Finding Out About… Red Kites

Friends volunteer, popular guide and bird expert Trevor Gunton introduces his next in a series of informative articles.

Image: Michael Brace, CC BY 2.0

A Red Kite wheels over our back garden.  So, what is unusual about that I hear you say?  Let me tell you a story, which I will call “The Kite’s Tale”.

During the Middle Ages the Red Kite was valued in the City of London, as it fed on human waste, refuse and dead animals. At this time it was a grave offence to kill a Kite or Raven in the city, but soon increased sanitation and metalled roads meant the Kite had no place as a refuse collector, the hand of man turned against all birds of prey and so over 400 years of raptor destruction across Britain began. More gamekeepers and later egg collecting Victorians also had a passion for mounted specimens, Birds would be taken from the nest, hand reared, then killed so that a specimen in a glass case could be produced.

County by county Kites were exterminated from the British countryside.  However, some Kites on landed gentry estates were actually encouraged as they were quarry species for Goshawks.

This was a very bad time for all birds of prey and by 1870 the last Kite bred in England, followed by about 1879 in Scotland.  The 1880 to 1902 series of bird protection Acts gave little protection (the fine for killing a Kite was £1), so except for a few isolated breeding records from Devon and Shropshire, it seemed that this once valued bird had gone from our skies for ever.

Wales faired little better, but against all odds, poisoning, egg collecting and shooting, just 3 pairs hung on by 1931 and the situation after the war saw the tiny population expand to 6 pairs, all in the hanging oak woodlands of Central Wales.  Both locally and nationally various groups were formed with the aim of protecting Kites, but most were ineffective due mainly due to the fact that some members of these groups were actually egg collectors or selling information as to the location of various nests!

The next set back was the aftermath of the bitterly cold 1962/3 winter, when only 3 pairs out of 13 nests raised young. A new problem was the rise in cases of myxomatosis which hit the rabbit population in Central Wales. Could this have been a key reason why so many eggs failed to hatch?

However, by the time I joined the RSPB staff in 1968, things did seem to be looking up. Reorganisation of local support groups, working now with the RSPB led to the success at last-it had been a long time coming; and in 1970, 24 nests were being protected, and in just 10 years later this had grown to 30 nests and 27 young fledged.

Red Kite by Tony Hisgett, CC BY 2.0

1989 was a watershed year with 47 young fledged; the corner had been turned. Now, at last it was possible to show people kites away from the nest. I remember going to one public site where the farmer was feeding hundreds of Kites, Buzzards and Ravens each winter.  This was an amazing sight, good for membership recruitment as well!  The Welsh TB appointed the Red Kite as the Welsh national bird, and the successes in Wales pointed the way for the RSPB to launch other “Showing people birds” projects, which I was proud to have been involved with.

It was now time for the long-awaited English re-introduction to swing into action and in 1989-1993 period 93 young Kites, mainly from Sweden arrived in the UK and were housed in 2 secret locations in both England and Scotland.

The releases were a great success and were followed by more releases in Rockingham Forest and Harewood park during 1999-2000. This entire RSPB led programme can be rightly claimed to have been one of the most outstanding wildlife conservation projects of the century-in that in the year 2000 the entire UK Kite population was just 1600 pairs and 20 years later the estimated UK population was a staggering 4,400 pairs. How amazing is this! They have bred in Cambridgeshire since 2004 and gatherings of up to 50 birds can be seen just off the A1 at Sawtry.

But this is not the end of this remarkable story.

This late spring, early summer, hundreds of Kites – mainly young birds – have been reported in Southern England, from Devon to Kent, and I have recently been told that around 100 pairs are now breeding in Hampshire.  There seems to be no suggestion that any of these wandering flocks originate from mainland Europe as, unlike Black Kites, Red Kites seem not to like crossing water (interestingly the species is rare on the Isle of Wight). So, are all these birds from a very successful 2019 breeding season? Maybe they are looking for new feeding areas as perhaps there are less road kills this year?

So, as this tale is developing, when will we see the first Kites nesting on the reserve? It will be very soon, as they are nesting very close to us, just over the A1.

So, from the Middle ages to last ditch strugglers in Central Wales, we have come to be able to enjoy Kites from our living room window-how good is this!

Fact File

  • Status: resident
  • European population: about 45,00 and decreasing
  • 90% of all Red Kites breed in Europe, just a few in N. Africa
  • Habitat: lowland parks, farmland and mainly deciduous woodlands, hanging oak valleys in Central Wales
  • Have interbred with Black Kites (but rare)
  • Black Kites are the world’s most numerous Raptor but have never been proven to nest in Britain

Finding Out About… Great Crested Grebes

Friends volunteer, popular guide and bird expert Trevor Gunton introduces his next in a series of informative articles.

A Brief Social and Cultural History

I first knew of this spectacular bird from my long past birdwatching days in Yorkshire where it was, all those years ago, mainly a summer visitor, leaving us at the onset of colder weather in late autumn.

Many of these northern breeders may end up at places like Grafham water, which can attract upwards of 300 birds during the winter months, whilst nationally the UK/Ireland may, at this time of year, host between 7-10,000 birds.  However, this is nothing compared to the Netherlands where The Iysselmeer may hold around 20,000 birds-quite a sight, I can assure you.  These Grebes originate from all over their widespread European breeding areas.

There can be no British bird that has been the subject of man’s greed selfishness, so much so that from being numerous and well distributed in the early Victorian age, by 1860,  there were only 42 pairs remaining, mainly on the Cheshire meres and scattered around East Anglia.

The plumage trade was responsible for this almost extermination and it is recorded that by 1845 a Grebe skin “fur” would change hands for 10shillings-how much in today’s money? They were used for high fashion items such as muffs and stoles.

The passing of a bird protection act in 1869 helped save the last few pairs, but it was clearly a change of fashion brought about the passing of Queen Victoria was a major factor in the recovery.

However, as the hand of man almost led to its extinction in Britain, it was indeed man that inadvertently stepped in and proved its ultimate salvation.

As the human population soared, so did the demand for clean water-this resulted in many reservoirs being constructed across the UK. More people, more building work, and so a huge increase in demand for sand and gravel, so, as you know Paxton Pits is just one example of the large-scale growth of these wonderful Grebe friendly habitats.

The change in fortune of the Grebe is well documented. No nests  were located in old Huntingdonshire in 1931 and in 1946, our bird was found in just 5 sites in the old county, but by 1955 the county recorder wrote “ almost colonial nesting occurred at Paxton Pits when 3 pairs nested in close proximity to each other and all raised young” and in that year they bred in no less than 16 sites. Fast forward to 1995 when I counted 28 pairs at Paxton Pits.  In more recent years the count has been more like 20 pairs.

Not all pairs are successful, and Grebes still face many threats.  Pollution, disturbance by a number of recreational activities, fluctuating water levels and pike.

Have you ever enjoyed the thrilling experience of watching grebe courtship dance each spring? Known to some as the penguin or weed dance-a never to be forgotten birdwatching highlight.

As I wrote this, a pair of Grebes have no less than 4 young were being fed on Heronry South, which is a great sight – just one reason why our long-standing conservation work at the Pits is so important.

Footnote (from RSPB website)

Present wintering UK population: about 19,000 individuals
Breeding population: about 4,600 pairs

Finding Out About… Cormorants

Friends volunteer, popular guide and bird expert Trevor Gunton introduces the first in a series of informative articles written during lockdown and shared originally with our volunteers.

Image: Sunny, CC BY 2.0

There be Pelicans breeding at Paxton Pits!

Yes, its true, Cormorants are members of the Pelican family, Latin name Phalacrocorax.

Two sub-species breed in Europe and it is mainly the southern race, Sinensis that is found breeding inland, including the UK.  The other race is larger, named Carbo, is principally a seabird and breeds as far north as Iceland and northern Norway.

I first met Cormorants on the Yorkshire coast, where due to persecution by fishermen it has always been a rather scarce breeder, and its near relative the Shag has fared little better.

Here in the UK we have traditionally looked upon the Cormorant as a seabird, but across Europe this is not typical, with large inland populations of over one thousand nests in the flooded river systems of the Rhone, Danube and Rhine.

It is particularly numerous in The Netherlands, where the New Polders hold many thousand pairs, so is it possible that our first colonists of the modern age originated from here?

Historically Cormorants nested in trees in Norfolk during the Victorian period before they were shot out. The last record of Norfolk tree nester occurred in 1917.  This leads me to wonder if, back in pre-history, the Cormorant actually nested in many inland counties. This may have been before The Fens were drained and the man-made Norfolk Broads were created.

Image by Sunny, CC BY 2.0

Anyhow, to the hard facts:

Abberton Reservoir in Essex was first colonised in 1981, when 9 pairs nested. This, the first inland breeding colony grew rapidly to reach 150 pairs in 1986. The 500 mark was soon reached before dropping back to around 250 pairs in 2016.

Paxton Pits was England’s second inland site. I found the first nest in 1988(which failed), but the following year 9 pairs nested successfully. Our colony reached 218 pairs in 1996, dropping back to about 180 pairs in 2005 and more like 50/60 pairs in recent years.

The average number of young raised per nest seems to be about 2.5 per nest (how do you count half a Cormorant?)

Winter roosts have been of great interest to me over the years and it is thought that many of our birds leave the colony in the Autumn, to be replaced by birds from other sites- mainly from UK colonies, but a few from near Europe. From a max count of 131 birds in 1987, to a steady increase to 880, and then during the very hard Winter of 1994, we counted an all time high of 1,153 birds on Jan 4th. This really was an amazing site, as we seem to have attracted Cormorants from all over East Anglia!

Recent counts have averaged from 100-200 birds. So, over the years Paxton has mirrored Abberton in that both original sites have shown an increase at a similar rate. So, what seems to be happening is that some birds break away to form new colonies; and today the original sites have become 35, hosting some 1,330 pairs in England alone.

Image by Pete Beard, CC BY 2.0

Away from Paxton, Cambridgeshire has 4-5 other nest sites, including a well known one on The Ouse Washes. Jim, our former Head Ranger told me, some years ago, that, at Grafham, larger fish were being introduce making it more difficult for Cormorants to feed. Is this the cause of the decline of the Paxton colony? Another unproven puzzle.

One very unusual nest site is on The Inner Solway Firth, between England and Scotland, where after WW2, Cormorants nested on an old RAF bombing target! This four-legged wooden platform at one stage held 66 nests, now down to just 20 pairs in 2019.  This is due to the deterioration of the structure.

In Victorian Britain, many bird species were eaten, including the Cormorant. I have found the following recipe: Place the Cormorant in the ground for 2/3 days. Then dig up the bird and remove all the entrails before replacing them with a Portuguese onion! Cook slowly and when tender, carve like a goose or duck. Anyone fancy giving it a try?

As you read this, many of our Cormorants will have departed for The Wash, Mersey and other sites.  Some big juveniles will be around the trees, looking just like Ospreys (as one birdwatcher remarked to me). Many birds will replace them, making an amazing sight as they return to the trees on Heronry South at dusk.

So, as you can guess, I have a long-standing relationship with Cormorants over 40 odd years.  I hope that the dark fisherman of Paxton Pits will remain a very special feature of our wonderful reserve for many years to come.