Watching like a hawk these youngsters near home

HAPPY FAMILY: The daily lives and habits of the young kestrels in the sycamore stump garden nesting box. Picture: Robert Fuller
HAPPY FAMILY: The daily lives and habits of the young kestrels in the sycamore stump garden nesting box. Picture: Robert Fuller
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GETTING a family of kestrels to settle down and thrive proved a long term job. Robert Fuller chronicles their story.

For five years now, I have enjoyed watching a pair of kestrels fly in daily to feed on day old chicks at my bird table. This spring, to my delight, they nested in a box in the garden.

I had designed the box to attract barn owls but it has only been used by one on the odd occasion.

Unfortunately it has been more popular with stock doves and jackdaws.

I first spotted the male kestrel inspecting the nest box from my upstairs window in February. A few weeks later I watched the female disappear into the box.

The male was standing guard on the platform outside letting out high-pitched screeches – a sure sign that they were thinking of nesting there.

Over the next few weeks, we all avoided going into the back garden so as not to disturb them.

Luckily, I had a great view of their courtship ritual from the windows upstairs.

Then as I watched one day, the male sat on the nest box as the female flew round in circles just above him.

Her calls got louder as she circled higher and further away until she eventually disappeared in a valley behind the house.

Shortly after the male followed her, then I didn’t see them for the rest of the day, which was unusual.

I was up early the next morning and again there were no kestrels to be seen.

So I headed off to the valley behind the house to the most likely nest site – an ash tree in which I had placed a heavy sycamore stump with a natural hollow earlier this year in a fork of its branches.

I was careful to approach the tree unnoticed, taking cover behind a hawthorn bush as I approached the horizon.

Sure enough, there they were.

The male was sitting on a low branch of the ash tree whilst the female was investigating the potential of this new nest site.

Disappointed that I appeared to have lost the chance of having them nest in the garden, I headed home trying to convince myself that it was all for the best.

But a few mornings later I drew my curtains and there they were back at the nest box in the garden again. I couldn’t contain my excitement.

The next few days were dramatic as both stock doves and jackdaws were now also vying for the use of the box.

The kestrel out-manoeuvred both competitors with a formidable show of aerial combat techniques – no mean feat since between duels he had to get on with his courting.

I saw him mate with the female several times and it wasn’t long before she began to lay.

One evening in late April I couldn’t resist a look in to the nest.

I was careful to wait until I had seen the kestrels fly off across the valley to where I knew they sometimes roosted in an old farm building and until it was dark.

Inside there were two perfect chocolate brown speckled eggs. Kestrels usually lay five eggs, so, knowing she still had another three to lay, I quickly left. I noted the date in my diary and from there worked out the hatching date, which is usually around 28 days later.

During this period I was careful not to go close to the box again – I really didn’t want to risk disturbing them.

The male spent much of this time standing guard. He used our fence as a sentry point, swiftly seeing off any jackdaws or stock doves that dared approach.

After what felt like a long four weeks, the hatching date arrived and I noticed a change in his behaviour. He became much more protective over the site.

Assuming that the chicks had now hatched, I decided to change the diet that I was offering on my bird table.

I set out mice trapped in the garden. I thought these would suit the young brood better. I was right and the kestrels fed more than before. When the chicks were about a week old I decided to put up a hide from which to photograph them as they grew.

As I was gathering together what I would need, one morning, I noticed a carrion crow sitting on the nest box.

Crows are a far greater danger to the young kestrel family than jackdaws and stock doves that still occasionally lurked about. Crows eat chicks.

The male kestrel was hovering overhead, screeching and stooping down at the crow. But it wasn’t until the kestrel dived sharply and actually crashed into the crow that it eventually moved off.

That afternoon I heard the kestrel’s alarm call ring out again. I looked out of the window and saw that the crow had retuned and was taunting the kestrels. It was back again the next morning too.

At first I wasn’t overly worried about the safety of the chicks since I have never seen a crow go into a nest box before.

But I became very concerned when I then didn’t see the kestrels again for a few days.

I decided to risk looking into the box again. To my horror, it was bare. I felt so angry and helpless, regretting that I had not done something to help them earlier.

A week later, I noticed the kestrel pair back at the garden nest box.

I watched with bated breath as they moved back in and began their mating ritual all over again.

But somehow this box was fated. Something fairly drastic must have happened to scare them off - because when I didn’t see them for a few days I looked in to the box to find they had abandoned a clutch of three eggs.

One evening in June, I revisited the hollowed-out stump in the valley below the house and saw a kestrel fly away as I approached.

I carefully placed a ladder against the tree and climbed up to the nesting stump.

There was the female kestrel. She backed off the nest when she saw me, just enough to reveal a clutch of eggs beneath her. I went home with renewed hope.

When I went back to check on the nest a month later there were three perfect white chicks, in the bottom of the stump, about a week old. I waited three more weeks before I put up a hide close enough to photograph from.

By this time the chicks were starting to become quite adventurous and I watched as they peeped out of the nest hole before jumping up on to the ledge of the entrance to exercise their wings.

From their vantage point, they bobbed their heads back and forth watching everything that moved, from flies to horses. As their parents appeared with food they would call and scream with their wings flapping in excitement.

One lucky chick would grab at the vole or shrew that its parent had brought and dive into the bottom of the nesting stump, closely followed by the other two.

I could hear them squabbling furiously from deep inside whilst clouds of moulted down billowed out. The chicks that lost out in the fracas quickly reappeared on the ledge, jostling to be at the front of the queue the next time a rodent was delivered.

The chicks spent a lot of their time preening.

One chick watched each piece of down float off in the summer breeze as it prepared its feathers for its first flight.

Kestrels are almost fully feathered with only a few bits of down left when they fledge.

As the week wore on the chicks began scrambling around the sycamore stump

Even during quieter moments when the chicks were asleep, I enjoyed watching the countryside around me come to life.

The grasshoppers would begin the show with a furious drumming, then marbled white and common blue butterflies would drift by.

The call of curlews would ring out overhead or green woodpeckers would let out their ‘yaffaling’ call.

I watched a redstart catch insects below me, a charm of goldfinches work the thistle heads for seeds and in the distance spotted a little owl as it hunted for beetles and grasshoppers.

The peace was shattered with the raucous call of a carrion crow.

But it was quickly punctuated by the scream of a kestrel and the three young kestrels quickly disappeared from view. The male kestrel took on the carrion crow in mid-air in a fearsome attack.

He was clearly not going to let the crow take his chicks this time.