As I sit in our warm kitchen, the memories of numb feet and face, those physical feelings were nothing compared to the warmth in my heart on that day, the day I watched Red Kites roost  over the Mourne Mountains. Once extinct in Ireland, now 200 years later, to see them soar and revolve through their once native skies is miraculous. Their relatives are the birds collected from Wales in 2008-2010, donors for recolonisation, so that our eyes could once again see these resplendent raptors stream in and out of vision; dive in and above our imaginations.

I was tremendously excited to receive an invitation from Alan Ferguson who is the RSPB Northren Ireland Red Kite Officer to watch and hopefully count roosting Red Kites. I couldn’t sleep the night before, swirling shapes darting in and out of my dreams and visions. I prepared my expectation guage and hoped to see one even better if more, birds. It was a long journey, broken up on the way by a flying visit to my granny’s house, I was almost sick with excitement. The familiar knot tightening, the sensory feedback I so needed, was not too far off, hopefully. The day had a bitter chill in the air, clear skies and bright sunlight, the coldest kind. We met up with all the other volunteers and Alan helped us all to our roost count spots. On the 6th and 7th of January, all over Europe, many raptor workers and volunteers like me, were taking part in this important survey. Finding out where Red Kites roost give us important information about wintering bird distribution and population groupings.

All the volunteers in the cold sunshine!

It wasn’t long before I spotted the first individual bird, gliding, from the car window. I breathed out all my doubt and inhaled the joy. The feeling I get when I see birds is like sensory feedback, nothing else fills the hole. As we were setting up our scopes, mum spotted a perching Kite, still as a statue, golden in the light. Then more came in the distance, the horizon seemed to be full of kites, marauded by corvids, dancing in and out, effortlessly graceful.

Alan wanted me to have a great experience, so we moved location a few times. On the third move, we relocated to a farmyard. I am not from a farming background, I am more akin to natural smells and when the land near us is slurried, I don’t consider it a natural smell. The cows were being fed silage and it was just too much. The combination of the cold and olfactory overload was nauseously pressing upon me . I thought I was going to pass out and I very nearly did! After some deep breaths, I carried on and we returned to our original spot.

Red Kite

It was the best decision I could ever have hoped for. They wheeled and surged around us, over our heads. We gasped in enraptured delight. I reached out as if to touch the wing tips, instead I squeezed my fists so tightly, containing myself no longer, jumping up and down, for joy, for relief, for warmth maybe. About 16 individual birds passing in and out of the fading light, tungsten blue, freezing but also warm. They glided in and out of me as the wind whistled and the chill whirled.

Red Kite 2

I didn’t know where to turn my head. Alan appeared with hot chocolate as the sky was turning black. Silhouetting shapes forming into their groups, displaying it seemed, just for us. Later, Noreen (a veteran Red Kite volunteer) told me that this was very rare, unheard of almost. I glowed inside, I thought I was going to explode, like the stars appearing in the sky. What a magnificent evening, hours watching Red Kites, in generous company, in solidarity, in optimism. Over the last two days, when I close my eyes, all I can see is their generous forked tail, the shape of them, silver heads, their aerial descent to the treetops, ready for roosting. I remember my 6 year old self, listening to the RSPB talk to our class, the heart wrenching tragedies, the surging of expectancy; all the memories whirl together. A patchwork story pattern of despair, endurance and…hope.

Thanks to the RSPB’S RKites project, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, OUR Red Kites will be appreciated by local communities. People will learn that there is nothing to fear from these glorious raptors, they are scavengers which greatly help our eco system and they have a rightful place in our skies and our hearts. Thank you so much to Alan, Clare, Noreen and all the other volunteers who made mum and I so welcome. It was an experience I won’t ever forget. It also gave me a taste for fieldwork, I have the bug now and I can’t wait to do more (with better socks!!

My fundraising campaign has also passed its target, but you know, there can never be enough money to fight against raptor persecution. So, if you’d like to, you can donate here. I’ll be posting an update on my walk in the next few days.

Thank you so much for reading.

Dara