Yesterday afternoon, as I approached an area of gorse admixed with elder, I heard the high-pitched kee-kee-kee-kee of two kestrels. Earlier I had seen a male (a ‘tercel’) hunting near by and assumed he was one of them. The cries were agitated and penetrating. Presently I saw the birds together, flying with shallow wingbeats low over the bushes. They appeared to be in some sort of disagreement. Then I heard a single brief call of a jay and, a little later, while the kestrels were still airborne, glimpsed it for a moment in flight and had the feeling that the jay had been involved in the kerfuffle.
The birds all then disappeared and went quiet. I continued walking. A few yards on, the contours of the bushes allowed me a view of both kestrels, prominently perched. The tercel was nearer, a perfect specimen, while a female (‘falcon’) was a ten or twelve yards farther away.
The tercel resumed calling; the falcon remained silent. After a minute or so the tercel desisted and flew off, soon returning and perching exactly where he had been before. He had caught and killed a wood mouse.
I was so placed that only my head and chest would have been visible to him, and I had my telescope with me. It is a good telescope and zooms to 60x, so that I could make the tercel fill almost the entire field of view.
While the falcon watched from a distance, the tercel set about his meal. The scaly yellow toes of his left foot had clamped the mouse against a small, terminal, triple fork of the elder bush on which he was sitting; bending, he bit off the snout and swallowed it. Having tugged off and eaten the rest of the head, his sharp, curved bill began to deconstruct the mouse in tiny and delicate morsels. The shoulders and forepaws went, fur and claws and all. He pulled at the internal organs, the heart and lungs, the liver, the skin and connective tissue. The intestines became visible, bulged here and there with excrement. He extricated and laid them aside, perhaps meaning to drop them, though they remained draped over an adjoining twig. Repositioning what was left of the corpse, he ate the kidneys and a bit or two of the thighs.
As if deciding they offended him, he lifted the intestines from their branch and let them fall. That done, he continued, somehow managing to extract in one piece and engulf much of the spinal column, an inch or two of which now poked out of the left side of his gape.
Judging that it had become small enough, he picked up what was left of the mouse – its hind legs, rump and tail – and wolfed it down, tail last.
Finally he busied himself with cleaning up every last scrap. I could not be sure whether he used his tongue, but he paid attention to each bit of twig where the mouse had been, even to the branch where the intestines had hung.
The whole operation had lasted at least five minutes, maybe longer. Besides the unseen intestines, all that presently remained of the mouse was a certain increase in the bird’s girth, a hint of temporary repletion, and of course a memory in my head. Later its indigestible remnants would be cast up in the form of a pellet, or pellets, to form, like its intestines, a meal for bacteria and microscopic fungi.
May its little soul rest in peace. Not a scrap of its flesh has been wasted. It is now part of the tercel, of his flesh and of his mind and motion, of his ability to anticipate and correct for the wind so superbly that, while hovering, his questing vision remains gyroscopically stable.
The other day I watched what I believe is the same bird, also with my telescope and tripod. A strong and blustery north-east wind was blowing. It was as if he had nailed himself to the sky, for as long as ever he wanted to, before sliding with supreme grace sideways and down to take up a different airy vantage.
The falcon had disappeared at some point during the tercel’s meal, inspired perhaps to seek a mouse of her own. With a glance to his right, the tercel took wing, towards the hedgerow and fields, and disappeared from view.