Friday, 9 October 2009

Kestrels and memories

Sometime in the night the sky clouded over and the rain fell steady but light until the morning when I woke at around 4.30. In early August the sky is just beginning to lighten at that time so I opened the top half of the stable door and watched as the pipistrelles flitted and flittered above the walled garden. The remnants of the night's cloud still hung in a soft grey blanket but there was no rain so I set off for a long patrol around the perimeter of the farm.

I was first stopped in my tracks by the sight of a muntjack deer as it dissolved into the trees at the top of the cedar tree field. It was a nice start as deer can be cautious creatures and difficult to spot, although last year I spoke to a horserider who regularly uses the bridleways on the farm who said that deer are relatively easy to see from horseback. Perhaps these nervous herbivores don't associate the horses with danger and don't recognise the riders as human. I moved to the area where I had seen the deer and picked up its tracks in the damp, sandy soil. They were clear and crisp edged which attested to their freshness but the animal itself was long gone.

I moved on to the little owl tree and scanned it's gnarled branches for a sign of the owls without success. I watched the tree for some while as the sun began to remove some of the cloud but still the owls remained absent. I found out later in coversation with one of the local fishermen that earlier in the season the tree had been occupied by a pair of Egyptian geese who had bred there and obviously kept out the much smaller little owls. The geese failed to raise their brood as they were picked off one by one by one of the farm's foxes with cubs to raise.

With no owls to watch or sketch I carried on to the kingfisher pond and saw the young heron take off as I arrived. He circled, calling for 'Frank' all the way before settling into a tree some distance off. Watching herons perched in trees is oddly off kilter with the more usual views of them stealthily stalking the shallows, stabbing at the water with their stilletto beaks. Actually, despite the gangly legs and the size, herons are quite at home in the branches and nest in treetop colonies known as heronries. Close to my home in Kent, on an RSPB reserve, is one of the largest heronries in the UK and it's always worth a visit in the spring.

Above the paddocks a kestrel was hovering, her head perfectly still and her position fixed in spite of the breeze. Kestrels are probably the bird most responsible for my fascination with and love for nature and they are a favourite of mine. I was lucky enough to be brought up in a place which backed onto classic Kent chalk downland and I would spend many happy hours there after school, at weekends and during the summer holidays. In times when children were granted much more freedom that they are now I was free to roam and explore all day and I remember long, hot summers there discovering and watching all manner of creatures. Lizards and slow worms were really common and I took great delight in capturing and handling them. I remember on one occassion I took home a slow worm and put him in a dresser drawer, naively believing that he would simply stay there, covered in a handful of grass, overnight. I was woken the next morning by my Mother's cry of 'Snake! Snake! There's a snake in the bedroom!'. I watched as she fled down the hallway in her slippers and nightie, clutching her dressing gown. I knew immediately what had happened and hurried to rescue my slow worm and reassure my Mum that he wasn't a snake and that she was in no danger from this charming and harmless little legless lizard. To this day I'm not sure if she was grateful to me for rescuing her or mad at me for bringing the hapless creature home in the first place. After that she bought me a small vivarium and various lizards and slow worms lived there for short spells before being returned to where they came from and the tank was turned into a home for a pair of smooth newts. I never did bring home any snakes...

One of my greatest pleasures in those days, other than reptile wrangling, was lying on my back in the grass on one of the steeper slopes from where I could watch the kestrels hunting. I was fascinated with them, particularly that hover, and I would watch them for hours. I remember trying to draw them even way back then. The kestrel hunting over the paddocks dived and came up from the grass clutching something in her hunter's talons. She immediately flew off in the direction of the trees where I had heard young kestrels calling the day before and, since there was no sign of kingfishers on the pond or barn owls in the paddocks, I set off after her. I heard the young kestrels long before I spotted them, they were obviously just recently fledged and still fairly dependent on their parents for food. I tracked them down and found three youngsters in and around one of the oaks that stood isolated in fields bursting with soon to be harvested barley. I settled down to watch and sketch them as they tested their wings in halting and uncertain flight against a sky where, slowly, the patches of blue began to win the battle with the night's cloud. With my back against a tree I rested and soaked up the sun as it rose higher into the new blue. When the sun was high enough and hot enough I could hear the heads of barley cracking in the heat and I could tell that it was the start of a dry summer's day just like those kestrel watching days of my childhood.

I confess that I snoozed there against that tree before returning to the cottage for breakfast.