Girton Birdwatch - May 2011
It has been a very good March and April for the red kite in and around Girton. My wife and I were out walking on Sunday March 27th when one of these magnificent, fork-tailed and brightly coloured birds flew languidly towards us, low over Girton Wood. I had my binoculars with me but they were not really necessary. I learned later, that the same day Jack and Philippa Lord had observed one circling over the fields between Washpit Lane and Duck End (and later another bird, or perhaps the same one, at rooftop level between Duck End and the High Street.) On Monday 28th March Elizabeth Starling reported one which soared over Northfield, Fairway and Dodford Lane before moving off across the fields towards Woodland Park, while Jem Belcham saw two over the Huntingdon Road on Friday April 1st. The same day, John Hall saw what might have been one of the aforementioned birds flying over Thornton Close. The next day, Teal Riley spotted a lone bird circling low over the houses opposite Girton College just by Girton/Cambridge Road. Also, in late March, early April, Graham Jones had four or five sightings of this superb bird, two on the edge of the Hicks Lane allotments site - I should have been doing my spring digging! - and another of a bird flying low and slowly over Cherry Bounds Road, and two more on separate occasions near the Girton Road/Huntingdon Road junction. Yesterday (12th April) my wife, Janet, saw a single bird over the centre of Histon.
I reported our March sighting to the Cambridgeshire Bird Club because - although I've seen Kites over Girton before, they have been high in the sky and fleeting - I considered such close proximity both gratifying and exciting (sentiments I'm sure were shared by the villagers mentioned above). I was disappointed, at first, to find no mention of the village sighting in their 'What's About?' section, only a more general: 'Red kites have been seen throughout the county'. An explanation featured a few days later, when it was stated that because buzzards and red kites, once notable, were currently so common in the area, and although reports were still required, they would not be given specific mention on the site. Now, despite my initial dismay, that's what I call a success story!
The red kite was at one time as common in Britain as the carrion-crow, and in Tudor England the best place to see the bird was in the streets of London where they did a good job in keeping the streets free of 'refuse'. My father, a regular soldier stationed in India before the 2nd World war, was more familiar with the kite (probably the black kite) under a scatological nick-name acquired because of its coprophagous habits. (I'm using such language to protect the more sensitive reader). However, between the 17th and 19th centuries the kite was subject to a long, slow, methodical campaign of near extermination. There were several reasons for this, one being its taste for domestic poultry (one of its folk names is 'puttock', believed to be a contraction of poult-hawk), but its decline and persecution also coincided with improvements in urban sanitation, where the birds' clearance of offal and other organic waste was not so highly valued or appreciated. Equally important was the elevation of the game bird in Britain's hierarchy of values. Partridge, pheasant and grouse had to be protected at all costs and all of our birds of prey suffered as a consequence. The kite's tolerance of human presence and its central role as a scavenger made it an easy target. Nowadays the kite exists primarily on carrion: road-kill and dead rabbits making up the bulk of its diet. Its diet does include pheasants but these are usually scavenged carcasses. So far they seem to have steered clear of chickens, although this may be due to changes in the nature of poultry farming - unfortunately not many chickens are to be found pecking their way around farm-yards or village greens - than to change in the kite's proclivities. A combination of factors, then, led to a startling long-term decline in kite numbers, and by 1903 the population was estimated to be down to just five breeding pairs. They were driven to the wild places of Wales and for almost a century anyone wishing to catch a glimpse of this beautiful bird had to make a pilgrimage to the heart of the Principality.
Our Girton birds bear witness to the dramatic spread of the red kite in recent years - there are now several thousands - and it surely represents one of the great success stories of modern conservation. The process started with a reintroduction scheme at six sites in England and Scotland, using birds originally taken from Spain and Sweden respectively. The English releases began in the Chilterns in 1989 and as numbers built up subsequent introductions were made in Northamptonshire (1995-8) and Yorkshire (1999-2003) using mainly English-reared birds. (I was in Otley over the week-end (Otley 29-Cambridge 31) and Leeds, where the birds are now common-place, not only in the rural valley bottoms but regularly to be seen passing over the urban and suburban areas of Leeds).
I was walking along the bridle path bordering the Beck Brook near the riding stables the other day (29th March), when I noticed a bow wave moving down the brook away from me. It was, I'm delighted to say, a water vole, another creature much in need of protection, and which had been seen last year in the Washpit Lane area. They've obviously survived the harsh winter and, with luck, are spreading out. A snipe startled me as it flew out of the underbrush bordering the 10 acre field (24th March) and a swallow was down the Oakington Road on 7th April. An osprey was at Fen Drayton on 9th April and an early swift at Longstanton on the 11th.