Flying the nest

Ben DolphinFlying the nest is a big deal. It’s surely among the most momentous events in our lives. I remember doing it myself with a sense of both excitement and trepidation, wondering whether I would experience, as Edina in Absolutely Fabulous described it, ‘umbilical whiplash’ and catapult back home to my mum at the first sign of trouble.

I didn’t, as it turned out, probably because I did it gradually at my own speed and I knew that I could, having fledged, return to the nest if I wanted to. Indeed I did just that for months at a time during university, and sporadically for a few years after that. There was always a warm, safe nest waiting for me.

If only it were so easy for birds. The bird version of flying the nest, the real version, isn’t nearly as cosy or convenient. If our version was remotely similar to theirs, our childhoods would be lived in a state of heightened anxiety and we would experience perpetual hunger. Our parents would be continually on edge as they rush out to the supermarket and back dozens of times a day to bring us ‘ready to eat’ savoury snacks, fearful that we might be discovered by any number of malevolent forces while they are out. Then, one day, after weeks of the same familiar routine we’d wake up to find our parents gone.

Dunnocks nesting in my garden. I’ve seen eggs, occupied nests, empty nests and newly-fledged chicks….but never the moment of fledging

Puzzled, we’d look out the front door and see them hanging around at the end of our street, beckoning us to follow. We’d stand with our siblings at our open front doors, listening to our parents’ urgent shouts. By that point we’d be getting hungry and would be wondering why our parents are frantically waving an enticing bag of crisps at us from afar. We’d wonder why they aren’t bringing that food to us any more. Surely they can’t expect us to venture into the scary outdoors for the very first time, without knowing who or what might be lurking nearby? We’ve barely even learned how to stand up but now we’re expected to run!? That’s craziness!

Okay okay, that’s all rather dramatic I admit, and by anthropomorphising small birds I’m probably making their ordeal sound much more emotional and traumatic than it actually is. Birds have, after all, been fledging for millions of years and they just get on with it. But that doesn’t make what their chicks do any less remarkable, not least because many species leave their nests before they can even fly, which leaves them extremely vulnerable to predation. ‘Flying the nest’ is therefore something of a misnomer where many birds are concerned.

Most of us see the aftermath of this rather than the event itself – an empty nest, or the tame downy wee chicks on paths, looking lost and clueless. I sometimes see the build up – the nests full of eggs, or the chicks hunkered down in the nest as they wait for their parents to return. But a chick’s actual departure has always been elusive because it is just one brief moment in the first few weeks of its life, and I certainly don’t have enough spare time to sit watching on the off-chance that I see it happen. In any case, nests are generally hidden away out of sight, so if you do get close enough to be able to see what’s going on you risk either scaring the chicks out of the nest prematurely or alarming the parents and preventing them from feeding. I don’t have expensive Springwatch-style cameras to leave in place and catch events unfolding remotely, and of course there are laws that expressly forbid disturbance of nests. So really, it’s not that surprising that I’ve never witnessed the moment of fledging. Not of any bird.

Tech to the rescue! Peering into the kestrel nest

That hasn’t stopped me from hoping though, especially where my local kestrels are concerned. Every May a pair nests in a deep cavity in a stone wall near where I live. It’s very dark in that hole, so even though there’s a clear and open view into it from the outside world it’s nigh on impossible to see inside. However, from a safe distance I can use my camera’s zoom to peer into the darkness – exposing for the blackness and then seeing what image I get back. The bulk of the image is of course horribly overexposed, bright white and featureless, but the camera sees things in the darkness that my eyes can’t – grainy figures revealed inside.

For what seems like an eternity (but is probably just under a month) the camera sees only the mother on her eggs until, one day, in her place is a mass of white fluff spotted with eyes and beaks. The chicks have been born. They grow quickly thereafter and are soon emboldened enough to move to the cavity entrance. As I pass by I occasionally catch sight of them, more brown than white as their adult feathers come to the fore, taking their first look at the outside world. But by the time I notice them they have already noticed me, and have quickly shuffled back inside and out of sight.

2017 saw four wee fluffballs in the nest

I’ve tried sitting and waiting for them to re-emerge over the years but, as patient as I am I’ve never had quite enough patience to sit for as long as was clearly going to be necessary – as much as two hours! Or if I did so, the weather turned and I didn’t have the stomach for a drenching whilst sitting absolutely still and being bitten by midges. Inevitably, given work commitments and the weather I sometimes don’t pass the wall for a week or so by which time I am usually too late. When the camera next peers into the darkness it sees nothing, for the cavity is empty. The chicks have fledged.

I do get to see the youngsters milling about thereafter as they get accustomed to their wings but, after investing so much time and interest in their lives up to that point, by not seeing the moment of departure it always feels like a piece of their story is missing. I’ve therefore long been resigned to the fact that witnessing kestrels leaving the nest is beyond both my wits and my patience.

2017 had been following the familiar script: mum on the eggs, chicks in the nest, chicks at the entrance, and I’d been waiting for the moment when the nest would be empty. I was headed out on a half day walk armed with my camera and tripod, alert for whatever might cross my path that afternoon, and as I walked past the kestrel nest two chicks were sat at the entrance. Again, they shuffled into the darkness as I walked past but I could hear one of the parents calling to them from perhaps 200m away. I stopped, and wondered perhaps if I kept very still and out of sight, I might at least get to see one of the parents coming back to feed its chicks.

I settled down in the long grass opposite the cavity. 30 minutes passed with no sound from any kestrels, not in the hole or outside of it, but there was a curious rustling noise coming from the long grass at the bottom of the stone wall. “Probably a hare”, I thought, so I paid it no more attention and continued to wait.

Restless and ready to go!

After almost an hour a beak hesitantly appeared. It barely moved for a few minutes but then its owner edged out into the open and onto the ledge. It was beautiful, with its rusty brown wings, the yellow rings around its big black eyes, and I could clearly see a few tufty down feathers on its head. Before long another chick joined it on its perch. Both looked upwards and around them, watching insects buzz past, and although their parents were calling to them they both seemed preoccupied with whatever was making the rustling noise at the bottom of the wall.

The lead bird began bobbing its head up and down as it watched. I don’t know whether it was doing this because it was excited or because bobbing helps them judge distance, but either way it looked restless. The rustling came again, this time with the flapping of wings and I caught a glimpse of another kestrel chick on the ground, hidden by the long grass and still unable to fly. Clearly one of the four chicks had just fledged, and that’s what the other chicks were looking at.

The restlessness now made sense, as the ledge-fast chick was on the verge of following its flailing sibling out of the cavity and into the outside world. I abandoned my walk and decided to stay put. For two long hours I watched as the chick fidgeted on the ledge, bobbed its head, peered down into the grass and eventually started stretching, preening and flapping its wings. These were the bird equivalent of pre-flight checks but they never amounted to anything other than practice runs. After two and a half hours my legs were starting to ache. I began to think nothing was going to happen but then a third chick appeared at the entrance, calling and nudging, and the ledge now resembled a disorderly queue.

The lead bird’s head-bobbing was now more animated, and with its siblings behind it there was a new sense of urgency. “Do kestrels feel peer pressure”, I wondered? It certainly looked nervous, although that could have just been because of the pooing. Lots and lots of pooing! The first chick would repeatedly turn around so that it was facing into the cavity, stick its rear off the ledge and then squirt into the air. Was it nervous pooing? I’ve no idea, but certainly when I’m about to give a talk in front of 100 people I can feel things turning in my stomach too, so I can certainly imagine how it must have felt!

The longer I sat there watching its fidgety preparations and aborted attempts, the more absorbing the whole thing became. It was every bit the anthropomorphised scene I imagined at the start of this article and I found myself willing the intrepid chick on. No longer for my own selfish indulgence but rather for its own good and its own development, and more than once I found myself whispering an encouraging “Come on!”, aloud under my breath.

“Erm…what happens now?” – our chick hits bottom

After some further furious head bobbing there was another outburst of stationary flapping, but this time the chick finally let go of the ledge and consequently made a small leap into the air. I’d love to be able to tell you that the bird then rose further upwards on the warm breeze and spiralled around in joy at its liberation……but it didn’t. Instead it fell like a stone into the long grass below and tumbled down the small slope to join its sibling.

I’m sure my heart would haven been in my mouth had the moment lasted long enough for it to get there, but the magic moment was over in a matter of seconds. You might therefore be thinking that the ragged descent was a massive anticlimax for me, having sat absolutely still during the chick’s three hour build-up of flapping, preening and pooing while I got cramp in my leg. But no.

Kestrels are among the birds whose chicks can’t necessarily fly when they leave the nest, so I was never expecting something spectacular. Unceremonious and ragged it might have been, but it was also exhilarating and heartwarming in a way I wasn’t expecting. Like any good drama the building of intrigue and tension is every bit as important as the denouement itself, such that by which time you reach the end you’re utterly immersed and invested into the characters’ world.

‘Flying the nest’ turned out to be emotional and traumatic after all, but it was also one of the most intimate and endearing natural spectacles I’ve witnessed. I was elated, and though I could have tried to replicate the experience by waiting for the other two chicks to make their leaps into the unknown, I felt I’d now seen the part of the story I’d always been missing.

I quietly crawled away and left them to it.

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