Tuesday 23 October 2018

Gigrin Farm And A Viral Tweet

Don't faint, but here's a post about something other than Mull!

Early in October the weather forecasters were saying how warm it would get, and that Wednesday would be the best day for bright weather. In a last minute decision, on the morning, I decided to book one of the photography hides at Gigrin Farm in Rhayader, Powys, in mid-Wales. I have visited the site several times before, and love the sight of all the kites coming in to feed.

I arrived in the area at about midday, and drove on to the Elan Valley first, found a spot high on the hills, and parked up to enjoy my lunch. Plenty of raptors around, with some red kites and buzzards drifting back and forth near the hilltops, and a kestrel, expertly hovering, hoping to drop down on prey moving below.

By 2pm I was parked at Gigrin Farm, and enjoyed a chat with one of their friendly staff, who had guided me into a parking spot. He was saying that they were seeing up to 500 kites visiting the site at times, and that thanks to the great weather this summer, they had experienced higher numbers of (human) visitors than usual.

As well as catering for the kites, the farm has a small area set aside for donkeys, and several small bird feeding stations, attracting typical garden birds, and a few less common ones, that can be found in the area, finches mainly.

On previous visits to the site during spring and early summer, I have explored the site more, and have watched spotted flycatchers, redstarts and treecreepers, all nesting only a short way from the hides. But this was early autumn, so I wandered straight over to the Tower Hide, and set up my tripod. Already there were dozens of red kites circling over the hills nearby, as well as buzzards and plenty of corvids.

I was joined in the hide by three other photographers, of varying experience, but all willing to engage in conversation, and made the wait for the show more entertaining. Then, just before 3pm (this changes to 2pm when British Summer Time ends) we heard the tractor approaching, and out into the arena in front of us, went the farmer. As usual, he parked up on each side of the meadow, and shovelled out large amounts of raw beef (fit for human consumption, according to the leaflet handed out on entry), and then slowly at first, the kites started to drop down from the sky above.

I've seen this spectacle before, but made the snap decision, mainly because of how lovely the weather was, to grab a short video clip on my phone. Just a 15 second clip, using the slow-motion setting would equate to something like 45 seconds of footage.

Then it was back to the camera, and trying to capture images of the kites as they dived for the food.

This isn't as simple as it might appear, as the kites are devlishly quick, and with there being so many present, other birds quite often get in the way of the one you're attempting to track. But there are techniques to employ, and with a fast shutter speed, the camera on its quickest frame rate, I started to get some results.

The kites certainly pull some fancy moves in mid-air before diving.

Capturing them against the sky is considerably easier than against the hillside or trees, but this is what I wanted, as the foliage was starting to show signs of autumn, and was lit up well in the afternoon sunshine.

Often, you have to pre-empt when the kites are going to dive, so you burst off some shots, and only later can you check if you captured the action. Sometimes I did, and others I'd just have a tail showing in the bottom of the frame!

The first frenzy of feeding generally comprises of the mature kites, and dominant individuals. There are also buzzards and corvids, these preferring to feed from the ground. I saw carrion crows, rooks and ravens, the latter frequently cronking as they approached, a call that resonated amongst the high-pitched whistling calls from the kites all around.

And to add something else to the mix, there was a pale, leucistic red kite circling for food, and it certainly stood out from the rest.

Then there is a lull, and it appears the kites have hoovered up all the food, and left. A lot of visitors choose to leave now, but they miss out on several encores from the kites, when the younger or less dominant birds arrive, and pick up smaller bits of meat that have been missed.

This is, I believe the best time for photography, as without the huge numbers of birds in the air, it is easier to isolate individuals, and track them as they fly around.

Those of us who had waited were also treated to much warmer light for this session.

Eventually I had to leave, and dragged myself away, despite there still being kites coming in for food. I left with hundreds of images to sort through, and hoped to have a few decent to air...

But funnily enough, the images had to play second fiddle to the iPhone clip I had recorded, and after airing it on Twitter the morning after, it went viral. Helped by BBC Earth reposting the clip, it went on to appear in the Moments section of Twitter, and people mentioned that they'd seen that #redkites was trending! What it also raised were many questions about the numbers of kites in the clip, why there were so many, and what effect they might be having on the ecosystem of that area of Wales.

After trying to answer the many, oft repeated questions on Twitter, I chose to create a post on my webpage to handle them all, and it can be seen here: Click Here.

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