We drove straight to Bwlch Nant yr Arian Forest reserve centre. Unsurprisingly, it was buzzing. After weeks of Siberian weather, we were treated to a touch of spring with balmy temperatures. This centre was now very popular with cyclists and walkers. It was the tail end of winter with snow as there were still snow in the surrounding hillside. The place still looked like a site of mass destruction as the trees were being cut down due to the larch disease, a pathogen that had killed whole swathes of forests. These felled trees were left on the ridges because transporting them meant transporting the diseases. Since there was plenty of time, we’d our sandwiches and washed down with hot coffee. We looked up and the Red Kites circling and gathering in the skies, waiting in anticipation. Among them, we spotted a Buzzard sneaking into the circle.
We checked out the bird-feeder outside the visitor centre. Only Chaffinches, Tree sparrows, Great and Blue tits were feeding. Where were the Siskins? I was also hoping to see a Brambling because Babe managed to photograph a blurred one speeding across the sky. We walked down towards the lake where Tree sparrows were busy chirping away in the hedges. The lake was frozen and next to it, midges danced in the light like tiny fairies. While waiting for the show to start, people were skimming stones and panes of ice across the lake which made a lovely tinkling sound. But we were busy photographing these magnificent birds flying in and perching on the coniferous trees that lined the top of the hill. What an amazing sight.
Bwlch Nant yr Arian became a feeding station in the winter of 1999. It was designed to give these magnificent birds a helping hand and encouraged them to gather together, a natural behavioural pattern. At the moment, the skies resembled a Heathrow holding pattern as they circle and jostle for the best position.These kites were fed daily, at 2 pm in winter and 3 pm in summer which was confusing for us but not the birds. They were fed off cuts from a local butcher. These off cuts were scattered out on to the grassy feeding area on the lakeside. Then the aerial acrobats began. They swoop down to pick a piece and ate them on the wing while others were swirling in a vortex above waiting for their chance. Their calls were long, high pitched whistles, like a shepherd’s whistling.
These red kites or Barcud coch, Boda Wennel (Swallow Buzzard) or Barcud Coch (Whistling kite) in Welsh were mostly local from about a 10-mile radius. We were very excited to see a ‘white kite’ on the ground. Its colouring was very pale, almost white, due to a genetic default known as leucism. Leucism was a very unusual condition whereby the pigmentation cells failed to develop properly. It was easy to see it on the ground but quite hard when it was flying with the rest, especially when the sun was shining at the wrong place. A few pieces of meat dropped on the frozen lake and I was hoping that one might missed and started sliding but they were so skilful. As they swooped low over, their talons stretched out and fished the meat in a flash. There was the chase, like aerial pirates, trying to snatch the meat from each other. Then, slowly they dispersed but often they sailed low over our heads, for the final pose.
Restricted as it was to the wilds of mid-Wales, for the past hundred years or so these majestic birds had been symbolic of the mystical and mysterious culture of the Celts and the Celtic lands of the western fringes of the British Isles. Driven out from everywhere else, here it remained as a scarce and flitting shadow, shrouded in secrecy and yet spectacular in its appearance and mastery of the air. They were distinctive because of their forked tail and striking colours, predominantly chestnut red with white patches under the wings and a pale grey head.
In medieval times they were found throughout the British Isles and such was their renowned and closeness to humans, that they found their way into the literature and culture of the times, not only in the countryside, but in towns too, where they became known as hungry scavengers. They were valued scavengers as they helped kept streets cleaned. Chaucer referred to it in his Knight's Tale (c1390):
`We stryve as did the houndes for the boon,
They foughte al day, and yet hir part was noon;
There cam a kyte, whyl that they were wrothe,
And bar away the boon betwixe them bothe.'
Shakespeare made several references to kites such as Autolycus, the street conman in the Winters tale in 1610. This was a reference to the thieving habits of nest-building kites as they adorned their nests with frilly materials.
`When a kite builds, look to lesser linen.'
And in King Lear, his eldest daughter Goneril was described as a detested kite, a villain obsessed with power and overthrowing her elderly father as a ruler of the kingdom of Britain.
He also mentioned that the streets of London were full of them in the Tragedy of Coriolanus. “The city of kites and crows, “ he called London. But improving public hygiene and waste-disposal system robbed these birds of their niche in the London eco-system and became extinct by the end of the 18th century.
William Turner wrote about the Red Kite in Avum praecipuarum historia 1544 where he noted that they would dare to ‘snatch bread from children, fish from women and handkerchiefs from hedges”.
In Scotland the Red Kites were generally called the gled, glead or glad (similar derivation to glide) and hence Gladstone, Gladsmuir etc. In his reworking of the old song, Killiecrankie, The Bard, Robert Burns (1790) referred to the gled's habit of feeding on carrion.
`The bauld Pitcur fell in a furr,
And Clavers gat a clankie, O,
Or I had fed an Athole gled,
On the braes o Killiecrankie, O!'
Another name for the kite, often used by Shakespeare, is the `paddock' (or `puttock'), and the greatest nature poet, John Clare (c1820), used this to create the beautiful imagery of the kite in flight.
`Ah, could I see a spinney nigh,
A paddock riding in the sky,
Above the oaks, in easy sail,
On stilly wings and forked tail.'
With a wingspan of nearly 2 metres, the Red Kites were graceful and elegant. The upper tail in a good light appeared to glow like red embers as if touched by earthly fire giving them an ethereal appearance. With twisting deeply forked swallow-like tail and long slightly angled wings, it turned this way and that soaring and spiralling forever skyward catching the unseen breath of wind or an uplifting thermal of warm air. Watching them effortlessly wheeling, gliding, flexing and twisting in the blue skies was one of the most rewarding bird-watching spectacle.
The Sky Dancers
Sky dancers dip and rise
among the suns intermittent rays.
Silver crowning their russet mantles
they seek the breezes,
pirouetting between unkempt hedgerows
and struggling spears of grain,
tails like some well flighted
reawakened from among the dead.
Review is watchfully taken
among the rich tilth of worm-worn furrows,
or camouflaged in silhouette
among gnarled oaken fingers
rigid against winter’s stark horizon.
A piercing eye
scornfully regards its raptor relative,
regally disdaining hunched countenance
in favour of command.
Such are lives rejuvenated
from Celtic soliloquies,
released to communal ascendancy
between the thoroughfares
of contemporary surmise.
Now among the ancient Wessex downland,
pinpricks of circling history
with fingers dipped in ink,
to distract the nearer gaze.
Though begrudged by some
a share of nature’s bounty
or stolen schoolyard pickings,
the gathering multitude,
lift, tack, yaw and jibe,
a twisting flotilla of eager appetites,
that frighten and mesmerise
with effortless beguiling.
In 1999, the Red Kites were named ‘Bird of the Century’ by the British Trust for Ornithology. According to the Welsh Kite Trust, they had been voted “Wales favourite bird”.