Country diary: A young kestrel wings its way into the world

<span>‘Wait! There in the shadows, a beak … that yellow-rimmed almost‑black eye … a pale streaky head.’</span><span>Photograph: Nic Wilson</span>
‘Wait! There in the shadows, a beak … that yellow-rimmed almost‑black eye … a pale streaky head.’Photograph: Nic Wilson

There’s been a church on this secluded spot since 1087, and I’m told kestrels have been nesting in the 14th-century bell tower for at least 40 years. My first sight of this year’s chicks was four weeks ago, in a tiny room beneath the belfry, where a downy beast with six scrawny heads was sleeping on the arrow-slit window ledge. Since then, I’ve taken to lying low under a cherry tree in the churchyard whenever I can, watching the tower window for the merest flash of tail or wing.

The adults have been running a nonstop vole delivery service all month from the adjacent meadow, but this afternoon the only signs of occupation are white splashes of droppings down the rubble-stone wall and a scattering of fuzzy pellets (regurgitated clumps of undigested fur and bones) in the flowerbed. With five surviving kestrel chicks likely to leave the nest over a period of several days, surely I’ve not missed the fledging window?

Wait! There in the shadows, a beak … that yellow-rimmed almost‑black eye … a pale streaky head. Just for a moment; then it’s gone. Almost immediately, a second youngster shoots past and lands on the upper mullion window, looking nonplussed. It swivels its head, watching flies crawl up the jamb, seemingly transfixed by their movements.

The fledgling starts bobbing up and down as if dancing to a silent disco – behaviour that suggests it’s testing out its depth perception. Stretching newly feathered tawny wings, it launches itself off the sill and executes a wobbly touchdown in a nearby ash tree, one wing thrashing above its head as it struggles to balance. Seconds later, it hurtles back to the tower, crash-lands sideways in the arrow slit and topples out of view.

I wonder how many people have stood in this churchyard over the years, enjoying the sight of juvenile kestrels winging it into the world. Were they already nesting in the tower in the early 18th century, when the first gravestones were laid? Did local folk lie awake on long summer evenings, as I do, hoping tomorrow would be a fledging day?

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