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  • rshill1973

Shakespeare's scavenger

Updated: Apr 13, 2022

It’s late on a chill winter’s afternoon and I’m standing on a ridge overlooking a typical southern English landscape. Dark clouds scud across the sky, borne on a hurrying north-west wind. The ridge is at a rather modest height, but as dusk draws in the view is still rather panoramic.

Most dominant are the large arable fields bordered by modest, threadbare hedges which sadly bear the unmistakable signs of being heavily clipped. About a hundred yards in front of me is a decent-sized deciduous wood. Other scattered small woods can be seen a few miles distant. Off to the north is a large reservoir, its surface looking choppy and cold. Further afield the ground rises again, giving way to sheep pasture.

I’m watching and waiting for a Red Kite roost.

A rare good news story

Amongst the seemingly never-ending torrent of bad news stories about the decline in so much of our native wildlife, Red Kites are an unqualified success story. Centuries ago they used to be common across much of the UK, famously being known as fearless scavengers, familiar in towns and the countryside.

But along with so many of our raptor species they endured a precipitous decline in range and numbers, due to many factors, not least vicious persecution. By the latter half of the 20th century, the only wild birds were to be found in the forbidding hills of central Wales. A rump population of about 50 pairs, clinging on in isolation. Like many birders of that time, I remember making the long journey to see them, thrilling at their rarity, and their remoteness, as they soared effortlessly above sheep-dotted slopes.

In the late 1990s a project to re-introduce them to the Chiltern hills proved very successful and was followed by other re-introductions in various southern English locations. Thankfully they are now a familiar sight across almost all of England and large areas of Scotland. I see them over my house almost every day now, but familiarity has yet to dilute their appeal.

Red Kites are one of the birds that many non-birders can identify, due to the combination of their thin, rakish build, striking plumage, and of course the distinctive forked tail, which blazes orange like a smouldering fire. If you watch a kite in flight, you won’t be watching for long before you see how much it uses its tail…twisting, turning, adjusting. They are spectacular birds.

Back at my watchpoint, gloved hands keenly grasping my hand-warmers, I'm waiting for these birds to settle down for the night in nearby woodland. Red Kites are communal roosters. There’s a roost near my home in fact, which is in private woodland, so I’ve only seen it from a distance. But I once counted nearly 60 individuals here in the air at the same time, the birds hanging and floating low over the trees before plunging into the canopy.

No kites yet, but plenty to enjoy

Back to today though, and luckily there is much else to see whilst I wait. And shiver.

Gulls stream across the sky, hundreds of them in many flocks. Gleaming white against the dark clouds, they arrow into the wind towards the reservoir. They’re mostly Black-headed Gulls, the smallest and commonest of our wintering species. In winter their black head (which in summer is actually a soft shade of chocolate brown) is replaced by a smudgy spot behind the eye. They can easily be seen feeding in fields, fluttering over ponds, hungrily following the plough. Like most gulls, they move to large waterbodies to roost, often travelling many miles to do so.

I'm able to track these flocks all the way down to the reservoir, where they quickly settle, hunkering down amongst their larger cousins, Common Gulls, and the fierce-looking Herring and Lesser Black-backed Gulls.

Suddenly a single Red Kite appears from the west, purposefully making its way over the fields. But sadly it doesn’t stop. It’s not roosting here.

Then as I’m scanning the skies, I spot a dark cloud in the distance, fluid in shape and moving directly north. It’s a huge flock of Starlings. This is another species that has rightly gained widespread fame in recent years as TV and social media have featured their winter “murmurations”. This is the collective noun for the flocks that Starlings form in winter just before they go to roost. These flocks are usually relatively small (hundreds of birds), but occasionally they can contain hundreds of thousands of birds. To anyone who hasn’t seen a Starling murmuration, I strongly urge you to do so. Even at a smaller scale they are spectacular, and often rather moving too. Small birds, but nature on a huge scale.

The flock I have just seen was a lot more resolute. No mesmerising shifting shapes for me. They sped on very quickly to wherever their destination was.

It's getting pretty dark now. Another two Red Kites appear, this time from the east. They spend five minutes swooping low over the ground, harrying crows. For a moment I think they might stick around. But they don’t. I suspect I’m not going to see a roost tonight.

What I do see is a much commoner sight - Rooks and Carrion Crows still feeding in the fields until almost last light. The soft “caww” of a Rook is, I think, one of our most evocative bird calls. It’s a very familiar sound that transcends the passage of time, its ubiquity embodying the rhythms of rural Britain, fields which have been ploughed for generations. It’s a sound that most people would immediately associate with the countryside, even if they couldn’t identify the bird that made it.

I watch these birds as they leave their fields and fly up into the wood, silhouettes on thick branches. About 400 birds, gently chuntering to each other as darkness finally falls. Even if a late Red Kite did turn up now, I wouldn’t be able to see it.

I leave my watchpoint, knowing that the next day as the first light breaks, the Rooks and crows will leave their perches and head for their favoured feeding areas. Red Kites will appear from somewhere, flapping languidly over the fields. But for now, just this once, their roost site eludes me.

Maybe next time.

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