As soon as I open the door, she flies down and hovers just inches in front of my face, She calls out a warning.  I retreat.  Her two chicks squat on the roof of the outhouse across the passageway.  They are fully grown but lack the red bibs of their parent.  Confident that I am no longer a threat, she flies to them calling repeatedly.  They take off and do a few circuits, twisting and wheeling in the confined space between my house and the church wall and land again. Then they take flight again and flutter over the door and up to the roof of the house opposite, where they sit twittering, waiting for the next instruction. 

 

My swallows have learnt to fly quickly.  As soon as they left their ledge high up on the back wall of the outhouse, they followed their parents between the narrow gap between the dustbins and roof edge and turned upwards onto the roof.  I witnessed the second lesson.  Swallows are very vulnerable for the first few hours after leaving the nest.  No wonder she wanted to keep me away. 

 

Magpies take longer and make more fuss about it.  They line the ridge tiles, trying to maintain their balance, while their parents fly around them, maintaining an incessant chatter.  Eventually one takes flight, but it lacks the long tail feathers of the adult bird and the performance is clumsy.  It makes the beech tree and crashes.  Another follows, misses the tree and lands in the garden, calling loudly to its parents.  I am alarmed and want to go out and rescue it.  I don’t.  An adult bird flies down to join it and by sheer willpower, encourages it to gain the top of the fence.  All is well.  Soon they are perched on the ridge tiles again ready for the next lesson. 

 

Some birds have no lessons at all.  The auks that nest on cliff ledges, just seem to know when they are ready and launch themselves into space, wings whirring frantically, but losing height all the time.  They land heavily on the sea about 200 yards from the base of the cliff.  And that’s where they stay.  They are not strong enough to return to the ledge.  They must practice from the waves instead. 

 

In St Ives, Herring Gulls nest noisily on the roofs of the boarding houses.  This time of year the chicks, clad in their grey, beige and dirty cream camouflage fatigues, venture out on to their practice platforms, the flat roofs of dormer windows. There, they face into the wind, beat their wings vigorously and slowly leave the ground, hovering just two inches above the roof.  Then they let themselves down.  It’s like they are testing the power of their wings. It may take several days before they feel confident enough to leave their platform.           

 

Just west of St Ives, out of sight of the tumble of Victorian terraces, the broad sandy beach and the classic beauty of the art gallery;  here, where the grassy headland is gashed to create a rocky gully, a precipitous chasm where waves burst angrily against the rocks and run back grumbling over tumbling pebbles,  a drama is being played out.  An urgent call rises above the roar of the waves.  I inch forward.  A magnificent tiercel darts in from the sea and swoops up just a few yards in front of me.  I feel mesmerised, pinned to the spot.  His eyes are focussed and yellow rimmed, the markings on its face severe as an executioners hood, his chest barred and his feet and the skin above his cruel beak shining bright yellow.  He spreads his wings and banks away,  soaring up and over the grass short cropped grass and out to the darkening sea.  He is soon back, speeding up the gully like a fighter plane, firing staccato cries against the wall.  After five or six passes without obvious response, he flies away west.  I descend to a point where I can see into the gully over a grassy bank.  There on a ledge a chick sits unmoved.  Its head and chest are light brown, somewhere between beige and cinnamon, its wings darker.  I  watch it for twenty minutes expecting its parents to return,  but it sits on in its sulk scarcely moving until, perhaps detecting my attention,  it flies heavily out of the gully to land on a tussock of grass a score or so yards away.  This youngster is not ready for aerobatics.  It takes about two months training for a Peregrine to become a completely competent hunter.

 

Further on I encounter a more advanced pupil.  It is perched on a rocky outcrop protruding from a grassy slope high above the sea, it is calling, an insistent mewling.  Suddenly, two dark arrows are swooping around the rock uttering their own urgent calls.  The chick takes off and joins them, diving, twisting and soaring,  – a drama of sound and motion.  It follows the tiercel into a stoop, dropping faster than a stone, both birds twisting in the air to lock talons, wheeling away at the last moment and speeding with scarce a wing beat, dark and low over the waves. 

 

Something makes me look up.  Two Kestrels are hovering low over the flowering heather.  They are almost touching and although the breeze is not strong, they are finding it difficult to keep station; the lower of the two is noticeably more clumsy. 

 

It’s that time of year.    

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