Kestrels Breeding in Burnaby

This past Sunday (July 16), following my own advice to “… get out there and take a look”, I was cycling east along North Fraser Way in Burnaby’s Big Bend area when an interesting bird silhouette caught my eye.

Kestrel silhouetted on a dead snag in the Big Bend area

Grabbing my bins from the bike pannier to get a better look, I was soon able to resolve the dark shape into that of a Kestrel. A “good” bird anywhere in the Lower Mainland, and a real and unexpected treat to see in Burnaby.

Grabbing my camera, I started a slow walk along Abbotsford Street toward the perched bird hoping for some good pictures, or at least a record shot of this Burnaby rarity, when I noticed a second Kestrel, this one sitting low down but half hidden in a thicket next to the tree in which the the first bird was perched. Two Kestrels! Wow!

Juvenile American Kestrel

Juvenile Kestrels are difficult to visually tell apart from their adult parents; however, this guy (yes, it’s a male), was making the occasional begging call, and when the adult male swooped down into the grassy road edge to catch some prey, and then flew up with it, junior was in hot pursuit for a meal.

So this was a recently fledged bird, which virtually guarantees it was hatched right here in the Big Bend area. In the 1 to 2 weeks immediately post-fledging, the young birds solicit food from their parents. After this period they cease begging as they become adept at capturing prey independently. So this young guy left the nest and took his first flights within the previous 2 weeks, and as a young, relatively weak flyer would not have travelled into the area from outside. It was Burnaby born and raised. Yay!

The Kestrel diet is primarily insects, especially grasshoppers, beetles, and dragonflies, and small rodents, especially voles and mice. All of the these prey items would be available in the area. The farming here is predominantly mixed vegetables, with some large areas of cranberry bogs to the north. The field edges are nicely unkempt, scruffy, and weedy providing lots of just the kinds of foods Kestrels need. Farming and wildlife can happily co-exist if the farming isn’t too industrialized and intensive.

Fields of vegetables with good Kestrel foraging habitat along its weedy edges in Burnaby’s Big Bend.

 

Fallow field of rough grass meadow full of insects, and small rodents – Kestrel food

I don’t know how much pesticide use there is on these farms, but the insect life was abundant when I visited. Perhaps this is a sign it is minimal, which is not only good for our health, but also that of the insect-eating Kestrels and other birds. Along the Byrne Road side of the area, the organic farm that was Urban Digs is now getting going again under new stewardship and name – Seed of Life Farm. No pesticide use there for sure. Another positive for the Kestrels.

So where would the nest itself likely have been? Kestrels are cavity nesters, using woodpecker-excavated and natural cavities in larger trees which are surrounded by large open areas for hunting food. We’ve got the open patches in Big Bend, but not so much the larger trees in the immediate area where I saw the birds.  However, there are many large black cottonwoods surrounding the fields, and Kestrels are known to use buildings too for nesting. A number of the old farm buildings in the area looked quite suitable to me.

Vegetable fields surrounded by the old farm buildings which may have provided a suitable Kestrel nest site

Both male and female Kestrels feed the young except for a short period after first hatching when the male provisions the female and the chicks on the nest. After 7-10 days both parents feed the young and this continues through the post-hatching period.

Breaking News (July18)

Went down to Big Bend again this morning to check up on the progress of the Kestrels. Despite the fact that somehow I had put a mostly un-charged battery in my camera and as a result missed all sorts of photo opportunities, it was a wonderful morning. The news is getting better.

There were at least 4 kestrels there this morning. Two adults, a male and female, and two juveniles, a male and female. Likely this represents the whole family, but given the birds were very active hunting and begging, I could have missed more family members. The young are still being fed by the parents, but are taking up perches and stances showing they are making the transition to feeding on their own. No more perching low down and tucked in like the juvenile I first observed Sunday.

The accepted common name for this species is American Kestrel. These ones, of course, are “Canadian” born and raised. In fact, I think we can safely claim this family group as “Burnaby” Kestrels.

Adult male “Burnaby” American Kestrel

If you head down to N Fraser Way and Abbotsford St. to see the happenings for yourself, please respect the farmland and private property, and stay on the roads. This area is not a public park.

 

 

Sphinx surprise

A lazy, summer Sunday afternoon – the garden is a familiar scene; flowers waving in the breeze, insects buzzing in the air, and birds singing from the forest behind. And then, in an instant, the scene changes. Something different was hovering and flying around the bright pink campion flowers growing in the back border. A small hummingbird, perhaps a rare visitor, it was definitely not one of our regular Rufous or Anna’s types. My birder brain went rapidly into full attention mode. What was this?

Hovering at each flower before rapidly moving on to the next, the new visitor was actually a sphinx moth or hawkmoth taking nectar from the blossoms. Not the rare hummingbird I first imagined, but nonetheless an animal that I haven’t seen for many years in the area. And just maybe as exciting. Also called a hummingbird moth because, as I just demonstrated, the species is frequently mistaken for a hummingbird.

Grabbing the camera, I headed out into the yard to see if I could get a picture. This was one fast-moving insect, and a real challenge to photograph as the picture below attests. The wing beats are so fast, I never did capture an unblurred picture of them.

Bedstraw or Gallium sphinx moth

However, it was captivating to watch the moth flying around the bright pink campions. Perhaps the pictures do indeed capture the action.

With its wings a constant blur, the moth presented the next challenge. Did I see and photograph enough detail of the moth to make a correct indentification? Now, as you know, I’m a birder so I had to do a little research on-line for this one. I knew enough to recognize it as a sphinx moth, but as to exactly which species. Well!

My first impressions led me to decide is was likely a white-lined sphinx moth. This is the common and widespread species in our area; the default sphinx moth so to speak. However, digging a little deeper, I found that there is another, less common, but very similar species, the bedstraw or gallium sphinx moth. Careful study of many on-line pictures and reading various descriptions led me to decide that our visitor was indeed the bedstraw species.

Like hummingbirds, sphinx moths hover at flowers to suck up and drink the nectar that they need for energy – a good example of the convergent evolution of two unrelated species. The hummingbird uses its extendable tongue, the sphinx moth uses its extendable proboscis to draw the nectar into its mouth. Here’s a close up of the sphinx moth’s specialized mouthpiece at work.

Bedstraw sphinx moth, nectaring

To see what’s going on here, click once on the photo above to enlarge it. The proboscis is the dark coloured, thin tube that extends a short distance horizontally from the head of the moth, and then makes a 90 degree downturn before entering the centre of the flower. When not in use, the long proboscis is carried coiled-up at the front of the head.

But why “bedstraw”? Adult sphinx moths feed exclusively on nectar of many flowers, but it’s the food plant of the caterpillar which gives the species its name. Both bedstraw and fireweed, another favourite larval-stage food plant, are common plants in Deer Lake Park, which is right behind my house, and I’m sure this is the place where this adult spent its early life as a caterpillar.

Bedstraw (Galium sp), Deer Lake Park

And here’s the other favourite food plant of the caterpillar.

Fireweed, Deer Lake Park

The visitor didn’t stay long. It flew along the forest edge, seemingly looking for more flowers for nectar, and then disappeared into the park.

July is the peak of the adults’ flight season, so keep your eyes open for this beautiful moth in our parks. Like most moths, the sphinx moth does fly at night, but this species also flies in the afternoons, and we then have the chance to see this hovering beauty.