Monday, May 20, 2013

May 20

The Dance Still Goes On........

     I sometimes think of this period in the season as "the dance". It kind of reminds me of all the drama that used to surround a high school dance. You know...stuff like "Who is going with who?", Where did those two disappear to?", "Are those two REALLY serious or is it just for show?"  You know, that kind of thing. I now have eggs confirmed in 20 boxes, but there are still quite a few that are still a toss up as to what will happen. Just in the last two days I have had single males arrive at boxes that haven't shown any kestrel activity since early April. Whether they find a mate and stay at these boxes is anybody's guess. One interesting fact is that between the 3 boxes that are just now getting some kestrel attention there have been a total of 28 starlings removed from them. This is just the kind of unpredictability that keeps me going. After removing 14 starlings from one of these boxes over the last two plus months you would think I would just take the box down. Then, lo and behold, a male shows up. Go figure. 
     I now have eggs in 7 boxes which are in their first year of the project (they were put up last Oct./Nov) but also have had no activity at all in 7 boxes which have been historically very successful boxes year after year. I am at a complete loss at to why this is happening. 
     Also of note is the fact that the first eggs laid this season will be hatching in about 15 days, yet I still have a number of boxes with paired birds who have not begun laying eggs and other boxes with single birds that haven't even found mates yet. Some of these late starters won't have young hatching until early August. That confirms my finding from last year that the window for egg laying in my project area can be up to two months long-or longer. 
     This is day 73 of monitoring for me. It definitely becomes increasingly difficult over time to get that ladder off the car and climb up to set yet another starling trap, but I have too much invested time-wise now to just stop. Due to the cold weather delay this spring, this season is turning out to be especially long and drawn out, but if this was easy everyone would be doing it. I was hoping for 30 boxes with eggs this year, but it is obvious now that I will fall short of that goal. That's OK. 
      Some stats:
-number of starlings eliminated to date= 81
-number of miles traveled to date= 3,476
-number of box visits= 802
-number of boxes with eggs= 20
-of 46 adults banded so far this year, the number who were originally nestlings from this project= 1
-this is day 73 of monitoring boxes for this season

Saturday, May 11, 2013

May 11

Happy Mother's Day Eve

     Why start a kestrel post with Happy Mother's Day?  I think it is fitting to do that because I have not yet mentioned a very, very important partner in my kestrel work and that is my wife Janet. It has now been slightly over two months since I began the nestbox monitoring for this season.  During that time I have spent 46 of those days entirely in the field from sunrise until dark closely monitoring the boxes in my project. This is at the height of spring's renewal when there is so much to be done around the house and in the yard as the weather slowly warms up.  During these last two months my wife has stacked our firewood, hauled and stacked mounds of brush, done all the lawn mowing, turned over and planted many of the gardens, run the leaf blower for hours on end, brought up all the deck furniture from the basement, etc., etc., etc. and never once uttered a complaint about my near total absence while all this was going on. Every night when I got home, she would ask all about my day and inquire about which boxes, etc. I would be checking tomorrow. Only Janet can fully appreciate the joys and heartbreak that I have encountered during these last two months. Without her patience and understanding, there would be no Northeast Connecticut Kestrel Project. There would just be dozens of kestrel boxes filled with fat, happy starlings.  I cannot begin to thank her enough for her patience and support.......and I am far from done. It will be at least another 3 weeks of very intense monitoring before I can be certain of which boxes will have eggs and be on their way to producing healthy nestlings.  There is still lots (hopefully) of nestling banding on the horizon as well as the telemetry study that I will be collaborating on with the University of Connecticut. That study will involve harnessing 10 nestlings in  my project area with tiny transmitters a day or two before they fledge. There will be much more to come on that work as it unfolds. 
     By the middle of next week I should I have a fairly accurate count of which boxes have eggs. Until then I am working hard to keep 9 boxes starling free that MIGHT end up occupied by roaming, unattached kestrels that are in my area (we call them "floaters"). I am definitely running out of time though. With some boxes already having full clutches of five eggs, it is obvious that the vast majority of kestrels who will be setting up shop in my project area have already done so. We'll all have a clearer picture of where things stand a week from now.  

Monday, May 6, 2013

May 6

A Tale of Two Boxes

    To illustrate just how unpredictable and resilient the American kestrel can be, I thought I would share with you the story of two of the boxes in my project to date.  
     The first box is brand new this year (put up last November before the ground froze). It was put up with a second box in a very promising section of habitat which consisted of mostly evergreen nursery stock mixed with some patches of barren, weedy ground-perfect.  Early in March there were kestrels present off and on at the farm, but it was obvious that they were just moving through. I saw my first kestrel in the vicinity of the box, a male, on 4/12. Up to that point, I had removed only 1 starling so I thought things were looking up. Unfortunately, soon after 4/12 the starlings really began showing an interest in the box. From that point on, I began eliminating starlings about every other day with no sightings of kestrels near the box. When I arrived on the morning of 4/27, I was shocked to see 3 large farm tractors, one tractor trailer, 2 large irrigation rigs and about 12 farmhands all working within 15 feet of the box. This went on for days. Amazingly enough, there was a starling peeking his head out of the box when I showed up later that day so I dealt with him (he was the 7th starling that had been removed from that box), but at this point I had totally written off the box, after 45 days of persistence, as a failure for the season. Six days later, on 5/3, I showed up after the farmhands had left. All the equipment was still there. There were no signs of starlings or any other avian activity. Just out of habit, I figured I should go into the box just to see what was going on. When I opened the box I was looking at two kestrel eggs. I almost fell off the ladder. At some point in the previous 5 days the kestrels had adopted the box, despite all the craziness around it and laid 2 eggs. Unbelievable. 
    The second box was in a very similar area of habitat in the town of Ellington. Unlike box #1, this box had almost no starling issues all season long and was being regularly visited by the a pair of kestrels since 4/8. One day I ran into the farmer who informed me that a "little wood cutting" was being done on that parcel and he hoped that it wouldn't bother the kestrels at the box. A couple of days later I stopped over to check out the situation. Within 25 feet of the box there were 2 enormous wood skidders dragging whole trees and brush to a 300 HP chipper that could take trees up to 23 inches in diameter. They were being fed into the chipper by a huge excavator. There were three tractor trailers waiting to be loaded with chips that were lined up wheel to wheel within 10 feet of the box. The "little wood cutting" turned out to be 30 acre clearcut. This went on for four full days. It is hard to put into words what I felt after seeing that 47 days into my kestrel season. After all the equipment was finally moved out, I looked in the box and saw that the kestrels had obviously abandoned it. Two days later a starling was peeking out so I took care of him. Two days ago I visited the box and saw no activity at all. Determined not to repeat my rookie mistakes from the past, I took NOTHING for granted and went into the box. After I lowered it, I looked inside and saw a female kestrel crouched in the corner looking back at me. It remains to be seen if she will stay and lay eggs there, but it was a very, very emotional moment for me. What amazing birds. 
      Total miles driven this season to date= 3,011   Total number of box visits to date= 704.