January leading into February can be a dreary time. For some days, we have been locked into oppressively low slate lidded skies that crush the very colour from the day. Coupled with a dampness that seeps into your bones this is not a time to fill you with enthusiasm for for wildlife photography. The Scots have a word for days like these; dreich. Once experienced, never forgotten. So it was when I set out to walk the dog with my wife and no camera but in the slight hope that more than wood pigeons and crows might be out and about.
For a couple of weeks I’ve been seeing a kestrel or two quartering the fields in the mornings. Not every day but enough that I’m getting hopeful that they might become a nesting pair. Every bird making flight at the boundary between wood and field has been getting my attention. Today, such were the conditions that I could see little aloft other than a variety of incorrigible corvids in the form of crows, magpies and a couple of shy jays.
As we turned a corner of the wood I spotted a shape in the topmost branch of a slight oak at the very edge of the wood. The instant of recognition shouted kestrel. But I check with binoculars. Such is the monochrome light and the backscatter from the clouds that I’m confused. It’s near silhouetted plumage is the muddy and mushy browns of a buzzard. I’m momentarily confused by scale before I realise that this is a female kestrel made dowdy by the day.
We watch her and discuss the welcome reappearance of these birds on ‘our patch’ while we very slowly progress along the field’s way, not wishing to disturb the bird as we pass. Uncharacteristically, the kestrel remains on her branch; seemingly intent on doing nothing. But then she simply alights from the leafless tree onto the air. She drops on opening wings, breaking gravity and carving a scythingly sharp turn onto the ground. Striking with force at the interface between the rabbit mown grass of the field and the diminishing bracken and bramble mulch from last year’s woodland undergrowth she hunches over, I think, I hope, her kill.
From field right, a magpie has also spotted the strike and now inelegantly flaps over seemingly intent on robbery with menaces. The kestrel rises up to full height and we see her spread her wings wide in a classic hawk mantle over her prey. She gapes her mouth with furious eyes at the magpie. Outclassed, the magpie passes by her with barely a check and flies instead into the woods. We watch breathlessly as the kestrel gathers herself and then lifts with, almost certainly, a mouse held fore and aft in her talons. She flies over to one of the very large oaks that fringe the field to feed.
We move on across the field’s broad track, newly warmed by the spectacle and now looking forward to spring and kestrels on the wing in brighter, camera friendly, skies.