Final Snow

On Saturday, the Kestrel Trio (a friend, my adviser, and myself) agreed to meet up at the Richard DeKorte Environmental Center within the NJ Meadowlands for a bit of birding.  (Someday hopefully I will learn that a bit of birding is never just a bit!).

The Meadowlands at that particular site contains embankments cutting through the watery meadows allowing good views of ducks, regardless of the position of the sun.  It also is an excellent site for raptors.  So when one wearies of ducks, a glance upward might be rewarded with raptors.  If there’s little luck within the park, just outside the entrance is Disposal Rd. a favorite spot for avian photographers.  The lay of the land creates an uplift of air, rewarding patient photographers with great images soaring hawks and darting falcons.

American Kestrel pauses from its aerobatics to bob in a bare tree. NJ Meadowlands. March 15, 2014.

American Kestrel pauses from its aerobatics to bob in a bare tree. NJ Meadowlands. Taken on March 15, 2014.

While ducking (hey, you can owl, so why can’t you duck?) I didn’t take photos, but I switched from my binoculars to my camera at the end when we wandered along Disposal Rd.  We heard reports of Rough-leggeds, but didn’t see any.  There are also Short-eared Owls known to be in the area, but we weren’t there at the right time.  I hope to head out there some day after work, before the Short-ears depart…

Northern Harrier skims the hillside. NJ Meadowlands. March 15, 2014.

Northern Harrier skims the hillside. NJ Meadowlands. Taken on March 15, 2014.

We did see a lovely Long-tailed Duck, and a Horned Grebe hanging out on the water, but the surprise of the day was the Snowy Owl. The surprise was made sweeter simply by the fact I wasn’t out to see it: I had seen it at Sandy Hook, dipped on my return visit and had mostly accepted it was how things were meant to be. (Not that we didn’t debate whether the large white thing that flew across Valley Brook Rd on the drive into the meet up point was a Snowy Owl… my vote was plane.)

Snowy Owl hangs out in the phragmites along the watery meadows of the NJ Meadowlands.  March 15, 2014.

Snowy Owl hangs out in the phragmites along the watery meadows of the NJ Meadowlands. Taken on March 15, 2014.

Catching Kestrels

With kestrel research this year we’ve made a concerted effort to capture and identify or band all adult kestrels. We also needed to visit newly hatched boxes to determine the day of hatching.  Determining the day of hatching determines the banding and tagging window.  This requires going into the field a couple times a week to visit all the active boxes, which means my free days are typically busier than the days I work.

On this particular day a few weeks ago, we were joined by two by two turtlers (people who work with turtles; verb is to turtle.) for a day of kestreling (to specifically seek out kestrels).

The chosen one (me!( saunters down the road with the modified butterfly net.

The chosen one (me!) saunters down the road with the modified butterfly net.

Catching adults involves the use of a modified butterfly net. A chosen individual (think shortest straw or Hunger Games style selection process) assembles the net and proceeds on the quest to sneak up to the box and slip the net over while the remainder of the team sits in the car and bets on your success. When you are successful, the entry hole is successfully blocked, allowing the team to drive up, scale a ladder, and remove any inhabitants.

Here I am learning how to handle adults.  This is my teacher look.

Here I am learning how to handle adults. This is my teacher look.

On this particular day, I began learning how to remove the kestrels from the butterfly net which is a delicate process because kestrels have claws of death and they are none too pleased with you.

Female after banding.

Female kestrel, after banding.

We determine whether the birds are returns from a previous year, new to the area, or banded by someone else. We measure wing and tail feather length and weigh the birds before release. In the event that it is a new bird, we also band and tag the bird.

With the checks at this age, we simply weight them. Their weight allows us to determine hatch date. At this time kestrels gain weight at a uniform rate so you can backtrack to figure out when hatching occurred. Then you return during the banding window to band and tag the chicks.

Baby kestrels have attitude from the day they hatch.

Baby kestrels have attitude from the day they hatch.

Here are the chicks we’ve pulled from one of the last boxes of the day. You can see how small and scrawny they are.


Baby Kestrel peers up at the world.

Kestrel temper tantrum from being removed from the nest box.

Baby kestrels sleep in the sun. Warmth is warmth.

They’re pretty docile. They have no idea what is going on. There’s a bit of whimpering and murmuring, but nothing like the older chicks or the adults! Once the measurements are complete, we return them to the boxes. At this particular box there were 4 chicks that were hatched and 1 egg.

I climb back up to the box to return the chicks to the nest.

I climb back up to the box to return the chicks to the nest.

I climbed back up to return the four to the nest and this is what I discovered:


A kestrel chick that hatched just moments ago.  Still  in the egg!

A kestrel chick that hatched just moments ago. Still in the egg!

In the moments we had them down for weighing, the last egg hatched! This is a kestrel hatched moments ago!

And The Hits Keep Coming

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!

S’No Way!

I have really bad luck when it comes to traveling for spring break (or when it comes to finding pink churches in Spanish-speaking countries).  When I went to the Great Smoky Mountains, it snowed.  When I went to the Grand Canyon, it snowed.  So if you want snow, invite me to visit during spring break.

Then, I gave up traveling for spring break.  It stopped snowing.  This year, I hope to get in a few day trips during my furlough.  But it snowed this year, suggesting maybe it’s my outdoor/birding attempts that bring out spring snows.   Which means, I have been cooped up with no birding for a week now due to prepping for midterms and presentations!  Wanted break my birding fast with an afternoon outing either Thursday or Friday afternoon, but snow has postponed those plans.   Was also supposed to go with Dad to Wild Birds Unlimited so we can do some grandiose landscape to attract more birds each season.  Snow has also postponed those plans.  Mind you, I was going stir crazy last weekend without an outing.  Prognosis is not so good!

So hopefully birding next week, fit in around my work-schedule.  No sunrise birding unless it’s Wednesday.  But I might have time to checkout Sandy Hook or the Meadowlands.  I’ve heard lots of good things about birding in the Meadowlands, particularly Disposal Road.  But visiting the Meadowlands is more convenient  as I drive through there frequently, so perhaps I should head out to Sandy Hook on the ocean.  I birded there once, three years ago.

Immature Red-winged Blackbird investigates the feeder in hopes of food.

Immature Red-winged Blackbird investigates the feeder in hopes of food.

Field season in Warren county for American Kestrels kicks off Tuesday, Sussex date hasn’t yet been finalized. It should be before the month is out.

Haven’t seen the Wood Duck again, but I did have a Red-winged Blackbird checking out the feeder the other day.  I’m assuming it’s immature because it has the epaulets, but it’s back isn’t fully black.  (You can see a hint of red.)  When I found him, he was actually up on the feeder.