Before the light goes the outline of a kite shows up perched on the branch of a bare larch tree. It's about the size of a buzzard, but its tail is long and forked like a mermaid's. Its head, if you could see it as the light fails, is pale grey. If you could see it flying over you would notice the long wings with splayed black feathers at the ends and big patches of light and dark underneath. When it flies low you can see why it's called the Red Kite - its upper body and tail is a vibrant rufous colour contrasting with black and white patches on the wings.
This one is the male bird of a pair which have done me the honour of accepting me as a neighbour. The focus of their activity is an old buzzard's nest in a larch tree about 300 years from the house. From the upstairs bedroom window I can see the nest clearly - at least until the larch trees cover themselves in foliage in a couple of weeks time. With a telescope perched on the window ledge I can watch the female moving about, slowly turning round while adjusting a twig here and there.
I'd noticed a pair last year showing a lot of interest in this side of the valley, but it was not until the beginning of March, a Wednesday, that they began flying low over the house and circling above the trees. They perched for a while nearby, but their survey didn't take long. Like an enthusiastic young couple looking round an empty house, they were too excited to disguise their interest and were soon inspecting the property in detail - "yes, we can do something with this".
It was a fine day that Wednesday and I'd decided to take a break from work to dig my newly reclaimed vegetable garden. As I dug, the kites observed. They flew reconnaissance flights overhead and I could see their eyes gazing down in calm curiosity. One of them sat for half an hour in a tree about 100 yards away just watching me. They spent a lot of time perching but if I stopped and stared at them they would glide slowly away. I felt aggrieved - if it was OK for them to stare at me why couldn't I look at them? I was worried too because I knew that the 2 or 3 weeks before they began to lay would be critical. At any time they could decide to move elsewhere.
This place (in Carmarthenshire) is quiet but it's not remote. The house is on a lane which leads to a village and any traffic passes within 50 yards of the nest. There is also a track above the nest from which you could lob a stone into it, but the track is very little used outside the hunting season.
There is a lot I don't know about kites so I decided to keep a diary of their comings and goings together with whatever else sounds interesting in my little patch.
Friday 3rd March
One of the kites, I guess the female, is on the nest arranging bits of leaves and things, obviously nest building. The other one's sitting up in a tree off to the right, just keeping guard.
Saturday 5th March
The kites are still there. There's a ravens nest about 150 yards from the kites' nest and the pair of ravens came over. One of them had a bit of fluff or something in its beak, and was making a sort of fluttering display flight to its partner. A kite dived bombed the raven and pinched the bit of fluff - quite enterprising of the kite.
Saturday 11th March
About 9 15 am and both kites are busy at the nest.
This afternoon, one of the kites was chasing a crow on the other side of the valley - chased it continuously up and up in circles until eventually they disappeared over our side of the valley. In the evening they were circling around above me as I was putting the chickens to bed, and then both of them perched up in the trees above the house. It's a really good feeling to have them there
Sunday 12th March
It's our first morning sitting out on the deck drinking coffee in beautiful sunshine, although there was a frost last night. We saw the kites mating this morning. Grey wagtail sitting up on that electric line there tweeting away. We also saw the kite seeing off an invading kite
Monday 13th March
There was a frost earlier in the night but then thin cloud moved over. It's calm, quite warm, and you feel that spring is here. Like there's a promise in the air, like the clouds are going to move away and the sun's going to come out. First thing after I'd done the animals I noticed two ravens chasing a kite across the sky. The kite didn't have much trouble avoiding them, but then he came down to were near the nest is and there was a raven sitting on a branch near the nest and he chased it off. So it looks like the ravens will chase the kites if they get too close and the kite will chase the raven if he gets too close.
Its lunchtime and there are two ravens sitting quite near the nest and the kite circling over head. I'm a bit worried about this because it looks as if the ravens might be casting eyes on the nest.
Monday 20th March
It looks as if there have been some fairly significant changes. My last record was on Friday, when I said the female was on the nest first thing in the morning. Just after that I went up to the paddock above the house to see if I could look across the valley and see if the other kites - the old nest opposite XXXXXX farm - was still active. Is this the same pair that's moved from there or is it a young pair setting up newly? When I went to the end of the drive, the kite must have been on the nest or very close. It flew off, and so did the male, and I had a feeling at that time that it was the wrong thing to do, that maybe I'd actually frightened them. All over the weekend she's been flying. It's been dry, cool, sunny. They've been moving up and down just above the house in the thin bit of larch trees where the tree cover is very sparse. I saw both of them carrying twigs. I had a suspicion yesterday that they might be focusing on a slightly denser patch of larch trees, and I'm now almost sure that they are trying to build a new nest there. We shall see.
Tuesday the 22nd of March
The kites are still focusing their attention on a larch tree, but no signs of a nest.
Monday 27th March
Now there are two pairs of kites in the area. Our pair, the first pair, is still defending the territory above us, but not the old nest. They focus on one or two trees just above the house, but there's no sign of a nest there still, so on Sunday morning I went up to have a look at the old Goshawk's nest to see if possibly the kites might have taken it over. We did see one kite circling in the area, but no real signs of them actually defending that bit of territory. The goshawk's nest did show some signs of being refurbished. There was a piece of blue baler twine hanging from it, and some bits of hay, but nothing you could really put your finger on, so I keep watching and hoping
Wednesday 29th March
It's definite now: the kites have started building a nest. I saw a bundle of twigs in the tree that they've been frequenting and I've seen them flying in and out actually from the bundle of twigs. They were also fighting a sort of running battle with a pair of buzzards this afternoon. - well, not a battle exactly but flying around and doing dives at each other. So, fingers crossed.
Monday 3rd April.
The weather's turned really nasty. There's a cold north wind blowing and has been for several days, and now it's turned wet as well, so we can expect snow I suppose. The kites have been nest building all week. I don't think they are sitting yet.
Saturday 8th April
Yesterday the first swallow appeared in the garden, and this morning was sitting on a bracket just outside the window, and looking around as if to say. "Well, why are all these windows shut?" So I went and opened the workshop window so that he can get in. (I make furniture in the old cow-shed, which I share with the swallows during the summer)
It's a brilliant sunny day again. We've had a succession of gorgeous days but with frost at night.
The kites do seem to be sitting at last. Sometimes you see the head poking up, sometimes the tail appears to the right. This morning I set the telescope up on the lawn, and we watched the male bird come in with a bit of food in its mouth - looked like a bit of sheep carrion, and flew up to the back of the nest. Before he arrived we saw the female moving on the nest, so we knew she was sitting there. He evidently passed the food to the female and then went and sat on his perch, so it does look as if egg laying has commenced.
Monday 10th April
When I started the diary I had agreed to survey a "tetrad" for the Welsh Kite Trust. A tetrad is 4 squares on the OS map, and mine is just up the road.
I am trying to think like a kite. Do they think? Well, they make decisions, and I want to understand those decisions. Sometimes they seem to drift aimlessly around the sky, but at least at this time of year, there is a deep purpose to their actions.
I have learnt a lot from watching our pair. I can recognise the householder in the confidant swoop through the trees and stately upswing to the nest or to his favourite perch. I can tell when he's interested in what I'm doing or when he's examining something new - a field freshly spread with dung or a fatality amongst the sheep. Our man is quite aggressive towards buzzards and crows, making aerobatic passes at them until they fly off. A month ago he would more politely see off other kites, but now he doesn't seem bothered by them.
So, these other kites: who are they? If only it were easier to tell individuals apart - or even male from female. Well, perhaps that would be too easy. After all they are very easy to spot. I had several times noticed another kite moving towards our territory from the ridge above Brian's farm. Occasionally I had seen all four kites in the air, so I knew there was another pair around. Were they occupying a territory, and was it the old goshawk's nest?
This is what I set out to discover this morning. The second official kite survey was due before the end of the week, and with horrible weather forecast, I decided to take Monday morning off. The north-east wind and high pressure still held and I woke to a cloudless sky )
8.30 As I'm walking along the lane I see a kite in our territory and I see one in what might be the second territory, but are they the same bird? It would only take a second or two to cover the distance. No, there they both are, one near our house and one above Brian's.
8.45 I'm on the hill. I thought it too risky to go near the goshawk nest, but reasoned that if I moved away from it up the hill in full view, any kites would not be too worried. There are certainly two kites here, and I'm pretty sure they are a pair. They are following rather than chasing each other. They drift off towards our house, but just as they are about to enter our local territory, swing round and drift back. One seems very dark on top with perhaps more dark underneath as well - the hen perhaps? She circles way out to the south and behind me, obviously trying to decide what sort of a threat I might be. These are strange kites; they don't know my movements as the first pair do. She rejoins her mate and they circle on, but the focus of their overlapping ellipses is not the area of the goshawk nest, it's nearer to our pair.
8.50 I'm getting worried that there may be eggs getting cold, so I have moved further off, and they are still circling as I reach the top of the hill and go down the other side.
10.00 Kite circling, possibly immature, dark above, fault in LH wing feathers. The last glimpse I had was near the farm and the bird seemed to be lighter underneath. It seemed pretty definitely hunting behaviour.
10.30 I spent some time checking the ittle hardwood on the side of the hill but there was nothing there apart from buzzards, so I walked home and was back by 11.00
In the afternoon, from our garden I got a better look at what I take to be the male of the second pair. He has a kink in one of his tail feathers. I can't see anything that could obviously be a nest in the thin stand of larches, which seems to be his territory. So, in the next few days I want to try and find out if there is a territory there, if they are using the goshawk nest, but without actually going to it, or if they are they building a new nest in a sort of copy-cat version of the one by the house.
Wednesday 12th of April.
It's been cold and rainy the last couple of days with the threat of even colder weather on the way. Twice today I've seen a kite on the new territory, perched in the middle of it. This evening he flew out and whichever it was didn't have a kink in its tail. So, It's either the one from our territory or possibly the female of the new territory if there is a pair there.
Friday 14th April.
I finally did it!
I've confirmed that we have a second kites nest. I'd already identified where the nest was. I've been watching it quite closely. I saw the two kites flying, one from our side, one from the other side, and defending the territory boundary which is a bit of scrubby pine trees at the top of the hill there. They were quite aggressive with each other round the boundary there. Finally by setting up the telescope and just watching and watching, I saw the bird alight on the nest. So, we've got two kites nests - wow!
Monday 17th April.
Both pairs still sitting, both males watching over them. There was a battle royal on Saturday between two buzzards and a raven. I think what happened was the buzzards were quarrelling and they started fighting in the air, and spiralling down, hit the ground. They were still quarrelling on the ground. Then one of them flew off pursued by a raven - quite aggressively, it chased it all over the place and the other buzzard followed. Meanwhile the kites were sort of hovering above, making sure that all this wasn't going to intrude on their nest, which was only a hundred yards away from the battle ground.
It's snowing. It's been horrible cold weather for a couple of weeks I suppose. North winds, east winds. Yesterday it turned a bit warmer; we had a south-east wind. It's not quite as cold as it has been recently, but quite a fall of snow. I can see it now drifting down, great big flakes.
Tuesday 2nd May
It's early - about 6.30, and I'm doing the morning rounds. We've had some beautiful weather the last few days Last night when I went in doors I could see the male kite "K1" sitting up there guarding his nest. I can't see him this morning but he's probably there somewhere. The female's still sitting; we've seen quite a bit of her.
The first of the pied flycatchers arrived about a week ago and they've been investigating the nest boxes. The redstarts I first saw yesterday in the front garden, and the cuckoo I first heard this morning. The swallows have been around for a few weeks, but they only really started nest building yesterday in the workshop, and this morning one of them was chasing out an intruder swallow
Friday 5th May
I think our kites (K1) may well be hatching at the moment. There's been a bit of a change of behaviour. The male, instead of perching away from the nest, is perching right up by it, just below it, and he seems to be fiddling around with some bits of twigs, almost as he was making a secondary nest below the main nest. He may have been picking up some bits of food, I'm not sure.
It's very cold and windy today though sunny. It's been high pressure north wind weather for the last week or so. We had a very good week-end- nice and warm, but it's been cold and cloudy most of the week and now its cold and sunny. So, there we are.
Saturday 6th May.
Both K1 kites off the nest this morning. It's a warm sunny morning. One of them was eating a bit of lamb and one of them was picking up sticks. I've just observed them back at the nest, one of them, presumably the female sitting, and the male almost standing on top of her weaving sticks into the side of the nest. I don't know whether that's odd behaviour or not.
Saturday 13 May.
Very little activity round the kites nest in the last few days and I'm rather worried that something's happened. They should have been hatching or hatched by now. I've been watching the site for the best part of an hour this morning and nothing much happening, though I thought I saw a tail sticking out over the edge of the nest. They've built the nest up bigger and there's more wool round it, so it's possible that the bird might be sitting the other side of the lip and I can't see her, but why should she be sitting at this stage? It's well over a month since I thought they started sitting. Difficult.
Sunday 14th May.
Yesterday I went to check on the kites. I went to both the nests and the Goshawk nest and there's no sign of life in any of them. I went all round underneath the trees and saw no sign that anyone had climbed the trees. Both nests looked a bit battered, and I wondered if perhaps it was the strong winds. No signs of the kites in evidence at all, although in the evening I did see a pair settle in the territory above the house. I can't see them on the nest; I watched for hours yesterday. It rather looks as if both have lost their eggs at the point of hatching. Quite why I'm not sure; possibly cold weather. The young might have hatched and been killed by the cold wind. Tony, (the Project Officer for the Welsh Kite Trust) thought maybe its because they are young birds and they are perhaps not fertile or they don't know how to look after the young. Anyway, very sad.
Its been beautiful weather the last couple of days. The kites are still circling around. One of them was circling around with twigs in its beak
Monday 15th May.
Silence. It's been hot over the week-end. We enjoyed being in the garden and relaxing doing the gardening and so on, but it's sad too, seeing the kites circling around aimlessly, one of them still carrying a twig. Well, that's the way with nature. If you want to take an interest in wild things you have to accept that things die.
Well, I was sad about the kites not being here much any more, partly because they've been so much a part of my life the last few months. Every day I've looked to see that they're there, and they're like constant companions. I've known when to expect to see the male, and to see the female sitting on the nest, and so on, and now they've gone, and a part of my world has gone with them. Well, they haven't gone altogether, but they're not my companions any more.
Shortly after these entries conclude I went with Richard to check on both of these nests. The nest of pair "K1" had actually tipped over and partially fallen from the tree. The stick carrying he had observed on 5th May was undoubtedly the result as the birds attempted to rebuild the nest, although having sat for nearly a month there was absolutely no chance of them relaying. The nest of the pair "K2" was right in the very top of a thin larch tree. We found the remains of a broken egg on the floor below which suggests that the eggs were either predated by crows or possibly blew out of the nest in high winds. The fate of these two nests serves to outline the high level of natural nest failure in Welsh Red Kites - especially in windy weather.