Earlier this month I had the great pleasure to visit the RSPB's Red Kite centre at Tollie, near to Dingwall in Scotland, on a day trip with my mother.
The Red Kite (milvus milvus in Latin, isohaarahaukka in Finnish) is a medium-large bird of prey with a wing-span of up to 175cm and although they are historically native to Scotland they were hunted to extinction in these parts before being re-established as a breeding population at the end of last century with 93 birds from Sweden. These birds are only very occasionally seen in my home country of Finland (less than 100 times ever).
I have occasionally seen these beautiful birds near to my parents house in the Black Isle and was hoping to get a chance to get a bit closer by visiting Tollie.
The road to Tollie is something of an experience, especially in the heavy snow that we were treated to on the day we visited. The Red Kite centre can be found at the end of a single track farm road with occasional passing places, and some deep ditches that help you to maintain your concentration. On a normal day the road would be perfectly passable but I was glad to be in a 4x4 vehicle in the snowy conditions.
It is fair to say that the gentleman who was on duty at Tollie was a bit surprised to see visitors on such an unpromising day, but he made us most welcome. The centre itself is an unheated building with numerous information boards and large viewing windows, allowing you to observe the birds with shelter from the wind which helps a little in keeping warm, but if you are visiting in winter it is advisable to wrap up warmly.
The centre leaves food for the kites every day, the feeding times can be seen from their website, and there is a high probability to see at least one of them if you time your visit to coincide with the feeding schedule. We saw many kites, at one time I could see 9 individuals so there were at least that many in the area. Their calls could be heard almost constantly and there was almost always one or more circling above, occasionally swooping down to feed or to scare away the gulls that were trying to eat their dinner.
From photography point of view, there is an area to the side of the building where you can stand behind a wall and shoot through some holes in the wall or over the top of the wall at the boards circling above. The kites were not overly concerned by my presence as long as I stayed behind the wall so there was no need for extreme stealth, you could freely move around without impacting your shooting chances.
I estimate that the distance to the table where the food was placed would have been some 40-45 metres so a long telephoto lens would be an advantage. My travel kit includes a 100-400mm lens as the longest option, it was possible to shoot there with 400mm (on a full frame camera) but a longer focal length would have been an advantage in order to get the birds larger in the frame.
I found that the situation was much more suited to shooting hand-held than it would have been for use with a tripod, the birds spent 98% of their time circling above, covering a large area, and hardly any time actually feeding. At least for me using a tripod would have made it a lot harder to switch rapidly between shooting almost straight up and shooting almost horizontally.
The kites spent some of their time squabbling amongst themselves, perhaps not actually fighting but behaving in a threatening way towards each other, capturing these moments would probably give the best photographs, but the action is over in an instant so you would need to combine skill with luck in order to get a really good one.
This time I didn't manage to capture the perfect moment, but I was happy at least to get a number of pictures where more than one bird was in the frame. Perhaps on a future visit I can do better.
The red kite centre is maintained by the RSPB and at the time I visited it was free for visitors and photographers to enter, donations are however welcome from those who find it to be a valuable experience. I would hope that all visitors to Tollie would feel that a donation was appropriate, the work that they do and the visitor experience that they provide is certainly valuable.
I would highly recommend a visit to Tollie Red Kite centre to any nature lovers, photographers or other interested parties, it was wonderful to see these magnificent birds in action.
I would also like to thank the kind and knowledgeable member of staff at Tollie who made my mother and I so welcome on a snowy December afternoon.
PS - check out the Tollie facebook feed to see other pictures and regular updates from Tollie
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