An American Kestrel glided across the field and landed in a prominent location at the top of a small tree. Several of the Thursday Birders inched closer to capture a photo. They are easily spooked, so we were surprised that we could keep moving nearer. We soon realized why he was not interested in us when a female flew in, landed briefly on an adjacent branch, then took off towards a dead tree that appeared to have several natural cavities. The male quickly followed it.
The breeding season has already started for New Mexico’s smallest, as well as most prevalent and wide-spread falcon. During the winter, the males and females often don’t associate. Clearly the season’s change has started.
Previously known as a sparrow hawk, the American Kestrel will chose a woodpecker-hewn or natural cavity bordered by open areas with short vegetation. The mowed fields at Los Poblanos Open Space where we were birding, with a few suitable trees along the edges is the perfect habitat for them.
Sometimes it will use a nest box. My friend Joe discovered a male kestrel poking its head out of one of the nest boxes constructed for Western Screech Owls at Los Poblanos.
Early in the season, the male selects several appropriate cavities within its territory, then leads the female to inspect them. It is the female that makes the selection. Perhaps that is what she was doing that morning as we watched her fly off to the dead tree. Once the cavity is selected, she doesn’t add any additional nesting material.
Soon they will get ready for her to begin laying eggs. I checked my photos and found this one I had captured of a pair of kestrels copulating near the fields at the Rio Grande Nature Center State Park in mid-March.
Each week when the volunteer monitors gather to count birds around the Candelaria Wetlands and adjacent areas, Doug, our kestrel-whisperer, will focus his scope on the tops of the trees along the farm fields north of the Nature Center property, while the rest of us are counting the waterfowl on the pond. Almost every week, he will be able to locate at least one kestrel.
About the size of a Mourning Dove, the male can be distinguished from the female by the blue on its head and wings.
Another place I enjoy watching American Kestrels is the Valle de Oro NWR. Often one will be perched along the fence line,
and sometimes on a dead snag along the drain to the west.
One of the reasons this falcon is so adaptable is that it eats both insects and small rodents. Its eyes enable it to see urine trails of small mammals, and it will often hover over a field waiting for the perfect time to snag its prey.
If it collects more food than it needs at a particular time, it hides surplus food in glass clumps, tree roots, bushes, fence posts, tree limbs, and cavities, to save the food for lean times or to hide it from thieves.
When I saw this kestrel standing on a clump of weeds in the Valle de Oro farm field, I wondered whether it was retrieving cached food before the fields completely flooded and washed it away.
Other favorite spots for watching American Kestrel include the Farm-Market Road between Socorro and the Bosque del Apache, along the wires leading to the refuge, and within the refute itself.
The Las Vegas NWR and Maxwell NWR both are spectacular kestrel-watching locations, as is the community of Pena Blanca near Cochiti Lake.
I was surprised to find American Kestrels in several locations in Cuba, like this one at the Jardin de Gigantes.
With its grace, nimbleness and speed, the American Kestrel is one of my favorite raptors.