The weather has been making the headlines as storm Ciara drenched us and battered us with high velocity winds and just to make a proper job of it, rounded things off with a peppering of snow, all of which caused chaos and disrupted travel. It did not, however, disrupt the local gang of rooks which seemed to revel in the hostile conditions and clearly rejoiced in the swirling wind. Soon, they were also hurtling about the sky like dancing dervishes. We may think of rooks as common or garden birds, yet give them a wind to play with and they really do respond.
They come rushing down that wind before cutting up and diving headlong into it with absolutely gay abandon. It seems to me that this is their excuse to demonstrate that despite a reputation as comparatively unexceptional birds in the general scheme of things, they nevertheless can boast exceptional flying skills that would knock those of most other birds into a cocked hat. It may seem incongruous but rooks definitely respond to wind by deliberately setting out to enjoy themselves, challenging the wind with a whole range of fantastic aerobatics.
But whilst I was admiring the bravado and enthusiasm of the rooks, another bird hove into view. In recent weeks we have had daily visits from a red kite. The rooks demonstrate remarkable flying skills but even they are put to shame by the kite. It has to be the most magnificent aviator of them all - by far in my view, the noblest, most skillful flyer of all our birds of prey. If the peregrine may be regarded as a master of the air with its capability of reaching 200 mph in the stoop, if the hawks are dynamic, short distance flyers, kestrels handsome hoverers and eagles simply magnificent, the kites of this world are the most sumptuous flyers of them all. Nothing in my view is quite as dexterous and so much at home in the air.
Kites were once welcome visitors to urban areas before Environmental Health Departments were even thought of, for they were the ‘scaffies’ of such areas, cleaning up the detritus of the streets and generally accepted as a positive force in society. Of course, the kites also made a good living from that detritus. Life for human occupants was, one imagines, rather smelly to say the least. Kites still decorate their nest with bits of plastic and cloth, and are known occasionally to steal items from clothes lines. Indeed, they had a reputation for stealing the handkerchiefs from gentlemen’s breast pockets; Kites have never been overly shy!
However, as folk started to turn their attention towards a healthier environment, the kites became surplus to requirements. At the same time, the notion of game shooting was taking hold and raptors and carnivores suddenly became the enemy, targeted for their potential predation upon the much-prized game. Of course, the nature of the red kite’s flight legislated against them. They were very easy to shoot and their numbers accordingly began to decline until they had disappeared entirely from England and Scotland and only maintained a presence in the Welsh hills.
Happily, the Welsh were proud of their remaining kites and efforts were duly made to ensure their protection with a caucus of folk dedicated to that task. For a long number of years, the Welsh kites remained the only ones in Britain. However, in the latter part of the twentieth century, a programme of re-introduction began. Between 1989 and 2004, kites were brought from Spain and re-introduced initially to the Chiltern Hills in southern England. Since then, various organisations have combined to bring red kites to various parts of both England and Scotland. In this airt kites were released in the Doune area and on the Argaty Estate, between Doune and Dunblane, a centre has been established where kites are fed on a daily basis and a hide has been constructed to enable the public to enjoy the majestic kites coming in to feed. This centre offers excellent opportunities to see kites at their very best and is well worth a visit.
The first thing that strikes you about the flight of a kite is its complete control. It literally sparkles in the sunshine as it turns and its chestnut red coloured back and wings really flash brilliantly. But it is the sheer dexterity that amazes, the bird’s ability to turn, as they used to say about adroit footballers, ‘on a sixpence’. It uses every eddy of the wind to its advantage, its wings and that long forked tail flexing this way and that providing it a with rare buoyancy and at times almost giving the impression that it is capable of flying backwards.
Of course, for a medium sized bird of prey, the kite is very light which is what makes it so wonderfully maneuverable. It spends much of its time soaring over its territory, rising in loose, widening circles, its wings just forward, angled at the wrist and slightly arched. It constantly seeks out rising thermals and as it circles, it is constantly adjusting its position, gradually gaining height and forever flexing that magnificent forked tail. No other bird of prey uses its tail in the same way.
As Roger Lovegrove, a keen observer of kites in their Welsh homeland, said in his wonderful book, “The Kite’s Tale”, ‘… no bird is more ethereal on the wing, drifting and floating with the gossamer lightness of blown thistledown.’ Yet, in level flight, its wingbeats are deep and its lightweight body rises and falls with every beat. Sometimes it will indulge in a shallow glide, wings angled back and tail closed. It is, therefore, a flyer of great versatility and when kites come in to take advantage of food, they really do make you catch your breath.
To further quote Roger Lovegrove, “Of no bird is it truer to say, its whole essence is an aerial one whose being is as a part of the skies, the winds, up-draughts, thermals and eddies which bear it aloft and sustain it there, riding in buoyant flight on the air currents.’
Unlike most other birds of prey, red kites are quite community orientated birds, often roosting together. Although largely a scavenger, the kite is also well equipped to pluck small birds out of the air and also to haver in search of small mammals. Above all it is an opportunist, capable of earning its living in a multitude of ways.
I think the daily visitor we have here is probably a male, slightly smaller than the female and a little more dexterous in flight. He had a little tussle with a buzzard the other day but there was only ever going to be one winner, for the kite completely out-flew its heavier, clumsier rival and therefore reigned supreme.