A relatively recent addition to the birding calendar in Cornwall has been the annual spring influx of Red Kites into the county. Each year, usually in late spring as high pressure builds and winds from an easterly bias set in, non-breeding birds from all across the UK disperse and funnel down the country. As the landscape narrows into our very own bottleneck for birds we can hope to enjoy the spectacle of seeing these graceful and distinctive raptors. Quite why Red Kites undertake this partial migration is still up for debate, it could be that they are prospecting for new breeding territories in the future or perhaps they are using their migratory instincts as many of Britain’s naturalised population derives from introduced birds from the more migratory populations of Scandinavia and Spain. This last weekend has shown perhaps the biggest Red Kite influx to Cornwall in history and with even more eyes to the skies during lockdown the Cornwall Birds (CBWPS) news team were inundated with sightings from across the county and it was clear to see that they brought both joy and excitement to many people. Below you will find a day by day summary complete with maps which shows the true scale of the Red Kite influx.
The preceeding week:
4th – 6th May – a single report received, on Tuesday 5th at Polbathic Creek.
Thursday 7th May – scattered reports of mainly singles, with a flock of 13 at Polgigga. Eleven reports in total, widely spread throughout the county.
Friday 8th May – no reports were received
Saturday 9th May
The vanguard of the main arrival is noted, with small numbers of birds noted at various locations through the county. Some birds were presumably already in the county, with new arrivals mainly noted in the evening. Pale yellow for counts fewer than 10, dark yellow for counts higher than 10.
Note: by opening up the map to full page (top right icon), the map can be explored further for individual counts etc
Sunday 10th May
Clearly the day when the vast majority of birds arrived, with a few record counts received. Purple stars are the largest counts, of 50 or more; darker red markers show counts of between 10 and 49 and paler red marker show counts of 9 or fewer.
County Recorder Dave Parker who counted an amazing 306 from his garden overlooking Marazion: “The vast majority of my birds came north along the ridge of Virgin Hill or appeared to the north of the hill and flew west along the A394 and A30. Presumably coasting birds that didn’t like being squeezed over the town so cut inland round the hill before carrying on. However, quite a few birds slipped through behind me (south), so goodness knows how many I missed! I’m guessing most birds east of this will be included in my count, but those further north ie Truro, Redruth, Camborne or St Erth were probably different? Also birds further west before say 11:30 (I started counting at 11:15) were also probably different”
Monday 11th May
The majority of birds have seemingly passed through, although there were still quite a few moving east, often low in the strong NE wind. Blue stars indicate counts of 50 or more, darker green markers for counts of more than 10 and paler green markers for counts of 9 or fewer.
Tuesday 12th May
Reports continue to come in, with some birds re-orientating and others staying in the area … large flocks tending to disperse as birds move out into the wider countryside or move unseen back upcountry.
There were a fair few reports on the 9th, seemingly a small number of birds arriving in the afternoon, but also some that had been present for a few days. The major arrival in the west of the county was noted on 10th, with a maximum count of 306 and more than 100 individual reports, throughout the county. The birds were widespread but due to the fairly strong NE wind, the greatest concentrations seemed to occur on the South coast. Interestingly, kite movement was predominantly over in mid-Cornwall sites, such as Truro where passage slowed by 10:30, by mid-morning, whereas further west strong passage continued into mid afternoon. Some birds were seen heading back east from about 16:00 with more northerly sites connecting. A few birds were still moving east on 11th but in very strong winds, (and not being a weekend perhaps) fewer reports were received. All birds that were aged were immatures and the vast majority were in significant inner primary moult, with only 5 or 6 outermost primaries still retained. These are assumed to mainly be 2nd calendar year birds investigating for territories while adults are breeding.
Wing-tagged birds are occasionally encountered in these flocks, and one such bird was encountered on the Saturday in one of the Lizard flocks. This bird was one of three chicks ringed at a nest in Grizedale Forest, Lake District, in 2019. Previous wing-tagged birds have come from as far away as Scotland, adding to the weight of evidence that these birds are of UK origin, and likely to be from the introduced population as opposed to the more sedentary native Welsh population.
Smaller influxes of Red Kites have been noted elsewhere at coastal locations in the UK in May and June, such as southeastern England, however they don’t seem to be in such notable numbers. Prior to this year the highest counts in Cornwall were of 202 at Nanjizal on June 8th 2015 (and slightly lower number nearby on the same date) and 156 on 26th May 2017 on the Lizard. The timing of these influxes seems to vary year on year – often a second larger or smaller wave can occur. Outside these influxes in May and June the Red Kite tends to be a relatively rare or infrequent visitor in Cornwall, with no known breeding records, and absent altogether for much of the year.
As mentioned, it is thought that these are UK non-breeding birds (it would be too early for adults to have finished breeding, apart from the wing moult and ageing evidence). There is no evidence that these birds continue south and west, not moving on to Northern France for example and Red Kite remains a relatively rare bird on the Scillies. It is assumed that the large numbers dissipate and birds spread out again on the return journey. Notable flocks are not generally encountered elsewhere in the UK until they start to run out of land and bottleneck along the coast, but it still remains something of a surprise and quite the wildlife spectacle when they start to appear down here in Cornwall in their now-annual late spring appearance!
A big thank-you must go out to all the people who contacted us over the weekend and contributed to our records, it just goes to show what incredible data on birds we can all compile in a short space of time. If you haven’t seen a Red Kite yet this week don’t give up yet! There are still many birds touring the area as they relocate and further influxes of new birds could still be expected. Remember in the future too that we welcome sightings of all bird species as recording their numbers helps with their protection and conservation so keep up the good work! Better still if you aren’t yet a member of Cornwall Birds please consider joining us in enjoying, protecting and conserving birdlife in Cornwall. You will receive our annual Birds In Cornwall reports, quarterly Palores Newsletter and gain access to our stunning reserves and hides.
We hope to publish a more in-depth article on the influx with further analysis as we continue to receive records of birds in the County. Meanwhile, see below for our gallery of Red Kite images received over the weekend, record shots and stunning captures both.
R Veal, D Chaney, B Bosisto