Birding in Wharfedale – Red Kites

Red Kite

Red Kite

I thought it might be of interest to produce an occasional short note on local topics of birding interest – and what better way to start than with red kites after our very successful evening visit to Harewood during the summer? There are two other reasons for starting with this topic – the introduction programme at Harewood has come to an end this summer, whilst in Wharfedale, we’ve had one of our best years for visits by this lovely bird.

The Red Kite
There are 20,000 breeding pairs world-wide, with the main populations in Germany, France and Spain: there are 300 pairs in the UK. The female is slightly larger than the male but it is difficult to sex birds in the field.

The Harewood release
The Yorkshire experiment got off to a rather shaky start in the Autumn of 1998 when the original planned release site near Pateley Bridge ran into opposition from the local shooting community. Harewood came to the rescue by offering an alternative release point and since then the estate staff have worked with the sponsors – RSPB, Yorkshire Water and English Nature. The choice of Harewood has proved a lucky one since the estate has proved a particularly suitable area for breeding red kite. The first 23 birds were released in July 1999, followed by 19 in 2000, none in 2001 because of Foot and Mouth, 18 in 2002 and a final batch of 12 this summer (a total of 72): virtually all birds originating from the Chilterns. The red kite programme is planned to establish a chain of colonies throughout England and Scotland and now moves onto the next release point in the Derwent Valley near Gateshead.

Kites nest in tree forks or the old nests of other birds – or may re-use their own nest for several years. They typically lay between 1 and 4 eggs, with the female doing most of the incubation and the male providing food, based primarily on small carrion (often stolen from other birds, and frequently crows). The longish incubation and fledging period of 13 weeks means that only one brood a year is raised. Breeding at Harewood has been a remarkable success. Much to everyone’s surprise 3 pairs attempted to breed in 2000 with 1 pair producing 2 young, the first bred in Yorkshire for 100 years. In 2001, 8 pairs raised at least 15 young, 20 in 2002 and more than 30 this year. Unfortunately, there have been some setbacks; 10 birds have died from non-natural causes, with 6 succumbing to illegal poisoning.

Red Kite habits
The Harewood estate, with grassland and scattered woodland, is ideal for them in many ways, and food is plentiful. Unlike many birds of prey, red kites are very gregarious and large numbers may gather at pre-roost sites (over 200 can now be seen together in the Chilterns). Many birds have chosen to remain around the estate with several nesting in fairly close proximity: 5 pairs bred around the estate in 2001 and breeding pairs have since increased. There has been some migration of birds. 3 of the early-released birds returned to the Chilterns but 2 of these were quick to realise the attractions of the North and returned to Harewood. There has been some Yorkshire breeding outside Harewood but, unfortunately for us, the birds have tended to go east to other estates, one as far as 45 miles away.

Red Kites in the WNS area

  • 1968 Seen in Dob Park on March 23rd – it remained until the 27th and was seen by large numbers of people
  • 1991 Probably first recorded sighting – of young bird, part of earlier RSPB release, which spent much of year at Simons Seat: frequent sightings in spring and autumn
  • 1992 1 single sighting (Barden Fell: Feb)
  • 1993 – 5 None recorded
  • 1996 1 single sighting (Barden: Mar)
  • 1997 Tagged bird frequenting Nidderdale seen 3 times in east in Feb, May and Sept; 2 other sightings of untagged birds Dob Park (Mar) and Thrusscross (July)
  • 1998 1 single sighting (Washburn: April)
  • 1999 3 single sightings (Barden: April, August x 2) + 1 other possible (Ilkley: Mar)
  • 2000 4 single sightings (Barden: Feb to June); 2 seen (Weeton: Dec)
  • 2001 10 single sightings (Washburn x 5, Barden x 4, Kettlewell: all April to Dec); 1 of sightings recorded as being of a tagged bird
  • 2002 1 to 4 birds present mid to late Aug over Denton; 10 single sightings (Washburn x 3; Barden x 7: all Feb to June)

We were already expressing surprise in 1999 that there had been so few sightings of Harewood birds, as they were showing a preference for going east. Since then there has been a slow but steady increase, and we do now at last appear to be seeing a significant trend upwards – as can be seen from the annotated map for the first 6 months of 2003. The highlight so far was from just outside our area when 8 birds were seen in May over Bingley Moor.


Red kite spotting in our area is still something of a matter of luck. If you want to have a reasonable chance of seeing kites try walking from the side entrance of Harewood (at GR 325432) on a nice summer’s evening. Alternatively you can go to the red kite watch point at Eccup Reservoir (GR 307419) late in the afternoon on a winter’s day, although that does involve quite a long walk: the nearest access point is probably from near Rookery Farm (GR 289423). If you see a kite don’t forget to look out for the wing tags. Harewood birds have an orange tag on their left wing and a tag on the right whose colour depends on the year of release (black for 1999, pink for 2000, blue for 2001, white for 2002 and red for this year) ……and if you see one in our area don’t forget to let me know!

John Flood