For the Birds Radio Program: Migration Update and Kestrels

Original Air Date: Sept. 9, 1998

El Nino seems to be sending lots of birds our way. Laura’s especially happy to see kestrels.

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This year of El Nino has been one of the loveliest ever around Duluth. Some places in Minnesota have been ravaged by storms, but this city known for its inhospitably cold weather has been enjoying improbably pleasant temperatures for a full year now. Usually when the weather is so nice, migration is lackluster, but this fall’s bird movements have been wonderful throughout much of the country. Birders on the Wisconsin and Minnesota bird chats have gone on and on lately about how many birds are around, from warblers to shorebirds. I’ve had wonderful warblering in my own backyard, but for me a bigger highlight of fall migration is the hawk flight. And so far, this year’s hawks have been simply wonderful.

Broad-wings have been moving by steadily since August, and their numbers will pick up dramatically in the next week, and quickly peak. Sharp-shins are going by in good numbers, too—they migrate along with the songbirds that they eat, and we’ll be seeing them through October. Osprey clear out fairly early, unlike their fish-eating competitors the eagles. We’re already seeing the southern subspecies of the Bald Eagle, that wanders north after the breeding season and then returns south ahead of cold weather. But our tough northern Bald Eagles don’t really start moving until October, and we see our greatest numbers in November and December.

Early Peregrine Falcons are moving. They eat just about anything that flies, concentrating on shorebirds and ducks. Some peregrines get so good at shorebird hunting that they follow their quarry all the way to the bottom of South America, but some get waylaid by the pigeons in the Duluth harbor and stick out the winter all the way up here.

My favorite hawks of all are the littlest ones—the dainty American Kestrels. I like them in part because they never attack Blue Jays or nighthawks, and in part because they’re so colorful and delicate. For some reason, young kestrels often hang out together on migration, and sometimes we can find a flock of seven or even eight migrating together. In the pre-dawn twilight one morning a couple of years ago when my daughter Katie and I were counting at the Lakewood Pumping Station, we saw a group of three kestrels ambush a small bat. That little mammal darted about and managed just barely to avoid them. Ironically, I think the kestrels would have been more successful alone or with just two—every time one got really close to the bat, it had to veer off to avoid colliding with one of its buddies.

Although kestrels were once known as sparrow hawks, they don’t eat nearly as many birds as they do insects. During migration they concentrate on dragonflies, and we can always predict how kestrel migration will go based on how many dragonflies are on the move. Over Labor Day weekend, there were a bazillion dragonflies flying in Duluth—especially on Sunday—and sure enough, there were hundreds of kestrels overhead, too. Kestrels are hardly enough that some of them overwinter this far north, but the vast majority move where they can find cold-blooded prey like dragonflies and grasshoppers. I feel sad watching them leave—I get a lovely homey feeling all summer seeing kestrels perched on telephone poles and lines along Highway 13, and I miss them in winter. But these ballerinas of the hawk world balance the more macho displays of bigger, tougher hawks winging through, bringing sparkle and delicate beauty to the autumn sky. If they have to migrate away from us for many long months, I’m glad they at least do it in style.