Land of Eagles

Kelly Keegan

© Copyright 2020 Kelly Keegan

Photo of a wake of red kites.

Covid-19 has made a lot of us readdress our relationship with travel, the phrase ‘staycation’ has gathered momentum, and we are discovering local beauty spots with great enthusiasm. As our post-pandemic lives unfold, and the climate crisis deepens, there will inevitably be further introspection needed and solutions touted, but I would argue that taking the time to be a tourist at home is valuable on a personal level regardless.

This piece is an exploration of reconciling my adventurous spirit with the dawning realisation of how ignorant I was to the exciting stories within my own country of birth, Wales, UK.

Gigrin Farm, Rhayader.

I am the most ignorant well-travelled person I know. I am also the least literate English teacher I know. Unfortunately, I sincerely believe these shocking assertions to be true. I even bear the burden of proof.

Exhibit A: Even as a native Welshie and an MA student of Travel and Nature Writing, I had no idea that there was a farm within easy reach of Cardiff that had a wake of Red Kites to be seen.

Exhibit B: I didn’t even know a band of Red Kites could be referred to as a “wake”. I thought this word was reserved for describing the ghoulish Catholic ritual my dad’s family obey; sitting with a dead body until it’s buried.

Verdict: Must try harder Kelly. Otherwise, you will die an ignoramus.

As we’ve all been told ‘God’ loves a trier, a prickling sensitivity to my inadequacies has indeed led me to better myself. I now own a pair of binoculars and a pocket guide of British birds. In the last year alone, to ingratiate myself in the alien world of twitchers and nature writers, I’ve become a member of the RSPB, The Woodland Trust and The South and West Wales Wildlife Trust. I have three sets of car stickers on my campervan to show my worth.

I have learnt to identify a Goldfinch and a Yew Tree (The Woodland Trust sent out a pocket-sized leaf identification guide when I joined. It’s laminated). I’ve even started reading the dictionary again, (let’s not dwell on that) and secured an article commission from the highbrow Wales Arts Review.

The best way to slay imposter syndrome? Embody what you feel inferior to! First stop, Gigrin Farm to see a wake of Red Kites and find out for myself why they had been voted Wales's favourite bird in 2007. They were even the subject of much welsh support when nearing extinction, a hundred years prior to my guilt-trip. I'm not nationalistic, but I felt abashed not to have had a Scooby about these things.

I had gone out of my way to see Hector's Dolphins in New Zealand, the smallest and rarest marine dolphins in the world, but hadn't even known that my own countrymen had been diligently protecting Red Kites. What sort of person was I? I vowed to be a better tourist at home the moment I realised this, "Cymru am byth!" and all that.

Mid-Wales might seem like an odd place to start my exploring in earnest, but it felt appropriate to shun the call of the coastline. Gigrin Farm is firmly landlocked in "Rhayader", a name archaic enough to interest me from the off. It’s a partly-butchered-Anglicised-form of its original Welsh name, "Y Rhaeadr" (the waterfall), or more fully, "Rhaeadr Gwy" (waterfall on the Wye). Despite the waterfall having been forsaken in 1780, to make way for the bridge linking the town to the Elan Valley, its absence hasn’t usurped the old name.

It dawned on me, as I rushed back to the van for my forgotten binoculars, that Rhayader and I both knew how to cloak ourselves in absurdity until it became innocuous. Nobody had petitioned to change the name of the area, there had been no outcry of disingenuity and I was going to pass myself off as a birder, the woman who hadn’t known there were Red Kites in her own country, maybe I was even becoming one?

Settling ourselves in the hide, we shared the frisson of anticipation with the other occupants sat like ladies-in-waiting. Just like five-year-old Tom beside us, we trained our eyes upwards to the circling creatures. We ticked off other birds too: Buzzard, Crow, Jackdaw, Raven. An odd troop of cronking and bouncing malevolence, occupying the ground. But our eyes would quickly flick upwards again, eager to take the opportunity, before the Kites’ movements became sharp and intentional, to really observe the alien species that idled overhead.

After being suitably awed, I realised their eyes were too round for my liking. Picking out many different versions with my binoculars, I found myself thinking that the pinhole pupils hinted at a menacing level of maniacal focus, noted that the sclera was a uniform shade of diluted lemon; it became harder to believe I wasn’t looking at glass.

My mind drifted, as it’s prone to when in hushed settings, I was reminded of a Merrythought teddy bear as I looked at those ungodly eyes. And thought, like the birds, a teddy bear manufacturer in the UK is a novelty, Merrythought is the only one still standing. Maybe they’ll be reintroduced in post-Brexit Britain, much like the Kites? When Merrythought opened in 1930, there were 29 other teddy bear manufacturers and only two breeding pairs of Red Kites left in mid-Wales. Now there are 900 breeding pairs of Red Kites and only one teddy bear manufacturer. Trends are not always linear.

At 3pm sharp, all meandering thoughts ceased. There’s a simple reason Gigrin Farm attracts so many Red Kites: food. Distributed at 3pm, 365 days a year. Raw meat flung by the spade load, from a tractor by an unmoved farmer. In a scene Alfred Hitchcock would be proud of, all the carrion birds of Wales attended the feast. Even a lowly Pigeon can remember 600 food cache sites, so it’s unsurprising their internal alarm clocks can keep time. Photographers, who have access to specially positioned hides, can get their fill of macabre shots of talons tearing flesh. 

Seeing a Leucistic Red Kite was completely unexpected; you can’t hope to see something you have never heard of. So, to see one, without scouting for it, was a stroke of uncanny serendipity.

It was only after the encounter, helpful signs on the site demystified the cause of the singular alabaster 'Red' Kite that we had spied from the hide. Until then, we had speculated that it was a juvenile (our pocket guide rebuked that idea); a particularly pretty female, or a different bird entirely. Irrespective of definition and our unfamiliarity with birds, we had accepted it was regal and assumed we were right in thinking it a rarity.

In bird circles, “Leucistic” describes the partial loss of pigmentation in a bird, resulting in white, pale, or patchy colouration of the skin, hair or feathers, but not the eyes. Unlike Albino creatures, Leucistic creatures have a reduction in multiple types of pigment, not just the melanin. I remembered my course leader, Stephen Moss, had made a jibe about the Welsh not wanting to share their Red Kites and worried about whether or not he’d used the words “inbred”. If that was the case, my Leucistic queen may have a less romantic origin story than the one we’d given her.

After just three hours at Gigrin Farm, my indolent and comfortable, 33-years-in-the-making, perspective of Wales had been ousted. A murmur of a bloodline I had never given a moment’s thought to had rushed forward. Wales shifted, it became a country of innumerable hills and territories cast jade, emerald and malachite. A country usually perceived as tamed suddenly rendered exacting, tempestuous and unbridled.

Snowdon’s name in Welsh is ‘Eryri’, derived from Eryr ("Eagle"). From the hills of Rhayader, a ‘Land of Eagles' is tantalisingly conceivable.

Kelly Keegan is an English Teacher and writer, she recently graduated, with a distinction, from the MA in Travel and Nature Writing at Bath Spa University. As a freelance writer Kelly’s specialism is in cultural criticism, especially hot topics like: rewilding; ethical travel; cultural appropriation; white privilege; global citizenship and mental health. She crafts her pieces from the viewpoint of an intersectional feminist and aspires to live a life less ordinary, with her trusty campervan and adopted hedgehog, Percy, at her side.

Examples of Kelly’s work can be found on her website

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