Saturday, 16 April 2016

Nant yr Arian Red Kites

Only once in my local patch of East Cheshire have I seen a Red Kite - this was near the small Peak District village of Wincle. Once common here, Red Kites became increasingly scarce due to human persecution in the 1700s after being declared 'vermin' (they had previously been held in high regard and enjoyed protection by Royal Decree in the Middle Ages). According to records held on bounties paid, the birds had probably disappeared entirely from the county by 1800 giving Cheshire the dubious distinction of being one of the first counties to exterminate the bird within its borders.

Red Kite (Milvus milvus)

Happily, even though they are still very rarely seen locally (in future there are sites in Wales and the Midlands from where they may hopefully naturally colonise the county again), they have been one of the great conservation success stories in the UK. There have been several successful reintroduction programmes in England and Scotland since 1989, and in Wales, which was for a considerable time their one remaining stronghold, their numbers have increased greatly. (For a time I worked for a company based in Surrey and the redeeming feature of my occasional long commutes into the office which took me through the counties of Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire where plentiful views of these birds can be seen from the M40 motorway following the successful reintroductions of hte species to the Chilterns.)

Inverted silhouette of a Red Kite showing the distinctive forked tail
A large bird of prey with a wingspan of nearly 2 metres and a forked tail, they make a distinctive silhouette. They are primarily scavengers but will also take a variety of prey such as small mammals and even earthworms. Although not generally persecuted intentionally, they still fall foul of human activities - being scavengers they will fall victim to poisoned baits (put out illegally and intended for other wildlife), and also to secondary poisoning from consuming rats/mice killed by rodenticides.

An Easter break for a few days in west Wales granted us the opportunity to see this spectacular bird again in one of its true strongholds - in the counties of Powys, Ceredigion and Carmathenshire they are quite a common sight. Close to Aberystwyth at Nant yr Arian - formerly a Forestry Commission site, now calling themselves 'Natural Resources Wales', is one of a number of locations where the public can come to see these incredible birds in large numbers as they come in to take advantage of the food put out daily for them.

Eating 'on the wing'
There were so many of the birds in the area, including several sightings just from the cabin where we stayed, that there wasn't any real need to go to a feeding site, except to appreciate the sight and sound of the sheer numbers of kites that visit. The information leaflet for Nant yr Arian states that "on a good day, up to 150 of the birds can be seen", when we visited there were at least 150 present. The birds are fed at the same time each day (2pm in the winter months, and 3pm when the clocks change), and from miles around the birds can be seen making their way towards the area. When their food of meat scraps is brought out the birds waste no time in flying in to snatch up pieces from the ground - they don't stop, food is typically grabbed in their talons and they will then eat it on the wing bringing beak to talons and talons to beak, rather than linger on the ground. With so many birds the scenes can look a little chaotic... food gets dropped, others get in the way, minor skirmishes ensue. Their forked tails acting obviously as rudders their acrobatics are an awe-inspiring sight.

Close encounters...
Out of focus 'K'
The reintroduced birds and also some of the wild-bred birds have been wing-tagged - of the 150 or so kites present, we noticed several with these tags (which will fall off by themselves after a few years). 

A simple key allows identification of where the bird was tagged and released by the colour of the left wing-tag, and in what year, by the colour of the right wing-tag. (For all its simplicity, colours of course fade and can also appear distorted by the light.) So 'K' in the [poor] photograph was tagged and released in Wales (black left tag) in 2012 (red right tag). Each tag also has a strip of the opposing tag's colour at the bottom so if one falls off before the other it should still be possible to identify the individual bird.

Tag guide from Yorkshire Red kites

Female Siskin (lining up her approach to the busy feeder)

Of course no bird-friendly visitor centre would be complete without small bird feeders nearby, so after the kites had largely finished their free meal, and whilst enjoying the requisite coffee and cake, we watched the comings and goings of hundreds of passerines (the scrubby ground underneath the feeders was alive with finches). Lesser Redpolls joined Siskins, Greenfinches, Chaffinches and Goldfinches at the feeders, birds in the genus Parus, were represented by the usual suspects of Blue, Great and Coal tits

Male Greenfinch singing

Male Chaffinch
How I wish our birdfeeders at home looked!


  1. Rather jealous of you with your Welsh cabin stay. we've usually gone to Wales during Easter school holidays Brilliant kite photos. We went to a similar feeding station feeding station at Gigrin Farm - spectacular stuff

    1. Thanks very much Phil - the weather was a bit hit and miss (and the light was pretty poor for photography) but isn't that always the way! :) We went to Gigrin several years ago and what I found quite interesting was that at Gigrin the kites let the crows come in first, and then only fed themselves when they seemed happy it was safe to do so. At Nant yr Arian they were coming in grabbing food while the guy with the bag of meat was still there and throwing it, so on purely anecdotal evidence seemed bolder.