BRAD DOKKEN: Community Nest Watch Project offers hands-on learning

There's nothing like hands-on experience to learn something, and that's the motivation behind the Agassiz Audubon Society's Community Nest Watch Project.

Tim Driscoll opening kestrel box
Grand Forks raptor expert Tim Driscoll peeks into a kestrel nesting box Monday at a gas transmission site near St. Vincent, Minn., in northwest Kittson County. Driscoll banded the five chicks and the father kestrel as part of the Agassiz Audubon Society's "Community Nest Watch" project. (Heidi Hughes, Agassiz Audubon Society)

There's nothing like hands-on experience to learn something, and that's the motivation behind the Agassiz Audubon Society's Community Nest Watch Project.

According to Heidi Hughes, manager of the Agassiz Audubon Center southeast of Warren, Minn., Agassiz Audubon launched the program last year to "put people close to birds, to let people actually touch them."

The program to date has resulted in the construction and installation of 50 bluebird boxes, 25 kestrel nesting boxes and two chimney swift towers across northwest Minnesota, Hughes said, along with several purple martin houses.

Additional towers that resemble the chimneys where chimney swifts traditionally nest also are planned, she said.

"It's just a great way to get people excited about birds," Hughes said of the nest watch project. "Anybody can do this. It's just a matter of spending the time to build the boxes, and then you're morally responsible to monitor them, go into the boxes and see how the babies are doing."


Monday, Hughes and Grand Forks raptor expert Tim Driscoll visited a site near St. Vincent, Minn., in northwest Kittson County, where Driscoll banded five kestrel chicks in a box set up at the TransCanada gas transmission facility near St. Vincent.

Driscoll also was able to capture and band the father kestrel and collect blood samples from all of the birds, which are members of the falcon family, kestrels spend their summers in the northern United States and Canada and can be found year-round as far south as Argentina, Hughes said.

"With a little bit of luck, we will be able to tell whether that bird comes back next year by checking the box," Hughes said.

The kestrel box near St. Vincent was one of 15 built this year by shop students at Kittson Central High School in Hallock, Minn. Otter Tail Power Co. and PKM Electric in Warren installed the boxes in Kittson, Marshall and Polk counties, Hughes said, using retired power line poles to mount the structures.

Kestrels traditionally nest in open areas using nests built by other birds -- or, in this case, shop class students. As a result, Hughes said, the Community Nest Watch Project has 13 documented kestrel chicks this year, compared with five last year.

Hughes also credits the Enbridge, Viking and TransCanada gas transmission facilities and North Kittson Rural Water in Lake Bronson, Minn., for allowing the kestrel boxes to be installed on their properties.

"We really couldn't do it without them," she said. "It's really hard to find a place where it's open, where you can install these electrical poles. We have a lot of fields, but it's hard to find a safe spot. You cannot put a bird nest box on an active power line."

Hughes said the Agassiz Audubon Society posts photos and other Community Nest Watch updates on its Facebook page and can provide technical assistance if there's excessive predation or other problems.


Weather-permitting, plans are in the works to band the other known kestrel chicks Thursday afternoon, when participants in a daylong prairie tour sponsored by the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at UND stop at the Audubon Center.

The event is open to anyone, Hughes said, and she'll post details on the Audubon Society's Facebook page as Thursday draws near.

"If anyone would like to see how it's done, they'll have the opportunity," Hughes said. "It's a chance to get up close with the falcons."

Hughes said the project received a report this spring about one of the kestrel chicks Driscoll banded last year. The bird was found dead near the Twin Cities, Hughes said; she also saw another bird kill one of last year's chicks.

Despite those setbacks, the kestrel boxes installed as part of the Community Nest Watch Project are giving the small raptor a helping hand in a state that needs it.

"Kestrels are declining in Minnesota, so this is the opportunity to make a big difference in a charismatic bird that plays a very important role in insect and rodent control," Hughes said. "You can't think of a better farmer's friend."

For more information on the Community Nest Watch Project or Thursday's banding at the Audubon Center, contact Hughes at (218) 745-5663 or check out the Agassiz Audubon Society's Facebook page at

Dokken reports on outdoors. Reach him at (701) 780-1148; (800) 477-6572, ext. 1148; or send email to .


Kestrel chick being banded
Tim Driscoll, who teaches raptor at the University of Minnesota-Crookston, bands a kestrel chick Monday near St. Vincent, Minn., as part of the Agassiz Audubon Society's "Community Nest Watch" project. (Photo by Heidi Hughes, Agassiz Audubon Society)

Brad Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and has been the Grand Forks Herald's outdoors editor since 1998.

Besides his role as an outdoors writer, Dokken has an extensive background in northwest Minnesota and Canadian border issues and provides occasional coverage on those topics.

Reach him at, by phone at (701) 780-1148 or on Twitter at @gfhoutdoor.
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