The big bird rides the wind with an effortless grace beautiful to see, hardly making a movement save for an occasional slight flick of its long forked tail to change direction. I watch spellbound through my binoculars as it soars back and forth over the semi-wild ground beyond the end of my garden, head down, intently watching the ground for prey. So far it has been no more than a black silhouette against the brightness of the sky; but now it seems to have spotted something, for it is circling lower and lower, and as it does so the colours of its plumage are revealed, rufous brown, creamy white, and black.
As it comes to ground behind the bushes near the pond a pair of jackdaws flutter up in indignation. For a moment it looks as though they are going to mob it, but with lordly disdain and a few powerful wing-beats it rises above them as if pulled by an invisible string, and flies off towards the north.
The appearance of the red kite in the skies above our village has been the highlight of a natural year that has otherwise been pretty miserable so far, except for a week or so of fine warm weather in March. The wild flowers are late blooming, and the house martins that hawked for insects around the houses and over the pond last year have not yet put in an appearance. But we have the red kite. I did spot one a couple of times last year, but never nearer than a couple of miles from the village. In the last month I have seen one from outside my house once or twice every week. With a bit of luck that means a pair are nesting not so very far away, and we will have their company for some time to come. And that is a pleasure and a privilege.
In Medieval times red kites were so common, scavenging on the streets of London like the pigeons do today, that they were widely regarded as vermin. But over the centuries their numbers were so reduced by persecution, accidental poisoning and habitat change that for most of the twentieth century they were to be found only in one remote forest in Mid-Wales. So close did they become to extinction that one recent DNA study indicated that all the native kites in Britain today are descended from just one female.
From that low point in the 1930’s their numbers slowly increased, and from the 1980’s the population has been boosted by reintroductions from abroad in several locations up and down Britain, until now their numbers have passed into four figures. If you see a kite soaring above the M40 between London and Oxford, your eyes are not deceiving you: the colony artificially started in the Chilterns has been a particularly successful one. The re-establishment of the red kite has been one of the triumphs of recent conservation, and the RSPB named it as the Bird of the Century.
But that is not the only reason I feel privileged and blessed when I see one above my garden, nor even that it is likely to be a descendant of the population from the original Welsh stronghold rather than a foreign introduction. It is the sheer beauty of the bird: the rich colours of its plumage and the easy grace of its flight. The thing you fly on a string was called after the bird, not the other way round.
P.S. The house martins are back. I saw my first one this year while taking a break outside from writing this.