Encounters with Kestrels

Kestrels are probably our most well-known raptor here in the UK, with their hovering flight above verges as they search for voles. They nested one year at the farm near me, but it’s usually barn owls that breed there. I have not seen any Barn Owls at all this year, which is a shame as during Lockdown we saw and heard them frequently, including the hisses from the youngsters as we walked past the hay barns in the evenings, meaning they must have bred successfully.

I went to look for some pellets as they are normally strewn all over the floor of the derelict outbuildings, but there was nothing. I did notice copious fresh droppings so had more of a search nearby, and spotted a few feathers and some small pellets – too small for a Barn Owl by far – and recognised the feathers as those from a Kestrel. A friend had found pellets and feathers at his house, and after a bit of detective work, we worked out he has Kestrels nesting in his roof, so I recognised these feathers I found straight away.

The pellets mostly have insect remains which you can see as the shiny black bits: beetle carapaces and leg segments:

A strange thing happened a few weeks ago. I was walking my dog fairly early in the morning along the grassy track around the perimeter of one of the fields. It is all wet meadow and not grazed so is a brilliant spot for wildlife, and I’ve watched Barn Owls hunting during the winter evenings. I had spotted a Kestrel in an old hollow tree and wondered if it was nesting, but then saw a family of Starlings emerge so concluded that it had just been a good perching spot.

As I was wandering along on the walk, I noticed my dog trip a few yards ahead of me and then turn round and look quizzically at the ground. I saw a bird on the narrow path and immediately thought it was a young pigeon or pheasant and yelled at Ned to get away. Imagine my surprise to see a male Kestrel sitting on its haunches, wings outspread, mouth gaping. I wondered if it had caught some sort of rodent and was shielding it as raptors do, and being almost trodden on by a Labrador had caused it to go in to shock. But there was no prey in its talons and it just sat there gawping at me. It was fully grown – no juvenile spottiness or fluff – and had no other marks or any sign of injury. I had a brief moment of complete empty-headedness before realising I needed to get it off the track and up and out of the way. I wrapped my hands in my coat sleeves so he couldn’t peck me and put him on a branch, where he sat, certainly not fearful but also not flying away. I am not sure who was the more bemused out of him, me, and the dog.

I took a quick photo so I could remind myself of the location when I came back to check later before moving on so as not to spook him further. Speaking rather deliriously to a friend as I continued my walk we discussed what may have happened: I don’t think he’d been stunned as the trees around there are all part of a hedgerow and there are no uprights to hit; there were no other prey birds around and no sign of a tussle – and I would have seen another bird fly off, and Ned would certainly have chased a fox or other mammal. Perhaps it had pounced, missed its quarry, then frozen on seeing the dog? I went back to the same spot after lunch and there was no sign of him, so there was no discernible lasting effect.

I’ve had a number of rather un-Springwatch-worthy wildlife encounters. There was the time I walked around the corner of a footpath by a house and very nearly walked in to a fallow buck coming around the same corner from the opposite direction. Or the time when I was out with my previous dog and saw something rustling through the wheat towards me: in running forward to grab my spaniel I tripped over the young badger who was trotting much faster than I’d estimated.

I do feel quite awestruck to have held a wild bird of prey, and the couple of minutes I spent were one of those occasions where time stretched, and I remember the encounter in dreamlike hyperreality. I have had the sadness of dealing with injured or dead birds on many occasions, and I was so relieved this one seemed healthy on (albeit brief) inspection.

Have you any wildlife moments that are on the ridiculous side of the extraordinarily privileged spectrum?

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