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High as a Kite

Posted by Rob Fray on Friday 30th April 2010 | Birding in Shetland

My ‘day job’ is as RSPB Assistant Warden in South Mainland Shetland, with responsibility for the RSPB reserves at Sumburgh Head, Loch of Spiggie and Mousa. Working with and helping to conserve birds and other wildlife is a very rewarding way to earn a living, and occasionally there are other little bonuses thrown in for good measure. One such bonus occurred during the afternoon of Monday 26th April, a rather grotty day of low cloud and mist that had confined me to office duties. I took a phone call from a resident of Levenwick, a small village about five miles north of Sumburgh; he described a big raptor that was currently sitting in a field viewable from his living room window. The majority of Shetlanders know a thing or two about birds as they live and work alongside them, so reports such as these are always worth following up. As a White-tailed Eagle had been seen the previous day at nearby Sandwick by fellow Shetland Nature guide Roger Riddington, I thought there was a good chance the “big raptor” at Levenwick was going to be this bird. The best way to find out was to go and have a look for myself.

I summoned my RSPB colleague Pete Ellis from his office, who needed little persuasion to come with me as at the time he was having a major disagreement with the photocopier, printer and just about everything else involving technology. On arrival at Levenwick the bird was still sitting around in fields on the edge of the village. It was certainly a big raptor, but it wasn’t the expected White-tailed Eagle: it was a Red Kite. In most places in Britain this would have been something of a disappointment, but here in Shetland Red Kites are a major rarity. This was only the 15th Shetland record, and the first since 1999. The bird was untagged, and given the weather over the previous couple of days (sunny with light south-easterly winds) it seems likely to have been a continental bird heading for Scandinavia rather than a wanderer from the reintroduced populations in mainland Scotland.

The bird stayed around for much of the afternoon before disappearing into the low cloud and hill fog. The next day it was at Cunningsburgh (about ten miles to the north), but returned to Levenwick on the morning of the 28th. It then went on a big wander around south mainland that afternoon, and rather gloriously appeared just north of my house at Virkie, where I watched it from my garden!

It wouldn’t be right not to give thanks to the people of Levenwick, who not only alerted us to the presence of this splendid bird but also put up with some rather haphazard parking when Pete and me first saw the bird!

Rob Fray