‘It’s a bit like an ear-piercing for a human,” says Marc Ruddock, as he deftly clips a bright blue identification tag through the forewing of a remarkably docile red kite chick.
We are on a farm near Avoca, in Co Wicklow, where the reintroduction of this magically graceful and very handsome bird of prey began, six years ago. This has been a remarkably successful project. So much so, the red kite has displaced Ballykissangel as the brand of choice for advertising by local B&Bs. But it will be some time before we can be confident the kite has been definitively restored to Irish skies, after its apparent extermination as a "pest" hundreds of years ago.
In Wicklow, at least 81 native-born chicks have now fledged since 2010, from an initial population of 120 young birds introduced over several years from Wales. A further 40 have been released more recently in north Dublin.
But casualties of the use of illegal poisons, and from secondary poisoning of kite prey, still shadow the reintroduction, though a lot of progress has been made through public-education campaigns.
Returning to the birds in hand, as it were, I can’t help but wonder whether the kite chicks would agree with Ruddock’s ear-piercing analogy. Humans, after all, do choose to undergo such operations; these youngsters have been unceremoniously, if carefully, lifted from their nest, high up in a Scots Pine, and brought down to earth in a rucksack.
Indeed, you might well think this tagging operation could be a serious, even dangerous, disruption to their development. However, Ruddock, who manages the kite reintroduction project for the Golden Eagle Trust, in partnership with the National Parks and Wildlife Service and the Welsh Kite Trust, is confident the risks are minimal. He says the benefits, in terms of providing accurate data to guide conservation strategy, are substantial.
“Tagging also allows public engagement,” he adds, “for people to identify individual kites and report them, and we can then provide a full life history.”
This year, with its demented weather patterns, has been particularly tough for the Wicklow kite population. Persistent rainstorms and sudden cold snaps have resulted in six pairs, previously known to have bred regularly, producing no chicks.
“Overall, though, we have had a relatively good year,” says Ruddock, “with 29 young counted, so far, in Wicklow, against 23 last year.”
We had started off the day’s tagging process by checking for chicks from ground level. The resident adult birds on this farm have built quite a conspicuous nest, made more obvious still by the trailing hanks of sheep’s wool with which they have decorated it.
The pair had been brought to Ireland from Wales in 2007 and 2008 respectively, and have raised two chicks in this nest each year since 2010. But Ruddock had observed they started a new nest nearby this year, and assumed they were moving house. This a common habit among kites, perhaps because a home littered with traces of carrion becomes unhealthy with time.
However, a quick scan of the old nest with binoculars reveals a glimpse of an open beak, then of a head. As we get closer, it’s possible to make out a kind of fringe of glowing russet feathers above the nest itself, where one of the chicks is crouching.
The next step is for Mark Lewis, a tree surgeon, to get up to the nest. Easier said than done: this Scots Pine is, characteristically, bare of branches most of the way up to its crown. Happily, however, there is a magnificent beech right beside it, and its broad boughs offer lots of fairly easy steps upward.
Fairly easy, that is, if you have Lewis’s level of expertise and head for heights.
Using ropes, but also moving among the branches with extraordinary dexterity, he is rapidly out of sight in the leafy canopy. Within minutes, he is casting a rope across to the pine branches beside the nest.
He calls down to tell us the nest decorations now include a Barbie doll, gloves and a sanitary towel. Then, to my surprise, he drops his baseball cap deftly over the head of one of the chicks.
This is a handy little trick: the darkness calms its agitation immediately. Lewis pops them both into the rucksack and lowers it down.
At 25 days old, the chicks are close enough to the size of a small barnyard fowl. Despite formidable beaks and intimidating talons, they offer no resistance. Released, they flop limply to the ground and don’t stir. Playing possum is their best strategy, it seems.
Ruddock neatly stretches a thin flap of skin in each forewing, and makes sure the tags are properly positioned to match the aerofoil structure that will give the birds their gift of exceptionally agile flight, allowing for growth. As he promised, they show no sign of pain when their skin is pierced.
Then the chicks are measured and, finally, weighed in a hessian shopping bag.
Return to the nest
The newly christened "Blue-yellow 51" and "Blue-yellow 52" are now ready for return to the nest. The blue tag on the left wing indicates they are Irish-bred birds, the yellow tag on the right wing that they were born in 2013. The numbers tell us they are the 51st and 52nd kite to be tagged in 2013.
All the time, overhead, the adult birds have been making occasional passes, calling and calling. Their anxiety seems to reflect that increasingly common paradox of contemporary conservation: again and again, we have to use “unnatural” means in order to assist in the recovery of natural landscapes, and their creatures.
If you see a red kite and can make out the tag colours and markings, please report your sighting to email@example.com.
Paddy Woodworth's book on ecological restoration projects worldwide, Our Once and Future Planet: Restoring the World in the Climate Change Century, will be published by the University of Chicago Press in October