As I work, I like to listen to the birds singing. Listening to the songs of birds can give you an idea of what’s going on nearby without having to look – I call it ‘looking with my ears’. The song might change from tuneful territorial singing to an alarm call, which may mean that a cat has come into the garden or that a blundering human has disturbed a bird. Bird songs are hard to describe, but most people would recognise the shrieking rattle of a blackbird that has been inadvertently startled.
To start with, I was listening to the usual high-pitched "tsee-tsee-tsu-hu-hu-hu-hu" (listen to it here) of two bluetits (Cyanistes caeruleus) who were busily searching up and down the branches of the Magnolia tree for small insects. This song changed abruptly to what is described as a ‘churring’ sound, which is their alarm call. The other birds heard it – the blackbird rattled loudly and flew at ground level to the tangled safety of a large Cotoneaster, while the pair of robins, who had been watching us work, suddenly started a loud ticking sound and quickly made for shelter.
A quick look round revealed no cats, no one had come in through the door in the garden wall and there were no sudden loud noises. In fact, the air was still and quiet. What had disturbed them? Looking up, I saw what it was – a magnificent red kite (Milvus milvus) was gliding overhead, possibly looking for carrion or an unobservant small bird to make a meal of. This is a first, I’ve never seen a red kite over this town before and I stopped to admire its graceful flight until it disappeared out of view over the neighbouring rooftops. What a treat that was. The other birds gradually calmed down and went back to their usual behaviour, singing and foraging, but it was interesting to see and hear them warn one another of danger. They will do this when cats are about as well.
Red kites were brought back from the very brink of extinction with a breeding programme starting in the late 1980s. Now they are slowly spreading across Britain, their numbers gradually increasing. According to the RSPB, ‘Central Wales, central England - especially the Chilterns, central Scotland - at Argaty, and along the Galloway Kite Trail are the best areas to find them’.
So, when you’re in your garden and the birds suddenly chatter with alarm, look up, there may be a red kite flying over. With a distinctly forked tail and a wing span of 145-165 cm (57-65"), they are hard to miss and a pleasure to behold.