Tag Archives: red kite

An unusual but entertaining day at work

Earlier this week I was learning about a technique called ‘dynamic light scattering’ (DLS) which is used to determine the size of very small particles, even those as small as protein molecules. My teacher was a scientist called Ken who designs and builds DLS machines. It came up in conversation that he lives close to the southern end of the M40 corridor where I’ve seen lots of red kites and read stories of them stealing food from people, so I asked if he sees them in his neighbourhood.

Red kite (Milvus milvus, Dansk: rød glente), this one was at Hamerton in Cambridgeshire

Red kites are big, distinctive, birds of prey and they’re a conservation success story in the UK, having been almost driven to extinction but then reintroduced in the 1990’s since when their numbers have rocketed. And as it happens they are very common indeed in that part of the world and Ken kindly agreed to upload this video clip to You Tube so I could post a link to it here. This all happened in Ken’s garden and I think it’s highly entertaining stuff,  I think I’d struggle every morning to get out the front door to go to work if I had this kind of show going on in my garden!

Later on, at the end of the same day, a big flock of a few thousand starlings were murmurating over the Cambridge Science Park as I left work to come home. I was keeping one eye on the starlings and one eye on the road when I stopped at a red traffic light on the edge of the Science Park and the starlings were swirling and wheeling around the sky just in front of me. Then a sparrowhawk drifted by but the starlings carried on murmurating until the hawk suddenly accelerated up towards them. Then all of the flocks shrunk down into very tight groups and focussed on taking evasive action. It was a piece of natural theatre going on in the sky which was spectacular to watch. Then the traffic lights went green and I had to move on so I didn’t get to see the culmination of the chase, but it was a captivating end to the day.

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Butterflies, and all that jazz

Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club isn’t where I would expect to find subjects for wildlife photography. And, along with the inside of various other hostelries around the City of London, so it proved. That’s where I found myself this weekend and consequently I didn’t manage to take any photographs. So as the weather is so dull and foggy I thought I’d try to brighten things up with some butterfly pictures which were captured at another, less crepuscular, time of year.

Last year I went to a place called Fermyn Wood near Kettering in Northamtonshire with a friend of mine, to look for purple emperors. For the more ornithological among you, particularly if you like birds of prey, this was one of the original release sites for red kites (Milvus milvus, Dansk: rød glente) , and they are still there in abundance. And sure enough one appeared very low overhead before lazily flapping off across the treetops.


This splendid creature is a white admiral (Limenitis camilla), feeding on the nectar from bramble flowers at Fermyn

We set off early to arrive around 8am because at that time of day the butterflies are sunning themsleves on the ground and taking in salts. They get salts from various sources including animal droppings, carrion, sap runs on trees, and sweat. My friend has a photograph of a purple emperor sipping sweat from his sock by inserting its proboscis through the eyehole of his trainer! We encountered a few emperors but they were all whizzing past higher up in the tree canopy. They live in deciduous woods where they spend most of their time feeding on aphid honeydew, apart from this one who sat obligingly on the path and let us take photographs:


Purple emperor (Apatura iris) taking on salts from the substrata

He was sufficiently obliging to unable us to take pictures of the underside of his wings, which are themselves spectacular, but he wasn’t willing to reveal the full irridescent splendour of the top side, which is where their name derives from.  They are big, with an average wingspan of around 8cm, and the males are the most gorgeous deep purple. Alas for the female of the species, she is a rather less dramatic brown colour. I was therefore on a mission to get pictures of the upper side of the wings in 2011 but they are only around for 1-2 weeks of the year and it wasn’t when I could get there. But that’s fine, it gives me something to look forward to next year… or the year after.

On the ground close by the purple emperor was a small tortoiseshell, which are considerable more common and can be found on buddleia bushes up and down the country, but are also amazingly colourful.


Small tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae)

I don’t usually like full on portraits of butterflies, but I like this one because set against the parched earth the flamboyant colours of the butterfly are a sight to behold, all the tiny cells of the different colours in the blue and white peripheral spots are clearly visible. It’s a stunner!


Milvus milvus

If you haven’t seen a red kite, Milvus milvus, hopefully you will soon. They are truly magnificent birds and are a remarkable success story in the annals of UK wildlife conservation. Several stages of reintroduction of Swedish and Spanish birds into northern Scotland and the Chilterns in 1989 were followed by subsequent reintroductions into other release sites in the East Midlands, Derwent Valley, Yorkshire, Dumfries and Galloway, central Scotland, Aberdeen and Ulster. The later reintroductions have used chicks from UK breeding pairs which is, I think, a good indication of the success of the longer term success of the original program.

The latest numbers I have heard for our UK population is 1700 breeding pairs, and growing. The reason I’m writing about red kites now is because 3 weeks ago I had an email from a colleague to tell me to look out the window because a red kite was flying past! I only saw the email an hour after the event so I missed that one, but another appeared a week later which I did see.

And then on Saturday as I was wandering along the road I live on, this magnificent creature was slowly quatering the gardens looking for worms, small mammals, or carrion:

The red plumage of the underside of the red kite is clearly visible. The pale patches on this one suggest it’s a juvenile

And red kites are big birds, they have a wingspan of 185cm. They weigh between 2 and 3 pounds (1 and 1.3kg), so for such a big bird they’re not heavy and are consequently not particularly strong. They feed primarily on carrion but they are unable to open the carcasses of bigger animals such as sheep so they rely on other carrion feeders such as corvids (crows) to do the initial butchering before they can feed. They don’t take live prey bigger than small mammals such as mice or voles or bird chicks, so don’t be concerned about your cat… or your children!

Whilst cycling into work yesterday morning (25th July) along the cycle path beside our new guided busway a red kite was quartering a field adjacent to that, so with 4 sightings in the last 3 weeks within a 2 mile radius, I think a juvenile may have moved into the area and is finding sufficient food to keep it here. I hope so.

Red kites are often wing tagged on the leading edges of both wings, on the left the tag reveals the location of the birds origin and on the right the year it hatched. The tags are big enough to be seen from a distance with binoculars or a scope and each location and year have a different colour. If you see a tagged bird and you want to discover its origin take a look here at RedKite.net where the tag colours are decoded.

I’ll hopefully be able to report again soon on local red kites.

Heading south

Last Friday I found myself on the M40 heading south to Windsor. I wasn’t anticipating a particularly eventful trip from a wildlife perspective, but it turned out to be quite remarkable.

My first port of call was my parents house in Northampton, where a great spotted woodwecker and her chicks were feeding on a hanging peanut feeder:


Female great spotted woodpecker eating fatballs in my folks garden. She is easily distinguished from the male due to the lack of a red patch on the nape of the neck. Juveniles also lack the red nape but she was feeding two juveniles so it was obvious she was an adult female

My folks back garden has been a real haven for birdlife in the last few weeks and is currently home to families of great tit, goldfinch and carrion crow too. My Dad places a couple of flower pot stands full of fresh water on his garage roof every day and the carrion crows and rooks then rock up with beaks full of dry bread they have scavenged in the locality and dunk it in the water until it is completely sodden from where they carry it off to feed their chicks.


Carrion crow fledgling, it’s not immediately obvious from this shot but it has very short stumpy tail feathers – diagnostic of a fresh-faced youngster

My folks garden is around only 50m away from a long spinney of old trees and consequently they get a great variety of birds and are currently playing host to a jay, a pair of nuthatch, numerous goldfinch, dunnock, blackbirds etc, etc…


A pair of goldfinch settling a dispute on the garage roof

After a brief stop off in Northampton I headed off south to Maidenhead. One of the original release sites where attempts were made to establish new red kite populations was on the M40 corridor, and not long after passing Oxford I spotted the first one. Shortly after that there was another… and another… and another. From then on down to Windsor there were groups of up to five over the motorway or the adjacent fields every couple of minutes, and I counted 30-40 individuals in that short distance. (Alas I didn’t have my camera with me from here on, so this post is a bit thin on pictures, but I hope the words are sufficient to hold your interest!)

Later on, in the evening, I took a walk along the Thames at Maidenhead where a pair of geat crested grebe were performing a courtship dance. This involved necking followed by diving to collect weed from the riverbed which they presented to the partner when they reached the surface. Overhead, red kite, swallows, swifts and house martins were all wheeling around at various heights hoovering up flies, and the martins were flying to and fro from nests built under the eaves of the houses on the riverside, feeding their young. And an arctic tern was patrolling up and down along the river making the occcasional dive after an unfortunate fish. I love watching terns hunt, they’re amazing fliers, so it was great to see one here.

Heading back north again on Saturday evening there weren’t the numbers of kites I’d seen on Friday, but there were still a few to be seen. All in all, the red kite conservation story is an amazingly successful one and it’s good to see that human intervention can sometimes correct an egregious wrong perpetrated in the past!