Dungeness May 1983
Today I was literally rendered speechless. You hear about people claiming to have been left speechless but they really don’t mean it, it’s just a turn of phrase. But, as I’ve already said, it has actually happened to me. What caused this? A vision of God? Someone handing me a cheque made out in my name for the sum of a million pounds? No. It was a Black Kite. Admittedly rare, but hardly an apparition to equal an American warbler or colourful Mediterranean overshoot. I’d better explain.
A certain tense build up to me seeing the bird and the fact that I am in the grip of a particularly strong bout of ‘Dungeness Fever’ led to an outpouring of relief and wonder. After all, large raptors are powerful, stunning birds at the best of times. Black Kites are never twitched, they just pick a chosen few and fly by onto selected life lists. We’d arrived at the observatory mid-morning and stared into a grey, cool sky. A Hoopoe was knocking about but little else seemed to be on offer. Not much hope for the day then…
The observatory telephone rang and some kind-hearted soul plodded off to answer it. The normal chain of events would now comprise the caller asking “What’s about” and the reply being along the lines of “Bugger all”. However, this time the person who answered the phone was not doing any talking and had affected a highly agitated state. Once he had slammed the receiver back down onto the body of the phone he bolted into the common room to announce that birders had just been watching a Black Kite in Dymchurch and that it was headed purposefully southwards – towards us! As a whole we sprinted on top of the moat and set up our telescopes to be trained along the coast northwards. Far too early for the bird to have arrived, but…Mathematicians among us plotted the expected arrival time of a large raptor based on distance, wind direction and speed of flight. Predictions varied between fifteen minutes (impossible!) to two hours (yes, if it went via Calais!!) We were all highly expectant and as each minute past more nervous. When half and hour elapsed and the bird hadn’t appeared we started to doubt that it ever would. After all, who said that it would follow the coast and not decide to veer inland. I was deflated. A Black Kite is a hard species to come by in Britain. A lot of the big twitchers still needed it. Someone suggested we go to the RSPB reserve and continue skywatching. And so we did.
In recent years a fair number of raptors had passed through the reserve air-space and totally missed the observatory altogether. We decamped to the first hide overlooking Burrowes Pit and settled down for a lengthy wait. After a while I became preoccupied by a growing group of birders standing on the ARC road looking over towards us. When I mentioned this I was told not to be so paranoid. They must be a coach outing. But everyone started to check on this gaggle of birders – and they were continually being joined by others. They must have got something. We decided to abort the Black Kite watch and see what else had presumably been found. We arrived at the gathering that now numbered thirty birders, all scopes trained onto the distant bushes flanking the Oppen Pits. It was now that we found out that our quarry had indeed arrived – the Black Kite had alighted in those same bushes (no doubt as we had driven along the shingle track onto the reserve) and all these birders had been awaiting the moment when the kite would be airborne and visible once more. My emotions soared again, as we must see it now, it had to take off at some point and it WOULD be seen!
Expectant birders shuffled about, nervously chatting, spirits high, hopefully not too presumptuous but there again…”THERE IT IS!” You couldn’t miss it. I’d seen several hundred in the south of France only weeks before and was fully familiar with the species. It tried to climb higher above the shingle but a pair of Carrion Crows kept dive-bombing it, forcing the bird low. The kite kept coming towards us with the corvids attention keeping it only feet from the ground. Christ, we’re going to get crippling views of this bird, it’s coming in a dead straight line towards us! It suddenly shook the crows off, gained height and escaped from their nagging attention. Its languid leisurely flight took it above us and slowly north-westward. We watched it disappear towards Lydd Airport. The low mutters of approval that accompanied its passage now morphed into wilder celebrations. I was looking around with a stupid grin on my face and tried to converse but couldn’t – a little squeak was all that I could utter as I suppressed what I suspect was a need to cry. I was that happy. I have never - never - been so emotionally tied up in a bird.