Thursday, June 12, 2014

Kestrel Spring Part 2

A page from my sketch journal

I was on "nest watch" now for awhile, but there was not much to see. I had no way to visibly check inside the nest box to see if there were eggs, how many there might be or the status of their hatching. Research I did told me that the incubation period was 26-32 days and babies stayed in the nest another 25-30 days or so and “chittering” noises could often be heard by the 16th or 17th day. I estimated that babies might hatch the first part of May so I waited anxiously, visiting the site every few days. Whenever I was there I usually saw the male standing guard on his flag pole or bringing food to the female. He would come in with a vole, call to her and she would come out and eat. The male was a great provider and protector. One morning I saw him attacking a red-tailed hawk that had come into the area. Looking like a jet fighter attacking a B-52 bomber the male would dive at the larger bird repeatedly from above until the larger bird sought out safer and quieter skies.

Male kestrel attacking red-tailed hawk

Around the 18th of May I found the female perched in a nearby tree, but no sign of the male. Though this seemed a little different than what I had been witnessing I didn’t give it much thought until I looked at the nest box. There was a small, red, needle shaped object with a bell shape on the end sticking out of the bottom of the box. My first thought was perhaps the park rangers or a biologist might be monitoring the box for sounds of hatching and this was a small microphone. Something about it and the female being out of the nest a long time just didn’t feel right though, so I found a park ranger and asked if anyone had been officially monitoring the nest boxes then told him what I had seen. I was shocked when he told me the red object was most likely a dart from a blow gun! Of course, there was nothing to be done about it because there was no way to know who did it.

Now I was really mad and really alarmed! I began to wonder if this dart caused damage to anything inside the box. Information I found on blow guns said darts could penetrate ½” thick plywood and were used to take small game. I wondered if the absence of the male indicated he may have become a target for this stupid act as he was highly visible on his flagpole and within easy range for a blow gun. I searched the areas beneath the flagpole for possible signs this may have happened, but could find no evidence. I feared that the whole “science project” was lost by this senseless act.

A few days later I got a call from another birder who was also watching the nest. He let me know that he head seen the female taking a vole to the nest. There must be babies! This was encouraging and on a few other days he let me know that he had seen both a male and female in the area so perhaps all was not lost. For the next few weeks I only observed a female in the area, but never saw her bring food to the nest and I never heard any noise coming from the box to indicate any babies were present. Her continued presence in the area was all I had to encourage me to keep watching.
Sketch of two female kestrel chcks

Finally, on the 2nd of June I saw what I had been hoping for….a baby kestrel was visible in the hole of the nest box! Of course, that morning I had walked up without my camera because I hadn’t been seeing or hearing anything to indicate that babies were present. The baby looked fully feathered and ready to leave the nest. Now I was torn. If I stayed put I might witness the babies fledge, but not be able to record the event. If I left for the camera I might still have a chance to take photos after the fact, but miss the magical moment when they took to the skies for the first time. After a few agonizing seconds I opted to run, really fast, to retrieve my camera from my truck, praying the whole way that after all this watching and waiting I wouldn’t miss this part. Returning to the nest my heart was pounding so hard I could hardly steady the camera. I had not missed a thing and spent about an hour photographing them and waiting to see if anything was going to happen. I saw at least two chicks stick their heads out one at a time and peer around. There was at least one male and one female, but I never heard any “chittering” going on inside. After a while I had to leave them and fully expected to never see them again.
Male kestrel chick

They did not fledge that day or the next, but when I checked on the 6th of June I found two females in nearby trees. I could not find the male, but suspect he was close by. Mama was calling from the flagpole and shortly Papa flew in with a vole. He was calling excitedly and landed next to one of the babies. However, he did not like my presence there and after stashing his vole he came back to warn me off. Swooping low over my head and cussing me out he convinced me my study of his family was done.

It has been an incredible learning experience! I have taken loads of photos and documented as much as I could in my sketchbook. I had no idea when I started gathering reference photos for those paintings I wanted to do that it would lead to all this, but I consider myself exceptionally blessed. I have a couple of more ideas for paintings that I'd like to do using all this information that I've gathered and with a little luck and determination I will get started on those soon. In the meantime, I wish "my" little kestrel family well and pray for their survival, but know it will be a tough life for them out there in the wild.