Raptors and me.
When I was a kid I used to spend my time walking the hills with the dogs. I would walk for miles along the beaches in Winter-time when no one was about, or to distant fields or any piece of waste ground in the chance of spooking up a rabbit for the dogs to chase.
I would try naming the trees to myself and if I came across something unusual that I didn’t know the name of, I would take a few leaves home and look it up in one of my books so I would know it next time. The wild flowers were not as easy to learn, but the different weeds like groundsel and chickweed I knew well because I collected pockets full to feed the tortoises and finches we kept as pets.
As most of my family were interested in animals or birds of one kind or another, on arrival home it was the norm to be asked; “Did ya see anything on your travels?” And this is where I emptied out my pockets to show an egg-shell that needed identifying or relate how I had seen a badger or stoat or other rarity.
But the highlight for me in any walk or cycle out into the countryside was to see a bird of prey. Even to see a kestrel hovering in those days would stop me in my tracks. If I said I saw a merlin or hen-harrier, eyebrows would drop suspiciously and questions would be asked to see if I was exaggerating.
Cycling for hours and stashing our bikes in woodland, then walking on to high wild places in the hopes of seeing a wild peregrine or merlin might seem strange to many folk but to me it was just what we done. We had a laugh along the way and now as I think back on those days for some reason the sun was usually shining. Strangely enough my best ever
sighting of a bird of prey was one time when I was not even out. I was standing in my garden in south county Dublin looking up at the sky. The truth is I spent a lot of my time looking up as I kept tumbling and high-flying pigeons as pets. I would spend hours training these birds to fly, picking out the best so I would know which would make the best pairs for future breeding.
One day as I stood watching my pigeons do their stuff a red kite appeared. My jaw dropped as every bird in the vicinity either scattered or mobbed him. Alarm calls and mayhem filled the air as this gentle bird innocently floated through my flock of tumblers sending them racing for shelter. He was only about forty feet in the air and in less than a minute he was out of sight. I ran for my bike to follow him and raced around the local
streets to try and get another view, but to no avail, he was gone.
My family were all out at the time so no one even believed me; everyone knows that you don’t see red kites in Ireland! I could have said I had spotted a flying griffon and gotten the same response, but in my mind I knew I could not mistake that long forked tail and slender wing shape for anything else and even at the age of twelve or thirteen I knew I had seen something quite special. It was about three weeks later when a
red kite sighting showed up as a little item on the national news that my sanity was validated. The year was about 1978 and I have seen red kites on a couple of occasions since while hawking in Wales, but every time I see one that first encounter springs to mind in infinite detail. I don’t exactly know why raptors of all kinds interest me so much, from those early glimpses of birds of prey in wild places to keeping, flying and breeding them
today. I can only say I am glad they do.
As far as the red kite in concerned, this year, with the oldest of the re-introduced kites in county Wicklow reaching two years old and trying to nest is a fantastic sign as most raptors only reach sexual maturity at three. So thanks to some forward thinking humans, all looks good for them finding their place here again. Another prodigal bird returns.