Photographing red kites in Wales

two-red-kitesIf you’re off to Wales you can’t pass Rhayadar without making a visit to Gigrin Farm. Along with its wonderful views of the Wye and Elan valleys, you can see hundreds of Red Kites. Gigrin is one of our conservation success stories and the reason we now enjoy sights of these magnificent birds gliding overhead in The Chilterns or as we travel down the M40.

Red Kites disappeared completely from most of the UK through persecution, becoming extinct in England in the late 19th Century. It’s hard to believe that we were so close to losing such a large bird of prey. Luckily a few landowners in Wales had the foresight to feed and protect the few remaining birds, including the late Mr Powell at Gigrin Farm. Even so in the 1920’s we were down to just 20 pairs.

Fresh blood was brought in with birds from Spain and slowly the population increased. Now they’re being reintroduced to various locations across both England and Scotland. So although there seem lots of birds at Gigrin their numbers are vital and most birds don’t come everyday but use the station as a top up or snack.

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If the weather is bad you can see up to 600 birds of the 700 pairs who dip in and out in a rolling cycle to the feeding station. They naturally hunt small birds, amphibians and worms but are also carrion feeders. They aren’t strong enough to kill large prey or open it up, so they wait for foxes or other birds of prey to go first in the wild.

Red Kites are easy to tell apart from buzzards as they’re a rich chestnut brown with striking white patches under their wings and they have a distinctive forked tail which is unlike other birds of prey (younger birds tails aren’t as forked). If you’re lucky enough to get close to one you’ll see their bright yellow legs.

Tips for photographing Red Kites

1. Get as high as possible
There are several hides at Gigrin and I pre-booked a space in the ‘Big Tower Hide’, it gives you great views and has a large front opening, you can see them but they can see you too, so wear muted colours. It’s a great moment when wildlife seams to take as much interest in you as you do in it.

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2. Time your visit
Gigrin is open all year, with feeding time fixed at 3pm in Summer (2pm Winter months). The lower sun in spring and autumn will give better light and fewer silhouettes against the sky. Clouds are a good thing compared to very flat skies. Check the wind direction, Kites fly into the wind, so it helps if it’s coming from behind you.

3. Track a single bird
The first 15 minutes of feeding is chaos and it’s hard to get a clear shot (too many birds and lots of tail pictures). The larger, older birds come in first (they’re the most impressive in size and colour with stunning rich dark chestnut wings). As feeding slows up the younger birds take their turn, I found it best to pick one bird and follow it, that way you start to recognise a pattern as it circles and dives for food. When choosing a bird to follow avoid birds with wing tags if you want the picture to look natural.

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4. Capture behaviour
Kites have impressive wingspans of up to five and a half feet, while their bodies are light at only 2-3 pounds. This means they can glide for a couple of hours hardly beating their wings.  Their distinctive finger-like prime feathers are used to brake their speed and their tails act like a rudder, both make a shot more interesting.

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They love an ambush and have no qualms in helping themselves to somebody else’s lunch which makes for some interesting fights for air space.

When the birds dive for food they tuck their wings in and literally hurtle straight down. This happens really fast so shooting in continuous shutter mode gives multiple shots and a better chance of catching the action.

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5. What to take
A telephoto lens helps you focus on individual birds. I hired a Canon 100-400 lens (mark 1). Switch image stabilisation to pan mode for better tracking. A tripod will help if it has a gimbal head to give the full movement needed. A fast shutter speed, f4.5 aperature or less will ramp up the speed, you may need a higher ISO (I didn’t quite get my settings right but it makes a big difference if you do). Set continual autofocus, spot metering and multiple shot mode. Finally take a sandwich, you may be a while and make sure you have  large memory cards and spare batteries.

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6. Enjoy the spectacle
It’s all too easy to get tense and hung-up on the details, chasing birds with your lens. But taking a step back every now and then gives you the bigger picture and you get chance to just enjoy the spectacle, watching these amazing birds in numbers that you won’t see anywhere else.

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