Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Governors Island 2017 - Part 6

One reason I like to visit Governors Island is it is a great place to see wildlife in a more "natural" environment within an urban area.

Kestrels live in the city, often nesting in the cornices of tenement buildings.  When I've seen them hunt for food, they usually get sparrows or raid other bird nests. Governors Island provides an opportunity to see them behave more as they would in the wild, hunting large insects in an open grassy area.

This female kestrel is one of two who spent several weeks on the island. She has a notably white chest with well-defined brown streaks.



I watched her one afternoon as she hunted for prey at Hammock Grove, a hill in the middle of the island with a lot of low and dense vegitation.  She would perch on a tree (as above) or a pole (see below) and dive into the bushes and grab grasshoppers, cicadas and praying mantises.   


Fort Jay is a unique feature on the north side of the island.  It's surrounded by a moat that is filled with grass rather than water.  The grassy moat is a fantastic place to see kestrels and other birds hunt insects.  The predators perch on the walls of the fort and dive down into the moat and scoop up food.  In addition to kestrels, I watched flickers, phoebes, palm warblers, yellow-rumped warblers, cedar waxwings, mockingbirds, starlings, mourning doves, and even hawks hunt in the moat.

Below is the second female kestrel who spent a great deal of time on the island.  Compared to the kestrel above, this one has a more mottled buffy brown chest.  She's carrying a sparrow. 

Kestrel with sparrow

The two female kestrels dominated the area around the fort and I often saw them together, although I don't know the nature of their relationship.

Female kestrel

In October, a beautiful male spent some time on the island and he put on a fabulous show of hunting insects on the slope of Discovery Hill on the south side of the island.

Male kestrel

Like the previous female, the male would perch on a post and dive into the vegetation to catch large insects.  Below, he clutches a praying mantis.

Male kestrel with mantis

Below, the same male goes after a cricket on the pavement along the water's edge.

Kestrel goes for a cricket

He gets the cricket in his talon...

Kestrel goes for a cricket

...then poses for the camera with his trophy.

Kestrel with a cricket

This is the same male with Jersey City in the background.

Male kestrel

Kestrels were not the only falcons present on the island this last season.  One afternoon, I was lucky enough to come across a merlin who was just chilling out on a wood pile.


I had just been watching a male kestrel harass a red-tailed hawk atop a building in the middle of the island about ten minutes before.  To my surprise, the same kestrel appeared as I was watching the merlin.

Merlin and kestrel

As if that wasn't exciting enough, the two falcons then did an astonishing thing - they quietly hung out together!  In the photo below, the kestrel is perched on the branch and the merlin is down to the left on the ground.  They stayed in this position for several minutes before the kestrel flew down to the ground to join the merlin and they both disappeared behind the pile of debris.

Merlin and kestrel hanging out together

What were they up to?  Neither the kestrel nor the merlin ever made a sound, they just calmly walked off together.  I couldn't get a better view as I was trapped behind a fence, so what these two got up to behind the debris pile remains a mystery.

I took some video that shows the both of them together. I was originally filming the merlin and, just as I panned out with the camera, the kestrel flew in and perched on the wood pile, so I tried to quickly zoom back in.  At the 1:47 mark, you can see the kestrel perched on a branch to the right.

About a month later, another merlin appeared, just standing in the middle of a patch of tilled dirt on the south side of Fort Jay.


This particular patch of dirt proved to be an extremely active area for birds.  On this day, along with the merlin, sixteen flickers, four hermit thrushes, several palm warblers and the two female kestrels were all going after insects on the ground in this one spot.

The tilled dirt was in preparation for new sod.  Most of the Parade Ground has brand new grass, which is lovely for people to sit on, but the old grass, which contained clover, dandelions and other wildflowers, supported a lot of bees, butterflies and other insects. This made it attractive to the birds. As the old grass was replaced with new sod, all the bird activity stayed on the progressively shrinking patches of old grass, while the areas of new sod appeared lifeless except for a few squirrels.

Below, one of the female kestrels flies past a squirrel on the new sod.

Kestrel and squirrel

Here she goes again, in the last light of the day. It will be interesting to see if the new grass supports more wildlife next season.

Kestrel flies across the Parade Ground

Stay tuned for the final installment in the Governors Island series, which will feature hawks.

For more photos of falcons on Governors Island, see my Flickr page.

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