Our smallest falcon … the ‘cute’ one

Bruce
Bruce Mactavish
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“To watch by the roadside singing killy killy killy,
plumaged like a tasteful parrot
to have a repertoire of moves so clean their edge is
the frontier of nothing”
 —  from “Kestrels” by Don McKay

The American kestrel, our smallest falcon. — Photo by Ken Knowles/Special to The Telegram

Falcons tend to be described in superlatives — most magnificent, breathtaking, powerful, awe-inspiring. But can a falcon just be cute? This is the weighty topic tackled by today’s intrepid Winging It column.

No one can argue against the majesty and power of the mighty gyrfalcon, the largest of our four Newfoundland falcon species.

Seeing a gyr knock a ptarmigan out of the air can make your heart skip a beat.

The high-speed stoop of a peregrine is both riveting and terrifying. Even the smaller merlin has a combative attitude that in a teenager would be described as insolent, provocative and argumentative.

Today, I’m suggesting that our fourth, and least common, falcon species is none of the above. The kestrel is actually cute.

The American kestrel, for starters, is a beauty. The distant impression is of orangy-red, but a close look at a male shows the contrasty bluish wings, the dark barring, and especially the classy head pattern, shown in today’s photo.

That dark “moustache” mark is a characteristic of most members of the falcon family.

There are also two false eyes on the rear of the head, designed to confuse and deter predators. One of these eyespots is just visible in the photo.

Unlike the larger falcons that hunt with power and speed, the kestrel will perch on a wire, then drop to the ground on its prey.

And what is that prey? Not a pigeon or ptarmigan, but typically a large insect.

Grasshoppers are a favourite, but kestrels also eat frogs and lizards.

I suspect that in Newfoundland, where grasshoppers, frogs and especially lizards are relatively scarce, the kestrel eats a lot of mice and voles, moths and caterpillars — hardly the stuff of a horror story.

When no convenient wire is available to perch on, the kestrel can hover like a hummingbird, so the European kestrel’s nickname is the windhover.

It is a light and buoyant flier, and the sight of a hovering kestrel inspires a smile, not a shiver — unless, of course, you are a vole.

The kestrel is not only the smallest falcon in North America, but it is also the best-known and most widespread — except in Newfoundland.

They appear here annually, mostly at this time of year, but occasionally also in spring migration. To find one, look in open fields, golf courses and barrens. Check any nearby power lines.

Because birders spend a lot of time in fall on the Cape Race barrens, we often see them perched on the wires along the road to the lighthouse. Sometimes you can identify kestrels at a distance, because when they land on a wire, they tend to bob their tails a few times. Cute.

Usually in these types of articles, we are lamenting the decline of a species due to human-induced habitat loss.

No need to feel guilty about the kestrel; in fact, a reversal of the usual scenario seems to have happened.

Since kestrels are birds of the open, the population increased with the spread of farm fields and deforestation in the last century. Now that farming has declined in the northeast, and forests are re-claiming some of the land, the kestrel is showing a natural decline.

Of course, you wouldn’t think so if you spend December in Florida, where hordes of them congregate like Newfoundlanders, to avoid the northern winter.

Shouldn’t we all?

Rarity of the Year

On Johnson Avenue in Corner Brook on Sept. 10, Bruce Rodriguez looked out his window and saw a lazuli bunting in his backyard. There have been more than four hundred species of birds seen in Newfoundland since anyone started counting, but never a lazuli bunting.

Bruce knew exactly what he was seeing, but he also knew the importance of getting a photo.

He grabbed his camera and clicked off a few shots before the bird moved off down the street.

Then his heart sank. The camera was on the wrong setting and the photos would all be too dark. He headed out the door.

As the skittish bunting moved from yard to yard, he desperately kept trying for a shot, and thought that he had ended up with only a blurry flight shot, proving nothing.

Back at the computer, his luck changed.

One photo of the bird came out, giving conclusive evidence of the sighting and cementing his new status as the only person to have seen a lazuli bunting in Newfoundland. At press deadline the bird had not been relocated.

He has my admiration and my eternal envy.

While Bruce Mactavish is away, Ken Knowles is watching the Winging It email, wingingitone@yahoo.ca.

Geographic location: Newfoundland, North America, Cape Race Florida YearOn Johnson Avenue Corner Brook

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