One of the five kestrel chicks hatched this year (2017)

East Devon’s Countryside team get up close to wild kestrels and their chicks

For several years now closed circuit cameras have provided intimate glimpses into the private lives of wildlife on the Seaton Wetlands. Blue tits, reed warblers and small mammals were historically set up for viewing, however the clear favourite two years ago was a breeding pair of kestrels.

In 2015 a camera was positioned once it was known that the kestrels were incubating eggs. Last year (2016) followed the same pattern, but ended in tragedy when the entire brood failed, while in 2017 the full soap opera of kestrel life was beamed into the Discovery Hut for visitors to follow.

Two kestrel nest boxes had been sited on the Seaton Wetlands, on top of vertiginously high poles and accessed via ladders. It was decided that it was simply too dangerous to access the boxes in this way and so site manager, James Chubb, set Ranger Dave Palmer the challenge to design a box which could be lowered and raised by a winch, to allow all access to be done from the ground. The boxes were replaced in February and a nest camera fitted to the box nearest the Discovery Hut. At that point it was thought that the very first signs of nesting were happening in the box and so all nest materials – soil and a few scruffy feathers – were transferred in that operation.

Funding for the camera, boxes and plant to fit them on site came from East Devon’s Countryside Service’s core budget, as bringing wildlife into the consciousness of visitors to the site is the top priority for the site’s management. Within a few days nesting was confirmed in the new box and the entire process of egg laying, incubation, and feeding of chicks was watched from a privileged vantage point 30 centimetres from the nest.

Members of the Axe Vale and District Society assisted with the nest box upgrade as part of their commitment to maintain a network of bird nest boxes monitored on site. Ringing of the chicks was undertaken under BTO (British Trust for Ornithology) licence by members of the Axe Wetlands Ringing Group, so all nine chicks from both successful broods now have identifying rings on their legs, to allow us to gain even more insight into their ecology.

Finally, and most importantly, the Discovery Hut facility was staffed by volunteers and members of the Countryside Team to ensure seven-day-a-week opening of the hut for kestrel coffee mornings, so visitors could drop in each day and watch developments. Visitors flocked in to watch the first exciting episode of the first eggs being laid on 18 April.

Incubation followed, starting from 25 April, as kestrels hold back from incubating the first three eggs in an attempt to raise the full clutch as near to each other as possible, and the first egg hatched a few weeks later on 21 May. It took four further days for all five eggs to hatch and the female sat tight, brooding the chicks for a further 11 days, by which time the chicks were big enough to warm themselves and large enough to need both parent birds hunting full time to provide sufficient food.

Interestingly, while the chicks were being raised, we experienced a period of very bad wet weather. During this time it was seen that the parent birds stopped catching small mammals and swapped to catching almost exclusively other young birds. As soon as the weather brightened up they reverted to catching voles and mice.

Last week (week commencing 19 June 2017), all five of the chicks fledged from the box and continue to be seen on the reserve, being fed by parents as well as attempting to hunt for themselves. Once the nest box has stopped being used, it will be dropped and cleaned (camera as well), before being lifted back into place, ready to record the whole saga again next year, hopefully.

Over 2,000 people were recorded to have visited the Discovery Hut during the nesting of the kestrels and donations of over £1,000 were raised through providing tea and coffee to visitors during this time, all of which is committed to being reinvested in the kestrel monitoring project at Seaton Wetlands.