Death from the skies

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A couple of years ago, R and I watched a fascinating television programme about the physiology and habits of owls, and it was said that the force of their pounce is such that it can crush a rodent’s skeleton instantly – so although it’s not possible for me not to feel a little sorry for this unfortunate vole, I know that in all likelihood it knew absolutely nothing about the fate it was about to meet, and only felt an instant’s pain before being consigned to oblivion. We should all be so lucky.

There were three shorties hunting in the Cotswolds this afternoon, but this one was the most active near The Wall, and most of my photos are of him. Or her – I still have absolutely no idea how to tell the difference between a male and a female short-eared owl. Or indeed, how to tell most of them apart; but I do recognise this one because its upper markings are especially dark, its underside is more buff than cream coloured, and it has the habit of flying about with its feet exposed, which most of this group don’t tend to do.

This is the final photo of a sequence of seven shots, all of which I’ve put on Facebook. The owl swooped in, pounced on the vole, and then stayed on the ground with its wings mantled over its prey, looking all around for other predators. After a few seconds it took off again – with the vole rather casually clasped in one talon, you’ll notice if you look at this full-screen – and flew up and over the hedge and the lane to some open grassland, where it landed too far away for me to get a decent photo. I assume that it felt happier eating its catch out in the open, where it had a good view all around and could keep an eye out for potential muggers.

When a shortie catches something very small, they quite often seem to lift straight back off the ground with it, and transfer it from talon to beak – at which point they swallow it whole – on the wing. (I have taken photos of this, but only distantly – one day I’ll manage a better one, and I’ll be very pleased with myself because it’s quite a dramatic scene.) But when they catch something as large as this, and land to eat it, it can keep them occupied, and satisfied, for quite a long time. Several long lenses and a couple of pairs of binoculars stayed trained on this chap for about ten minutes after he retreated to the open field, but he showed no sign of feeling that he needed to go and catch something else; and as the light was fading and the wind was rising, and my own stomach was rumbling like an approaching train, I decided to call it a day.

In other news, just for the record: there were at least a dozen A. plumipes in the garden this morning, including one female; also the first Andrena cineraria and the first Bombus pratorum of the year. I managed some half-decent photos of a male Brimstone butterfly – which was pleasing, because they’re very skittish in the spring; but failed to catch up with the Small Tortoiseshell that whizzed through. So it was a good day for everything except rodents.