It is a moment of instant recognition as I spot the shape of a Red Kite circling steadily above the steeply sloping field. A nearby Buzzard, also circling over the field, provides the contrast as I take in the shape of the wings and the fork of the tail. This is my first ‘Sussex’ kite and I am delighted to see it drifting over this landscape of small woodlots, tiny fields and plentiful hedgerows. It is the landscape of my youth and I think that the kites will do well here.
The Buzzard is also a recent addition to my ‘Sussex’ list, the species only returning in numbers within the last decade as part of a wider re-colonisation of former haunts. That both birds should be established here underlines a shifting change in attitudes. This has seen the levels of persecution fall away, allowing (in the case of the Red Kite) reintroduction into former haunts and (in both species) favourable increases in breeding numbers.
Red Kites are scavengers as well as predators, taking a wide range of food. Small birds and mammals dominate the diet in most areas but insects, fish and reptiles may also be taken. Despite its size, the Red Kite is not noted for its strength and anything larger than a half-grown Rabbit is unlikely to be tackled when alive. This makes carrion particularly important and it is not just larger carcasses that attract these birds. Many smaller corpses are also taken, the bird spotting these when gliding low over a piece of suitable habitat. It has been noted, for example, that a Red Kite may drop onto an earthworm from a height of ten or more metres, underlining the kite’s excellent eyesight.
Kites are also known for their habit of robbing other birds, using their agility to overtake smaller species, particularly Crows and Magpies, and to rob them of a morsel or two. This behaviour is known as kleptoparasitism and is seen in certain other species of birds (most notably skuas). It is amazing to watch a kite launch itself at a passing Crow and harass it into dropping the food it was carrying. This behaviour can be seen at its best where many kites gather together to feed.
Of course, West Sussex is not the only county to which these elegant birds have returned and I am well-used to seeing them around the Brecks these days, suggesting that they will soon be breeding here, if they have not already done so. While you are probably becoming increasingly familiar with seeing Buzzards over Norfolk, do make sure that you give each one a thorough once over, just to make sure it is not a passing kite.