Where did the Grantham red kites come from?

“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 Kite

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.

Grantham Peregrine Falcons

Peregrine falcons have nested at St Wulfrum’s Church in Grantham for several years now and, once again, you can watch the nest box live on the Lincolnshire Bird Club’s webpage.

So far, there are no eggs laid but there are images of the birds investigating the nesting site throughout March. You can view a live feed of the camera here and a blog updating you on progress in the meantime, because even the most dedicated are bound to miss some of the exciting events.

Peregrine falcons are naturally cliff nesting birds which have taken to nesting on man-made structures such as these. They can now be seen in many places around the country including Derby cathedrel, the university building in Nottingham and even on the Tate Modern in London where the RSPB set up viewing stations with telescopes trained on the action and guides on hand to answer questions. The high, stone and brick built structures providing high platforms are very similar in nature to the cliff faces which they usually habitate. In many ways, they are following the success of feral pigeons a few generations behind – feral pigeons are really rock doves which, like the peregrines, found that the urban environments created by humans provide them with quite a nice facsimilie of the habitat they would usually select. And of course, following the pigeons to the towns and cities means they are following an abundant food supply! Below is an image of a pair of young peregrines in another human-created habitat – in this case a quarry although it is closer to the natural habitat of the birds.

Peregrine falcon young at a quarry nest site
Peregrine falcon young at a quarry nest site

The peregrine’s at St Wulfrum’s first nested on the church in 2007. The nest box was then added to provide them with ideal conditions and they first used it in 2009 when two chicks were successfully raised. Two more fledged in 2010 and three in 2011. There seems to be little activity so far this year but there is still plenty of time – last year the female began to prepare the nest on the 24th of March and, at the moment of writing this, there is a pergrine to be seen on the live camera. In the mean time, the peregrines in Nottingham have four eggs to date and their live camera can be watched here. You can also follow Nottingham Wildlife Trust on twitter for continual updates on their progress.

Peregrine falcon on the nest at St Wulfrum's on Tuesday lunchtime
Peregrine falcon on the nest at St Wulfrum's on Tuesday lunchtime - image taken from Lincolnshire Bird Club peregrine webcam.

There is lots more interesting info on the peregrines at St Wulfrums on the Lincolnshire Bird Club website including details of previous nesting successes and a breakdown of all the prey items which I won’t repeat here. However, the list of prey species (all birds) does make particuarly interesting reading – many are rather more exotic than those you might expect to find in the average Grantham garden including a number of wetland birds such as avocets, golden plovers and black-tailed godwit!