Take on Nature: Let's go find a Kite
Operation Red Kite. The mission: To travel to a secret location and observe rare birds which were reintroduced into Ireland after being extinct for nearly two centuries.
OK, so we're not blindfolded and forced to lie on the floor of a car as an RSPB undercover team takes us to where these huge raptors come home to roost for the evening, but there is a sense of adventure as photographer Mal McCann and I are asked to keep the location secret.
The RSPB project to reintroduce red kites into our skies is still a work in progress and the species remains vulnerable. Claire Barnett, who has been involved since the initial reintroduction and meets us at the undisclosed location, is justifiably nervy – a young bird was found shot dead close to Moneyslane, Co Down, in August.
“Clearly we want people to see these birds and come to love them but they are still vulnerable,” she says.
"We are happy to tell people where they can see them flying, but we are slightly more guarded about the locations of the roosts where they rest in the evenings."
The November weather isn't doing us any favours, low clouds and rain mean the already poor light is fading fast. But these birds are distinctive, with forked tails and a wingspan stretching to five and half feet. Their reddish feathers give them their name.
Suddenly, as we are talking, two kites swoop in overhead and alight on the leaf-stripped branches of a nearby tree. Half a dozen more come in from another direction, and meander overhead, circling one another, their wings almost touching.
Claire says they are sociable birds and these evening gatherings are a chance to catch up with one another after spending the day apart. Despite their size she says they are mostly scavengers, feeding on the carcasses of dead animals, although they will take the chicks from the nests of smaller birds and hunt rodents and worms.
"It was one of the things we had to reassure farmers about when we first reintroduced them, as there was some misapprehension that they were hunters that would threaten livestock," says Claire.
The reintroduction programme began in 2008 when 25 birds were released with a further 25 in 2009 and 30 in 2010. The chicks were sourced from Wales, where the species continued to thrive despite extinction in Ireland.
Claire says the chicks were only taken from their parents if there was more than one chick in the nest.
"They were then taken to a location in Northern Ireland where they were reared by hand, but with the absolute minimum of human contact," she said.
"It was literally a matter of a hand dropping the food into a cage and being withdrawn as quickly as possible to make sure they remained totally wild and did not become used to human contact."
Before the RSPB in the north could be considered for the reintroduction programme it had to provide evidence that red kites had once been native in Ireland.
"We found a reference in a 19th century journal to 'cloth kites' which is what they were known as because they would include man-made material in their nests," says Claire.
Red kites tend to be monogamous. The birds mate in early spring and the chicks hatch in May and June, the mothers guarding the nest while the males hunt for food and bring it back to the nests.
The reintroduction project in the north reached a milestone this year with the highest number of fledging chicks recorded. Twenty territorial pairs were recorded in Northern Ireland, with 13 of them successfully fledging 28 chicks.
Since 2008 when the project began there have been 120 chicks fledged to date. The RSPB says that threshold for population stability or sustainability in Northern Ireland is 50 breeding pairs.
While still a work in progress the reintroduction programme is becoming embedded, some of the chicks now hatching are third generation, the offspring of birds that were born in Ireland - the grandchildren of the introduced birds.
It is an island-wide story and there is a strong partnership between RSPB NI, the Golden Eagle Trust and the Welsh Kite Trust.
In the Republic the reintroduction project, managed by the Golden Eagle Trust, began in 2007 and a total of 160 red kites were released in counties Wicklow and Dublin between 2007 and 2011.
This year there were between 70-80 breeding pairs found in Wicklow, Dublin, Meath and Wexford. There have been more than 250 young fledged since the project began.
Birds released in Co Down have ranged well beyond the territory and have mated and settled with their counterparts in the south, while birds released in Wicklow and Dublin have come in the opposite direction.
The chicks are tagged to aid identification and Claire says the RSPB already has 10 young volunteers monitoring their progress and identifying roost sites.
“We want to expand that and are encouraging schools to sign up to our RKite project, to learn how to identify red kites and report sightings - adopt and name a fledgling and follow its progress,” she says
Volunteers can sign up to the scheme and report red kite sightings via firstname.lastname@example.org.
*Thanks to Alan Ferguson (RSPB) and Dr Marc Ruddock (Golden Eagle Trust) who supplied much of the background information for this article.
The recent modern Irish translation for red kite is ‘Cúr rua' but in early 20th century Irish, kites were known as ‘préachan ceirteach' or ‘cloth kite', because of it's tendency to take pieces of cloth, rags and clothing for nest construction.
While hawks, buzzards and harriers were often lumped together under similar names as they still sometimes are today, no other bird of prey uses cloth or rags in such a way to build and line its nest, therefore, Irish speakers must have been familiar with this particular bird using such materials, and named it accordingly.
An account in Lewis's Topographical Dictionary of Ireland 1837 mentions the civil parishes of Tamlaghtard or Magilligan in Co Derry and describing the area around ‘Benyevenagh' states that ‘kites and hawks abound there...'