A-hunting I will go

Yesterday I saw a bird flying across the front field, but it was too far away to make an ID. A few minutes later, the bird landed on top of an electric utility pole a hundred yards or so away. I pulled out the binoculars and saw that it was a male American Kestrel, a first sighting of this species on our farm.

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You’ll have to pardon the lousy picture – I don’t have adequate zoom on my camera to get a clear picture. His feathers are fluffed out to buffer him from the wind and cold. I don’t know if the hunt was successful, but he was still there 30 minutes later.

A better picture of an American Kestrel, courtesy Dave Menke, US Fish and Wildlife.

The American kestrel, often called the sparrow hawk, is the smallest and most colorful falcon in North America. They are commonly seen perched on telephone wires where they are frequently mistaken for mourning doves. With long, pointed wings, members of the falcon family are the fastest flying birds. Streamlined birds with a nimble, buoyant flight, kestrels are capable of hovering on rapidly beating wings when they spot prey on the ground. There are seven subspecies of kestrels, only one of which, Falco sparverius, is found in Virginia. The kestrel population grew as the state’s forests were cleared for agricultural uses.

But in recent years, migration counts reveal significant decreases in the falcon’s populations in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions. Autumn migration “hawkwatch” counts in Cape May, New Jersey are down more than 40 percent below the 30-year site average for kestrels; similarly, counts at Hawk Mountain, Pennsylvania are down 30 percent.

In the last few decades, open habitats used by kestrels for hunting have been developed or returned to forest, resulting in less available habitat, not only for the kestrel, but also for other “open country” birds such as the eastern towhee, another species on the decline in Virginia. As habitat is lost, so are the dead trees that provide nesting cavities for “secondary cavity-dwellers” like kestrels and many other birds that use abandoned woodpecker nesting holes. Increased predation by the larger Cooper’s hawk, a chief predator and a species whose populations are rising, is also thought to be a factor.

I was happy to see this little falcon because having them around is a positive environmental barometer. A top-of-the-food-chain predator, the kestrel’s presence indicates that the insects, amphibians, and small birds that it needs are plentiful and pesticide use probably low. When I wrote an article on the decline of the American Kestrel for Virginia Wildlife a couple of years ago, my husband built a kestrel nesting box. We have procrastinated in putting it up, but you can bet this spring, that box is going up!

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28 thoughts on “A-hunting I will go

    • I thought I saw a pair this morning in the front field. I’m excited about putting the box up and hope they decide to nest there. We’ll see.

      • I came here from today’s post (’cause I dearly LOVE Kestrels: ) and can’t help but wonder… So, did you; have a nesting pair back then, I mean? (It’s only 4+ years later, lol)
        I will never forget the time I had a close encounter with one of these little guys. It was a few years ago, when “he” flew right in front of my car on a diagonal across the quiet lakeshore road and then, just as suddenly, landed on a fence post right at eye-to-eye level… Truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience (and such a beautiful bird: )

    • Our farm bird list stands at 53, which is pretty lame. I know there are a lot more birds here, but I can’t see them well with the naked eye. I’ll have to spend more time this year sitting and watching with binoculars!

  1. Can’t wait to hear what happens in the nesting box! Wouldn’t it be exciting to have a family to watch this spring?

    • Definitely would be. I got a Birdcam for Christmas so I could take pics and post them on the blog – hopefully, they’ll still be here this spring…

  2. Jo Ann: What is a birdcam? Is it a special kind of camera? Sounds intriguing! Your sighting of the American Kestral was amazing – what a gorgeous bird! Margie

    • You program the birdcam to take pictures or videos and attach it to a tree close to the feeder. When motion is detected (by a sensor), it will take take pictures or a video (depending on what you tell it to do). I’ll be trying it out soon and I’ll do a post on the results.

    • At first I thought it was a dove. I never even thought of a kestrel because we’ve never seen one on the farm before, but we have perfect habitat – open fields with plenty of mice and voles!

  3. I love kestrels. I remember, ten years ago or so when I was a brand-new (and completely inexperienced) hawkwatcher with the Golden Gate Raptor Observatory, I learned about how to identify these little falcons. I started seeing them everywhere–on telephone wires while I was going out for long bike rides, hover-hunting in city parks–and I couldn’t believe that I’d overlooked them all my life. I hope we can reverse their alarming decline.

    • I think we have a pair which makes me happy because we have enough mice and voles to keep them happy for a long time! They are such fast flyers that I bet they are excellent hunters, which will keep up their numbers in areas that have open fields and woods.

  4. Hi Jo ann, It’s real educational to see pictures of and read about birds in other parts of the World. Some of them we don’t find here at all, others look different to ours. Your kestrel doesn’t look much like our Scandinavian sparrowhawk at all.

    • I apologize for the terrible quality of the picture I took. It doesn’t do justice to the kestrel. I’m going to look into getting a used zoom lens. Yes, there is a difference in our birds, but not at the way we appreciate them.

  5. Hi Jo Ann, I don’t think I have ever had a Kestrel here at my place. I have seen a couple in captivity such as at Zoos. They are super birds. You have made a wonderful sighting! Have a great day tomorrow!

    • Thank goodness for field glasses or I don’t think I would have been able to identify it, especially since we haven’t seen one here before. I keep seeing new birds so I know we have a lot of diversity which is what we’re striving for.

  6. I’ll certainly post the pics – I’m hoping the quality is better than the pic of the kestrel I posted – that one was awful!

  7. The American Kestrel is really beautiful. They summer in Northern Ontario and winter in Southern Ontario.(according to various bird sites). We are considered central so they must come through here at some point. I have never seen one but will keep watch now that I am aware of them.

    • Almost every sighting I’ve had is on a power/utility line in or next to an open field. I remember how excited I was the first time I saw one.

      • The large birds I’ve seen are usually in flight in the open fields behind us. Being able to photograph one perched must be amazing.

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