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The mystery of red/blue 57


I've written before about the odd things I find in the countryside when I'm searching for bones, like 150 year old pottery, old poison bottles or metal propellors and cow hooves.  This week's post is about finding something that will be obvious to some, but will need explaining to others.

These two tags were up on a part of the estate near my village, up close to the castle. It's partly woodland, partly scrub clearings and partly an old fishing lake, and it's petty much unexplored and deserted. More importantly, there are a few red deer down here, as well as roe deer. But when I found these numbered tags, there weren't any deer to be seen - but there was another mystery to be solved.

The first tag was a blue one with the number 57, lying underneath a tree near the clearing. I recognised what it was straight away, and I knew there would be another one to be found, and that it would probably be red with the same number.

After a bit of searching I found it about ten metres away.

On the back was some writing: "DO-E" and a phone number. I knew what this was almost straight away.

So what are they ?

These are easy to recognise if you live where I do, where there are quite a few red kites around.

When red kite chicks are known about, they are tagged by volunteers who climb the trees and bring down the chicks, then attach the tags. That helps track and identify the birds, and there's a whole web page about them here.

The tags are home made out of flexible plastic, and the two different colours in the picture above show that this was a kite which was tagged in Central Scotland (red tag on left) in 2010 (blue tag on right), and this kite was called "84". That was how after I found the blue tag that I knew the other one would probably be red. 

It might have been possible for the left tag to have been blue, since blue is the colour for the Aberdeen area, but the letters on the back were the initials of Duncan Orr-Ewing who works at the RSPB in Edinburgh, so it seemed more unlikely.

The tags are handy for identifying different kites, but they are difficult to see from the ground, since they are on top of the wings. Often all you can see if the colour of the wingtags as they wrap round the front of the wing, or the back of the tag as they float up.

On my local walk which I do once or twice a day, I regularly see at least three kites, red/red A8, A8's mate, who is untagged, and red/white Q0, who was born in 2011. Even though I often can't see the whole tag, the colours of the tags at the front are normally enough to identify them.

These are what the tags prepared for this years chicks look like:

I'm not sure red and lime green is a great colour scheme, though. There are going to be a lot of red kites flying around that look like they're just off out to battle Batman.

So where was 57 ?

Red kites are BIG. They are distinctive from a distance for a number of reasons, such as the forked tail, and the way they fly, but the biggest difference between them and say buzzards is that kites are much bigger, with a wingspan of almost 2m.  For birds of prey in the UK, only the white-tailed sea eagle and the golden eagle are bigger.

The other thing I knew for certain was that 57 must have died. The wing tags were still intact, with the wire around the flap still intact, so the only way for the tag to have come off would be for the bird to become skeletonised.

Because the tags were found close together, I guessed the body had decomposed quite close to where tags were found. It was time to search !

A few days later Dad checked with the head ranger at the Argarty Red Kite Project nearby. He said:

mmmm....sad news! From biometrics it appears to be a female. She was ringed and tagged near Tullibeagles lodge on 21st June 2010.

Which bone is 57 ?

The tags were in open scrubland, which is difficult to find bones in after a while, because the grass grows over them:

There were no shortage of bones around.  This one definitely wasn't from 57: it was from a male mallard killed recently.

This bird sternum looked promising, but was more likely to have come from a buzzard. Even though I wasn't sure what  red kite sternum would look like, I could make a guess that it would be larger than a buzzard's.

This is another sternum with the shoulder bones attached, but this is too small as well. The long sternum looks like it comes from another duck.

It seemed that being a duck wasn't a great career move in this part of the woods. Here's a mallard skull. Recognise the bone at the back ?

Yep, that's the quack bone ! I blogged about it in 2011 ! You don't see many of them.

Under a tree near the tags was this:

I could tell from this pelvis that it came from a roe deer (size and shape) that it was an older adult (because it was fused down the centre) and that it was probably a female (because of the shape of the V on the right). Mad science skillz.

I found the skull close by and it proved what I thought. The teeth were less worn that I expected, though, especially on the lower jaws (the wrong way round !) maybe because it fed on grassland, not heather like the roe deer up on the moors.

Something had been nibbling on the pelvis, though, and recently. This may have been something like a squirrel, gnawing the bone to sharpen its teeth or get calcium. It happened some time after death, because the bone is not weathered there.

After an hour or so, I had to admit defeat and go home. I walked back around the old fishing loch and watched some Canada geese land. 

Then behind me I heard a roe deer run towards me, scared by something else.

It was a young male roe deer, probably almost two years old. It had short "spiker" antlers;  these don't usually grow until the 2nd winter, and roe deer are born in May/June, These are still growing since Decemberbecause they have a furry velvet round them: around here, the mature roe deer with full antlers seem to come out of velvet much earlier.

A bit further on, I found something rare: an antler just like that, which had been shed naturally when the roe deer antlers fall out and regrow in November:

So I didn't get to solve the mystery of what happened to red/blue 57, but I did at least come home with something else, as well as exploring a pretty interesting new wood.

 PS. I've got two bits of great news coming up not next week, but the week after. Read about them here first !

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Melanie said...

Interesting post, and awesome finds! 😊

louis said...

this is very good but a bit long

Ric said...

A long post is a good thing, in my opinion! :)

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