16 Jun 2014

16 June 14 - Photospot4: Red & Black Kites

When I first started birding in the UK, Kite identification was pretty straight-forward. If you were in central Wales, then a Kite flying over your head was going to be a Red Kite: as this was the centre of the breeding range of the less than 100 pairs in the UK. These birds were fairly resident & therefore didn't seem to wander too far. Elsewhere, then you were unlikely to encounter a Kite, but there was a very slim chance that a Black Kite could turn up in the UK: but they were national rarities. The first one I saw in the UK on the Isle of Wight in 1987 was only about the 95th UK record.
Red Kite: Once a Welsh speciality, but now a UK wide success story. I've even had 3 migrants over my garden in recent years (Southern England, June 2014)
Jump forward to 1992 & the times they were a changing. A successful reintroduction scheme was quietly launched in the Home Counties in the late 1980s. I suspect this area was selected as there were plentiful woods & fields. Also there were less Buzzards to compete with, compared to suitable locations further West. Additionally, it was well away from the established Welsh population. My first encounter with one of these Red Kites was returning from a 20 month Round the World trip in March 1992 & taking a train from Heathrow to South Wales (where my mother was living at the time). Soon after the train entered the Reading countryside, I saw a Kite quartering over the fields. I subconsciously wrote it off as a Black Kite, having seen thousands in Africa (the distinctive Yellow-billed Kite subspecies), India (where good numbers were a daily sighting) & many in parts of SE Asia & Australia. Having looked away, I suddenly remembered I was back in the UK & shouldn't be seeing Kites, especially in this area. Frustratingly, it was a now distant bird & too far away to identify. It was only when I got to talk to birding mates that I heard about the reintroduction scheme & that it would have been a Red Kite.
Red Kite: The 1992 Kite from the Reading train wasn't close to the track & colours weren't easy to see on it. Had it looked like this, then it would have been immediately obvious (Southern England, June 2014)
Jump forward again to 2014 & Red Kites are now a regular sight in many parts of the UK. I recently saw 2 on the journey from Esher Common to Goring-on-Thames (on a Dragonfly day out). I was disappointed in the numbers seen that day, given I was going through one of the hot spots around the M4 - M40 corridor. They are breeding in a number of UK counties, following additional reintroduction schemes. However, they remain a less common species in Dorset, as there haven't been any local reintroductions. We have a regular Spring migration of Red Kites which I think is from birds which winter in the South West & then move East on fine Spring days. Additionally, there are a few birds seen at other times of the year. I'm sure in time they will spread more commonly into the county, as the expanding existing Southern populations look for new breeding sites. As for Black Kites, they have also become commoner in the UK: with over 360 records by 2005 when they stop being considered by the BBRC. There are fairly regular records of Black Kites in the South West & on the East coast, but it's remains a rare bird in Dorset. There are reports, but it's never easy to figure out at the time, if these are genuine or mid-identifications of poorly seen Red Kites. Either way, they never get seen again & must remain an ongoing headache for the Dorset rarities panel to assess. If one was pinned down for a day or two, it would be a well twitched & popular bird, as it will be a long overdue Dorset Tick for many of the local birders.
Black Kite: This shows the uniform grey brown body & head & pale inner primary panel. Note, the shallow forked tail, normal length wings & tail (Kfar Ruppin, Israel, April 2014)
So a quick overview of identification between the 2 Kite species. Red Kites are longer winged and longer tailed than Black Kites. They often glide on bow shaped wings where the middle of the wings is the highest point with the wing tips noticeably curved down. This distinctive long-winged and long-tailed shape makes them easy to pick out at a distance from any of the other UK Raptors. Red Kites also have a much deeper forked tail than Black Kites, which is most obvious in the closed tail, but still obvious when the tail is spread.
Red Kite: Note, the longer & more deeply forked tail compared to a Black Kite (Southern England, June 2014)
Black Kite: They have a shorter tail with a shallower fork, a grey brown body and a diffuse pale panel on the inner primaries (Kfar Ruppin, Israel, April 2014)
Red Kites have a much more contrasting colouration with a noticeable orangey-red tail, contrasting brown flight feathers with paler rufous-brown wing coverts on the upperwing, a rufous body, a light greyish head & a pale panel on the inner wing coverts. In contrast, Black Kites are far more uniform: being a cold dull grey brown colouration with a grey brown tail, a grey brown body & again a pale panel in the inner primaries.
Red Kite: The longer wings make them appear thinner winged than Black Kites & the longer, deeper forked tail is even really obvious in the spread tail of this bird. Also note the rufous body & pale head (Southern England, June 2014) 
Red Kite: Red Kites have more rufous wing coverts, obvious rufous tail & are more contrasting on their upperparts than Black Kites (Southern England, June 2014)
Black Kite: Black Kites have a more uniform darker appearance on their upperwing & a grey-brown tail as these individuals in a large flock demonstrate (Kfar Ruppin, Israel, April 2014)
I am looking forward to getting some shots of a visiting Black Kite in Dorset. Let's hope it's not too long a wait.