pack in one last day out before isolating themselves. My local wildlife watching patch is by Dryslwyn castle and I have spent many, many hours down there observing the river and the meadows nearby. They were once a popular over-wintering ground for white fronted geese – in fact, back in the 1980s this part of the Towy Valley was home to 10% of the population of Siberian white-fronted geese that visited Britain and was one the country’s top three sites with up to 2500 of this species being counted here in the 1970s.

The only geese I regularly spot there nowadays are Canada geese, plenty of Greylags and occasionally others, including the escapee Bar headed geese that hung around the river around 10 years ago. Bar headed geese are fascinating and are not birds that visit the UK as part of their usual travels. Their physiology is such that they are able to fly at extremely high altitudes over the Himalayas as part of their migration. This pair was seen up and down the Towy, as far as the estuary at Llansteffan where they were officially counted in a BTO count one winter. I wonder if they moved on to the River Teifi? There was a report in the local paper ‘The Tivyside Advertiser’, of a Bar headed goose being killed by a swan in 2018. It was one of a pair regularly seen there. Most recently around Christmas last year, I spotted a single Bar headed goose back in amongst a mixed flock on the meadow near the Towy. I wonder if this is the remaining partner? tells the sad story of the Teifi goose

On my way over the bridge to the village hall on my morning trip to visit the Kite’s nesting area, I spotted several Little Egrets roosting in a tree and I decided to take a closer look on my return home from collecting information for my Red Kite Diary blog. Sadly, the carpark was full. I have never seen it so busy and people were trailing up to the castle and sitting on the picnic bench and wandering around all over the riverbank. I decided not to stop and thought I’d come back and observe the roost early the next morning instead when I planned to visit the Kites too. I returned home, wrote my blog entry and enjoyed my weekend, tending to our polytunnel and preparing the beds for growing vegetables in our garden.

I haven’t visited the Kite’s nest since and it seems unlikely that I will see that pair again this summer. Technically, the location is within my usual exercise area and I could nip down on my bicycle, but this is someone else’s village, someone else’s local patch and local dog walking area, and I will leave it to them and stick to my own village until it is safer to travel further afield. It’s a shame and I will miss those Kites, but I have a familiar bird that soars above my house most days and I can get see plenty of other wildlife from my garden. I had hoped to share the story of Red Kites through this particular pair, but that is not to be this year. Instead I will continue sharing some personal reflections and some information about the Red Kite in Wales.

Red Kites first breed when they are two years old, although there are exceptional circumstances where younger birds have bred. They are monogamous, and pairs tend to stay around their territory over the winter – this usually results in resident populations pair-bonding. The Red Kite’s nest is normally placed in a fork of a large hardwood tree at a height of between 12 and 15 m above the ground. The pair that I had been watching enter and leave the tree had chosen a nest in the branches. Often, the previous year’s nest will be used and both the male and female bird take part in rebuilding this. The male brings twigs to the female who places them on the nest. The lining is made from grass and also sheep’s wool. Just before egg laying, the birds decorate their nest with all manner of things like crisp packets and toys and anything they can find that takes their fancy. Both sexes continue to add material to the nest during the incubation and nestling periods. Sometimes Kites will use a discarded Raven or Buzzard’s nest.

The nest is in the left half of the picture

I have been outside enjoying a cup of tea and I could hear a Red Kite calling about half a kilometre away. This morning I observed three Kites flying over the field from my bed. How lucky am I?! There are three nests that I know of within our village and I’ve observed the Kites courtship displays for a few weeks now. I like to walk around the edge of my village on a Sunday morning. This walk takes in country lanes and a bridleway and covers parts of each of the three nesting pairs territories. The first breeding/courtship related behaviour I observed this year was on the 23rd of February. I watched a pair of Kites regularly swoop towards each other and spring apart, one of them chasing the other briefly before they reverted back to circling the fields, keeping a fair distance from each other but clearly well aware of what each other was doing. I’ve seen and heard pairs frequently since then and this morning the three birds were clearly engaged in some type of courtship display.

The collage of photos above are from two of the Red Kite feeding centres I’ve visited in Wales. The bird with the double forked tail was photographed by me in around 2001 at Gigrin Farm, Rhayader. The RSPB had observed the farmer feeding the Red Kites regularly in 1992/1993. At that time, they were being fed in the field with the sheep. This clearly demonstrates there is no risk to live sheep from Kites. They prefer carrion and are not particularly strong birds for their size so even when faced with a sheep carcass, they still need to wait for the strong jaws of a fox or raven to break open the bones before the Kites can eat. There were around 6 Red Kites roosting on Gigrin farm at that time and the feeding was providing a valuable service to the Red Kites. These birds were rare back then and chicks were being lost because of disturbance be people trying to view nests. The RSPB hoped that if the successful livestock farm opened to the public, it would reduce disturbances and loss of chicks at the nesting sites. The centre is a success story and by 2006 the numbers of visiting Kites had risen to around 400.

Red Kites feed in the mornings when they wake up and most Red Kite centres provide food around 2 or 3pm depending on whether it is British Summer Time or not. The centres provide a useful top up service and it is common to see the birds gathering from far and wide in anticipation of their meal.

I will include some links to Red Kite centres at the end of this blog. Back to the courtship and breeding antics of the birds. The three birds I saw this morning were an unusual spectacle. More commonly I see pairs displaying. I wonder if it is because the birds are now more common? I have never had a repeat viewing of the breath taking aerial display I witnessed in 1995. This was one of the most special days of my life.

We had just moved to Lampeter in Dyfed (now in Ceredigion). Mal had enrolled at the University in the town. I had been studying in Bristol and had decided to transfer to Aberystwyth University instead. Sadly academia wasn’t for me but it brought to us to the most beautiful part of the world and it has been our home ever since. Lampeter Uni is quite unusual. It is the oldest university in Wales and offers some fascinating courses which attract some equally fascinating students. Subjects like Ancient History; Medieval Studies; Religion; and Buddhist Textual Studies. Bristol’s student union had clubs that did things like review plays they had seen at the theatre or debate politics. Lampeter’s students dressed up as knights and whacked the hell out of each other with realistic looking swords!

Mal had made friends with a large, forthright, Yorkshireman called Dave. They had met on the first day of term and instantly hit it off. Dave had a big moustache, a bawdy sense of humour, a larger than life physique and personality … and a dress! Well, it wasn’t an actual dress as he frequently told drunk locals who were using his taxi service. It was his robes. Dave was a Buddhist and he had another name, but to me and Mal he was always Dave and we have many fond memories of our time together and with his children and he is sadly missed by us. He died in 2015 – or was reborn – depending on your viewpoint. I messaged his son a couple of years ago and we reminisced about our days out in Mid Wales.

Dave’s son was at school in the town and the four of us would frequently get in Dave’s car (Mal and I had motorbikes at the time) and set off on adventures all over the place. One sunny spring day we headed up from Lampeter towards Tregaron. The bog there is an incredible spot for watching wildlife. It always feel bleak and remote. The water is black and the bog stretches for miles – it is a great spot for dragonflies, adders and glow worms. There’s a heronry within a couple of minutes walk from the carpark too. We continued north into the realms of places with names we struggled to pronounce. I’m proud to say, these names now roll off the tongue. We drove through Pontrhydfendigaid, Pontrhydygroes and Cwmystwyth. Dave’s dream was to open a Buddhist centre in Wales and we stopped that day in what could have been the perfect spot. The Cambrian mountains are simply stunning and totally under-rated in my opinion. I am secretly glad of this because whilst tourists are flocking to climb Pen y Fan in the south or Snowdon in the north, the Cambrians are quiet and peaceful and an escape from everyday life. We stood in the derelict and unrestored grounds of what we now know to be the Hafod estate. The sky was blue and the air crisp. It was 1995 and most of the UK’s Red Kites were around Mid Wales, around 100 pairs in all. It was a treat to see one (I described my first encounter with a Kite whilst riding my motorbike in my earlier blog).

With so much beauty all around us it was a good job we looked up, because high above us in the sky were five Red Kites. None of us had seen that many birds together before. These were the days of getting really excited and pointing at them out the window on the rare occasion you saw one on its own. We were absolutely transfixed. The five birds were clearly in a group and were stacked like planes circling while waiting to land, pairs taking turns to glide slowly then swoop at each other, occasionally touching talons, before parting and taking their position back in the stack while other birds took up the aerial display. Red Kites will pass food to each other but rarely lock talons and tumble like other birds of prey. But some of these birds were pairing up and tumbling, wings bent double and almost wrapped up in each other whilst hurtling towards the ground but breaking apart suddenly and gracefully, and soaring back to their circle to wait their turn for the next battle in the arena of the sky.

I have searched the internet and my books for information on Red Kite courtship and I have found very little. I have never seen so many birds behave like this before or since. It was a truly magical moment. I wonder whether there is less competition for partners now the population has increased? I see that my blog has been read in India, maybe readers can contact me with their observations both here in the UK and further afield?

The Hafod Estate

I have never seen Red Kites mating. I’ve never seen photos either. The Chiltern’s AONB (area of outstanding natural beauty) website says if you are lucky in April you may see Red Kites copulating in trees. I suppose we all define luck differently! After a successful mating, the clutch of one to three (up to a maximum of five) eggs are laid at three-day intervals. The eggs are matt white with red-brown spots and were prized by egg collectors in the past, which led to further reductions in Red Kite numbers. The average egg size is similar to a hen’s egg that you would buy from a supermarket. They are mainly incubated by the female, but the male will relieve her for short periods while she feeds. The male will also bring food for the female. Incubation starts as soon as the first egg is laid and each egg takes 31 to 32 days before hatching. Because the eggs are laid at three-day intervals, incubation continues until all the eggs are hatched so could take as long as 40+ days
Both parents care for the chicks. First of all, the female takes care of them and the male brings her food for herself and for the chicks that she feeds. Later on, both parents bring items of food to the chicks that they place in the nest to allow the chicks to feed themselves.
Fledging takes place after 48-50 days and the nestlings will begin climbing about on branches a few days before this. In the first two to three weeks after leaving the nest, the fledglings hang around and continue to be fed by their parents. Red Kites raise one brood per year but will re-lay if eggs are lost.
A Red Kite can live for over 20 years and a bird was found in Wales in 2012 that was almost 24 years old.

So there we have it – the life cycle of the Red Kite. They still fill me with awe and I have to dedicate this to blog to Dave because I always think of him when I look at Red Kites. I am not a Buddhist, I practice no specific religion. I do practice mindfulness and one of my favourite meditations is on loving kindness. This meditation is also a Buddhist metta. There has never been a better time to contemplate on and project its meaning inwards to ourselves and outwards to the rest of the world.

Red Kite

The History of Red Kites in Wales and the rest of the UK

I went down to the field earlier, hoping to get the chance to see Red Kites around the nest or engaging in courtship displays. It was fairly quiet, a single Kite was around and was flying in a large circle over the village and car park where a family were unloading their bicycles. I stayed for a while but didn’t hold much hope of seeing any activity. I expected the Kite to be preoccupied with the goings on in the car park rather than getting busy with any courtship or breeding. I drove back home and saw at least 4 other Red Kites and one flying directly above my house. This is a familiar bird to me and I recognise its individual voice. I know where it nests but it isn’t in a public place like the Kites I’ve been following so I smile to myself and wonder whether it will breed this year and keep me company with its mewling, whistling call over my garden through the summer.

My husband and I moved to the county of Dyfed in 1994. Mal had enrolled at Lampeter University as a mature student and we rented a small cottage in the middle of nowhere with no electricity at all – not even a generator, and our water came from a spring. The only thing I would miss if we were to return to that way of living is the internet and the ability to research any topic I wish without having to leave my house.

They were wonderful days and we spent our time between the University, work and riding around on our old Japanese motorcycles. It was in 1995 that we saw our very first Red Kite as we were riding along on our motorbikes down the back lanes from Llyn Brianne. I love the Cambrian Mountains and the fact that they are so peaceful and not busy with tourists. A Kite flew alongside us as we rode along the mountain road. I’ve always wanted to be able to fly and I imagine that motorcycling is as close as you are going to get without leaving the ground. For a while, the bird and the two of us on our bikes travelled together at the same speed, I cannot describe the feeling other than a total connectedness and oneness with the planet. Robert Pirsig in his famous book ‘Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance’ written back in 1974 describes perfectly how when you travel in a car you are an observer looking at the world through a screen, much like watching television. But on a motorcycle you are part of the scene and the whole experience is never removed from your immediate consciousness.

Anyway, that was a very special moment that still brings me a whoosh of pleasure, not just for the experience of ’flying’ with a Red Kite but because I had never seen one before as they were extremely rare back then.

Back in the day mucking about on a friend’s farm.. When I used to ride over the mountain road from Lampeter, I would sometimes remove my helmet. Farmers would smile and wave and no one seem bothered about my law breaking…or personal safety!

The Gower Peninsula has some wonderful archaeology and Red Kite bones dating back 120,000 years have been found in caves there along with elephants, hippopotamus, mammoth, rhinoceros, cave bear and lion. This was before people had come to Britain and Wales was joined to Somerset and Devon by a wooded valley  rather than the Bristol Channel.

The Red Kite was clearly a common bird and was described in the writings of Chaucer in the Knight’s Tale and later in Shakespeare’s King Lear. The king’s daughter Goneril is described as a ‘detested kite’ and he also wrote “when the kite builds, look to your lesser linen” in reference to them stealing washing hung out to dry in the nesting season. These days, Kites still adorn their nests with people’s washing – including underwear, but also crisp packets and other items of litter as well as toys or any other plastic item that takes their fancy.

In the 15th century, James the second of Scotland decreed that the Kite should be killed wherever possible, but it remained protected in England and Wales along with the Raven for another hundred years, as it served the purpose of cleaning the streets of carrion. 

Red Kite numbers appear to have been getting out of hand by the 16th century and a law was passed that placed a bounty on the head of many different species of birds including ‘one penney for the head of every kyte’. The name ‘Kite’ comes from the Old English ‘cyta’ (unknown origin) and by the early 15th century was written as ‘kyte’ and then later on ‘Kite’. The use of the word ‘kite’ to refer to the toy that is flown on the end of a string was first recorded in the 17th century. As the bird became more rare, its eggs became more attractive to egg collectors that could make good money from selling them. This added to the Red Kite’s decline.

At the end of the nineteenth century, there was only around a dozen Red Kites in Britain, and these were mainly found in central Wales. A conservation programme was established in 1903 to try and protect the Red Kites and this is now the longest continuing conservation programme in the world. Dr J.H. Salter from Aberystwyth University persuaded the BTO (British Trust for Ornithology) to set up a ‘Kite Committee’ to protect the few remaining pairs found in the upper Tywi Valley and the RSPB got involved too a couple of years later in 1905. I dream that the bird I rode alongside near Llyn Brianne was a descendent of one of these Welsh  birds and not one of the introduced Red Kites. Figures had dropped considerably by the 1930s and some quote that there was only a single breeding pair of Kites in Wales at this time, whereas other figures are more hopeful and quote 20 birds in total. Whatever the figures, the Red Kite had become extremely rare in Wales and extinct in England and Scotland. Genetic tests have shown that the entire Welsh population of Red Kites has descended from just one, single female. I do hope “my” Red Kite was one of them.

The population of Red Kites did not exceed 20 pairs until the 1960’s, when it started to slowly increase. Recovery was slow because the birds inhabited an area where the climate conditions and food availability was poor and this depressed breeding success and prevented the Kites from expanding their range. Although Red Kites were a protected species there were up against a number of factors:  Illegal poisoning by gamekeepers and landowners who mistakenly believed that Red Kites predated their livestock; egg collecting was a popular money making business and hobby; and shooting of adults for taxidermy were severely affecting the population. 

The 1950s rabbit myxomatosis outbreak devastated a main food supply of the Kites. This was followed by poor breeding success in the early 1960s, thought to be caused by effects of organochlorine pesticides. I will have to quote another of my favourite books here too: Silent Spring by Rachel Carson – a book left to me by my Grandfather and given to me by a friend of his after his death. This book inspired and motivated me and fed into my intense passion for the natural world. Sadly this treasured copy was lost along the way but I was given another copy recently by a good friend and look forward to rereading it, but also feel disappointed in the human race for having learned so little despite intelligent people pointing out the facts of what we are doing to damage our planet. There are many parallels with the Climate Crisis and the awareness raising that another strong, intelligent woman, Greta Thunberg is doing 50+ years later. 

As the population of Red Kites increased and spread out to more productive land at lower altitudes it became apparent that the difficulties they were facing in successfully reproducing were almost entirely due to poor habitat conditions. By the mid-1990s there were more than 100 breeding pairs in Wales, and 350-400 pairs by 2003.

The Welsh population of Red Kites appeared to be unable to spread out of Wales to recolonise its former range across the UK because they were unable to produce enough chicks. The re-introduction programme run by the RSPB, Natural England and Scottish Natural Heritage, amongst others, started in 1989 and helped to establish Red Kites in several areas of England and Scotland.

In 1989, six Swedish birds were released at a site in north Scotland and four Swedish and one Welsh bird in Buckinghamshire. Altogether, 93 birds of Swedish and Spanish origin were released at each of the sites, with the last birds released in 1993 in Scotland and 1994 in England. The first successful breeding was recorded at both sites in 1992, and two years later Kites reared in the wild themselves reared young for the first time. Successful breeding populations have become established in both locations.

Throughout the mid-1990s, Red Kites were released and successfully bred in the East Midlands and central Scotland (these Scottish reintroduced birds were from Germany). Further releases took place in Dumfries and Galloway and the Derwent Valley in the hope that the English and Scottish populations would join up.

By 2011 the RSPB no longer counted the number of breeding pairs in the UK on an annual basis because there were so many. This is a fantastic success story and proves that scientific, consistent, committed conservation work can pay off. It is unusual for me to go out without seeing a Red Kite now, and their distinct call; their elegant flight; beautiful colours and instantly recognisable forked tail are a familiar sight in the skies above Carmarthenshire.

Bwlch Nant Yr Arian