By Peter Vankevich
From early September into early winter, it is possible to see three species of falcons on Ocracoke.
Peregrine Falcons migrate through and some will occasionally be seen perching on the water tower. Although stealthy Merlins pass through, lingering throughout the fall, they can be a challenge to see.
But one falcon when here is easy to see and is by far the most colorful–the American Kestrel (Falco sparverius).
Up until 1983, kestrels were known as sparrow hawks, not because sparrows are its favorite prey (they aren’t), but owing to a mistaken connection with the Eurasian sparrowhawk in the genus accipiter.
The American Ornithological Union corrected this misnomer in its sixth edition bird checklist, renaming it the American Kestrel.
The smallest falcon in North America, of the 13 kestrel species in the world, this is the only one that appears in the Western Hemisphere, and its range extends from the tree line/tundra in northern Canada and Alaska all the way to Tierra del Fuego, Argentina. About 17 subspecies are recognized, but only two in North America.
These are beautiful birds. The male has a gray crown with dark moustaches around white cheeks. The back is bright rufous with black spots and dark barring on lower back. The rufous tail has variable black, white or gray bands.
The typical falcon wings–long, slim and pointed–are blue-gray with dark primaries. Underparts are white, washed with cinnamon. The adult female is more subtle in coloring with more brown on crown and the back, wings, and tail are reddish brown with dark barring.
Their loud call has been described as a“killy, killy, killy” sound.
Primarily a perching bird, on Ocracoke they are frequently seen on the power lines along N.C Highway 12. When they see a food source, they will capture it on the ground or midair. If you are lucky, you may also see them hovering into the wind, fixed in space, while the wings alternately flap and glide and the tail fans out to adjust to any breeze.
Their wide distribution is because of a variety of food sources: large insects, lizards, small rodents and small birds.
Preferring open habitats with suitable perch sites, kestrels increased in North America during 18th and 19th centuries because of widespread deforestation and the creation of pastures and farmlands.
They are secondary cavity nesters and will use natural holes in trees or those created by other species such as woodpeckers.
Although the overall numbers are large, with an estimated 1.2 million individuals, USGS Breeding Bird Survey data indicate kestrels have been steadily declining since at least the 1960s across North America, including North Carolina.
The Ocracoke Christmas Bird Count at the end of December usually gets fewer than 10 individuals. The highest number was 24 in 1990. Last year only two were reported and in 2015, 8 individuals.
The decline may be attributed to changing agricultural practices, pesticides, competition for diminishing nesting cavities, primarily by European Starlings, and predation by Cooper’s Hawks, a species that has increased in recent years.
To help understand and stop the decline of this species, the American Kestrel Partnership under the auspices of the Peregrine Fund has been established. Part of their mission is providing nesting boxes for kestrels.
Part-time islanders Gil and Jan Randell, long-time members of the Hawk Migration Association of North America, visit Ocracoke every fall to count migrating raptors. They record only part-time, so the numbers do not reflect the actual number of birds passing through. Their reports can be seen online at www.hawkcount.org and search under Pony Pen North Raptor Watch.
Best Time to see: American Kestrels migrate through the Outer Banks starting in September, peaking in October. Some will linger into winter. Spring migration is not particularly notable. The Ocracoke Christmas Bird Count, which takes place at the end of December every year since 1981, usually reports three to six individuals with the high number of 24 in 1990.
Where: Campground, Springer’s Point, power lines, water tower in village, in flight amidst the dunes and the beach.
(audio provided courtesy of OhioLINK Digital Resource Commons)
Click here for the Birds of the Outer Banks Checklist