“What kind of wildlife photographer are you,” I asked myself earlier this year, “when there’s a kestrel around the village which you’ve spent no time following?”
So over the last few weeks, I’ve been trying to photograph the male kestrel that’s wintering in the area, and which frequents the lanes and fields around the village. Like most birds of prey, though, it is very alert to human presence – and the main challenge is to get a few shots in before it realises it’s being photographed and flies off.
Its wary pose on the top of a barn roof (first photo) epitomises this wariness. It had been peering over the end of the roof into the undergrowth below, and I fired off a few shots thinking it hadn’t noticed me – in fact it was watching me the moment I arrived, and soon departed. (Each of the photos can be enlarged by clicking on them.)
Although kestrels are most often seen and recognised hovering above road verges, in winter they far more frequently hunt from perches – and indeed, I’ve almost always seen this kestrel sitting on a telegraph pole or at the top of a tree.
I was intrigued to find out how often kestrels hunt from perches – and after a little internet research I found that in winter they do so about 85% of the time. What surprised me was that even in the summer, they hunt this way 45% of the time. Sitting on a post requires far less energy than hovering. However, in summer, there is also a need to find food for the female (while she’s sitting on eggs) and their chicks (when they’ve hatched). This is where hovering to hunt is so important: during the summer months, a kestrel is five times more likely to capture prey from hovering than from perching. [ref]
It’s perhaps not surprising that the only time that I saw it hovering for any length of time was on a rather warm, sunny day.
Following this kestrel has in many ways been an ideal photography project – because it’s difficult but attainable with the camera that I currently have. At first I generally spooked it before I could photograph it – but I’ve learned to use a little more subtlety. Usually this involves putting the camera out of the window of the car (which serves as a mobile bird hide!) while keeping my head well inside. Sometimes I fail completely, as it’s wise to my presence much too quickly. The photo here is one where I just managed a couple of shots before it departed.
I’ve only occasionally been lucky enough to photograph it properly before it noticed me. There was one time when I’d spotted it on a barn roof, but with the Sun directly behind it I had to turn the car around to get a decent view. Inevitably, it flew off before I could do so, and I didn’t see where it went. As I needed to turn round again to continue the journey I’d started on, I swung into the village hall car park – and there it was on a neighbouring pole! For about half a minute I was able to photograph it before it realised what was happening and flew off. Although the lighting isn’t ideal in these photos, they do show the kestrel behaving naturally, without interference.
Kestrels generally begin to breed in early March. Around mid-April a male kestrel will need to start bringing prey items to the nest for the female while she is incubating: hunting from a perch will no longer be adequate for the amount of prey needed, and most will be acquired from hovering. Once the eggs have hatched, probably some time during May, both parents will need to share hunting duties.
By that time Jen and I will have moved to Somerset so I won’t be able to find out how this particular kestrel fare, but it has been fun to follow it over the last few weeks.