These sunny fall days with winds from the southwest are perfect conditions for migrating hawks to be on the move. Often they gather in large numbers and let the same thermals carry them south. These loose flocks of hawks may contain only 5 to 10 birds while some flocks I've counted contained several thousand. They soar together in a big whirlwind called a kettle. At first, so many birds flying this way looks like a big whirlwind of leaves. The three small kettles I've seen this fall had 12-15 hawks in them, mostly Red-tailed hawks. A large kettle of hawks, a hundred or more, will have several different species flying together. Often these larger flocks will be made up of Broad-winged hawks, Red-shouldered hawks, Red-tails, Cooper's hawks, harriers, falcons and eagles. The truth is most any kind of northern hawk, falcon or eagle could be seen moving south in one of these kettles.
The passing kettle of hawks may number quite a few yet they are very silent as they glide together. Often we don't notice things unless we hear them first. A good example is a flock of geese. We always look up to see them after we hear them coming. Most birds that flock together during migration are vocal and excited about their journey.
You have to be lucky to see a kettle of hawks because you won't hear them high above you first. You have to learn to be a little more observant if you want to see hawks. This simply means letting your eyes scan the skies once in awhile. You'll be surprised how often you spot a hawk soaring or a few crows or a Turkey vulture. Maybe even an eagle but they can't be seen unless you turn your eyes to the sky.
Yesterday I spotted a bird hovering over a hayfield. A female kestrel, about the size of a Blue jay, was gazing intently at the ground below for something to eat. She hovered there, 30 feet above the field, for 15 seconds before folding up her wings and diving into the short grass to grab her prey. This time it was a fat black cricket that she caught but it could easily have been a grasshopper, frog, small snake or a field vole. She quickly flies up to the branches of an old dead elm tree to pick at her cricket meal. The male kestrel sits and watches nearby, he's already found enough to eat and is enjoying the morning sun.
The American kestrel is the smallest member of the family of hawks known as falcons. Once called "sparrow hawks" because of their ability to catch sparrows in mid-air, using their falcon speed to win the chase. Not only are kestrels the smallest north american falcon, they are also the most colorful. When fall comes, most of the young kestrels will get the urge to move south when the frost comes. Only the most experienced hunters will spend the winter in southwest Wisconsin.
When the cold comes the insects, frogs and snakes disappear. For the kestrel that means to survive they now must catch voles, mice and small birds. There really aren't many food options for a kestrel here in winter. Yet, these brave and beautiful little falcons will make it through to spring in good shape.
Last night was a good night for sitting on the back porch and talking with friends. A few crickets chirped nearby and a Barred owl called to us from the valley. Our conversations were halted several times as we paused to listen to a couple large flocks of geese. They couldn't be seen in the dark night sky but their high pitched honking was right over the top of the house. That's always a great way to spend an autumn evening.
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