Thursday, 27 August 2009

Flying Kites on Watlington Hill!

For me the highlight of the trips out we have enjoyed in the last few weeks has to be our visit to Watlington Hill, we picked the perfect day, sunny and warm and not too much wind. What an incredibly beautiful place it is! The views are stupendous and of course the kite flying mentioned in my post title was not the man made variety but the magnificent Red Kite.

I hope you will indulge me with this post as it will mainly be just about this fabulous bird. My next post will be about what else we saw on Watlington Hill but I was so enchanted by this wonderful creature that I feel it needs a post devoted almost entirely to it. As I sorted out my photos (of which I took very, very many!) I wondered over and over again how this incredible bird could have been brought almost to extinction in the UK which then led me to an immense feeling of sadness at the knowledge that we have also lost so many other beautiful wonders of Nature over the years due almost entirely to the ignorance and often cruelty of man.

As I mentioned I took a great many photographs of the Red Kite but I am not well practised in the art of photographing birds in flight, however all the photos here are my best efforts.

To start with I thought it would be appropriate to explain a little of the history of the Red Kite.

Due to persecution this beautiful and majestic bird was exterminated in England, Scotland and most of Wales by the end of the 19th century. In the 16th century a series of Vermin Acts decreed that 'vermin' should be killed throughout England and Wales, the Red Kite and other so called vermin were seen as a threat to expanding agriculture. This was a complete misconception as in fact Red Kites pose no threat to sheep farming or game rearing. This persecution continued during the 17th and 18th centuries.

Towards the end of the 18th century the situation was further exacerbated when increasing numbers of country estate owners employed gamekeepers and many, many more Red Kites were killed. By the late 18th century Red Kites had bred for the last time in England and in Scotland it was a similar situation. Only in mid-Wales did they survive but with their numbers down to just a few pairs. At this point a few local landowners had the foresight to set up an unofficial protection programme to try to safeguard this beautiful bird.

Over the next 100 years or so, committed generations of landowners, rural communities and various dedicated individuals and organisations made the effort to maintain a fragile breeding population. Thanks to their dedication and despite severe threats from egg collectors, poisoning and some modern farming practices, Red Kite numbers are now gradually increasing.

It is not completely clear just how close the Red Kite came to extinction but scientific research shows that in 1977 the entire population emanated from just one female bird!

In 1989, a project was launched to reintroduce the Red Kite back into England and Scotland. Over a period of five years, more than 90 birds were brought into the Chilterns and initially placed in wooden release pens on the Oxfordshire/Buckinghamshire border. After a period of several weeks, and successful health checks, the kites were then released into the wild.

The first successful breeding in the Chilterns took place in 1992. Since then numbers have steadily increased to approximately 400/500 breeding pairs and the kites are still monitored by experienced volunteers. Following the success of the initial Chilterns project further reintroductions have taken place in various other locations in England and Scotland.

The Red Kite is a gregarious bird, and can be seen in large groups. During winter months they also gather at roosts located in various places throughout the Chilterns. Sometimes over 100 can be seen in a favoured woodland roost. Spectacular aerial displays often take place at these sites.

I read that one has to be exceptionally unlucky to visit Watlington Hill and not see Red Kites and thankfully we were not disappointed, they seemed to be everywhere! As we walked and stood and sat and watched I really felt I had entered a magical kingdom, the sun shone and warmed our backs and everywhere I looked sheer beauty lay before me!

'The clouds are at play in the azure space,
And their shadows at play on the bright green vale,
And here they stretch to the frolic chase,
And there they roll on the easy gale.

There's a darkness of leaves in that aspen bower,
There's a titter of winds in that beechen tree,
There's a smile on the fruit, and a smile on the flower,
And a laugh from the brook that runs to the sea.'

(William Cullen Bryant)

Red Kites are very distinctive with their forked tail and striking colours, predominantly chestnut with white patches under the wings and a whitish head.

Their wingspan of nearly two metres (about five and a half feet) and relatively small body weight of about one to two kilogrammes (two to three pounds) makes them incredibly agile allowing them to stay in the air for many hours with hardly a beat of their beautiful wings.

Despite being large birds Red Kites are not particularly strong or aggressive. Primarily scavengers and opportunists; they will take advantage of sheep carrion but are not capable of opening the carcasses themselves and must wait for more powerful birds such as Ravens or Buzzards to make the first inroads before they can feed. They are, however, predators and take a wide variety of live prey, ranging from earthworms and beetles to small mammals, amphibians and birds.

Red Kites usually breed for the first time at the age of two or three. They usually pair for life, although this is thought to be more because of a mutual attachment to the same nest sites and territory rather than because of any great love for each other and there have been a few recorded cases of 'divorce' where both members of the original pair were later found breeding with different partners.

As we walked we saw the occasional dog walker who was clearly local and I couldn't help feeling envious that this was 'their patch'. I wonder if they appreciate the immense beauty or is it so familiar that they forget to look and wonder at the splendour of this special place?

We found a bench opportunely placed on the side of the hill overlooking the small town of Watlington and sat for some time just watching the Red Kites soaring above and below us. It was impossible to see too much of these majestic creatures riding the thermals and dominating their surroundings.

'O bird, you fly in the sky of Infinity.
Tell me, is flying your only game?
Tell me, how do you fly in the infinite blue welkin?
My soulful eyes look at you with all admiration.
My heart pines to fly like you.
O bird, you fly in the sky of Infinity.'

(Sri Chinmoy)

'High from the earth I heard a bird;
He trod upon the trees
As he esteemed them trifles,
And then he spied a breeze,
And situated softly
Upon a pile of wind
Which in a perturbation
Nature had left behind.'

(Emily Dickinson)

It was wonderful too to see these lovely creatures not only in the air but also on the ground. Look at their impressive feathery 'trousers'!

'Even when a bird walks, one feels it has wings'

(Antoine-Marin Lemierre)

I realise some of these photos are less than sharp but I just had to try and convey to you something of the magic of these lovely birds and if I had hesitated too much I would have missed some of the opportunities to do so.

'No bird soars too high, if he soars with his own wings'

(William Blake)

I do hope I have managed to convey at least a little of the magical quality of this truly beautiful bird and that it will never again be brought to the brink of extinction. I hope also that you haven't been too bored by my concentrating on just one subject and that I have shown how very enchanted I was by the amazing Red Kite and by Watlington Hill itself.


  1. This is a magnificent post, and your photos are amazing. Thank you so much for sharing this very beautiful Red Kite and also that wonderful poetry.

  2. What a great place to visit, and to see these magnificent birds so close. I have to go there! lol
    Great flight shots ShySongbird. I'd be more than happy with those.

  3. One word "Brilliant" Raptors are my favourite birds,and this is probably the best. This looks like a great location for them. Great shots well done.

  4. Jan – Not at all bored, it was very interesting to see photos of these beautiful birds and very saddening to think they face such persecution, even today purely for being a BOP.

    A great many species are lost each year, I believe it’s either one a day or week… But unless it’s one of the ‘big ones’ like Lions, Elephants, Panda’s and such we never hear about it. I do think it needs to be on the news, because even if we’re losing Beetles, Flies etc they still have their place in their niche and without such insects, bacteria and such the food chains will collapse.

  5. What a beautiful place to visit and those Kites! Wonderful flight shots Jan - you should be very pleased with those.

    I have to go there too (might even bump into Keith by the sounds of it :D )

  6. What a fantastic set of photos of a beautiful bird. Very well done. I would have been over the Moon to have taken those. Thanks also for the detailed explanation. A fabulous entry to your blog.

  7. Hi Jan,

    Well what can I say, the photo's are something else. Red Kites are stunningly beautiful birds of prey how we nearly lost them is beyond words. Here in Somerset they are very rare to see. So your photos make me want to visit the area.

    Wonderful post.


  8. Hi Jan. An excellent post about these truely magnificant birds. My first sightings around Christmas Common were in Oct 1996 when most of the birds had yellow wing tags following the 1989 to 1994 re-introduction scheme. Amazing to see how succesful it has been and you captured their essence so well.
    I regularly stop by when travelling along the M40 and never fail to see these fabulous creatures. Thanks for sharing. FAB

  9. Songbird, I just read your previous post on the butterflies and thought it was beautiful, but this post on the Red Kite is just amazing! What a magnificent bird, and your pictures are wonderful. I've never heard of a Red Kite before, but it reminds me of an eagle. I can only imagine how mesmerized you must have been watching these in flight. I enjoyed reading all the history about their near-extinction, and I'm so glad that efforts to protect them have been successful. Great post!

  10. Superb flight shots of a bird I have yet to see. When I do see one I hope my photographs turn out as well as yours. You must be very proud of them...give yourself a pat on the back.

  11. Fantastic Photos shysongbird of a magnificant bird.I am priveleged to see them fly regularly over my house and last winter put meat out and had one land on my lawn.But I still couldnt get pics as great as yours.As you say within minutes of soaring they can be way over the valley.The reintroduction here has been extremely successful to.All the local schools have adopted a specific bird and as we are very near to Newcastle then its lovely that youngsters are learning the importance and pleasure of our wildlife.

  12. Stunning post; greatly enjoyed reading it and especially seeing your fine photography of a such a magnificent bird.

  13. What a beautiful area to go to Jan!! That bird looks a lot like an eagle or hawk. They are beautiful creatures and I am glad they didn't go extinct. What a shame that would have been. Amazing photos you got!!

  14. Hi Jan....bored...are you mad woman....this, for me, is a moving and wonderful post and I can only thank you for sharing the wonderful moments you spent with the Red Kite.....I spent many years donating money to the RSPB to help these beautiful birds......

    I can say in all truth your post brought me close to is so good to see the birds in the wild in such a beautiful place.....thank you Jan.........

    Love the photographs to.....

  15. Denise, holdingmoments and Monts: Thank you.


    Thank you so much for your very kind comments, they are much appreciated. I am so pleased to be able to show and share this lovely bird, it really was a sight to behold!


    Thank you so much, I know you would be in your element there! I am very flattered by your comment on the flight shots, I was very unsure about them but from someone with your photographic expertise that is praise indeed :)


    Thank you very much, you are very kind. I must admit I had read that Watlington Hill was a lovely place to visit for butterflies and of course to see Red Kites but I really did not expect to fall in love with the bird in the way I did! It was such an awesome sight and we saw them in such abundance too.

  16. Liz, Tricia and Midmarsh John: Thank you.


    Thank you very much. Yes, I entirely agree with you, everything, no matter how small, or apparently insignificant, has its place in the scheme of things and when the 'chain' gets broken or disrupted it will eventually lead to a domino effect.
    I'm sure I saw the tail-end of a trailer on the TV recently advertising a new programme/series about endangered lesser known species.


    Thank you for your very kind comments.
    I am not always confident with my photography so comments from you and other skilled photographers mean a lot to me.
    It really was a beautiful place and the first time I had ever seen Red Kites, they were stunning!
    I know you (and Keith :) ) would love it there. Go in high Summer, it is rich in butterflies!

    Midmarsh John,

    John, thank you so much for your extremely kind comments. I'm sure if you had been there you would have taken some wonderful photos :)
    I'm glad you enjoyed the history and facts about the bird, I found it interesting so hoped others would too.

  17. Amazing birds aren't they. Your pics look fine to me! Great post well done.

  18. Hi there, found you through Pete's Quacks blog and saw that you'd blogged about one of my favourite birds, the Red Kite. Your photos are fantastic, very envious. I am lucky that there are a pair nesting at my friend's farm less than two miles away, and see them regularly, even over my garden sometimes. Have visited three different feeding sites here in Wales too and it's amazing to see them so close. Very interesting facts about them too, I learned some stuff. Thanks.

  19. Shysongbird, this is a wonderful post. Far from boring, you really have captured the magic of your day at Watlington hill! The red kites are so beautiful, and you have taken some amazing pictures, and the poetry is beautiful. Thankyou for sharing this with us x

  20. John, The Early Birder and Rose: Thank you.


    Thank you so much for your comments. The Red Kites really are stunning! I do so agree with you, it is beyond belief to think that such an amazing bird could be persecuted to such an extent. I feel very privileged to live only about 40 miles away from this lovely place.


    Thank you for your very kind comments. They are such incredible birds! I was amazed by how very much they enchanted me and when I researched their history after my visit it just increased my awe and admiration!


    Thank you so very much for your very generous comments, you are so kind! It was the first time I had seen Red Kites and I really didn't expect to be so enchanted, it definitely did feel like a magical experience! Your word 'mesmerized' is absolutely right, that is exactly how it felt to be in the presence of such a beautiful creature.

  21. The Abbot, swatson and Wilma: Thank you.

    The Abbot,

    Thank you so much, I do appreciate your comments, as someone who is not too confident with photography it is so nice to receive such encouragement :)
    I had never seen the Red Kite before either but I will definitely be going back to see them again!


    Thank you so much, I remember you saying you had put meat out in the Winter for them, how amazing to see them in your garden, just incredible! How wonderful too that your local schools are educating the youngsters about the importance of conservation in such an innovative way, that has to be the way forward!


    Thank you very much for your very kind comments. Magnificent really is the word to describe this truly beautiful bird!

  22. What fantastic photos, these birds are just magnificent to see aren't they? I could watch them for hours!

  23. ShySongbird ,
    Your post brought some memories flooding back . Many years ago , with the two old boys I used to go out with , we had a day in the area , visiting a Military Orchid site in the morning , and could well have sat in the same spot , watching the Red Kites in the afternoon .
    Great pictures , great birds , in as you say , a 'magical kingdom' .

  24. Hi Jan.
    It is good that the Red Kite(Milvus milvus) has been a great conservation success with them now breeding in many places in the UK, like in Oxfordshire, and the Galloway Trail in Scotland, but to me they are not true British Birds, as they started off as chicks bought in from places like Spain etc. The reason I went to Wales to see the Barcud is because they are the desendants of the what was last remaining pair in Wales, many years ago, and to me they are the true British Red Kite.
    When I started going to Mid Wales 14 years ago it was well known by the local conservationists that they did drop to a single pair, and as you say through sheer determination and hard work did they grow into the 100's there now are in Wales.
    There is also a almost white Red Kite that tends to turn up at the feeding centre at Nant yr Arian. I say white or some might say albino, but it is just a very pale ceucistic bird. Nice to see though.You should look it up Jan.See link below

    The reason it is seen more at Nant yr Arian is because it seems to be accepted here by the other Kites than it does at Gigrin Farm. I have seen it feeding there at least 3 times and none of the other birds take any notice.
    Great photo's Jan, and a nice write up. I am pleased you enjoyed them.It is not unusual to see a Barcud in Kent these days.

  25. Ginnymo, Cheryl and Warren Baker: Thank you,


    Thank you very much for your kind comments. It was indeed a beautiful place to go, I'm sure you would have loved it. The efforts made to bring the kite back from near extinction have been truly admirable.


    Thank you so much, I'm so glad you enjoyed sharing my wonderful experience, it was such a memorable day and even though we will go back again that first special visit will remain with me for ever!

    It is heart-warming to know that members of the RSPB such as yourself ( I too am a member) have contributed to the successful reintroduction of these magnificent birds.


    Thank you very much for your kind comments. They are indeed amazing birds, it was quite an experience!

  26. Jan, Karen and Pam: Thank you.


    Welcome and thank you very much for visiting and for your very kind comments. I'm so glad you found your way here!
    How lovely to have a pair so close to you, it must be amazing to see them on a regular basis and flying over your own garden.
    I knew very little about them myself before I went to Watlington Hill and of course blogging is a sure-fire way to educate oneself, I found out such a lot about the kites when I was doing research for this post.


    Thanks so much for your lovely comments. It really was a magical day, even the weather behaved itself ;) and it is so nice to be able to share at least a 'taste' of the place with my blogland friends.


    Thank you very much. I too could watch them for hours. I remember that you had mentioned them on your blog and I have just been back for another look, it was interesting to re-read it after having seen the Red Kites for myself.

  27. They are indeed beautiful birds. The US had great success bring back populations of the bald eagle and the California Condor so there is hope this bird will be a success story too.

  28. All the shots are beautiful! This is one thing I haven't quite managed--'capturing' birds in flight! And thanks for sharing the background of this beautiful bird. It's heartening to know that, despite all that killing, they're not a threatened species now. The shots of the English countryside...Ah!!

  29. Watlingtol Hill is a beautiful place for birds like this to hunt and socialize. And it appears that is what these were doing. Your photos of them are magnificent.

    Thank you very much for visiting My Birds Blog and for the comment you left me there about my Coopers Hawk photograph. My Birds Blog

  30. ssb,

    wonderful amazing story of these great glad someone had the foresight to save them.
    this place looks like a place to walk...sit...relax...observe. how wonderful for you to have the time to really enjoy and take it all in. thanks for sharing...i will show this one to dh...he loves birds of prey.

  31. Fantastic post and lovely shots !! Really great..Unseen Rajasthan

  32. they are great aren't they

  33. Greenie,

    Thanks very much for your very kind comments. How nice that you have been there too. Military Orchids! Hmm, I must remember that and look into it for next year. I suspect you did sit in exactly the same spot as it was the best place to view the Red Kites and if I remember rightly there weren't many seats anyway. I'm glad the post rekindled some happy memories for you.

  34. Ken,

    Thanks very much for your interesting and comprehensive comments. You have obviously enjoyed your trips to Wales to see this magnificent bird over the years and I am glad the reintroduction scheme has been so successful in other parts of the UK. Even though, as you say, some may not look on them as true British birds (although I have never heard that view expressed anywhere before!) for me they are stunning creatures and beautiful whatever their origins!

    Thank you for the link you gave me which I followed, the white (or leucisistic) kite is a beautiful bird and how lovely that it has been so well accepted by the local Red Kites.

  35. It is indeed a beautiful bird. Wonderful photos.

  36. Roses and Lilacs, Kanak Hagjer and Abraham Lincoln: Thank you.


    Thank you very much, I had no idea that the Bald Eagle had been in trouble, I'm so glad the efforts to save it and also the California Condor were successful. It is wonderful that people have become so much more aware of the need to protect endangered species.


    Thank you for your very kind comments. I have never really taken many flight shots but it was a case of take them in flight or not at all really, as you can imagine quite a lot were no good at all!
    Yes it has been a great success story and of course the RKs are very well protected now.
    The English countryside is indeed beautiful but I'm sure yours is too :)


    Thank you very much for your kind comments. Yes it is a beautiful place and one which I know we will return to time and time again.

  37. Marmee and Unseen Rajasthan: Thank you.

    Thank you for your kind comments. I am glad to be able to share such a lovely place with you (and I hope dh enjoyed it too), it was definitely the sort of place to take time and just soak up the surroundings.
    I agree, what a loss it would have been if such a magnificent bird had become extinct!

    Unseen Rajasthan,

    Thank you very much, you are very kind :)

  38. Pete and oldcrow61: Thank you.


    Thank you, yes they are.


    Thank you very much for your kind comments, I felt privileged to see such magnificent creatures, it was a great day.

  39. Great pictures! Thank you for your kind words on the loss of our dog.
    Take Care,

  40. I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


  41. Your right about the Great Tits songbird. I havn't looked at them like that before!

  42. Hi again Jan, my, I can completely see why you were mesmerised by these impressive birds. A very enjoyable read where your enthusiasm shines through :-D

    I remember on Spring/Autumn watch seeing a farmer feed red kites at the top/corner of a field. He drove up in his tractor regularly at the same time of day and the kites definitely knew what was coming! The footage from the BBC was great too as is your sequence of photos.

    Sometimes, it’s the moment that is the most important capture and the quality of film (still or video) comes second. Of course we always want both :-D

    Great posting on this great bird… I look forward to seeing it myself one day now too! Enjoy the rest of your week :-D

  43. Your post and photo's are superb. Red Kites are one of our favourite birds, you have captured them beautifully. We live not to far away from the Red Kites at Argaty near Doune and have seen them there.

  44. As ever I will leave your blog not only feeling relaxed but with my head full of great information and facts about birds.

    You really do take the most beautiful pictures…I’m sure I will pop back later for another look at your post.

    Love from Lou& Poppy xxxxxx

  45. Cherrie,

    Thank you very much. I know only too well how very painful it is to lose a beloved dog, I do hope your son and all the family will find it easier to cope as time goes on.

  46. Wilson:

    Hi Margaret,

    Welcome and thank you very much for visiting and for your kind comments. I'm so glad you are enjoying my blog and you are welcome here any time :)

  47. Warren,

    Thanks for popping back. I know it was a very 'un-birder' type comment but it has always amused me and your photo illustrated the point perfectly I thought ;)

  48. shirl,

    Thank you so much for your very kind comments. I think 'mesmerised' is a very good description, it really was a wonderful experience especially in light of their history!

    Until you reminded me I had completely forgotten about the piece of film of the farmer feeding kites from his tractor but, yes, I did see it and it was an impressive sight. I'm sure if you see them for yourself you will be as 'mesmerised' as I was ;)

    I hope you haven't had as much heavy rain as we have had in the last couple of days and that you have a great weekend!

  49. Martyn & Jill,

    Welcome and thank you for visiting and for your very kind comments. I have read that Scotland too has had a very successful reintroduction scheme, how nice that you live fairly near to these magnificent birds.

    Please come back and visit again, you will be very welcome :)

  50. Dear Lou,

    Thank you for your very kind comments, I hope you weren't so relaxed that you fell asleep with boredom ;) You know you are more than welcome to come back here as often as you like!

    I hope you are feeling better now than you were and that you have a great weekend :)
    Lots of love and XXXX to you and Poppy.

  51. Dear Songbird,
    The Red Kite is a marvelous bird. Thank you for introducing me to them. WOW.....
    I understand the awe of watching fantastic birds fly. I always want to join them.
    Thank you too for the history of the Red Kite. Knowing them are building back in numbers is wonderful. I too am sad about the loss of creatures due to man's killing!
    Thanks again for a wonderful post.

  52. Q:

    Thank you so much for your very kind comments Sherry. I'm so glad you enjoyed the post and that I was able to tell you a little about this wonderful bird. It is so sad that over the years man has done (and continues to do) such harm to this beautiful planet but thankfully there are some who have a different way of thinking and are slowly but surely redressing the balance.

    Have a great weekend and a super Sunday safari :)

  53. Hey Songbird,
    Your coot story made me laugh! I once stalked a white plastic bag - thought it was an egret!!

  54. Warren,

    Hee hee, it's a good job we can see the funny side of these things. I saw on someone's blog recently that they had once mistaken a white plastic bag for a Snowy Owl!

  55. thanks for stopping by, your pages are very nicely written with lots of beautiful photographs.

    the kites are absolutely gorgeous, and magnificent.

    I will visit often

  56. yen,

    Welcome and thank you for visiting and for your very kind comments.

    The Red Kites are indeed magnificent, I'm sure anyone who ever sees one could not fail to be impressed by its beauty.

    I do hope you visit again, you will be most welcome any time :)


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