Journal 217 - Kestrel Quest

For the past four years the flamboyant but elusive American Kestrels have been one of my most sought after photographic targets. They are very wary and difficult to approach. They are not abundant on Vancouver Island because of the relatively small amount of open country, but a few do breed here and some even stay all winter. Every July I have been fortunate enough to see the Kaye Road Kestrels with their new fledglings. It was that time again. Perhaps, this would be the year for some decent photos.

The American Kestrel is a spectacular bird and a fine example of sexual dimorphism. The female of many species is usually very plain or drab but not the Kestrel. It is a delightful rusty orange with black horizontal stripes right down to the end of its tail.

Kestrels dine on anything they can catch. Grasshoppers are especially popular when they are in season as well as a host of other larger insects and bugs.

Looking for Lunch - Kestrels hunt by many methods. Spotting prey from a branch, fence post, or hydro lines is one of their favorite techniques. They also hover like Ospreys and circle like Red-taileds.

When the prey is spotted, the Kestrel swoops down and grabs the prey with its powerful talons or bill. The kestrel can pluck the prey right out of the air or pounce on it on the ground.

Back to the Nest - When there's chicks to feed, they usually have priority, but the hunter also eats its share.

Kestrels are cavity nesters, and woodpecker holes in old snags are the most desirable homes. However, almost any cavity will do including cavities in rock faces, man-made structures, and nest boxes.

It takes a lot of grasshoppers to keep the chicks satiated, but for variety, an occasional item from the poultry shop is a welcome treat. Yes, that's another hunting technique - skulking through the forest to plunder another bird's nest.

Nest plundering is cruel, but it is common practice with raptors. The Great Blue Heron rookery at Beacon Hill Park is routinely ravaged by Bald Eagles. The Kestrel carries larger prey in its talons and lands on a branch to transfer the prey to its bill before going to the nest. The talons are required to grasp the tree at the nest hole.

Off Again - From my observations, it seems that the female does 80% of the feeding of the chicks. The male seems to help out occasionally. Of course, I may be wrong as the male may be more active while I'm not watching.

The female is tireless as she continues to forage for her ravenous chicks. Usually she lands right at the nest with grasshoppers and smaller prey, but she's getting weary from all her trips.

After a brief rest, she dives down to the nest to complete her mission.

Well, look who's here. Mr. Kestrel finally made his appearance. He doesn't seem to be as active as the female, but he does pitch in unlike some of the dead-beat dads in the bird world such as the drakes of the duck family.

Mr. Kestrel seemed to sit around a lot while the Mrs. Kestrel was busting her wings trying to keep the kids fed.

Hey! I think I finally ridiculed Mr. Kestrel into helping out. He's got a little mouse for the screaming kids.

The gray wings and the unstriped tail are the two major plumage differences from the female.

The Star of the Show on July 13. (One of them - there could be one or two more.))

July 19 - six days later ... it's getting pretty big.

July 21 - A Fledgling Announcement - It's a Girl!

Mr. and Mrs. Kaye Road Kestrel were pleased to announce the fledging of Kelly Kestrel as she unceremoniously tumbled from her nest at 11:35 AM.

Help! I think I like it better up in the nest with my sibling.

It's not as easy as it looks on televison.

Whoops! Where's that wind coming from? 45 minutes later, Kelly flew across the road and tried to land on the hydro line. She missed and veered towards the forest 100 meters away. Papa Kestrel was keeping an eye on her. Meanwhile, there is at least one Kestrel still in the nest. Last year the Kestrels had fledged by July 12. They are getting later every year. Is that syptomatic of old age or are there environmental factors involved?

July 14 - Another Unsuccessful 3-Toed Trek

It's beginning to sound like a broken record - dipping on the American 3-Toed Woodpecker for the 4th straight year. Mind you, they are scarce on Vancouver Island which is not regardeded as part of their normal breeding range. I'm not really complaining as I do enjoy and look forward to my annual, refreshing stroll through Paradise Meadows and up to Lake Helen Mackenzie.

The mountain heather was in full bloom, but the other wild flowers seemed to be behind schedule.

There were a few butterflies like the swallowtail visiting the heather.

The omnipresent Spotted Sandpipers were present as anticipated as well as two unidentified peeps.

As expected, Steller Jays were common, but they were not as bold as their cousins, the Gray Jays.

There were more Gray Jays than I'd ever seen. In the past there we only found them at the favorite picnic spots. This year they seemed to be all over the trails.

We could never resist the fun of hand-feeding the little rascals. We always take a few extra slices of bread just for them. If you're trying to take a picture of the bird in someone's hand, tell them not to let go of the bread right away.

July 17 - Shorebird Summer - What would summer be without the shorebird season? There's nothing better than the migrating shorebirds to spice up the summer doldrums of birding. Besides the regular cast of characters, there's always a chance of a rare Asian vagrant. Boundary Bay was jump-started by Carlo's exciting discovery of the remarkable Lesser Sand-Plover. I have no idea how it stands in terms of provincial records, but I hadn't even heard of such a bird in my 4.5 years of birding. Congratulations, Carlo - you deserved the special treat for all the hours of dedicated birding. Let me know when you're going to find a stint or Curlew Sandpiper. Meanwhile, it now seems to be a rite of passage to spend time with the migrating birds just to enjoy one of nature's greatest wonders and do some photography if the birds and weather cooperate. Neither rain, mud, nor mosquitoes could dampen my second visit to Holden Creek this summer. Besides a large amount of shorebirds, we also saw a harried Orange-crowned Warbler scurrying around trying to keep a voracious juvenile Cowbird happy.

I would estimate about 200 peeps today, with about 75% Westerns, 24% Least, and 1% Semipalmated. (I'm only including the smallest "Calidris" sandpipers as "peeps." That would also include the rare "stints," but I'm still waiting for my first.)

Long-billed Dowitchers were plentiful and most cooperative as they seem to be when present in large numbers. There were approximately 150 present. Despite my best attempts, I couldn't find a single Short-billed Dowi. I heard one Greater Yellowlegs and was disappointed not to see any Lesser Yellowlegs.

As usual, most of the Long-billed Dowitchers were bobbing their heads in the shallow puddles.

The only larger sandpiper around was a very dark Pectoral. It was quite shy and stayed away even in the midst of the cooperative dowitchers.

Peep I.D. - Before you criticize the picture quality, bear in mind that it wasdark and raining and the peeps were moving. Okay, go ahead and ctiticize. Obviously, my objective here is not to illustrate photographic excellence but for peep identification. For birding neophytes, the first experience with peeps is enormously perplexing. Picking out the Least Sandpiper is the easiest as they have yellow legs except when they are coated with mud, or threy are up to their bellies in grass or salicornia. The biggest problem is usually with the Westerns and Semipalmated. The best approach is to look at structure and not plumage. The Western usually (but not always) has a distinctive, longish down-curved bill. The Semipalmated is usually lighter coloured and has a short, thick, straight bill which is usually slightly enlarged at the tip. As far as plumage goes, the Western usually has more rufous colouring ( near pre & post breeding). The Semipalamated can also have some rufous but is generally white, black, brown, and gray. Now, after these erudite comments, can you pick out the Western and Semipalmated? One other point is that leg colouring can be deceptive. Semipalmateds sometimes have greenish or grayish coloured legs that might be confused with the Least.

July 21 - Chasing a Legend

According to legend, Raven was originally white and had a beautiful voice. Unfortunately, the Gods were unhappy with the greed and corruption on earth and decided to take away the fire. Without heat, the earth was turning into a frigid hell. Raven volunteered to fly to the sun and bring back the fire. Up he flew with a branch in his bill. As he neared the sun his feathers were all singed and his larynx was half-cooked, but the branch ignited. Raven returned to earth a hero, but became shy and reclusive because of his blackened feathers and the loss of his beautiful voice. From that day on, all Ravens were black, but occasionally a white offspring is born to remind everyone of the great sacrifice made by Raven. Thanks to Mary in Hilliers, I was privileged to see not one, but two of the remarkable White Ravens.

Bird Notes

* Jul. 17 - My wife got quite a shock when she bent over to check on a fledgling Robin on the lawn. Just as she reached to touch the motionless bird, a Cooper's Hawk swooped by her hand and snatched the helpless bird.

* Jul. 21 - At least 3 Rufous Hummers are still hanging around the feeders. Last year they all disappeared by the first week in July.

* Jul. 21 - With all the attention on the Kestrels, I almost forgot to mention that the Kaye Road Eagles are also ready to take flight.











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