Saturday, March 3, 2012

Today I saw: American Kestrel

For a while I've been kicking around in my mind the idea of doing some serial-style posts that detail bird sightings and observations that I think you, my dear readers, might find interesting. Think of it as a "birders notebook" type of entry. I have shied away from the idea partly because there will invariably be birds that I do not have photos of from my own personal collection, meaning I will have to rely on online sources where I can get free images that are allowed to be used for public/educational distribution. Why? Because no one wants to read a post where there are NO pictures, but I will not just "lift" photos willy-nilly from web pages just to get images for a blog post. So we'll see how this goes. This will be my first installment of "Today I saw..."

Kestrel image provided by Clipart ETC, originally published in 1869 in Louis Figuier's Reptiles and Birds.

Today I saw an American Kestrel. It was perched on a phone wire along a mildly traveled county road, looking out into a corn field, prime habitat for this falcon. At first glance I wasn't sure that it was a kestrel because it was not doing its characteristic tail bobbing, a behavior that is a "gimme" for quick field identification. Luckily, there was a spot just up the road where I could safely pull off, and I was able to hop out with my binoculars and work my way toward the bird. Not having had a ton of experience with kestrels, I wanted to get a better look at it, just to be sure about the ID. My curiosity was well-rewarded.

As I approached I noticed another bird on the wire, which was a Rock Pigeon, and the still-in-question kestrel was quite a bit smaller than the pigeon. American Kestrels (also known as "Sparrow Hawks") are the smallest falcon in North America, so it was good to see this size comparison in person. For reference, Rock Pigeons are about 12"-14" long, whereas American Kestrels are about 9"-12" long. As far as field marks go, the lighting was not great, so it was a bit difficult to see any field marks well, but I was able to pick up barring in the wings and some vertical striping on the head, so I was pretty confident by this time that I was looking at a kestrel, even though it never bobbed its tail once while I saw it on that wire.

A cold, biting breeze was blowing, so it was time to head back to the car. Just a few feet from my car I took another look out into the field, and saw a dove-like figure flying over the field, except it wasn't behaving in a dove-like fashion. This bird was obviously hunting, so I knew I was seeing the kestrel. I quickly forgot about the chilly breeze and enjoyed the show this small raptor was putting on. It was hovering with shallow but fluid wing beats, and at times it was able to catch the breeze just right and simply hang in the air for 5 seconds at a time. When not hovering, it would fly in a roughly circular pattern over the area it was hunting, and I was finally able to pick up the rusty coloring of its back and tail. Such a slim, graceful bird it was. It dove to the ground twice, but both times it come up empty-taloned. Here's an interesting factoid that I gleaned from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's All About Birds site:
Unlike humans, birds can see ultraviolet light. This enables kestrels to make out the trails of urine that voles, a common prey mammal, leave as they run along the ground. Like neon diner signs, these bright paths may highlight the way to a meal—as has been observed in the Eurasian Kestrel, a close relative.
It then took off to another portion of the field, and maybe eventually made its way back to the perch on the phone wire where I had originally spotted it. I was glad I took the time to stop and watch this bird. The observations gave me a good field experience that adds to my growing mental library of bird behavior, and gave me a good opportunity to share this bird with you.


Caroline said...

I saw one yesterday, perched on a telephone wire, looking out over a hayfield on a mildly traveled country road. I bet he was after voles, too. They are one of my favorites.

Frank said...

I'm delighted you decided to share this experience Heather despite not having your own image. I regularly watch our Kestrels hunting but the camera (actually I mean the operator) usually fails to capture the event but the memory is still with me. BTW I have often mistaken distant perched Pigeons and Doves
for a raptor.
I regularly include details of many species I've seen without linked images so you go for it.

ksdoolittle said...

You are quite clever, Heather my dear. I loved this post. You are so well-written, you don't need photos to 'spice up' a post. Remember that!!