Gigrin Red Kites – Wow!

Last time I photographed red kites was at Argaty Farm in central Scotland and it was a disaster.  I don’t know why, but for some reason, even although I was using the Nikon D500 and my 300mm prime lens, a dream combination, it just didn’t work out for me and I came away with a mere handful of images.  That, however, has its advantages, especially as I returned from Gigrin in Wales with over 3000 photographs, many of which I’m pleased with – it makes the image cull much more difficult and time consuming!  It does mean however that I’ve decided to write a blog dedicated to this amazing experience.

I’ve visited the three Scottish feeding stations on a number of occasions.  The best of these by some considerable margin is Bellymack Hill Farm in Dumfries and Galloway.  There’s no hide just a balcony allowing a wider view point and there are a lot of birds.  Photographing the kites is such an exhilarating experience. They gather in the sky above and circle until the food is dispersed then all of a sudden with no obvious warning many of them plunge down to try and grab some of the morsels. The more birds there are the harder it is to photograph but I love it, it’s a period of exciting, frantic activity and really very addictive.

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Red kite photographed at Bellymack Hill Farm

When I told a friend that I was going down to Worcestershire he told me I had to go visit the Gigrin red kite feeding station.  Much as it was somewhere I’d always been very keen to go to it hadn’t occurred to me that it would be logistically possible on this trip, but after consulting google maps I realised if I planned things correctly I could go there as I slowly meandered back to Glasgow.   I did a spot of research and booked myself into one of their specialist photography hides (the Tower hide which is the medium height hide and costs £20 as opposed to the £7 for general entry).

Feeding was at 3pm but I arrived at 1pm and after a spot of lunch went for a wander up the tree-covered hill behind the hides to see what I could spot.  At this point, although I’d been told by the lady in the coffee shop that 600(!) kites were coming for the feeding, there wasn’t a kite to be seen, but there were a number of buzzards circling and calling out above the woods.  I also spotted a tree creeper, nuthatch with an acorn, great spotted woodpecker and of course a number of blue and great tits.

I went into the hide at approx 2.30. By this time the kites were beginning to gather a short distance away.

The hide was about 3 meters off the ground and the front half was open.  Even better I had it to myself.  I was using my Nikon D500, which as I’ve mentioned many times before is excellent for flying birds (except that one time at Argaty!), with the Tamron 150-600mm.  Initially I had thought to use the Nikkor 300mm lens, but decided that the telephoto would give me better reach and more flexibility when it came to shot choices.  I had planned to use my tripod, but quickly ditched that and went hand-held instead. As for settings, I was on manual, with auto ISO up to 2000 (in retrospect I might have set that a tad lower), so that the camera could deal with the different light settings depending on the background (sky, trees, grass).  In order to brighten the birds I dialled in a little positive exposure compensation and set the shutter speed to 1/1250 and aperture the largest possible (which is between 5.6 and 6.3 on the Tamron). I also used group focus mode for the majority of the session.  This all seemed to work pretty well on the whole and it was only the whiter birds that suffered from any over-exposure.

The food was put out at 3pm and before the farmer had finished the birds were swooping down.

Wow! Hard to put into words really.  Impossible at this time to try and track any bird, so it was really a case of point and shoot and see what I had captured afterwards!

Of course, with so many birds coming down it was often tricky to get a clean shot.

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It was of course a challenge at times to get the whole bird in the frame!

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The position of the hide was great when a bird having swooped down to grab some food then flew directly towards me.

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The kites scoop up the food with their talons

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but often seem to transfer to their beak to transport.

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The majority of the kites feed on the wing, clutching the food in their talons and curling their bodies round to eat whilst still flying.

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Eventually I managed a few diving images

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There were a few (or maybe just one, hard to tell) birds that were considerably lighter than the majority

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A few, especially towards the end, chose to land on the ground and snack on the meat.

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Meanwhile some sat in the trees and watched the goings on

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and a few final images…

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A great, exciting experience, the 90 minutes or so of activity went by so fast, but by 4.30 the drizzle had become torrential rain and I dashed back to the car and headed up towards Chester.  I’d highly recommend visiting if you’re in the area, but if you don’t want to pay for one of the specialist hides then get there early as the general ones fill up quite quickly.