Courting, Cavorting Red Kites; Dawn to Dusk Sunshine and the Challenge of Maximising it; and Drilling and Placing the Willow.

Magic terrace garden in March sunshine. Tulip ‘Flaming Purissima’, Narcissus ‘Jetfire’ and N. ‘Topolino’ 29/03/12

The last week has seen our first garden visitors of the year, happily visiting on days of glorious sunshine. But the most dramatic event was on a very sunny Sunday 10 days ago when we ate our lunch outside under a cloudless sky. Over the last few years, local breeding red kites have been regular over flying visitors, and a couple of years ago we heard their distinctive cry for the first time, mainly during their breeding season in March and April. (The next phrase was added in my absence from the computer by visiting family members – and I think for amusement and initiative deserves its permanent place in this blog record!  – “when you can hear the female of the species singing “give me a man after midnight”). Describing bird song is not my skill as you can see, but for those of you with a musical bent I reckon it’s roughly a semiquaver F followed by a minim E flat, at least it seems to be that on our piano.

Last year went one stage further with a pair of kites nesting in a tree down by the stream running through our lower field. This year hadn’t thus far brought so many close visits, but as we enjoyed our lunch out in the sun a pair flying in impressive close wheeling formation drifted and circled down the hillside, using the thermals and light winds, over our heads and away down into the valley. I’d dashed in for the Camcorder and had a few efforts at catching this superb synchronised flying, before I managed to get a meaningful sequence of shots. Although the clarity isn’t perfect as screen captures, the images do convey the bird’s extraordinary agility.

No explanation needed for the next few screen captures of courting Red Kites flying with perfect synchronisation. Do they fancy a trip to the Olympics, with such mastery of technique ?

And during this display we were aware that one of the pair would break off, gain height and then plunge towards the other at high-speed and clearly very close physical contact.

The vertical plunge – look at those feather tips. 25/03/12

A week later when I finally uploaded the images, I was pleased to have some useable clips. But the real delight came when I did the freeze frame screen captures. Doing this on high speed action often produces blurred images on my Camcorder which uses AVCHD for those interested in technical detail. Although they’re not perfectly sharp, the range of images I’m reproducing below clearly captures the balletic prowess of the birds, and in particular their ability to fly vertically, upside down and engage in talon grabbing, all at high speed. None of this was obvious to the naked eye in real time, and being a one off event I felt that it merited a large chunk of this week’s blog. Subsequently I discovered that this courtship display (which we’ve never seen before), always takes place just at this time of the year. Additionally, kites usually bond for life, and I’m not sure whether this would have been the same pair which nested with us last year – they can apparently live for up to 20 years.

The start of the first sequence of Red Kite courtship mid air tussles over our heads. 25/03/12

The start of courtship tussle number 2 – look out for those talons.

You’ve no doubt spotted that the lower bird is flying upside down, and has now extended its talons.

And finally Red Kite courtship flight sequence number 3.  25/03/12

For those unfamiliar with these birds they have undergone a renaissance in the UK in recent times. They nearly became extinct by the late 1800’s hanging on only in rural mid Wales, where numbers bottomed out at about 40 pairs, but have now expanded into other parts of the UK and there are perhaps 600 pairs in Wales. With a wingspan of 5.5 feet, they are Britain’s most impressive raptor barring the much more restricted Golden Eagle, but for all their size are pretty lightly built and will mainly feed on carrion or small mammals, often relying on the more thuggish and powerful ravens and buzzards, which tend to live in similar terrain, to open carcases for them. Still, this ranks as a very special sighting for us on a special sunny day. Quite whether current numbers will mark a highpoint remains to be seen. With all the planned wind turbines in mid Wales, kite fatalities seem inevitable.

For those who’ve never studied the environmental assessment exercise that is undertaken as part of the planning process by the multinationals behind these projects, I can explain that they employ competent bird observers to monitor the landscape around the planned locations for significant (i.e. rare) bird sightings. They then calculate from the number of fly pasts observed, the length of time the observer was present, the area observed and the area of sweep of the enormous turbine blades how many likely collisions and thus fatalities there are likely to be per year, and list it in a column.

For a rare bird like a Goshawk this comes out at a scarily high figure. But FEAR NOT, the figure is at a stroke in the next column reduced to a miniscule level. How so? Well, they factor in an amazingly high ability of the bird to spot the blade coming and dodge it! Let’s hope they’re accurate – or that the kites don’t get caught up in amorous courtship cavorting like that above, when they’re near turbine blades – there won’t be much chance of surviving a clip from one of these blades for any large bird.

Perhaps the local Red Kites will develop eyes in the back of their heads for when the wind turbines are built and their blades are turning. Perhaps pigs will fly.  25/03/12

I’ve now totalled March rainfall figures at barely 45 mm. Since we’ve sometimes had 300 mm or more in previous March months this is a huge reduction, but at least we’ve had the benefit of lots of sunshine. As shown below, this is the first time I can recall a PV inverter display looking like this – but also of note is that the maximum output reached was only just about 3300W – some 10 % down on earlier maximum levels in February, when of course the sun was lower in the sky.

4 days of unbroken Welsh March sunshine quantified… A very rare sight.30/03/12

So although the sky looks to be clear blue with no clouds, there is something atmospheric reducing clarity for the sun’s rays at ground level. Interestingly last weekend’s paper included a report that Britain is currently suffering severe particulate and Nirous oxide pollution – nearly as bad as Beijing during the pre Olympic games build up. Apart from its effects on Solar PV electricity generation, this pollution creates health issues for folk with respiratory conditions. But the challenge is still on, if you have a PV system, to maximise your personal usage of the electricity you’re producing under various conditions.

A friend reckoned that initially he was probably only using some 17%, with the rest exported to the grid at negligible value. Now after 18 months he’s got that up to 75%. How can you manage this? Well firstly you become smart about when you choose to run many appliances – only when the sun is shining! Secondly you can think of feeding more surplus power into water heating in a large immersion tank. And then wheezes like using smaller lower rated appliances for when the weather isn’t so bright. Our latest being dusting off our 650 Watt travel kettle for use on cloudier days (a normal kettle is rated at about 1800 Watts, did you know that?)

But don’t you have to wait for your tea? Well a bit longer, but there’s usually something you can do in the minute or 2 extra, and why rush through life anyway? My homemade weed scorcher (See previous blog by clicking here), has also been extensively used to get on top of path weeds early in the season. This increased awareness of personal electricity usage and the consequent dramatic electricity savings made is, I think, by far and away the biggest benefit of microgeneration schemes over the sort of grandiose kite slashing turbines envisaged by the Welsh Assembly Government to cover much of the mid Wales landscape.

The two weeks of dry March has seen a blitz on external painting. Like most long, tedious and repetitive jobs you start off with such enthusiasm. About a quarter of the way through the job, this has dissipated to thoughts of whether one will ever complete it, then as one nears the final quarter a burst of enthusiasm takes you to completion, as the ‘still to do’ section reduces quickly. For the first time since acquiring the derelict property most of the paint work has been gone over at the same time.

As a slight distraction from this task, Fiona has had creative fun with some of the pile of cut back Cornus and Salix stems which are harvested in late February. The first effort which was finished just a couple of days before our first garden visitors arrived, clearly appealed to them, and I was amused when they wanted to know how we managed to grow different species of Willow so close together. I had to own up that they’d only been positioned two days before. In both cases our own source of clay from the stream bed, and moss sheets carefully peeled off mature tree trunks helped to create their more seasoned appearance.

Phase one, Fiona drilling the base fixing holes into a spruce log. 25/03/12

Salix sculpture number 1

Salix sculpture number 2

And at night?

Meanwhile more flowers open in the warm sunshine – Camellia ‘Les Jury’ 1/04/12

White Honesty, Lunaria annua var. albiflora and Euphorbia amygdaloides. 1/04/12

Pasque flowers, Pulsatilla vulgaris, and Tulipa “Little Beauty” open in time for Easter this year. 1/04/12.

P.S. After all this talk of sunshine, as this gets posted we’re being blasted with gale force North Easterlies, snow has flirted with us and the fires have been lit all day.


4 thoughts on “Courting, Cavorting Red Kites; Dawn to Dusk Sunshine and the Challenge of Maximising it; and Drilling and Placing the Willow.

  1. Truly spectacular Kite pictures!! I saw lots of them on the Ridgeway, north of London, though never in this courtship flying. Incredible!! Well done Julian and lovely sculptures Fiona!!

    • Hello Kevin,
      Glad you liked the kites….a bit blurry but you did warn me about this issue with AVCHD!. Still, you can anyway make out the amazing range of body postures they get into and all at high speed, of course, I’m not sure how Red Kites made it into England…were they re-introduced ? BW, Julian

      • Julian, This from the Ridgeway National Trail website:
        “Red kites and buzzards

        These two large, magnificent birds of prey might be seen at any time of year and deserve special mention. Buzzards are more frequent on the western half of The Ridgeway, while red kites (re-introduced in the late 1980s) are well-established in the Chilterns although they are now spreading west onto the downs. Both species are mainly carrion feeders, making use of thermals when hunting, and both nest in tall trees. The similarity in size and colour can make them difficult to distinguish at a glance.

        Red kite: reddish-brown plumage, bluish/grey wings with a white patch on the underside, and a forked tail which is the most distinguishing feature. They tend to hunt low so you often see them in valleys below you if you are walking on high ground. Kites also feed on worms and grubs in the ground so you may see them on recently ploughed fields. Their call is a long-drawn ‘kiaaaa’ heard often in summer and early autumn as adults call to their offspring. They sometimes indulge in spectacular mid-air food exchanges and passes, especially in late summer when parents are teaching juveniles to hunt.”

        Maybe what you photographed was a mid-air food exchange?

      • Hello Kevin,
        Thanks for the extra kite info. Perhaps it was indeed a food exchange, in much the same way as we share our last Rolo’s with the sisters? I’ll look out in future for any similar exchanges, and see if I can see food changing talons..
        PS Have you checked out Photobotos wordpress blog yet? There have been some gorgeous and varied pics on it in the last few days… a real treat.

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