Spring is in the air, and its not just because it’s 75 degrees out. Over the past few days, large groups of migrant Sandhill Cranes have been heading north; while eating my lunch a few days ago, I counted just over 500 heading north in groups of 20 to 100, constantly joining up into larger groups. Some major winds seem to have carried north a number of Florida’s first of the year Swallow-tailed Kites, some as far north as Alachua and Levy Counties already! Purple Martin sightings are also streaming in. Up north, hawk watches are under way and with migration upon us, who knows where this White-backed Vulture will end up; a male has escaped from the Jacksonville Zoo, and has been spotted once already in Avon Park, Florida. On top of all of this, resident Florida birds are busy defending territories and getting ready to lay eggs, including the Southeastern American Kestrel.
Kestrels are really starting to defend their boxes and territories, and by the end of the month, a few will have laid their first egg. At many nest boxes, not one but two pairs have obvious territories, and it’s very easy to see territory boundaries as males patrol their territories from high perches. They are also busy defending their territories from other species. This week, I noticed large groups of Blue Jays mobbing kestrels, mainly when the kestrels have prey, but also sometimes when they don’t. At one site, a female kestrel caught a locust and flew up to a snag that had been beautifully excavated with numerous cavities by a Red-headed Woodpecker. As the kestrel flew into the tree, the woodpecker didn’t even flinch. I’ve seen similar reactions from kestrels regarding Red-bellied Woodpeckers, and Northern Flickers as well; its as though they are completely tolerant of each others presence. Then, these two individuals took this to the next step. As a Blue Jay landed on the snag near the kestrel, the Red-headed Woodpecker flew into action, making close passes at the Blue Jay. As long as the Blue Jay was still, the Red-headed Woodpecker didn’t attack, but as soon as the jay took a dive at the kestrel, the Red-headed Woodpecker took the opportunity to dive at the jay. The kestrel did her best to keep her meal, sometimes going at the jay herself. Very surprisingly, the jay eventually left, and the woodpecker and the kestrel sat within a few feet of each other quietly once again. American Kestrels depend on woodpecker species like the Red-headed Woodpecker, and simply would not exist without them, as they cannot excavate their own cavities. The decline of natural cavities is certainly tied to the decline of the Southeastern American Kestrel, so it is always encouraging to see these woodpecker/kestrel interactions. While a nest box is nearby, it would be great to see this kestrel nest in this snag.
Other signs of spring are the loads of baby gray squirrels I’ve been finding (read this post, “What’s in the box?” about the other squirrel species that take advantage of nest boxes). A few weeks ago, I encountered 4 lively gray squirrel babies that were nearly ready to leave the box. If I had the proper equipment, I could have scooped them out, but their claws were clasped too firmly onto the sides of the box to remove. At the time, a kestrel pair was nearby, and I really wanted the squirrels gone so they could move in. A few days ago, I drove up to the box and saw the male kestrel perched on the box and peering in. Success! It looked like the squirrels had moved on. Or so I thought! I was shocked to find the squirrels still there, and looking very much like adult squirrels! (You know its time for a baby to move on when you can barely tell it from its mother). I can only imagine what the kestrel was thinking as he stared in at them. I was able to scoop them out one by one, much to their dismay, and also my own as I avoided their angry teeth. To minimize the disturbance I quickly left so the kestrels could continue investigating their newly acquired (and rightful!) home.
At another nest box, I am happy to see a pair of kestrels where I had previously not; the box was bursting at the seams with layers of old European Starling nests. This particular box is very close to a busy intersection (complete with gas stations, Dollar General, CVS, Dollar Tree, Publix-a typical Florida intersection), and the few boxes that haven’t been displaced from development here contained starling nests. It doesn’t help that a housing development and a golf course border the box on the remaining sides, so this will be an interesting pair to keep an eye on. I’ll make extra stops here to keep the starlings out, and hopefully within a few weeks I’ll find an egg or two!