Always in Season/ Mike Jacobs: Arrival of the American kestrel signals spring in the Red River Valley
The kestrel is an “edge species,” favoring areas that have open fields with nearby trees that offer nesting cavities. Mature shelterbelts in the Red River Valley, and the riverine forest itself, offer this kind of habitat.
Choosing the bird of the week was unusually difficult this week, as it often is at this time of year, when familiar birds become more active and migrants begin to show up, even though the landscape remains mostly snow-covered.
Backyard birds such as chickadees and nuthatches and open country species such as prairie chickens and sharp-tailed grouse fall into the first of these categories. The second category includes robins, meadowlarks and raptors such as the peregrine falcon – last week’s bird of the week – red-tailed hawks, northern harriers and this week’s choice, the American kestrel.
The real competition for this week’s title didn’t come from these familiar birds, however, but from a completely unexpected species, one that Dave Lambeth, the dean of local birders, said has been seen here only twice in 42 years. This was the boreal owl. As its name implies, this is a bird of northern forests. The Red River Valley isn’t so far from the North Woods, of course; plenty of local residents head east and north for woodland retreats. The boreal owls seldom return the visits, though.
When they do, they simply drop in. These owls are notorious for sudden appearances and for sudden departures. They seldom stay for more than a day or two.
So it was with the boreal owl – or perhaps two – that showed up along the Red River Greenway within Grand Forks city limits. Lambeth guided about two dozen people to find the bird – keeping appropriate distance from the object of attention and practicing social distancing with regard to one another. All of this was reported in Wednesday’s Herald. The headline said, “Boreal owl has local birders buzzing.” Herald Outdoor Editor Brad Dokken wrote the story, which was accompanied by a color picture taken by Lambeth.
As the saying goes, “old news is not news,” so the boreal owl was disqualified.
Of course, none of that detracts from the pleasure that the boreal owl brought, especially for “listers” who keep track of every species they encounter. This can become quite competitive.
The American kestrel probably appears on even the casual birder’s list. The kestrel is a relative of the peregrine falcon – which is hardly a common bird – but the arrival of “Marv” on the UND campus makes it possible for anybody who wants to see a peregrine to get a pretty good look at one.
On the other hand, the kestrel is widespread across North America, and in our area, it is a regular nester and a common – and often abundant – early spring migrant. The kestrel is an “edge species,” favoring areas that have open fields with nearby trees that offer nesting cavities. Mature shelterbelts in the Red River Valley, and the riverine forest itself, offer this kind of habitat. At the same time, kestrels are show-offs. They often choose conspicuous perches, such as highway signs and overhead wires. Since Suezette and I moved to our place west of Gilby, N.D., I’ve made a habit of counting the kestrels on the line paralleling Grand Forks County Road 33. The record is more than 50. The number this year is far smaller, of course. The season is young and we’re housebound.
The northern harrier is another open country raptor that returns to the valley at about this time. Both of these species are dependable signs of spring; they are hunters that take small prey from open fields. That’s not possible when the snow covers everything; once the fields begin to clean, the birds appear.
That’s why the kestrel is bird of the week.
Although the kestrel is an efficient predator, it is also a delicate bird. The smallest of the falcons, the kestrel is about the length of a pigeon, but its long wings and tail make it appear almost daintier. The kestrel is a colorful bird, russet or orange on the back with blue on the wings and the crown of the head. Like the peregrine, the kestrel has a kind of “moustache.”
Although kestrels are associated with rural roads, they do occur in town. I’ve seen them along the Red River Greenway and even in the industrial area on the city’s northside. They’re not looking for scenery. They’re looking for food.
Hunting kestrels have a habit of hovering over prey; the rough-legged hawk is the only other local raptor that does this. The birds can’t be confused, though. The rough-legged hawk is a bruiser present only in winter. Kestrels will be with us through the summer, and perhaps through the year. They’ve been found on Christmas bird counts here.
Jacobs is a retired publisher and editor of the Herald. Reach him at email@example.com.