The Kestrel’s Gift

A flash of chestnut-brown and black tinted wings followed by an ascending kee-kee-kee call told me that I was sharing my writing contemplation space with a kestrel. From the first sighting of a female in late May, I saw her a couple of times, and then nothing.

In June, she returned and I realised that she’d never gone away. What’s more, she wasn’t alone. I spotted the male carrying food into the Dutch barn, and then heard several short shrill cries. The kestrel pair had young nesting in the owl box high up in the roof rafters.

Many years have passed since a timid, rescued kestrel landed, unexpectedly, on my bare arm in a sunny glade following a talk about rescued birds. This rare encounter with a female falcon and those treasured moments of silent communion as she sat peacefully on my arm has remained vivid and close to my heart. Since this experience, I have always looked out for the kestrel, and these beautiful falcons, known for their perfectly poised hover effect while hunting for prey, have been ever-present on my journeys, near and far, throughout the UK.

Like most kestrels, the adult pair are shy and wary. The female, perhaps the boldest of the two, is often sat on the telegraph pole or barn roof whereas her partner is more elusive, flighty, a flash of colour, stealth wings darting through the tree cover. Their territory, spanning at least 1 km, if not more, is the hedge and tree-lined fields by the side of the lake and sluice and farmland beyond. I walk by their patch most days. I know I’m being watched.

The female sat on the nest for the first few weeks relying on the male to bring food. Since then, the pair have taken it in turns to feed their young, flying swiftly in and out of the barn, over the redundant farm machinery, carrying morsels of vole and shrew in needle-sharp talons. A shrill crescendo of cries can be heard as food arrives but the young remain instinctively silent the rest of the time.

Kestrels usually appear to hover while hunting but with weeks of oppressive heat and no significant rain through this rare summer, they’ve been conserving their energy. The female stays close to the nest, perching for long periods, searching the ground for voles and insects from her stationary post. The male flies further afield. From a distance, I’ve seen him do his hovering act, briefly, late one evening.

The male kestrel is different to the female. He has a distinctive pale blue-grey head and tail. His back and wings are chestnut brown spotted black. There is no grey in the female’s plumage. Her feathers are a mottled mix of chestnut, black and golden brown with a paler cream barred front. Often, the female is larger than the male but this pair are fairly similar in size. If anything, the male appears to be slightly bigger with a longer wing-span.

I have yet to obtain a clear photograph of the shy male. All I have is this grainy, dusk-blurred image of him taken on a distant telegraph pole.

As this long hot summer reaches its height, the young kestrels are emerging from their nesting box. So far, I’ve seen four of them on the wooden perch and roof beams. The eldest pair are ready to leave the nest whereas the other two still have their downy feathers. Have the parents had two broods?

The young ones are likely to stay close to the nesting site to master their way of life before leaving their place of birth perhaps in the autumn when they’ll secure their own territory.

This young kes was testing her wings and ability to carry captured prey, and she spent a good twenty minutes flying, hopping, and transferring her prey from talon to beak.

I say ‘she’ but I’m not sure whether this is a male or female as the juveniles look the same for a while before their distinguishing adult plumage is unveiled.

August Update

The four kestrels have left their nesting box. The youngest, ‘Grey’, so named because he looked like a little grey alien when he was a chick (see the earlier pic), took his maiden flight one afternoon in late July. Grey is the smallest, noisiest and most curious of the brood, and I feel that he is going to have a fair few adventures on his travels.

Grey is being looked after by his slightly more mature sibling. The other two juveniles, the largest and more silent of the brood, left the nesting site a while ago but are staying close, soaring and hovering and catching their own food.

It has been a privilege and a joy beyond measure to quietly observe this kestrel family as they go about their daily goal to survive and thrive, and I’ve learnt so much about their curious behaviour, their grace and their spirit.

The presence of these kestrels has been a gift and, as summer strolls towards autumn, I will continue to watch out for this family while wondering how they’ll fair in the countryside during these more challenging times. As they take to the sky, a part of me is flying with them.