The red kite feeding station at Gigrin, mid-Wales, is somewhere I have wanted to visit for a while. Not only does it give you amazing opportunities to see large numbers of red kites in one place, but obviously gives a photographer wonderful opportunities to photograph these amazing birds at relatively close quarters. For my birthday I was treated to a ‘surprise’ day out…. I did not realise where we were actually going until we turned into Gigrin and I saw the signs! The weather had been pretty awful leading up to Friday; high winds and heavy rain had brought flooding and considerable damage to many parts of the country, but amazingly, Friday’s forecast was surprisingly good…. the winds had dropped and the cloud had cleared even giving blue skies and sunshine!
We arrived about midday, but the kites were not fed until 2pm, so it gave us the chance to have a look around and find out more about the site. There were already a number of kites and buzzards soaring high above the hillside. Having only really watched red kites from the car on the M40, it was great to see them soaring over the Welsh hillsides.
“The Gigrin is a family run upland sheep farm of approximately 200 acres, owned and farmed by Chris Powell, and Mrs Lena Powell. Gigrin became the Official Red Kite Feeding Station in the winter 1992/93 following a request from the RSPB who had witnessed the late Mr Powell feeding the kites as and when food (rabbit) was available. The RSPB had noted this spectacle and came to the farm with a proposal – that we should open to the public as the red kite feeding station as it would have an impact on the young kites that were being lost over the winter and would also draw people away from nesting sites where losses occurred due to the disturbance. This was a major step into the unknown for what was a very successful livestock farm but Mr Powell had the foresight to take on the challenge and the farm is now far better known for the red kites than anything else.”
Meat is put out in a designated area once a day…. and it attracts up to 500 red kites, as well as buzzards and a large number of corvids! I saw crows, jackdaws, rook and the stunning raven when I was there.
There are a number of hides available, some specifically set up for photographers, which you can pay extra to enter. I was in the Gateway hide, a central hide, at ground level, with one, large window opening. There are some new, raised hides for photographers with large lenses and tripods. In peak season, these can all be packed…. but we had the Gateway hide to ourselves!
I have not done very much flight photography and tracking birds in flight takes a lot of practice! I used my Canon 7D with the Canon 100-400mm lens. I did take my beanbag and monopod, but I found the only way I could track them was just to hand-hold the lens …. this can result in aching arms and shoulders, even though the lens is not incredibly heavy! The next decision is what settings to put the camera on….. easy if the birds were in one place, but as you follow them, they go from white sky, to blue sky, to trees, to ground and it is virtually impossible! (well I thought so!!) The best thing to shoot on is ‘manual’, but I am not skilled enough in that area … yet! I need some more help and tuition to feel confident shooting in manual, so I did most of mine in AV, trying to ensure that I kept the shutter speed up, but did not under expose the bird when in the sky. I have made mistakes, but photography is all about learning and this was a great chance to experiment and practise as the birds are around for a good 2 hours, so you can try lots of things.
The light was quite soft and golden, which was lovely, as the kites turned and this light bathed their bodies, making them positively glow! The downside of that is that you also got heavy shadows where the light did not reach. The hardest part was just deciding which bird to photograph When presented with a sky full of whirling and wheeling kites, it is almost impossible! I had been advised to just watch the spectacle at the beginning and then photograph when the initial frenzy had died down and that was excellent advice! I practised tracking birds before the feeding tractor appeared, so I could get an idea of how the birds flew and the way in which they moved. It was also a challenge to get just one bird in the shot, not loads all overlapping.
As we got close to 2pm, a huge number of birds appeared in the sky; a mixture of kites and buzzards, as well as crows, rooks and a few ravens. The corvids mainly sat in the trees , the surrounding fields and on fence posts, all waiting for the afternoon feast. It was an amazing spectacle! The kites are stunning birds to watch; amazingly agile considering their large wingspan and their distinctive forked tail acting like a rudder, manoeuvring them through the crowds.
As soon as the tractor appeared, the birds swooped lower and the food was spread out in the field in front of the hides. Fairly quickly, the kites dived down, snatching morsels from the ground and then feeding on it in mid-flight… I just didn’t know where to look, let alone photograph!
The sun came out, went in and, as the birds jostled for position and food both up in the sky and down on the floor, I fully appreciated how difficult it is to get the perfectly exposed shot as I had seen on so many of my photographer friends’ Flickr accounts and websites! Oh well, I just thought that if I tried lots of different things and took enough shots, I would have a couple of ‘keepers’ and I would also learn a lot in the process.
It was just a pleasure to be able to watch these amazing birds so close and in such numbers…. and a couple of hours sped past! The light was beginning to go and a sudden shower bought a rainbow to the skies as well.
We stayed until the light had gone and the crowds of raptors had started to disperse. With several SD cards full of shots in my pocket, I felt confident that I would have some mementos of the day and I could not wait to have a look through my shots!
What a fantastic birthday present and a massive thank you to Martin who drove all the way there and endured my excited banter all day! I will be coming back to Gigrin at some point to have anther go and to improve on the first set of shots I took.
Here are a few of my ‘best’ shots and the rest can be seen on my Flickr account HERE
We stayed in a hotel nearby, hoping to get out for a bit more photography on the Saturday…. but our window of good weather had passed. Saturday dawned grey and a heavy fog hung over the Elan Valley…. no photography today! We headed home, with images of wheeling red kites in my mind and the SD cards burning a hole in my pocket! I couldn’t wait to get them onto my PC!
You can find out more about visiting Gigrin from their website at www.gigrin.co.uk