Monday, June 9, 2014

Kestrel Spring Part 1

For the past two months I have been focused on documenting the nesting behavior of a pair of American kestrels. I had not intended on spending my spring this way, but as I was gathering reference photos for some paintings I was planning on doing their story began to unfold before me and I found myself caught up in their struggle to bring new life into this world. This is part one of their story.
My observations began in March, shortly after completing my first painting of a pair of kestrels. While trying to photograph a male kestrel in flight for another painting idea I watched him hover and stoop on his prey. Each time he would catch a mouse or vole and fly off. In a few minutes he would return and catch another. By the third time I realized he was not eating the voles. If he had, by now he would be so heavy he couldn’t fly! But I was curious. What had he done with the voles?

A few days later I observed a pair of kestrels checking out a nest box. Kestrels are cavity nesters and will often use nest boxes. The male chooses the site and invites his lady to check out the real estate. Apparently, she approved because she entered and didn’t come back out. This was just the beginning of their courtship and in a few more days I had answers to where all the voles were disappearing to.

The next opportunity I had to view the pair was the most interesting and exciting. That morning I watched the male hunting again. He caught the first vole and flew to some evergreen bushes. In just moments he returned to hunting, not enough time to consume a vole. Soon he came back with another. This time he flew to a leafless tree and I watched him stuff the vole into an old, empty birds nest and fly off! The third time he returned with a vole he flew to the nest box and went partially in. I heard a whole lot of words exchanged. The lady was not very hungry, I guess, or perhaps she was doing some housekeeping and didn’t want a dead vole messing things up because he hastily retreated to another tree where he stashed his catch.

I went back that afternoon and she was in a better mood. The male flew to that last tree, retrieved his vole and flew to a perch near the nest box. He called softly and the female appeared at the door. She joined him and he presented her with his gift of slightly aged vole which she took and hungrily devoured.

 After dinner she was much more receptive when he flew over and they mated. That was quite a feat to do while the two balanced on a narrow twig. I noticed he was very careful to keep his toes curled in such a way as to not stick her with his talons which I’m sure she appreciated. This was not something I would have ever considered about birds of prey mating. If they didn’t keep their talons curled under it would be a very dangerous act, indeed! He then flew off and caught another vole for her and a bug for himself.

In doing some research on this I learned that “American kestrels are monogamous falcons that establish pair-bonds. Courtship begins early in the breeding season, after a nesting site has been established. Copulation can be initiated by either sex, and usually takes multiple attempts before fertilization occurs. Pairs bond with courtship rituals, such as aerial displays and courtship feeding. After a relationship is developed, it becomes strong and usually permanent. Most pairs return to the same nesting sites for consecutive years."

I continued to watch for several days and my observations supported the research. As time went on I continued to visit the nest site nearly daily as it was on one of the trails I use when I'm out on my walks. For awhile there was not much to document except the male bringing food to the female and softly calling for her to come out and receive it. Then, some things changed.

I will post the rest of the story in a day or two so be sure to check back to see how their story ends!