Dorset’s Sky Dancers

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They’re a rare wildlife success story: Jane Adams shares a brief, heart-racing encounter with one of our most elegant aerial acrobats

The red kite, milvus milvus.

Maybe it’s because red kites aren’t a common sight in Dorset that spotting one is still a spine-tingling experience. That they’re an elegant bird goes without saying, but, for me, it’s their other-worldliness and their knack of appearing from nowhere that stands them apart from other birds of prey.
One bitterly cold day, a friend and I climbed to the top of Melbury Hill near Shaftesbury. Mist frothed into the dips in the valley, and, as we fumbled with icy hands to take photos, a red kite appeared.
We were above it, looking down onto its slender, outstretched russet wings, watching its distinctive forked tail twist this way and that. We saw the flight feathers, like fingers, reaching for invisible air currents.

Close encounter
Red kites are a rare success story in a landscape of nature declines. Susceptible to illegal poisoning and egg collection, only a handful of birds survived in the British Isles by the 1930s, all of them in Wales.
But, with an increase in
protections and reintroductions, their numbers have literally soared. So much so that they are now moving from their strongholds in Wales, Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire to new counties, such as Dorset.
I once came face to face with a red kite. I was on a lone bike ride down quiet country lanes, and as I approached a steep hill, something in the road caused me to stop. It was a red kite, just a few feet above the tarmac, flying straight at me.
I froze, but before it reached me, it banked hard to the left and swept effortlessly up the hill like a Red Arrow jet.
My heart has never beaten so hard or so fast.
We know instinctively that nature can enhance our lives, but do we know how to let it?
As Sir David Attenborough once said: ‘… no one will care about what they have never experienced.’
So, this January, go in search of a red kite – if you see one, make sure you top up your awe and excitement levels.

The most common way to see a red kite is soaring noiselessly far above, with the forked tail twisting in the air currents

Interesting red kite facts:

  • Though their wingspan can reach nearly two metres, red kites can weigh as little as 800g, less than a mallard duck.
  • Red kites live mainly on roadkill, but will also eat small mammals, birds, and, rather surprisingly, earthworms.
  • When Shakespeare warned, “when the kite builds, look to lesser linen” in The Winter’s Tale, he was referring to the red kites’ tendency to ‘collect’. Nests have been found with all sorts of colourful decorations, from handbags to knickers from washing lines!
  • The oldest wild red kite known in the UK was 25 years and 8 months when it died in 2018.
  • The name ‘kite’ was first used for a flying toy in the 17th century.
  • The word ‘glide’ is thought to come from the Anglo-Saxon for red kite – ‘glee’.
  • In Tudor times, vermin laws saw a bounty paid for each red kite carcass – no wonder there were so few by the 1930s!

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