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