The kestrel

Tom was pounding along in the winding line of runners slowly making their way around the school field on this wet, windy February day. His trainers, socks and legs were splattered with mud from the running. He did not like being cold, wet and smeared in mud and never look forward to the cross country sessions. Running around in a circle with no apparent gain did not appeal to Tom. His nature was to observe and ask questions, he was inquisitive about things around him, he wanted to know why stuff was the way it was. Science was the area that Tom enjoyed.

Science occupied Tom’s thoughts as he ran around the school fields today. It was while he was thinking that the silhouette of a bird hovering in the sky ahead caught his attention. He stopped to watch and realised that it was flying directly into the wind at the same speed to remain still. It was a kestrel, probably watching some small creature on the ground. Suddenly it descended swiftly and disappeared out of sight. Tom continued running, now at the back, coming last did not bother him. Before he had gone ten paces the kestrel reappeared carrying a small rodent in its claws. Tom watched as it flew. The bird grew smaller as it went away from him but he was still close enough to see it land on a ledge of the local church that bordered the fields. The kestrel played with its catch for  a few seconds then took a short flight up the 80 foot church spire to a ledge about 15 feet below the summit directly in line with a drain pipe that went down to the base.  So that’s where your nest is tom thought, making a note of where the kestrel went and where the drainpipe was. He decided then to return later after school.

When he got home he threw his wet and muddy trainers under the stairs and went up to his room to prepare. He emptied the contents if his ruck-sack over his bed, school text books, his exercise books, pencil case, ruler, bag containing sports kit (wet and muddy), towel (wet and muddy) and finally his lunch box. He changed out of his school clothes and threw them on his chair putting on jeans, t shirt, hoodie, beanie hat and trainers, not the muddy ones.

The school fields were only 15 minutes from home and 10 minutes to cross to the church ground so Tom was there well before the day would be too dark to see. As he approached he kept looking at where he had seen the kestrel land high up on the spire. He was still a good distance away when the kestrel darted out away from the exact spot he was watching, a little burst of excitement and adrenalin triggered through his body and made him tingle. He slowed down, walking steady and smooth not wanting to make any sudden movements that may be noticed.

The kestrel flew around for a minute and then landed on a tree within the church yard. Tom stopped and removed a small digital camera form his hoodie pocket. He was close enough for the camera to zoom in on the kestrel and get some really good pictures. He wanted to get some pictures of the bird hovering if he could, so he waited. After a minute the bird took off again and circled around the churchyard. Tom waited. It landed on a ledge out of sight so Tom slowly made his way through the churchyard and towards the base of the spire. When the kestrel flew back into view Tom stopped dead, hoping to get his hover shot. The kestrel kept on flying, circling around and finally landed back in the tree close to the spire. Tom decided he was not going to get his shot, so onto his next objective.

In one of Tom’s nature books he had read an account of how birds of prey would eat animals whole and then regurgitate the remains that could not be digested in pellets that were discarded out of the nest. The book had pictures showing complete skeletons of mice and other creatures. Tom wanted to see if he could do the same with the pellets from his kestrel.

It was getting close to dusk now so Tom pulled out his torch and a plastic bag. The kestrel was flying over head. ‘I’ll only be here for a minute Mr Kestrel’ Tom said to himself and then I’ll leave you alone. He carefully paced around the bushes that were planted next to the spire’s base, shining his torch on the ground looking for the pellets; he only needed to get three or four and then he would go home to dissect them. Instead what he found was a small bundle of fluff with wings and a sharp little beak sitting under a bush chirping at him.

Tom looked up at the spire and saw the streaks of droppings trailing down the spire directly above him and realised the nest was there, about 65 feet above him. That’s why the kestrel had been circling the churchyard, trying to find the chick. Tom coming into the churchyard had disturbed the kestrel and stopped it rescuing its offspring; Tom felt guilty. He stood looking up towards the nest and then at the chick, amazed the chick was still alive. He took off his hoodie. He went over to the chick and very carefully scooped the chick up into his hood. He slipped it back on and felt the weight of the chick against his back in the hood. He walked over to the wall and looked at the drainpipe. He grabbed hold of it with both hands and pulled; nothing happened. “Good” he thought. Tom stepped up onto the bottom bracket holding the pipe, it took his weight. Slowly Tom moved both hands up and then stepped up to the next bracket, luckily they were spaced close enough that he did not have to stretch too much.  Carefully Tom moved up the wall holding onto the pipe and standing on the brackets, they protruded enough for him to get a suitable foothold. He decided not to look down but just to keep concentrating on moving up. Slowly he made his way up the wall, all the time the chick was making its little chirping noise, and he could feel it struggling in his hood against his back, which took Tom’s mind off the height. Tom had gone thirty feet up when his arms started to ache, when he got to fifty feet they were burning and he had to stop.

While he was stopped his legs started to ache. Tom looked down and back out over the churchyard, down onto the trees close to the church and realised how high he was. It made his legs wobble and he was now scared. “What am I doing?” He thought of his mum and his stomach trembled, his eyes filled with tears and he did not know what to do, the small fluttering of panic entered his head and was about to seep into his body when the chick pecked through his hood into his back. ‘Ouch’ Tom said out loud. He looked up, made up his mind and started climbing again completely focussing on the ledge some fifteen to twenty feet away, blocking out the pain, pushing through it, hand over hand, foot over foot, one at a time, determined.

He reached the ledge and held on with his arm where the pipe bent up and around while he used his free hand to reach over his back, into his hood and grabbed the chick. This time the chick pecked his hand several times and drew blood. Tom quickly and unceremoniously dropped the chick on the ledge some five feet away from what was obviously the nest, occupied by two more chicks and then held onto the pipe. The chick just sat there chirping away with that ‘feed me, feed me’ demand.

Going back down was much easier than climbing up, Tom’s sense of exhilaration and achievement helped as well. When he reached the bottom he sat on the floor for ages, the muscles in his back, arms and legs were aching and throbbing painfully.

When he set off for home, it was quite dark; he turned towards the church to see the dark shadow of the kestrel arrive at the nest above him. He was not going to make it back in time for tea, which meant he would be punished by his dad, he didn’t mind. It was only later after he was home and had received his telling off and grounding for a week that he realised he had not collected any pellets. He decided he could wait a week.

A week later Tom was pounding along in the same line of runners, slowly making their way around the same school field on another wet and windy February day. His trainers, socks and legs were splattered with mud from the running. He did mind being cold, wet and smeared in mud. He had looked forward to the cross country session this week.

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