Capturing Red Kites

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Image: Red Kite looking back, Harewood, England. Nikon D500, Nikkor 200-500 mm at 220 mm, f/6.3, 1/2000 sec, ISO 800, hand-held

During our stay in Bridlington, England, we were guided generously by Mike Poole, a local photographer from Manchester, England. He had been showing us the best spots on Bempton Cliffs and where to go each time of day.  One afternoon, however, he told us about the Red Kites, a type of hawk in the UK that came back from the brink of extinction with a successful re-introduction program starting in 1989. 

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Image: Red Kite spreading his wings, Harewood, England. Nikon D500, Nikkor 200-500 mm at 200 mm, f/6.3, 1/3200 sec, ISO 1000, hand-held

Mike knew about a location in Harewood, England where we could possibly photograph these raptors. We drove an hour and a half through rolling countryside to get to a small town where it was known that an elderly lady used to throw raw chicken on top of a garage shed to watch the kites swoop down to feed. The local story goes that she did it precisely at 2:30pm each day and built quite a following of kites. 

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Image: Red Kite grabbing food from the roof of a garage shed, Harewood, England. Nikon D500, Nikkor 200-500 mm at 200 mm, f/6.3, 1/4000 sec, ISO 1000, hand-held

Unfortunately, the lady feeding the birds passed away this past January so there was some concern about the kites being able to survive since they had come to depend on this source of food. Luckily, they have adjusted, and for better or worse, still get fed raw meat from locals or photographers. While I much prefer photographing wildlife without baiting using human food, the kites are scavengers and were flourishing from this system that has been in place for years. 

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Image: Red Kite soaring, Harewood, England. Nikon D500, Nikkor 200-500 mm at 200 mm, f/6.3, 1/3200 sec, ISO 1000, hand-held

When we arrived, many kites were soaring overhead with occasional dives onto the shed for food scraps that people from the cafe next door had already thrown onto the roof. It was a bright sunny day which made it very hard to get a shot with a good exposure, especially since these birds had both light and dark feathers.

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Image: Red Kite soaring, Harewood, England. Nikon D500, Nikkor 200-500 mm at 200 mm, f/6.3, 1/3200 sec, ISO 1000, hand-held

As we began photographing and observing, we noticed some patterns. The hawks did not swoop down immediately upon seeing the food. They flew overhead in large circular patterns, slowly getting closer and closer to the shed. More and more birds joined this stalking behavior. Soon one bird did a vertical twirl and dove down with great speed towards the shed to grab some meat. Within a millisecond, a second, third and fourth kite dove down in a flurry. See the below video for an idea of what happens. 

These conditions made it extremely difficult to capture these birds in the frame, let alone get a good shot. The light was harsh and we played with the exposure a bit. We started with f/6.3, ISO 1000 and shutter speed of 1/3200 and adjusted as necessary. We went with a higher ISO instead of the typical 400 under sunny conditions since we wanted to expose for the dark feathers on the underside of the bird that were in shade. We needed a fast shutter speed since the background was so bright and the birds were fast. 

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Image: Red Kite banking to the right, Harewood, England. Nikon D500, Nikkor 200-500 mm at 200 mm, f/6.3, 1/3200 sec, ISO 1000, hand-held

We spent 3.5 hours there trying to photograph them. When they dove at such high speeds and in such a flurry, it was incredibly difficult to get one in focus. I tried a couple strategies. I watched the bird closest to the ground and when it started to twirl, I hit the shutter and tried to follow it down. Its speed was faster than I could follow initially but I got into a rhythm. It was hard to capture the birds that followed the initial quick dive, but sometimes 5-10 birds dove in sequence and I could capture the last one and follow it as it twirled and dove.  As the day progressed, the light softened slightly and I was lucky to capture a couple shots with one side of the hawk lit up nicely.

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Image: Red Kite diving vertically for food, Harewood, England. Nikon D500, Nikkor 200-500 mm at 200 mm, f/6.3, 1/3200 sec, ISO 1000, hand-held

I tried photographing from various angles, and even though most of my images came out with high contrast on the birds, I enjoyed the fun of focusing on a fast moving animal.

More information: Red Kite Website