A fortunate encounter with a friendly birder on my local patch one evening pointed me in the direction of a nest of raptor chicks. I often walk past the old oak tree he described but had never thought to scan its tall trunk for nests. Packing away the long lens I had borrowed to photograph a reed bunting, I hurried off to the copse of oaks.
Hiding under the low branches of a nearby tree so I wouldn’t deter the parents from returning, I scanned the tree through my binoculars. With the hollow lit by the setting sun, I could see two fluffy chicks huddled inside. How exciting!
I watched the chicks for a while, noting their grey hooked beaks and black eyes with a yellow ring. Tawny owlets, the birder had said. I have often heard adult tawny owls calling to each other but have never seen one. An adult is easy to recognise, but I had no idea what tawny owlets looked like. I admit I was expecting a little more on the cuteness scale!
My local patch is often quiet in the evening. With no one around, it was magical to have time alone watching these young birds so new to the world. A novice with a long lens, I steadied the camera as best I could, then focused and pressed. I took quite a few photos, hoping that one might be good enough to preserve this special moment.
Looking at my photos back home, I could see why I had doubts about the owlets. Turning to Google to compare professional photos of kestrel chicks with tawny owlets, I could see the fluffy youngsters in the hollow bore more resemblance to kestrels. The next morning, I returned to my hiding place to make sure.
Quick as a flash, an adult bird flew in and out, a blur to the naked eye. I got my camera ready and waited. The parent soon returned; its grey head and chestnut back and wings specked with black are unmistakable. A male kestrel caught on camera!
Over the next two weeks, I watched these kestrel chicks grow, their downy feathers replaced with striking plumage more like their parents. A local wildlife photographer said there were five chicks, but I only ever saw four. He told me to keep quiet about the nest. His father had been a gamekeeper and birds of prey aren’t popular with gamekeepers, he said. I often hear pheasant shoots in the distance when I’m walking here. How could anyone persecute these birds?
One evening, I watched two youngsters jostle for the best spot, the smallest kestrel chick, feisty and daring, perching precariously on the lip of the hollow. The birds were looking up and the smallest was calling. Scanning the tree above the hollow, I saw another kestrel chick hopping along a branch. Out of the nest and in full view, the bird was magnificent. It made the short flight to the hollow, landing above and gripping the bark as it climbed down to one side. Like an anxious parent, I wondered what I would do if the youngster fell. Then the kestrel lunged and flapped and was safely inside!
The next evening, the hollow was empty. Disappointed I wouldn’t see these birds again, I turned to go. But then I remembered the photographer telling me that kestrel fledglings make a short flight to a nearby tree. Sure enough, there they were in the deadwood of an oak! One fledgling flew across nettles and brambles to another oak and disappeared into the foliage. The remaining three birds flapped their wings and hopped about on bare branches before settling into a comfy crook for the night.
Two days later, the kestrel chicks had moved on. I found them in a copse across the hay meadow in the deadwood of another oak. Just shows how important it is to leave dead trees standing. That was the last time I saw the youngsters before the meadow became a noisy construction site with lorries back and forth. Workmen were setting up the stage for three days of concerts. I had hoped to enjoy a little more time with the kestrels, but that’s the downside of watching wildlife in places where people matter more.
Bon voyage beautiful birds.
If you live in North East Norfolk, the North East Norfolk Bird Club is a welcoming group of enthusiasts from relative beginner birders like me to birders with decades of experience and stories to tell. NENBC covers an area from Weymouth across to the east coast and south as far as Aylsham. The annual membership (£15), which includes monthly walks, talks and a fabulous newsletter, is a birding bargain!