It was a beautiful warm summers evening, although meteorically speaking it was still spring for just a few more hours. The sky overhead was a bright blue with just wisps of high clouds, while where the sun was closing in on the western horizon, the colour had been bleached out. On evenings like this the colours of the landscape always seem so much richer. The green of the grassy paddock was lush and vibrant, the bark of the gnarled and twisted pine trees standing in a line down one edge was a rich greyish brown, with deep, dark cracks in their trunks, the green of their long needles much deeper than the surrounding grass. The local residents look up from their munching as we come through the gate. Overhead Swallows twitter as they swoop, the incessant singing of a Skylark rings across the fields and the wonderful ‘a little bit of bread and no cheese’ of a singing Yellowhammer floats across the evening air. High in one of the twisted pine trees, secured to the trunk and sitting amongst sturdy branches is a large wooden box. An owl nesting box. Only this time there is no Tawny Owl or Barn Owl, in fact no owl at all has taken up residence to raise its young in this box. Neither has the ubiquitous Stock Dove or Jackdaw, so often the usual other suspects when it comes to owl nest boxes. No this time it is a most beautiful, almost delicate bird of prey that has laid and incubated its eggs and is now rearing its young.
It is a bird that is familiar to so many thanks to its habit of hovering, hanging in mid-air while intently looking down at the ground. In fact it is the only bird of prey capable of doing this, utilising the wind to maintain lift. Wings fluttering, tail spread out, the wind cancels out the bird’s forward motion thus maintaining its stationary position. All the while its head remains perfectly still. Prey detected, and with a twist the bird enters into a steep dive towards its target. So familiar is this technique that even while cruising along a motorway it is easily identifiable.
Of course the bird is a Kestrel.
They are one of the most common birds of prey in Europe although numbers in Britain declined in the 1950s and 1960s. While the population did begin to recover, more recently further declines have been reported although the causes are not as clear. Ringing birds, especially chicks, is an important part of the wider monitoring of all bird species and is even more key in species such as this which are not usually caught by traditional techniques such as mist nets.
It was therefore with delight and great anticipation that I stood in that field, being watched by the sheep, craning my neck upwards watching as Lee bravely climbed up to the nest box. Back on solid ground he reveals from a large cotton bag three wonderfully fluffy Kestrel chicks. From the mass of soft, fluffy, grey feathers, big, alert, dark eyes ringed in yellow hold us in a direct stare. It’s curved, hooked beak and slightly down curved mouth give him an almost disdainful look. Bright yellow legs have perfectly curved black, sharp, talons that are already well used to gripping tightly. Amongst the grey fluffiness, chestnut brown feathers with black spots are beginning to develop, sprouting from waxy sheaths, hinting at the beauty of the fledged bird to come.
Each chick is given a uniquely numbered ring and returned to the bag before Lee climbs back up the tree and carefully returns them to their nest box.
As we leave, at the far end of the field, the distinctive outline of an adult Kestrel perches on an overhead telegraph wire. It is not long before the adult is reunited with its brood.