Ex­pect­ing the un­ex­pected

Could Black Kites be­come a reg­u­lar sight­ing in the UK and ul­ti­mately breed here? David Tom­lin­son thinks so…

Bird Watching (UK) - - Contents -

Hopes are high that Black Kites will breed in the UK

Black Kites are rare birds in the UK, though an in­creas­ing num­ber of records in re­cent years has down­graded them from be­ing a true rar­ity to just a scarce mi­grant

Thanks to the most suc­cess­ful rap­tor rein­tro­duc­tion project in the world, the Red Kite has be­come a fa­mil­iar bird for many of us. I live in Suf­folk, where th­ese hand­some birds have yet to es­tab­lish them­selves, though they are sure to do so soon, as the num­ber of breed­ing pairs in nearby Cam­bridgeshire and Northamp­ton­shire con­tin­ues to in­crease. Though they may not breed lo­cally, I see them reg­u­larly in the county, and ev­ery year I get an in­creas­ing num­ber of records from my patch. The lat­ter is the im­me­di­ate vicin­ity of my home: a pad­dock that I man­age for Barn Owls and Tree Spar­rows, sur­rounded by arable fields pro­duc­ing onions, po­ta­toes, bar­ley and maize. It hardly looks the most promis­ing of bird habi­tats, but in a good year I have recorded more than 100 species, while the ac­cu­mu­la­tive to­tal for the 14 years I have lived here is 136. There have been a few good­ies over the years, in­clud­ing Wood Sand­piper and Stone-curlew, Red-backed Shrike and Wry­neck. Rap­tors range from Marsh Har­rier to Mer­lin and Goshawk (I do live in the Brecks), but I’m still wait­ing for my first Honey Buz­zard. How­ever, one of the great at­trac­tions of bird­watch­ing is that the un­ex­pected is al­ways a pos­si­bil­ity. On 19 April, a bright sunny day with a south-east­erly wind, I was in­volved in a photo ses­sion in my field with pro­fes­sional pho­tog­ra­pher, Sarah Farnsworth. Sarah was busy tak­ing pho­tographs, when I no­ticed a large rap­tor, soar­ing low over the lime trees that line my drive. A glance sug­gested that it was a Red Kite, al­ways a good sight­ing here and one to be en­joyed. I swung my Le­ica Noc­tovids on to it, as much to en­joy watch­ing it as to iden­tify it, when I re­alised that it wasn’t a Red Kite at all, but its close cousin, a Black Kite. I can claim some ex­pe­ri­ence with Black Kites, as I have seen thou­sands of them. I’ve watched them stream­ing over the Straits of Gi­bral­tar in the early spring, when they come in flocks hun­dreds strong. I’ve watched them on their breed­ing grounds in coun­tries like Spain, France and Switzer­land, where they are wide­spread and of­ten com­mon, and I’ve also ob­served them in ex­tra­or­di­nary num­bers on the rub­bish tips of Delhi – how many was dif­fi­cult to count, but my es­ti­mate was of thou­sands rather than just hun­dreds of birds. Sim­i­lar in size and ap­pear­ance to a Red Kite, the Black is a less el­e­gant bird. Its tail, though forked, lacks the deep cleft of the for­mer, while its wings aren’t so long, so they ap­pear pro­por­tion­ately broader and less an­gu­lar. The colour is a give­away, for though this kite isn’t as black as a crow, it is dark brown, and lacks the colour and con­trast of the Red. In­ci­den­tally, the French, the Span­ish and the Ger­mans all call it the Black Kite: Mi­lan Noir, Mi­lano Ne­gro and Sch­warzer Mi­lan re­spec­tively. Sarah was shoot­ing with a 200mm lens, but for­tu­nately it gave suf­fi­cient mag­ni­fi­ca­tion for her to cap­ture a great se­ries of im­ages of the bird as it soared over our heads, be­fore ther­malling away to the north, and Nor­folk, in com­pany with a Buz­zard. It’s al­ways good to cap­ture pho­tographs of birds like this,

as county recorders are far more likely to ac­cept records of in­di­vid­u­als that have been pho­tographed. (Some years ago I saw a Black Kite at Wrotham in Kent, but I didn’t sub­mit the record as I didn’t have binoculars or a cam­era, and sus­pected that doubts would be cast on my sight­ing). I was well aware that Black Kites are rare birds in the UK, though an in­creas­ing num­ber of records in re­cent years has down­graded them from be­ing a true rar­ity, with sight­ings con­sid­ered by the Bri­tish Birds Rar­i­ties Com­mit­tee, to just a scarce mi­grant. In Suf­folk, the first two records were in 1971, and there wasn’t an­other un­til 1979. There have now been more than 30 ac­cepted records, al­most all of which have been in the spring and on the coast. In­land records, like mine, re­main ex­tremely un­usual. I turned to the most re­cent Re­port on Scarce Mi­grant Birds in Bri­tain, for 2015, pub­lished in Bri­tish Birds in Septem­ber 2017. Since 2010, there has been an av­er­age of 25 Black Kites recorded in the UK an­nu­ally, most in the spring and very few in the late sum­mer. Kent is ar­guably the best county to try and see one, but they do oc­ca­sion­ally reach Scot­land, such as the bird on main­land Shet­land in April 2015. The re­port notes that the “small but sig­nif­i­cant in­crease in spring over­shoots reach­ing Bri­tain [the av­er­age num­ber of records was 17 a year from 200-09] re­flects a marked growth in the Ibe­rian and French pop­u­la­tions since the 1980s.” It’s a re­minder that Black Kites are an ex­cep­tion among Euro­pean rap­tors, for not only are they thriv­ing, but they are spread­ing far­ther north, helped, no doubt, by our warm­ing cli­mate. They are strongly mi­gra­tory, with the first birds ar­riv­ing back in south­ern

Europe in late Fe­bru­ary and early March. At this time, it is quite usual to see big flocks in An­dalucía, of­ten feed­ing to­gether, on the ground. They will be around for a day or two, be­fore mov­ing on north to their breed­ing grounds. They are quite dif­fer­ent in their habi­tat re­quire­ments from the more gen­er­al­ist Red Kite; for in north­ern Europe they favour ter­ri­to­ries close to wa­ter, where they like to scav­enge dead fish. Once they have fin­ished breed­ing, they sel­dom linger long. The first de­part­ing in­di­vid­u­als pass over Gi­bral­tar in late July, and the peak pas­sage is dur­ing the mid­dle 10 days of Au­gust. A few are seen

Black Kites are an ex­cep­tion among Euro­pean rap­tors. They are thriv­ing and spread­ing far­ther north, helped, no doubt, by our warm­ing cli­mate

We cer­tainly have suf­fi­cient habi­tat here in south­ern Eng­land to sup­port breed­ing Black Kites. Low­land reser­voirs here could pro­vide the per­fect habi­tat

in Septem­ber, but by Oc­to­ber only the odd strag­gler oc­curs. As mi­grants they pen­e­trate deep in­tro trop­i­cal Africa, mix­ing with the lo­cal (and closely re­lated) Yel­low-billed Kites. In France, where they are wide­spread and rel­a­tively com­mon as far north as the Loire, there are es­ti­mated to be be­tween 22,500 and 26,300 pairs, mak­ing up a quar­ter of the Euro­pean pop­u­la­tion. The French pop­u­la­tion is in­creas­ing fast: when the EBCC At­las of Euro­pean Breed­ing Birds was pub­lished in 1997, the num­ber was es­ti­mated at fewer than 7,000 pairs, while the first French breed­ing bird at­las (1976) sug­gested just 1,000 cou­ples. With such a grow­ing pop­u­la­tion in France and an in­creas­ing num­ber of over­shoot­ing mi­grants reach­ing the UK, this has to be one bird that will fol­low the ex­am­ples of other south­ern mi­grants, such as Black-winged Stilt and Bee-eater, and start nest­ing here. How­ever, so far there have been no records of prospect­ing pairs, not even lin­ger­ing in­di­vid­u­als. As most twitch­ers will con­firm, this isn’t an easy bird to see in the UK. Most sight­ings are of pass­ing mi­grants, seen briefly and rarely paus­ing. There was a record of one from Kent on the day I saw my bird. It may well have been the same in­di­vid­ual. It would be fas­ci­nat­ing to know what hap­pened to it. Did it sud­denly re­alise that it had flown too far and head back to the con­ti­nent? My sus­pi­cion is that it might have done. We cer­tainly have suf­fi­cient habi­tat here in south­ern Eng­land to sup­port breed­ing Black Kites. Low­land reser­voirs like Bough Beech in Kent, Ab­ber­ton in Es­sex and Rut­land Wa­ter could all pro­vide what ap­pears to be per­fect habi­tat. Com­pe­ti­tion with ex­ist­ing pop­u­la­tions of Red Kites is un­likely to be a prob­lem. The two species have al­ways bred side-by-side in Spain’s Coto Doñana Na­tional Park with lit­tle, if any, con­flict. Like Red Kites, Blacks are semi-colo­nial, happiest liv­ing and nest­ing in com­pany with oth­ers of their kind. There can be no ques­tion of in­tro­duc­ing Black Kites to the UK: they have never nested here. How­ever, if you wanted to put money on a likely colonist, then this hand­some, adapt­able bird does seem a pretty good bet. Hot sum­mers, like the one we have just ex­pe­ri­enced, seem likely to in­crease the odds of nest­ing tak­ing place. How­ever, it should be re­mem­bered that like most rap­tors, Black Kites are re­luc­tant to cross broad stretches of wa­ter, mak­ing the English Chan­nel a ma­jor de­ter­rent. If it wasn’t for the Chan­nel, I’m sure that th­ese birds would al­ready be nest­ing here.

David Tom­lin­son on the day he saw a Black Kite

Could sights like this be­come a fa­mil­iar UK ex­pe­ri­ence?

Black Kite head de­tail

Note the rel­a­tively short tail and ‘plain’ plumage of a Black Kite

In flight , the squarer tail, broader wings, ‘ex­tra’ pri­mary ‘fin­ger’ and plain plumage are ob­vi­ous

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