A tale of speed and being so near and yet…

… still too far away; in a couple of ways that I will relate here.

Yesterday morning I took the dog for a walk.  It was a clear blue morning with a few light cumulus clouds and a slight, if surprisingly cool, gentle breeze.  As I often do, I took my camera along on the off-chance but I was really just hoping to catch a sight of our pair of kestrels on the fields.  They seemed to have been missing for a couple of weeks and I was becoming worried that perhaps they might not establish a nest but had been scared off by the local crows.  Well, I did catch sight of one bird, the male, hunting in his usual style across the two meadows which are loosely divided by a line of oak trees and hawthorns.  These are the remnants of what must be an old hedge line and which provide a very convenient series of perches and observation points if, that is, you happen to be a kestrel.  I’m stuck with walking and pushing through the narrow paths that traverse the hedge line.  

I know the behaviour of these birds now; I think I’ve been watching them or their predecessors for about three years now.  I’ve still not got any great images because there are both a lot of different perching points around these fields and these birds are somewhat wary of humans and never really come within 500mm range if they can see you.  And see you they will, kestrels have simply extraordinary eyesight; remember these birds can spot tiny field voles from hundreds of feet.  I’ve never figured out where exactly to position a hide in this area even though I’ve spent some fruitless hours trying.  

However… yesterday, the male was being a little more predictable than normal and I found I could stay up-light and track him between the two fields.  We (dog and I) spent about an hour and a half following him round in loops I took a couple of hundred photos from a distance but none of merit.  I was tempted to leave because the bird wasn’t coming any nearer but a recent lesson along the lines of “never leave an animal once you have tracked it down, you never know when something will happen” made me hang in there. Besides the dog remained content nosing around in the hedge.  Just as I was really thinking we should leave, the kestrel headed off up wind and over to the other side of the field in a hunting hover.  It dropped it’s hover nearer to the ground (a good sign it may have seen something) and then plummeted.  I lost sight of it at this point.  It was possible that it had flown off elsewhere out of my sight but after an extended pause i saw it rising and flying quite low towards me.  Now, I’m quite excited on two counts.  First, a kestrel that has stooped and then stayed on the ground rather than coming up quickly may well have made a kill.  Second, he’s coming towards me and I’m in line with today’s favoured perching trees.  Sure enough he flies towards me, I begin shooting, he sees me in even partly hidden by a bush and makes a small correction around me and flies past and to a tree in the woods behind me.  Wow, perhaps I have the shot.  The whole sequence looks good on the back of the camera.  No point hanging about further because I could see something in it’s talons and he will be off eating that for a good while.  It looks like a big field mouse and not a small vole.

Later… back at home I realise two things.  First, kestrels are small and the shots were still quite far away.  Second, even being partially visible, it had spotted me and made a slight jink around me.  It hadn’t come right over and given me a near full frame shot I’d hoped for.  Consequently, all the shots need a good cropping.  However all the shots are well exposed; I’d been using manual exposures and had set up to compensate for the bright sky and underwing shadows.  Finally, on close inspection, the shots don’t look quite right.  Almost every shot has the tiniest bit of blur.  I simply can’t believe it.  I’m gutted.  I’ve a series of about 30 finely framed shots of a kestrel approaching and passing with a mouse in it’s talons and i screwed up the focus.  Gradually I realise I hadn’t.  It’s worse than that; I’d set the shutter speed to 1/1600 sec and aperture to f/8 to get a bit more depth of field.  I’d over thought it.  I’d normally shoot wide open at f/5.6 and that would have given me 1/3200 sec.  I though I could get away with less shutter speed.  I now slowly realise that the kestrel was flying too fast and I was getting motion blurring even though I was panning.  Out of that sequence I had one shot that was sharp and I could crop and that’s the shot below.  it’s my first shot of a kestrel with prey.  Had the bird been a bit closer, I’d have been truly gutted because some of those ‘missed’ shots could have been superb.  As it was, the distance was always going to be a bit of a compromise.  

The featured image isn’t a great shot but it is an interesting ‘record shot’ - kestrel with mouse. in slightly different circumstances this and some of the other ‘outtakes’ could have been excellent.  These opportunities are very rare and to my chagrin, I blew this one.  Now, I’ve got some lessons to adsorb.  1) I’m going back and will figure how to conceal myself properly and wait… 2) I will never underestimate the speed of these small falcons again.  

Nikon D500 with Nikon 300mm f/4E PF plus TC-14e iii teleconverter (i.e. 420mm). Taken at 1/1600s, f/8, ISO 800.