I’ve developed a recent obsession with Kestrels, thanks to Chris Packham’s memoir, ‘Fingers in the Sparkle Jar’. I’ve never had much luck when it comes to looking for birds of prey, usually catching a glimpse of them from hundreds of feet away as they fly off with their kill.
I hatched a plan, that I thought might give me a chance to see one up close. I would take a mouse as an offering and place in on top of a fence post, in the hope that a Kestrel might spot it and perch there for a second or two before flying off with it. I feed defrosted mice to Old Sport, my corn snake, so I already had the bait.
I got to South Norwood nature reserve, where I know there are Kestrels, as some large clouds moved in overhead. I wandered the path where I saw a Tawny Owl chick a few weeks ago. The cow parsley had grown by several feet since then it seemed and I was completely lost in it. An Orange Tip butterfly, a species I’d been trying to photograph for almost a month, settled on a leaf in front of me. A good omen I thought.
At the end of the cow parsley path is a stream. I perched by the water for a few minutes, watching sparrows and blackcaps flit from tree to tree. I left them some seed to say thank you for their little display and went in search of the Kestrel.
I walked for miles before seeing any sign of a Kestrel. As I was passing the time photographing Parakeets and Robins, an elderly birdwatcher approached me to brag about a Red Kite he had seen in the exact place I was stood. “Oh you should have been here yesterday,” he said. He talked at me for a solid twenty minutes. TWENTY MINUTES! He name dropped supposed famous listers from Surrey and London, despite my efforts to put him off by clarifying that I wasn’t a twitcher, lister or even really a proper birder. In the end he was distracted by a potential Cuckoo and I was freed. He was a nice chap, but he did go on a bit.
It was a few seconds after photographing the Comma butterfly that I spotted it. A chestnut brown blur came hurtling overhead towards a meadow. It hovered for a few seconds in different spots, then disappeared. I followed a path leading in its general direction finding, to my surprise, a female Kestrel walking along the footpath.
It flew off quickly, but still, I was happy to have seen it. I decided that this was the time to attempt ‘Operation Kestrel’. I found a post, de-bagged my mouse and set it atop the offering post. Several people walked past, though thankfully none of them noticed the fat, dead, white mouse sprawled on the wood.
I stood back, set up my tripod and waited. I’m not very patient. A more patient person probably wouldn’t have felt the need to hatch such a plan in the first place. I waited for a bit, then it came. She hovered quite a distance away, scouring for voles. I wanted to shout, “I brought you a bloody mouse! It’s on this post!” but I don’t speak bird.
She never came to the post, and I never saw her again. I thought that was probably as close as I was going to get, so I re-bagged my mouse and wandered into the woodland. The clouds were still overhead and were beginning to look a bit threatening. I decided to throw my mouse into a field full of corvids, hoping one of them would appreciate it. I was right about the clouds. The rain began to fall, so I took a treelined route that gave me some cover. I reached the exit, stopping briefly to look into the lake. Two Great Crested Grebes were courting, with necks outstretched. Just then, to my delight and slight disbelief, another Kestrel flew in to shelter from the rain, settling on a branch right in front of me. I panickedly grabbed for my camera to take a photo before it flew off, but it didn’t. It sat on the branch looking straight at me.
This Kestrel was male. Males have a silver head and black splodge on the tail feathers, whereas females, like the previous bird, have striped tail feathers and a light brown head. I couldn’t believe how long he stayed on the branch or how comfortable he was with me moving around in front of him to get a better angle. I reached for my offering, not taking my eye off the bird, then remembered I’d thrown the bloody thing to the crows. I decided to take a gamble and ran back to get the mouse. It was the least I could do for such an obliging model. The mouse was exactly where I’d left it. The crows hadn’t touched it. I grabbed it and ran back to MY Kestrel. He was waiting for me, still on the same branch. As I unfurled the mouse from its bag the Kestrel cocked his head and flew to a branch on the opposite side of the path. I waved it around a little, then threw it on the floor beneath his perch. He moved again, to a lower branch. I thought he was going to take it.
Then, as if he’d been called, he flew away, over the lake and into the distance.