“I watched her fingers slowly spreading wide upon her knees, unconsciously imitating the fanned feathers that tipped the incredible wings. She watched its head cock deliberately from side to side, eyeing possibilities beneath, while the triangular tail tilted to turn the thermals to its command. It circled on slowly as we passed by, at rest in motion.”
Red kites (Milvus milvus) must be one of the most impressive birds you are likely to see around Grantham, and they are becoming a more common sight every year. They are large birds of prey, with a wingspan of 180cm – that’s the height of a 6ft person! Kites are scavengers and are therefore often seen around roads where the abundance of roadkill offers a plentiful supply of food. However they do also eat small mammals, from voles up to rabbits, and even live birds occasionally.
They are quite distinct in flight, the deeply forked tail is held flat and rotated from its centre to allow them to soar where they will on wide, angled wings. The call too is unmistakable, a high pitched whistle like that of a buzzard, but longer with quavering variation which almost sounds as though its voice is breaking half way through. They can be seen on the ground or roosting in trees, but they tend to be shy and quickly take to flight which is where you are most likely to see them.
The ‘Status of Birds in the Grantham Area’ in 2009 listed the red kite as a “formerly rare migrant, reintroduced birds now recorded annually in small numbers”. In the last three years, the birds have become a much more common sight both over Grantham and the surrounding villages extending out past Denton and into the vale of Belvoir where I saw a juvenile bird circling earlier this year. Other good places to see them are on the Viking Way, in the woods behind Belmount Tower and a drive down the A1 towards Rutland Water almost always rewards you with a view.
So where did these birds appear from?
Red kites were driven to the brink of extinction in the UK and their current resurgence is thanks to a reintroduction programme carried out over the last 20 years. The second release site in the UK was Rockingham Forest, around 45 miles to the south of Grantham. Seventy red kites were brought there between 1995 and 1998 where they were reared and ultimately released. These birds were mostly of Spanish origin with a few from the population which was already establishing in the Chilterns. (find out more about the Rockingham Forest re-introduction here.
This follows previous reintroductions in Scotland and the Chilterns; following the success of these schemes, further reintroductions have been carried out in Leeds, Dumfries and Galloway, the Derwent Valley and most recently in 2010, in Grizedale Forest in Cumbria. These chicks were taken from the Rockingham population, so successful have they been since their introduction – at this point the RSPB estimated that 200 chicks had been raised from the local population.
So the red kites seen in Grantham are birds which are expanding and extending their range from their initial base in Rockingham Forest. They never fail to make my day when one flies low over the house or circles in the blue sky outside the office window. The reintroduction in the UK has been an unmitigated success and with any luck, more and more of the country will soon be able to count these birds among their scenery.