About five years ago on a lovely Sunday morning, I was sitting in my neighbour’s Kirkheaton garden when a beautiful bird glided along the field just below us and then disappeared just as fast as it had appeared. It took me completely by surprise because this was the first and only time I have seen a red kite in the Kirkheaton area. I was reminded of that occasion just recently when someone told me one had been sighted at Lepton and another (or the same one) at Grange Moor. It got me wondering how many there are in our vicinity and whether I was just not looking hard enough. There’s a constant presence of common buzzards over the quarry and up towards Black Dick’s temple. These slightly smaller raptors are sometimes mistaken for kites but have a different call, a much browner colour and a fanned tail. Your eye is drawn to the sky more often than not by their call as they climb on the thermals. The red kite is chestnut red with a grey head, a 1.8m wing span and a forked tail. In contrast to the buzzard, the kite calls less frequently.
So, I went to good old Google and found a site for ‘Yorkshire red kites’ and on that site a map of all sightings reported to their base for the past few years. There are hundreds spreading out from Leeds to just about all parts of Yorkshire. But, when you zoom in, there are only four sightings within shouting distance of here, one at Waterloo, one at Upper Hopton and two at Lepton. Of course, not everyone reports their sightings so we should just regard the map as a rough guide.
Until 1999, you had to go to mid-Wales to see a kite. I can remember, many years ago, lying on a Welsh mountain looking up at the sky when, suddenly, my vision was filled with this amazing sight. Right over my head was a bird I’d never seen before, I’d never seen one so big and imposing against the blue sky. Then a re-introduction programme brought kites to Harewood House in Leeds and they became a regular sight. The programme was a considerable success story and now there are more than 10,000 across the UK. I can’t think of any reason why we shouldn’t have our fair share here because we have suitable habitat for their scavenging lifestyle and plenty of trees for nesting.
Despite their presence around Yorkshire, it’s still worth a trip to Wales to see these magnificent raptors. At Gigrin farm in Rhayader, kites have been fed by the farmer once a day for years, in mid-afternoon so the birds need to find their own sustenance at daybreak and throughout the morning. Arrive an hour earlier for feeding time and you’ll find a few sitting around in the trees and a few more soaring above the field, patiently waiting. At feeding time, there’ll be four hundred or more kites and a scattering of crows and buzzards. As the farmer enters the field there’s a tangible excitement and as he shovels the meat from the tractor, the fun begins. Kites swooping, diving, battling, snatching and eating on the wing, crows and buzzards ready to fight for their share. It’s an amazing sight and well worth the trip.
I suppose it’s only a matter of time before a red kite sighting in Kirkheaton is a daily occurrence. There are so many now that they are spreading out even further to find their own territory. But are they already here? I’m going to keep my eyes peeled, not just to verify that we have them in the area, but because there’s nothing like the sight of a colourful kite and its breathtaking aerial manoeuvres – with no strings attached.