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Wednesday, 22 July 2015

The Windhover

A few weeks ago, we had a call from our friends at the BMC after a climber had reported a kestrel nesting on Curbar Edge.

I headed down to have a look, and was tiptoeing towards the nest site when a female kestrel swooped low with a vole to the base of the crag. She disappeared from view before flying off, minus the vole, several seconds later. A chorus of screeching struck up, the unmistakable sound of hungry young birds of prey. I crept closer, and was surprised to see a bundle of feathers perched contentedly on a boulder beside the footpath, chugging down the remains of the unfortunate vole, freshly flown in just moments earlier. 

"What are you looking at?"

I suspected that this chick had fallen from the nest. It was a good sign that it was still being fed, but it was very exposed, and I wondered if it would make it through the night's perils and predators. Up in the crack, two more bundles of fluff looked down at me keenly, before shuffling back comically into a sheltered crevice.

When I returned the next day the young fallen chick was no-where to be found and I began to fear the worst.
I put up a sign to ask climbers to steer clear of the route until the chicks had fledged, and continued to monitor the nest over the course of the week.

The signed nest site, with a kestrel chick posing in the top left of the photo!

These signs are used as a last resort to reduce disturbance to known nest sites in areas with high recreational usage. They've proven to be a useful resource in areas such as Stanage and Burbage, particularly in protecting ring ouzel nests during the breeding season. This is all down to the co-operation of the climbing community who appreciate the importance and mutuality of conservation and recreation. 

The kestrel nest on Curbar Edge was found at quite a late stage on a relatively infrequently used climbing route, and the birds had taken care of themselves up to this point. Having survived past the vulnerable egg and infancy stage, they had now made it to the cusp of fledging. But they weren't out of the woods (or off the crags) just yet. The major cause of death among young kestrels is starvation, with only 30-40% surviving their first year, and only 20% their second year. These three hungry chicks needed all the help they could get to satisfy their substantial appetites. 

A kestrel chick looks out just days before fledging

During the week, I returned one evening to a pleasant surprise. The nest had three young kestrels in, as opposed to the previous night's two! The fallen chick had made it's way back into the nest and was huddled up wih it's siblings. Unusually for birds of prey, there is no aggression between the chicks, which tend to fly, perch and roost together even for some time after fledging.

Can you spot the three siblings?

This Monday, the nest was empty. With luck, the juveniles will now be getting fed by their parents away from the nest, and will soon be learning to find their own food. Kestrels are loyal to their nest site, so fingers crossed they'll be back with us again next year.  

The kestrel has earned the country nickname of "Windhover", due to it's trademark hovering hunting posture. It was coined by poet Gerard Manley Hopkins in the poem of the same name.

The Windhover

I caught this morning morning's minion, kingdom
Of daylights dauphin, dapple dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstacy! then off, off forth in swing,
As a skate's heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird, - the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!

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