Wintering Falcons at Bucktoe

By Joe Sebastiani, Members Program Team Leader

On Monday, Harold Davis attended the Bucktoe Creek Preserve weekly bird walk.  He took several photos of a Kestrel and Merlin and sent them to me, inspiring me to write about these two small falcons using the preserve this winter. 

The American Kestrel is the smallest falcon in the USA and has been seen on the property for several years.  Two years ago, William Ryan, the Preserve Director, and I installed a nesting box for Kestrels on a dead tree (snag) that William “planted” on a knoll in a field on the preserve.  Last year, a pair nested in the box, raising 3 young.  It was fun to observe the young birds as they developed and began catching their own prey.  Eventually, late in the summer, they youngsters left for an unknown wintering ground.  It was a thrill to host a nesting pair, since Kestrels are declining rapidly in the northeast as a breeding bird, and no one is certain why. 

This American Kestrel has been seen sporadically at the Bucktoe Creek Preserve.  Notice that it is molting its primary flight feathers.  Photo by Harold Davis.
This American Kestrel has been seen sporadically at the Bucktoe Creek Preserve. Notice that it is molting its primary flight feathers. Photo by Harold Davis.

The Kestrel wintering at Bucktoe may be the female of the pair that nested here last summer, or it could be a bird that is overwintering from somewhere else. 

The other small falcon that is wintering at the Bucktoe Creek Preserve is a Merlin.  Merlins breed across the northern boreal forests and prairies in North America and Eurasia.  Unlike the Kestrel, Merlins are increasing in numbers and expanding their range.  In fact, they have been breeding in NY state for many years, and several pair have been discovered nesting in northern PA recently, usually in or around small towns with lots of small songbirds to eat.  Merlins use the old nest of a crow or other raptor instead of constructing their own nest, or nesting in a cavity like a Kestrel.

The Merlin is a little bigger than an American Kestrel and is heavily streaked on the breast.  They mostly eat small songbirds, like this bird is doing in the photograph.  Photo by Harold Davis.
The Merlin is a little bigger than an American Kestrel and is heavily streaked on the breast. They mostly eat small songbirds, like this bird is doing in the photograph. Photo by Harold Davis.

A pair of Merlin wintered on the Bucktoe Creek Preserve for four years in a row earlier this decade.  They would even return to the same tree to roost year after year.  The bird that is here now is usually seen eating its prey on one of the “planted” snags on the preserve.  Usually, the Merlin zooms in from somewhere very quickly, carrying a small songbird, lands on one of the snags, and feasts. 

We welcome you to participate in the free birding walks at Bucktoe, each Monday at 7:45 a.m.  Directions can be found at www.delawarenaturesociety.org on the “our locations” page.

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