A kestrel on high
(posted 8-24-07)

True confession: I get excited about pigeons. No, not the ones I see every weekday in Chicago, or the ones pecking around the Jewel parking lot here in Glen Ellyn. The rock pigeons that get my attention are of the backyard variety.

Adding a pigeon to my annual yard list is no slam dunk. Not once have I seen one on the ground under my feeders, and “flybys” are surprisingly rare. Luck was on my side a few weeks ago when a small flock went over at the same time I was out on my driveway watching some broad-winged hawks. Great timing! I really appreciated those pigeons (and the hawks too) because I'm trying to see 80 species in the yard this year for the first time. I'm now at 76.

But my point is that common birds can take on new meaning in a backyard context. A ho-hum bird “in the field” can be a very coveted bird in the yard.

Maybe you recall my story about spotting a Common Yellowthroat for my 100th yard bird overall. I'd waited years to see that bird in my yard, even though it’s an easy-to-find species in nearby fields and marshes. My milestone sighting was in 2006, and I haven't looked at yellowthroats the same since.

Sometimes seeing a rare yard visitor for the second time is better than the first. On July 28 I was walking down my driveway to retrieve the morning newspaper when I noticed a familiar shape at the very top of a tall pine one yard over. It seemed too robust for a mourning dove, and doves usually perch on wires. Could it be? I ran inside to get my binoculars, and fortunately the bird stayed put. Sure enough, an American Kestrel! In nearly 10 years of backyard birdwatching at my present home, I'd seen a kestrel only once before—a flyby in 2003 that left me wishing for a longer look.

This kestrel was a lot more cooperative, allowing me to watch for about five minutes. The handsome little falcon pumped its tail contantly—something I’d never noticed before. Turns out, according to Sibley, that’s a typical kestrel behavior trait. It was a good reminder to pay better attention to the little details that add so much to the joy of birdwatching.

The backyard kestrel hasn’t returned, and I don't expect it to. But now, every time I go down my driveway, I can't help glancing over at my neighbor's pine. At the top. Just in case.

Copyright 2007 by Jeff Reiter. All Rights Reserved.