Matthew Sileo Photography | Birds, Wildlife, Ecology, Conservation | Matthew Sileo Photography
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Walking down 13th St. NW in Columbia Heights, I heard a call familiar to me: "klee-klee-klee-klee!" Except it sounded like a bird that had no business hanging out in Columbia Heights in early June. Maybe a Mockingbird was tricking me?
I followed the call and found the bird- an American Kestrel, the smallest of the North American Falcons. Here is the male on his favorite tree perch. I wondered what a bird of the open countryside was doing in such a busy, urban area! It was too late for him to be a migrant just passing through; he was there for a reason. After watching him for awhile, I discovered . . .
The male had a mate, and they had made a nest out of a drain pipe structure under the eaves of a condominium building!
The nest cavity is directly across the street from Cardozo High School, and the administration was accommodating and allowed me to take pictures from school property. In this photo, the male is bringing the adult female (shown peeking out of the nest cavity) his most recent catch: a small, de-feathered bird.
Handing off the catch, which the female will feed to the nestlings.
Sometimes the male would spend time in the nest, and the female would take on hunting duties. At this point, the adults were bringing food to the nest so often that I knew that nestlings had hatched and were growing rapidly. It's easy to anthropomorphize these birds and imagine them kissing each other on the cheek to say 'hello' in the next moment.
Columbia Heights, particularly the blocks with higher tree cover, is home to a number of bird species, some as universally recognizable as this American Robin.
Here's a male Mourning Dove, literally chasing after a female he found attractive.
Two of the more aggressive and intelligent species: an American Crow (left) and a Common Grackle (right)
Crows and Mockingbirds (Northern mockingbird, right) spend much of their time harassing one another, as well as other species, particularly the Kestrels!
Common Grackles do not like Crows, either.
The adult male Kestrel flies on a clear, sunny day.
Life can be tough for these little falcons. Crows see them not only as a threat, but also as competitors for scarce resources. The crows and kestrels are enemies- they clearly don't like each other around!
Mockingbirds can be surprisingly bold, and go after the kestrels whenever they can.
After colliding in midair, the male Kestrel tries to regain control.
American Kestrels are gorgeous birds- here's the female.
The female Kestrel was curious, often looking right at me and my camera lens!
The female Kestrel isn't safe from harassment; a Common Grackle approaches from below.
The "klee-klee-klee-klee!" alarm call is a common sound you'll hear when the Kestrels are being chased around, such as in this scene with a Common Grackle.
The female looks back, trying to evade the persistent blackbird. Her mouth is open because she was screaming bloody murder!
THE TABLES HAVE TURNED: When this crow got too close to the nest, the female Kestrel exploded out in full attack-mode.
The male Kestrel joined in the fun (out of frame) as the female continues in hot pursuit.
Here's the male Kestrel approaching fast from below!
The Kestrels, like other falcons, are extremely aerodynamic and can attain very high speeds, particularly in dives. Here the female rotates her wings 90 degrees to dive straight at the crow below.
Not the best photo, but here's a great illustration of why the Kestrels don't like having crows around. This crow is carrying a dead baby bird- one that the male Kestrel had caught! Crows are very smart, and quite opportunistic, and will steal food from predators when they get a chance.
The adults hardly spend any time in the nest now, and don't need to bring food as often. Here the female leaves after one of her rare visits throughout the morning.
The nestlings are finally strong and large enough to peek out of the nest hole! All altricial birds grow to adult-size before leaving the nest. (I often hear, "Why don't you ever see baby pigeons?" -You actually DO see them, all the time! They just look like adults by the time they're out of the nest). While many juvenile birds have plumage different than that of their parents, American Kestrel fledglings look more or less like the adults of their corresponding genders.
FIRST CONTACT: The male nestling is getting very close to fledging, and is often peering out of the nest. He is fascinated by any and everything that flies by, and a few times he definitely noticed me across the street!
Not all things in the sky are birds- Marine One regularly flies over the area, as many Columbia Heights residents know!
An identical structure to the nesting site can be seen on a different wing of the same condominium farther away. One afternoon, I watched a murder of crows chase the adult male into this structure, and for the next few minutes a few of them watched as two continued to harass the Kestrel inside.
Over the past few weeks, I occasionally saw the adult male roosting in this box alone during the day. Fortunately for him, the crows lost interest after about five minutes, and he was able to emerge unharmed.
The female was no more lucky that afternoon- here a crow is in hot pursuit, evidently in control of the situation, as her terrified expression indicates. Poor girl!
I was correct that the young kestrel was close to fledging; the next morning I arrived at the site and found the young male out of the box and across the street on a ledge of the High School building façade. A large interspecies mob of birds was harassing the poor falcon, and his parents were nowhere in sight! The world can be a cold and cruel place for a young fledgling Kestrel.
robins, grackles, mockingbirds and crows that had been attacking him, but I (and my enormous camera equipment) must have been just as scary.
Now that the two young have presumably fledged (I still have yet to see the second fledgling out and about), activity at the Cardozo High parking lot and the surrounding area is less common. I feel fortunate to have witnessed the evolution of such a unique and exciting avian community in the very urban Columbia Heights neighborhood. Over the next two weeks, the fledglings will learn to hunt on their own (with their parents' help), and then the race is on to build strength and endurance for the coming fall migration season. Perhaps the adult pair will return from the tropics next year and breed once more!
The juvenile male Kestrel has become more confident- he no longer calls to his parents when a Mockingbird is harassing him.
The young Kestrel calmly and curiously watches the Mockingbird "freak out."
The young Kestrel calmly and curiously watches the Mockingbird "freak out."
In what I can only describe as "play," the young Kestrel repeatedly jumps into the upward flow of HVAC exhaust, riding the wind much like an indoor skydiving system!
In what I can only describe as "play," the young Kestrel repeatedly jumps into the upward flow of HVAC exhaust, riding the wind much like an indoor skydiving system!
Like a toddler, the juvenile male Kestrel examines his environment. He studied and played with this nail for over five minutes before he dropped it off the edge of the roof. I am shocked to see "playful" behavior in a raptor species; typically "play" occurs only in social species known for high intelligence.
As I continue to visit the Kestrel family, I enjoy learning more about their behaviors. The adult male (shown) is the family's main line of defense- he takes care of the annoying Mockingbirds and any other threats to the young.
Now that the young Kestrels are adult-sized, the parents (including the adult male, shown) are hunting insects more often than birds and rodents. This is a typical Kestrel hunting posture: the adult male here is hovering with his head completely stationary, in order to lock onto a target prey item below.
After locking onto a target, a hunting Kestrel will dive in a surprise-attack. I took this shot of the adult male right after he caught a dragonfly.
Mid-flight, the adult male Kestrel bites off the head of the dragonfly to kill it.
The adult male Kestrel continues to consume his lunch, mid-flight!
I lucked out with this shot- the adult female flew by me, looking directly at my lens. Awesome!
Another lucky one, with the adult male Kestrel this time!
BABY BROTHERS! I finally figured it out: both fledglings did indeed survive. I hadn't realized, that both young were actually male! I was likely seeing both juveniles separately and assumed they were one bird. The brothers hang out together in their favorite tree, mostly waiting for their parents to come in with food. I see so much evidence of affection in these birds; the brothers prefer to sit in close contact, and sometimes I'll see beautiful scenes like this.
Midday is a great time to see the Kestrels resting, preening, and generally hanging out. High-performance flight requires meticulously-preened feathers! Here the adult male "zips up" the one of his retrices.
Stretch those wings!
Midday naptime for the Kestrels. Here we see a young male's attempt at camouflage... or a fancy hat!