Ponteland wildlife artist James Alder has book published after 60 years

A book on shipyard kestrels by James Alder is finally finished after 60 years and many visits to a Tyneside shipyard

James Alder, painted by his artist friend John Gilroy
James Alder, painted by his artist friend John Gilroy

It would be difficult to find a more unlikely setting for a wildlife story than a Tyneside shipyard 60 years ago.

In the 1950s, the yards employed thousands against a noisy and busy backdrop of polluting industrial processes.

But artist James Alder came across an example of how nature can adapt to the most inhospitable of circumstances.

In 1953 a carpenter at the Walker Naval Yard alerted James to the fact that a pair of kestrels were nesting on the jib of a crane.

James asked permission to climb the crane and, in the days before hard hats and stringent health and safety, it was granted.

He ascended the giddying 140ft up the rungs of the crane to view the nest.

It was a climb he would make many times as he monitored and recorded the nest’s progress.

The catwalk between the crane driver’s cabin and the engine house was 40ft long and only three feet wide, with hand rails on either side.

The crane (left) at Walker Naval Yard where the kestrels nested and which James Alder climbed regularly
The crane (left) at Walker Naval Yard where the kestrels nested and which James Alder climbed regularly

James built a canvas hide where, with his camera, he could make his observations.

An unexpected development was when one of the newly fledged kestrels ended its first flight by dropping into a bucket of bilge oil.

James, who lived in Ponteland, took the bird home, nursed it back to health and trained it for the day when it could live its own life.

James died in 2007 and when his son Rod, also an artist, was sorting through his father’s papers he came across his written accounts of the shipyard kestrels.

“I found a typed manuscript which looked like it was intended for publication but for some reason or other had been shelved,” says Rod, who also lives in Ponteland.

As well as detailing the growing family on the crane jib, James had speculated on what had happened to the rescued youngster when it returned to the wild.

The kestrel in the crane, by Rod Alder
The kestrel in the crane, by Rod Alder

Rod decided to complete the book, adding a chapter and a half and using his father’s, and his own, illustrations.

The result is the new book The Kestrel in the Crane, from Tyne Bridge Publishing at £7 and available from Newcastle City Library and bookshops.

“Finding the papers was quite intriguing as they described the shipyards and the dirty Tyne,” says Rod.

James had noted how the kestrels had evicted rooks from the crane nest. The nest itself was something of a wonder.

In the absence of trees and twigs, it had been constructed entirely of waste bits and pieces of wire from the shipyard “all securely intertwined and bound about the girder so that nothing short of an earthquake would shift it”.

The rook eggs were pushed out of the nest, with the female kestrel laying six of her own, five of which hatched. “Many days of thrilling experiences followed in this totally new world in the sky,” says Rod.

“There were days when James was torn between watching nature in the raw and the fascinating art of shipbuilding.”

The kestrel with fledged youngsters on the shipyard crane
The kestrel with fledged youngsters on the shipyard crane

When one of the young kestrels fell into the bucket of oil, it was taken by workers to the yard’s first aid centre to be checked over.

The bird was beyond their remit and James was called in.

He took it home, bathed and fed it, and began the long process of training it to hunt for food.

James used a leather jess and a rubber mouse attached to a line, jerking it through the grass.

After a couple of escapes and recaptures, the bird took off to regain its freedom when it was finally ready.

“I clearly remember the young kestrel that came to stay with us when I was a little boy, and especially its reaction to our hamster,” says Rod.


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