The 19th season of fieldwork kicked off on Wednesday! This was the beginning of my fifth season with a long-term American Kestrel nest monitoring program in Warren and Sussex counties in NW New Jersey. The NJ study is significant because there are few long term research projects out there due to the nature of grants and the publish or perish mandate. There is a longer monitoring program run by Hawk Mountain – since the 1960’s I believe, but I read the research on that a few months ago, so don’t quote me and certainly don’t cite me!
What does Kestrel research entail?
The most important thing is probably a sense of humor because weird and unexpected stuff always happens. In all seriousness though it requires the willingness to jump in,do whatever is needed, and the ability to slug it out for 10-12 hours in the field at a go.
On the first trip out, we need to check and prep each site for the upcoming breeding season. This entails emptying out old nests and putting in new wood shavings – Kestrels are messy birds! Occasionally it involves some repair or trimming of vegetation.
Return visits are done to monitor which boxes are in use by kestrels, or other native birds. Unused nests and other animals are evicted (unless immatures are present, then they can stay until fledging or maturity). If a box is used, then we monitor to ID the adults. Are they returns from earlier seasons? New individuals to NJ? We determine nesting date, and then we return and band the nestlings before they fledge. We have about 100 boxes across the two counties, so it’s a full day in each county.
On Wednesday, the high was in the upper 30’s/40’s, with a 10% chance of rain. Much better than Tuesday or Thursday’s forecast. Mind you the wind blew; it rained; it even dared to snow! There were three of us in the field – an undergraduate participating for credit, my adviser who has run the program for all 18 previous seasons and myself. Yet we persevered.
No Kestrel sightings (historically the first sighting is always in Sussex), but collectively we identified by sight or sound 39 species of birds. We had a false alarm of a Red-headed Woodpecker which would be a lifer for me, but in retrospect it was likely a weird sounding Red-bellied Woodpecker.
But I did get a new life bird! As we visiting a box near the Alpha Grasslands, the professor generally climbs the ladder to monitor each box while my job is to spot for Kestrels and record all data observations. From the ladder, the professor called down that he thought he heard Snow Buntings! I had my binoculars up within seconds because this bird has eluded me all winter. I’ve gone to at least 3 places where they were reported without any luck. I found three floating around the field – playing freeze tag. They’d abruptly fly to the next spot, then freeze on the ground making finding them again nearly impossible. So I didn’t even blink until the professor was off the ladder and on the birds. Then I handed my binoculars over to the undergrad so she could take a peek. I ran for my camera, but got back just as they departed for a distant field.
So that was pretty cool. Of course day 2 of fieldwork had to top day 1. The professor and another graduate student spotted a Black-legged Kittiwake in the Walkill NWR and got to band a Eastern Screech Owl.
Then on Thursday, I got to see 3 Brown-headed Cowbirds at the feeder while working on a term paper! So two new bird species for the year and one new life species!