IT seems like the angels were watching this week when a precious, beautiful female kestrel found herself somehow trapped halfway up a quarry face.
And that angel was Debbie ‘Doolittle’ Nelson. Debbie and wildlife pal Aidan Crean were out bright and early in the Monday sunshine doing a wildlife census – counting the species to get a nature baseline that can be built upon.
The quarries that pepper the Belfast hills are like mini-nature reserves so they’re great places to visit if you’re after wildlife and have the proper permissions. They’re often out of bounds for obvious safety reasons and so all sorts of animals and birds take refuge there.
Debbie was scanning the basalt cliff with her telescope when she spotted a kestrel in a nest. The pocaire gaoithe is one of our most special birds, a falcon that a few years ago was a common sight above the M1 as it hovered over the grass verges hunting for mice. But then we poisoned the vermin and that also killed the kestrels.
So they retreated to our mountains. And those old quarries across the hills make great nesting sites – there could well be a dozen pairs from Colin Mountain to Carnmoney.
It was thrilling for Debbie to see this bird in the nest. But she soon realised that something was not quite right. Debbie has handled almost every species as she travels the land carrying out rescues and nursing them back to health in her home. This bird was in distress.
It seemed that her leg was stuck. The bird called repeatedly and flapped her wings. But she couldn’t take off. Miraculously, the stricken kestrel had been spotted by perhaps the only two people on the planet who could actually save her. Because Debbie and Bog Meadows supremo Aidan won’t give up when a bird’s life is at stake.
This female bird would probably have young chicks or eggs in the nest. So not only was the mum in trouble, but her whole family were in imminent peril.
“It was just after 9am and we started making calls,” said Aidan. “We dialled the PSNI, Fire Service, other nature groups. There were builders in Crumlin who said they had the biggest ladder in Ireland and they were on their way. There was a ropes team in Lisburn who were willing to help and the barn owl group at Lough Neagh were preparing to come. The Springfield Road Fire Brigade were being mobilised. There was an army of people willing to drop everything to help a single bird as soon as the SOS went out.”
But before any of them arrived, they were told to stand down – once White Mountain Quarries heard about the situation, they took full control. Site manager Adrian McGrillan arrived to assess the situation. He would need to bring in a massive crane.
“It was about three o’clock by the time everything was in place,” said Aidan. “You don’t just put a crane up, the land had to be prepared to make it even and secure and then myself and Debbie had to don all the PPE and hardhats. Debbie would have to go into the basket because she knows how to handle birds like this and I went in to keep it balanced so it wouldn’t tilt.”
While they were getting ready, the stricken bird’s partner arrived, landing on the nest and trying in vain to free her with his beak. It clearly was a race against time – exhaustion and starvation would claim the mother before long.
Debbie and Aidan got into the cage and were slowly raised 70ft up the giant cliff. Once level with the nest, they found that the kestrel's foot was enmeshed in a thick bundle of twine like that used in haystacks.
According to Debbie Doolittle there's a male Muscovy duck wandering around Shane's retail park carpark at Boucher Road Belfast behind Oakland Furniture. If you’ve seen anyone posting they've lost one, let them know so they can go get it. Debbie can’t due to biosecurity at moment. pic.twitter.com/6tNNjFV8EU— Ade (@AdeMcCann) January 21, 2022
But they discovered that it wasn’t a kestrel nest at all, but a raven’s nest – obviously decades old – that contained reams of strange and colourful cords and objects. Male crows love to collect shiny things and bring them back to their partners as gifts – it’s why they say you should never to leave a wedding ring on a windowsill. The kestrel must have landed on the nest while it watched for prey below.
Debbie got to work, snipping away the twine with scissors. The kestrel remained totally calm - it was as if she knew the strange visitors clad in bright orange safety suits were there to help. But her foot was so tangled that Debbie had to bring the bird back down to the ground so she should continue to cut the cord away. And finally, after 20 minutes, the work was completed.
Aidan filmed as Debbie opened her hand to let the bird free and the footage is joyous. The kestrel sits for a few seconds before taking off, as if considering her options. And instead of disappearing over the cliff-face, she takes to the air just above their heads and does a circle of the quarry. “It was like a thank-you flypast,” said Aidan.
And then, like the Starship Enterprise hitting warp speed, she darted like the wind in a straight line out of the quarry in the direction of Black Mountain.
“I’ve watched birds all my life and I knew I had just seen a bird going to its nest. She will probably have chicks by now and she had to return to them. She was flying there in a straight line at full speed,” said Aidan.
“Kestrels are super-intelligent, it’s like they look right into your soul. This bird knew that we were helping it and it didn’t flinch all the while Debbie was cutting the twine away. And then it paid us a wee tribute flyby before making a beeline to its own nest. It was amazing.”
Debbie said she was over the moon with the rescue. “There were so many people willing to drop everything and help at a moment’s notice,” she said. “When you get support like that, it makes it all worthwhile.”
• If you’ve seen or photographed anything interesting, or have any nature questions, you can text Dúlra on 07801 414804.