Fall Kestrel

In the fall, the songbirds of spring and summer are quiet, and even with the larger numbers due to this year’s chicks, it is harder to find small birds as they forage putting on weight for migration. That is not the case for the male American Kestrel, (photo by Steve Wolfe), that hunted the field in my backyard recently.

The short grass from the late summer mowing provides perfect hunting grounds for our smallest falcon. About the size of a robin, the American Kestrel hunts fields and roadsides for grasshoppers and other insects as well as small rodents, reptiles, and amphibians. It will also eat small birds.

Fall is the only time I’ve seen kestrels at my place. I suspect this male was migrating and found the field a good stopover site. It perched in the forest edge on broken birch trees from past ice storms. From these hunting perches, the kestrel would dart like an arrow across the field. It would suddenly flare its tail using it as an air brake, hover for a second, and then dive into the grass. When it flew across the field, the chickadees, nuthatches, and goldfinches at the feeder would scatter.

We were able to watch the kestrel hunched, eating its prey at the top of a snag. Usually, it appeared to be large grasshoppers. Once, it was a small snake. In the bright sun, its rusty-red back and tail stood out. The slate blue on its head and wings were almost as blue as the sky. When it paused from eating and looked around, we could clearly see the black “sideburn” patches on its face. As it turned back to its meal, I could see large black spots on the back of its head. These “false eyes” are thought to protect kestrels from larger predators who attack from above and behind.

The American Kestrel’s populations are strong nationwide, although they have fallen here as Maine farmlands have returned to forest. There are still plenty of fields and roadsides to provide good hunting habitat for kestrels where they provide natural pest control. Kestrels need mature trees where they nest in cavities and woodpecker holes. So, leave standing snags and old trees around fields if you have them. And, as you drive past fields this fall, keep an eye out for the last of this year’s migrants moving south.

James Reddoch, of Albany Township and Boston, leads birding events for the Mahoosuc Land Trust. Join James for the annual visit to the Fryeburg area to view migrating Sandhill Cranes. To sign up, email [email protected] or call (207) 824-3806. Meet in the parking area of Fryeburg Academy at 8 a.m., October 23 (The rain date is October 24).

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