This is the first in an ongoing series of posts about the birds in my neck of the woods in Southeastern Georgia.
In late August or early September during one of our evening walks, my husband and I saw a new bird. It was perched on top of a seven year-old longleaf pine tree in a forty acre stand. It was too far away for a good view with my binoculars and not vocalizing. It was clear that it was larger than the songbirds that occasionally exhibit this behavior. I was stumped. A few days later, we saw what we thought was the same bird in the top of a tall sweetgum tree overlooking the stand of pines. We were walking in its direction, and as we got closer it took off. Seeing it in flight did not help with identification. My husband thought it looked like a killdeer, but I was skeptical. I knew enough to be pretty confident it was not a killdeer—a bird with whom I had had a brief encounter in the parking lot of my place of employment many years ago. The noisy display of a killdeer protecting its young is not easily forgotten.
Several days passed before we saw the bird again. This time we were walking down the dirt road adjacent to the stand of longleaf pines, and we heard a loud, distinctive vocalization just before a bird flew over us. It headed east and landed briefly in the top of an old oak before taking off again and heading west towards a stand of mature pines, all the while making a high-pitched, rapid “klee klee klee” sound. Despite several months experience, I still struggle managing both an iPhone for Sound ID and binoculars at the same time. Thankfully, on this day, I engaged Sound ID in time to identify an American kestrel, and I got a good enough look with the bins to determine it was likely a female. I was ecstatic!
I didn’t know much about the American kestrel, but earlier in the summer, I saw a photo somewhere (probably Instagram), and this prompted me to look up the bird in my Birds of Georgia field guide. I was happy to see that they are common residents year-round in my state, so I purposed to see one. They are really cute birds. Since kestrels are raptors, specifically in the falcon family, I figured a likely place for a sighting would be on a power line—a common perch for hawks in our area. Therefore, I began to look more diligently when I noticed a bird on a power line. It never occurred to me that this interesting creature would turn up in my own backyard!
eBird indicates I had a total of six observations of the kestrel in September, and several of those were by sound alone. The distinctive call we heard is apparently one of alarm. This is interesting because we have never gotten very close to the bird, and all we are ever doing is walking or riding the golf cart—far from threatening behavior! Also, this seems to be unusual in that kestrels generally do not avoid areas with human activity, so her response to our being in the neighborhood is perplexing. She’s certainly not nesting this time of year. Thankfully, when I saw her yesterday she didn’t seem as alarmed by my presence. She did fuss a bit during my first pass of the pines, but on my return, she simply flew over and appeared to be trying to get a closer look. I didn’t hear a peep out of her.
According to Birds of the World, the American Kestrel (falco sparverius), formerly known as the sparrow hawk, is the smallest, most numerous, and most widespread American falcon and the only kestrel species found in the Western Hemisphere. It is sexually dichromatic, which is what enabled me to identify ours as female. She has rufous wings with black bars. Whereas a male would have blue-gray wings. Also, females are generally larger than males, which is common in raptors, and kestrels found in the Southeast tend to be smaller overall than those found elsewhere in the United States.
It is hard to tell where our bird, whom we have named Keeley, nests. It is clearly not in the seven year old pines where we observe her most often, as kestrels are secondary cavity nesters who use natural or woodpecker-evacuated cavities in large trees. Therefore, the stand of pines must be a favorite hunting area. This makes sense as the grasshoppers, butterflies, and cicadas that are common components of a kestrel’s diet have been abundant in that area as of late. We are likely interrupting Keely’s evening mealtime with our excursions.
There is a small clue to the location of her home, however. On two occasions Keely has flown towards the woods where there are plenty of mature pines and hardwoods occupied by a variety of woodpeckers, so there’s a good chance she lives in that vicinity. I’m making plans to erect a nest box as soon as possible since kestrels are not averse to such manmade structures. If she chooses to inhabit it, this will better enable me to observe her behavior and to hopefully witness reproduction next year. If only there were a surefire way to attract a male to our locale!
But my habit of watching power lines has paid off. Yesterday evening, on my way to town I noticed what I thought was a kestrel on a power line. On the way back home I slowed down and looked closer, and, indeed, it was a male. I’m praying he heads our way.