I HAD a close encounter with a kite on Christmas Day. I was wandering through the woods while my wife was slaving over a hot turkey. I was enjoying the peace and calm with no chainsaws, tractors, shotguns. Just a lovely silence save for the peep of a blue tit.
Suddenly I knew I was being watched. Not by a gamekeeper or a deer, not by a fox or a stoat as all so often happens. It was just that the dead oak tree to the left, which I pass every day, was different.
You know how the mind automatically notices something out of place. The split second we had eye contact it took off. But unlike the deer or the fox, it did not disappear.
The red kite took one look at my eye and wanted to see more. This in itself was startling. It just flew straight towards me. What the devil is going on, thought I. I am not a Welsh feeding post or an RSPB warden.
Furthermore I was carrying over my shoulder a slender branch of old chestnut for the fire. That in itself must have looked like a shotgun. Why was the bird not frightened?
On it came until it was ten yards above my head and then it circled. Round and round and round it went, for three minutes.
I could see every detail of the plumage. Especially the pale brown eye and even the black pupil. What a sight. Where was the camera, the little digital that makes you so snap happy? Lying in a drawer at home.
The long wings, curved with their black primary feathers like fingers, the grey-white secondary feathers making such a bright patch against the clouds, the regal head and beak and the chestnut back, giving the bird the name of red; all vivdly showing for minute by minute.
Perhaps the most compelling object was the tail. This vast wedge, as big as an old Elwell axe blade was working overtime. It twisted through full range of tilt and lift, to the left, to right, down, up, and almost vertical That bird was so slow, it was on the point of stalling.
But why was it so tame? Perhaps it thought I was about to drop and would make an easy meal. Well, I’ve got news for you...
Today I learned the answer. A reader at West Dean two miles away feeds the birds around his garden. Some wait in the trees.
At Charlton Forest nearby he had twelve red kites circling him last week. Word had presumably got around. I suppose he had gone away for Christmas and the raptors were hungry,
I told him about Shakespeare’s warning: ‘When the kite flies, look to lesser linen’, the washing on the line. They will take it for nesting material.
Indeed, my father wrote a short story in the 1920’s: ‘The Flight of the Pale Pink pyjamas’ after hearing what had happened to a local washer-woman who ‘did’ for the local squire. Never a dull moment when the kite flies it seems.