Thursday 18 February 2021

A Kestrel Kill at Farmoor 18th February 2021

My regular walk around Farmoor Reservoir took me, this sunny afternoon, to the north side of the smaller basin.The southwesterly wind was strong here and cold, blowing without hindrance across the reservoir, beating and tugging at me, causing my eyes to water.

Looking down to the settling beds that lie below the perimeter track that runs along the reservoir bank, I found myself at eye level with a hunting Kestrel, holding station in mid air. In classic pose, it hung in the wind, oblivious of me in its concentration, grey head bent downwards to scrutinise the ground below. 

Such was the strength of the wind the bird could keep any wing movement to a minimum, just holding them out was sufficient, trusting the rest to aerodynamics. It remained for some minutes, perfectly balanced, winnowing its wings to hold position and not be overwhelmed by the wind.Then its wings ceased beating and it allowed itself to become subservient to the wind, taken in a sweeping arc of controlled flight downwind, low along the reservoir bank, only to rise and tack into the wind, become its master and resume hovering.

The image presented was the absolute embodiment of its colloquial name of Windhover.

Deciding that hovering was not going to achieve its prime purpose of getting a meal it opted for an alternative stratagem and dropped down to perch on an upright metal post, a part of the railings guarding the settling pools. As a perch it was hardly ideal but the bird persisted, grasping the cold metal with sulphur yellow talons and using its tail to maintain a precarious balance, swaying as periodic gusts of wind caught it by surprise and sought to dislodge it.

For a while it seemed that this unlikely perch would prove inadequate but with head inclined downwards it continued surveying the grass, already lush after days of prolonged rain. For minutes it found nothing to spark its interest but then came a tensing and stilling of head and body, its gaze laser intent, focused entirely on something that was invisible to me in the grass. The bird made constant adjustments of its head, minor movements, bobbing from side to side, forward and back, judging angles and line of descent. Deciding if and when was the opportune moment to strike.

It dropped, a sudden movement from perch to ground, achieved in the blink of an eye. Sunk into the grass with talons extended, it stood almost enveloped by the grass, wings in heraldic pose, fanned on either side. It seemed surprised, as if it had not expected to be where it was, looking around as if uncertain.

Had it really caught something or missed its prey? Only the Kestrel knew. For a minute it remained motionless, wings remaining outspread, an orange crucifix in the greenery, mantling something. It drew its wings to its body and remained on the ground, confirming it was holding a victim in the grass with its foot.

A fractional movement, causing a slight change to the bird's position, revealed a dark brown, mishapen ball of fur, a vole,  hanging dead in the terminal caress of needle sharp black claws. The Kestrel bent bill to prey and commenced to eat. Half the vole was consumed in rapid bites, its bill tip smeared with the blood of the still warm mammal, its crop swelling noticeably as it continued to eat. 

It took the by now headless vole in its bill and shuffled to a better position in the grass and proceeded to resume its meal by dropping the body once more to the ground and, holding it firmly with a talon, tore pieces from the remains with its delicately hooked bill

The Kestrel turned its dark eyes in a penetrating gaze to where I stood and seemed to realise that, more used to riding the wind or maintaining a vigil perched high in a tree, it had made itself vulnerable in the grass.

Grasping the remains of its prey it flew low alongside the railings, then to be swept by the wind up and away into the swaying embrace of the nearby trees.