Buzzards lumber into the air. Wide wings flap, they labour upwards, struggling against air molecules which are ganging up to press them back down to earth, where they sit, squat, brown, feathery and small-beaked like a big pathetic rabbit-munching death chicken. Next to kites, that is. In the absence of kites, buzzards are quite spectacular, a sort of surrogate eagle, quite at home on an upland thermal, a glorious, stirring sight. But what creature can compete with the effortless grace of a red kite? For kites are no chickens. They rarely stay on the ground for long, despite a penchant for carrion. Kites are creatures of the air. They don’t fight the wind, they ride it. Steering deftly with their rudder-tail and big, rangy limbs, they bounce and glide and swoop majestically, a rapturous raptor vision in orange-red, black, white and grey.
Kites are one of the joys of living in this part of the world. I get to see what might be my favourite bird of all, if I was forced to choose, flying over the house where I live, the streets that I drive, the fields that I walk. I get to hear their wild, wheeling cry regularly from a friend’s Reading garden, a hopeful sound which soothes the aching wounds of reckless consumption which blight that town and many others like it. When we moved temporarily to Kent, the ‘Garden of England’, I missed it like no other bird, even whilst the nightingale’s song consoled me, and rare sightings of dwindling lesser-spotted woodpeckers, more than ever so very aptly named, and a few brave turtledoves, gave a lift to my sagging spirits. My perfect English garden would retain all of these, but it would also boast of kites playing in the air above it.
Naturally, every good and perfect thing has detractors, for grumbling is our national sport. We can’t quite believe that a good thing can be purely a good thing, hardly a drawback in sight, and so have to invent slurs to knock it, and kites are no exception: there are now ‘too many’ of them and the ‘natural balance is upset’, they’re ‘stealing songbirds from off their perches’, they’re ‘swooping on sand martins’ (impressive!), they’re ‘attacking small dogs’. They’ll be carrying off small children next if people don’t stop feeding them offcuts from Sainsbury’s. Or so I remember hearing.
But few of these accusations ring true, nor indeed have any basis in fact. I can’t help but see the presence of kites in the skies of England as unambiguously good, an emblem of success as well as talisman for the future, showing what can be achieved if only us cautious conservationists dared to be ambitious. Dared, against our better natures, to interfere with ‘nature’s better way’, took a chance on not leaving everything to chance. For when red kites were re-introduced to southern England, once again humans did indeed intervene.
But this time, everybody won.
These pictures were all taken at Gigrin Farm, a must visit for any kite fan. There’s a link in a slightly different view of kites I wrote for Conservation Jobs UK here. I recommend playing ‘Where’s the raven?’ (also featured in my bird alphabet) with the first picture. I believe there is at least one! In the second image the bird sat on the ground, kites a mere blur around it, is of course a buzzard.