The angler, the vole, the kite and the heron

Outdoor Living

RED ON GREY Robin Ashfield’s picture of a grey heron and red kite warring over breakfast.

Country Sights and Sounds
Michael Kingdon

It was ten years ago, maybe even more. I had looked from the kitchen window to see a red-brown bird of prey with white patches on the underwing and a distinctively forked tail. I knew what it was immediately, for no other bird looks remotely like a red kite.
I had never seen one before (nor seen one since, I should add!). I recall giving a shout, ‘That’s a kite, a red kite!’ and rushing outside for a better look. The view was rewarding, but not outstandingly so. Still, those long-fingered, elegant wings, the swift, soaring glide and the twist of a rudder-like tail were impressed on my mind, and I was left with an enduring question: What was that bird doing in this corner of the world?
It was only in 2011 that the red kite was successfully reintroduced to Ireland by the National Parks and Wildlife Service, working along with the Golden Eagle Trust, so the bird I saw was probably one of the few released at that time. Since then a small breeding population has been established on the east coast, with the greatest concentration of birds being found around Avoca in County Wicklow.
Two hundred years ago gamekeepers were doing their utmost to exterminate the red kite from their territories, wrongly suspecting these smart raptors of making inroads into their stock of treasured game birds. Now we know better.
Red kites in the east of Ireland and further afield in the traditional stronghold of the Welsh valleys, as well as in a few locations across the south of England, have become a big tourist draw. Although they are true hunters and supremely agile in the air, they are not among the strongest birds of prey. Like the rest of us they like to achieve optimum return for the effort they make, and in their case this means readily turning to carrion if doing so brings a free feed.
Some in the tourism industry have cashed in on this by feeding local kites on a regular basis and charging folks to watch them swoop and dive at dinner. Within another decade or so the same will be happening in Mayo. We hope so, anyway.
I was gathering bait for a fishing expedition and happened to bump into a gentleman angler on holiday from England, whose efforts to catch an Irish salmon had been thwarted by the lack of rain. He and his friends had given up on their shrunken river with its skeletal flow and had turned to the ocean in the hope of finding fish there.
Robin told me the tale behind the attached picture, the use of which was exchanged for a double handful of sandeels. While sitting at breakfast he had spied a grey heron stalking its own meal in a field overlooked by his kitchen window. Intrigued by the behaviour of the bird and hoping for a photograph, he had his camera ready at hand.
The heron caught a vole. We imagine these long-legged fisher-birds eat only fish and frogs, but the truth is they will swallow any living thing small enough to fit through that elastic neck of theirs.
So it had a vole, which was proving very non-compliant. You might have seen a heron softening up its prey with that heavy bill, nibbling with those powerful mandibles until whatever has been caught just can’t take it anymore and gives up the fight. Well the vole was pretty feisty and was having none of it, but wriggled and struggled for its very life.
Another bird, one of the few red kites resident in that corner of the British countryside, must have been watching from afar. In it swept on those broad wings, interrupting the heron. The vole was dropped – we can only imagine that it fled to safety. The kite came suddenly face to face with its adversary; the heron ducked and dodged, the kite made an unsuccessful dart for the escaped rodent and all three ended up going their separate ways, the birds both hungry and the vole no doubt a little sore, but with an incredible tale of a miraculous escape from the jaws of death.
I know all this happened a couple of hundred miles away, even in another country. But this splendid photograph is simply too good to waste, and for another thing, it isn’t inconceivable that similar experiences could be shared here in the not too distant future, if only we keep ourselves in check and refrain from polluting, spraying and poisoning everything else to oblivion.
Can you feel the excitement?

Michael Kingdon formerly wrote these columns under the pseudonym John Shelley. A naturalist and keen fisherman, he lives close to the shores of Lough Carra.