Why is there a growing number of red kites in Suffolk?
PUBLISHED: 17:03 26 January 2019 | UPDATED: 21:43 26 January 2019
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What factors are driving the proliferation of this beautiful bird across the county's famous big skies?
It is common nowadays to hear people talk of seeing red kites high up in Suffolk’s famous big skies.
The numbers for this stunning bird of prey are certainly on the rise in the East, the latest edition of Suffolk Birds compiled by Suffolk Ornithologists’ Group listing a total of 322 reports of a sighting in 2016, a significant increase on the 265 reports in 2015 and 226 in 2014 while back in 2007 the group only received six reports of red kites.
Quite a sight
Certainly, a decade ago birdwatchers in Suffolk would not have come across the scene witnessed by bird enthusiast Gerry Bullard who has reported seeing a gathering of 17 red kites in the west of the county earlier this month.
“On Tuesday 15th January I visited a site in west Suffolk near Newmarket where the owner had advised me he had seen red kites gathering in late afternoon before roosting in an adjacent wood,” he said.
“At one time I counted 17 in the air and the owner of the land said he had counted over 20 earlier in the week - to see more than a dozen birds of this size swirling about is quite a sight.
Mr Bullard continued: “God knows where they had come from - I’ve seen larger groups in Wales and Gloucestershire of up to 30 and 40 but at these locations they feed them, so greater numbers are attracted. Where I saw them no food is left out - this is probably the largest recorded number in Suffolk.”
A quick check with the British Trust for Ornithology’s (BTO) bird recorder for southeast Suffolk Scott Mayson confirms Mr Bullard’s hunch that his sighting is as good as it gets for red kites in Suffolk - the Trust’s online BirdTrack system, which allows birders to leave details of their sightings, showing the most red kites seen previously was also 17 at Stutton Heath in late October 2016.
Mr Mayson says like the raven and buzzard, red kites are expanding from the west of the country where they are found in greater numbers.
“The are spreading east but unlike the buzzards who are common in Suffolk, red kites have stalled a bit,” he said.
“It’s surprising that despite the numbers being seen there are only a few pairs breeding in the county. Most of the red kites that people see are migrants moving through.”
“Red kites are about the size of a buzzard, which has slightly flatter wings compared with a red kite whose wings are arched. The red kite’s tail is notably longer and has a deep fork, which gives it a distinctive silhouette. With a white head and white patch on the under wing they are absolutely beautiful.”
Mr Mayson says the growing frequency of sightings in the east is simply down to competition from other red kites - forcing birds east, north and south in search of food sources and suitable habitat.
Of Mr Bullard’s sighting he added: “ It’s unusual to see such a large group at this time of year, maybe they are coming in from the edge of the county.”
Although the red kite may not be breeding in high numbers in Suffolk yet, the fact they are being seen more frequently and in greater numbers is a mark of the success of an reintroduction programme that has saw red kites from Sweden and Germany released in the Chilterns, the Midlands and the north of Scotland during the 1990s.
The programme was designed to bring this magnificent bird, once common across the British Isles, back from the brink. Persecuted during Victorian Times, red kites became extinct in England in the 1930s when there were just 10 pairs left in a remote part of Wales. By the mid-1980s, there were still less than 100 pairs across the UK.
Today, with protected status they are far less likely to be actively hunted or harried by egg collectors although the RSPB says they are still threatened by illegal poisoning by bait left out for foxes and crows, secondary poisoning by rodenticides, and collisions with power cables.
But there is one common threat that the red kite - a renowned scavenger - is apparently taking advantage of, according to Rupert Masefield at the RSPB.
“One theory is that red kites have expanded along particular road routes taking advantage of the road kill they find,” he said
“Roads can be a challenge for wildlife, particularly mammals, but for scavengers they can provide a food source that can help them spread and become well-established in new areas.”