The week had been a mixture of temperature and weather, one day bright and cold the next warmer and softer, but always dry. The forecast gave rain for one day; Sunday. And, for once, the forecast proved correct, we had steady rain overnight and in the morning I woke to the sound of tyres hissing on tarmac.
I didn't hold out much hope for the trip to Elmley so I wasn't disappointed that there was no sign of the barn owl, the road was flooded, the fields were flooded, the barn owl's world had changed, disappeared beneath sheets of gun metal water, as impenetrable to him as steel. Prolonged periods of heavy rain can be deadly to barn owls, their soft body feathers soak up moisture like a sponge once the rain penetrates the outer layers, and the resulting chill can kill. And the small rodents that barn owls depend upon can take shelter in their burrows and, if flooded, there they die thus removing much of the owl's diet.
Sitting in the car, listening to the rain as it was driven into the windscreen was uninspiring and the few birds that showed were looking dismal and drab in the grey so, before long, the decision was taken to cut the day's outing short and return home. But nature has a way of surprising you and often the unexpected saves the day.
Some birds benefit from the rain because it can encourage worms and other subterranian invertebrates closer to the surface and that makes them easier prey for probing beaks. The starling is one of the birds that takes advantage of this and huge flocks can sometimes be found in winter rain feeding in open grass areas. The whole flock can appear to undulate across the grass like gentle waves as one bird leapfrogs another to gain a position at the leading edge of the masses. There are advantages to gathering in such numbers, many pairs of eyes are on the lookout for potential danger and being one amongst many lowers the odds on being taken by a predator. Predators though have developed ways of combating the starling's tactics and large concentrations of prey can draw them in like a magnet.
As we drove slowly down the track off the reserve a drama unfolded which made the whole trip worthwhile for me. Seemingly from the very earth, hundreds of starlings rose into the rain streaked air and instantly formed into a giant liquid cloud of tightly packed birds moving as a single entity. The tight ball of birds twisted and shimmered as it smoothly turned like a smoke filled bubble. This meant only one thing; An aerial predator was on the wing and the flocking behavior of the starlings was an instinctual defense response. There, on the edge of the seething mass, a solitary shape dived and swooped at the flock and I knew I was watching a merlin making a determined effort to win her meal for the day. She slashed at the pack, probing the outer edges and the starlings tried desperately to maintain coherence in an attempt to dazzle and confound the marauding falcon. She was not to be so easily deterred and deftly she severed the flock into two unequal parts. The larger part broke off and headed away from the menace whilst she doggedly pursued the smaller and continued to slice it into ever smaller sections by rushing into the heart of the mass repeatedly. She eventually separated a group of only ten or so and locked on to one hapless individual. I saw the chase but not the kill as the desperate group plummeted earthwards with streamlined death at their heels.
The whole drama was over in scant minutes and scarcely five minutes later the starling flock resumed its feeding as if nothing had happened.
The day could not have given me a better end and I returned home still feeling elated at having witnessed a true spectacle in the rain. My current project was put on hold as I simply had to record the morning's drama.
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