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The red kite is one of Britain's most beautiful birds of prey, and with its ruddy colouring and distinctive forked tail, it also has the inestimable advantage to we non-specialists of being extremely easy to identify! The bird is also a notable conservation success story: persecution by farmers led to numbers falling into the single figures in the mid-20th century, but protection and reintroduction schemes have meant that there are now more than a thousand pairs of red kites in the UK, including a highly successful colony in the Chilterns; the birds can often be seen by motorists driving along the M40. (The motorists are doing the driving, not the kites!)
However, one of the best places to see them remains Wales, and in particular the sparsely-populated hills of mid-Wales. It's not uncommon to see them gliding above the roads and paths of this area, and because of the birds' size (an adult has a wingspan of nearly two metres) they can be seen at considerable distances. However, if you really want a treat in terms of kite watching, then you should be heading for the feeding station at Gigrin Farm in Powys. The farm is located a short distance (under half a mile) south of Rhayader on the A470 Llandudno to Cardiff road, and is well signposted with brown tourist markers. If coming via Rhayader town, be aware that the crossroads in the town centre is a notoriously difficult junction in terms of visibility due to being hemmed in all around by old buildings and the war memorial.
The feeding station is open to visitors every day of the year except Christmas Day. Gigrin is a working farm, so please be considerate: drive slowly in the farmyard (there are peafowl wandering about!) and if you bring dogs please keep them on leads at all times. To allow the staff to do necessary farm work, and indeed to allow them to eat their lunch in peace, first admission is at 1pm. The cost is £4.00 for adults, £3.00 for OAPs and £1.50 for children, with under-4s free, payable as you drive in. Booking is only necessary for large groups such as coach parties. There is rather more parking space than at first appears, as there is some hard standing behind the barn, but please obey the directions and park where you're asked to, so as to allow space for others.
Once parked, if you have the time (this is more likely to be the case in the summer, for reasons which will be explained in a minute) you can visit a small museum-cum-information centre in one of the farm buildings close to the car park. It's not a super-high-tech whizz-bang outfit, but contains plenty of interesting information, videos of young, etc, and is a good way to pass 20 minutes - especially if the weather is less than ideal, as is quite often the case in Powys! This area of the farm also contains a small shop which sells the usual range of gifts (caps, keyrings etc) and some basic snacks such as ice creams, and some slightly agricultural but clean toilets.
Even from the car park, you may well be able to see kites wheeling and circling in the sky above, especially over the hills in the distance. Depending on the time, some may have already started to come closer, and if so their calls - a somewhat stronger sound than the frankly slightly pathetic-sounding mew of the buzzard - will be very evident. Feeding time is at 2pm GMT each day; birds don't change their clocks with the seasons, so in the summer months this will be 3pm - that's why you may have more time to look around than you would in the winter. Make your way up from the car park through the signed gate (beyond a couple of picnic tables) and you'll find a path leading down to the right. This goes to the hides, which are the best places from which to watch the action.
If you have been to Slimbridge or other birdwatching centres, you'll be used to hides like this: several long, low, wooden buildings, inside which are benches running along the front edge from which you can look out of the (unglazed) windows towards the field where the kites are fed. The benches are fairly spacious, but do come dressed for the weather conditions as you are likely to be sitting still for as much as two hours. On summer weekends in particular, the hides may be full by half an hour before feeding time; in such an eventuality you can make your way to the outdoor viewing area close to the car park, though of course here you are more exposed to the elements. You should note that one or two slightly posher hides are reserved and not open to the general public.
As feeding time approaches, you will notice birds beginning to gather: not only kites, but buzzards, ravens and crows as well, all of them waiting for a free meal. Then, the farmer will arrive in his tractor, and shovel out vast quantities of meat: more than a quarter of a ton is used every week. This is top-quality beef - in fact, so lean as to be unsuitable for making burgers! You will notice that the feeding field is fenced off: this is simply to prevent the farm's sheep from eating the meat and potentially exposing themselves to the risk of contracting foot and mouth disease.
What happens next depends to some extent on the weather and to some extent - at least, so it feels - on just plain luck. I've been to Gigrin twice: on the first occasion, a couple of dozen kites arrived and flew around above the field and the adjacent woodland, but only one or two felt like swooping down to eat, and when I left at around five o'clock most of the meat was still lying on the grass. It was still quite impressive to see the birds flying in numbers greater than I'd seen before, but I can't deny that it wasn't quite what I had hoped to see and I went home a little disappointed that evening.
However, the second time I visited (this September) was quite another matter. It was obvious well before feeding time that things were going to go better on this occasion, with the number of kites steadily building and their cries filling the air. Once the meat was laid out, though, everything really took off (if you'll pardon the expression). Literally hundreds of kites swooped and dived, with birds coming in to land several times a minute. I have a photograph taken on this day with three kites following a glide path so precisely that it looks like a time-lapse photo.
This was absolutely fantastic: one of the most wonderful things I've ever seen. For almost an hour the sky remained thick with birds, and everywhere you looked on the field there were kites landing, taking off, eating. Surprisingly perhaps, there seemed to be very little animosity between them and the buzzards, ravens and crows that were also taking advantage. We had been told that in general the crows got in first, but on this afternoon at least all species seemed to be tucking in together. Even when I left the site almost two hours later, there was still the odd straggler flying around.
Although you can see a good deal with the naked eye, taking along a pair of binoculars is strongly recommended in order to appreciate the kites' lovely markings. They don't have to be anything particularly fancy: my 10x25 Praktica binoculars - which cost me the princely sum of £7.99 from TK Maxx a year or two ago - were entirely adequate for me, though if you're fussy about optics then you'll probably want something rather more upmarket. Lightness and easy handling will be worth their weight in gold in the cramped hides, though, unless of course you're in one of the booked hides and can set up shop for the afternoon with tripods and so on.
As for taking photos, while general "crowd scenes" of dozens of birds in the sky can be captured by almost any camera, for shots of the birds actually swooping down on, or eating, their meat you'll have to use something rather more flexible; this is not a location where a mobile phone camera will be good enough. In particular, you will benefit hugely from a sizeable optical zoom (at least 6x, preferably more) and manual control of both exposure and shutter speed. I took my Canon S2 IS (which has a 12x zoom) and managed to get some pleasing images; a DSLR would be better in terms of quality, but being heavy (especially with a large lens fitted) would also be less flexible in terms of quick changes of direction.
Gigrin has a very informative website, and a regularly updated blog (links below), both of which are worth a good read: for example, there's an interesting feature on the "leucistic" (white) kite that is sometimes seen to visit. The design is clear and consistent across both sites, and while not the slickest you'll ever see the sites do their job very well. The centre is funded entirely by admission charges and souvenir sales, and considering this it does a super job. If you're even slightly interested in watching birds of prey in the beautiful mid-Wales countryside, a trip to Gigrin Farm is highly recommended.