American Kestrel

December 15th, 2019: From Portland to the Trail of Ten Falls at Silver Falls State Park

Down to Portland, OR to visit some friends for the weekend. When we weren’t trying amazing gluten-free beer at Groundbreaker Brewing, one of 50 ciders on tap(!!) at Schilling Cider House, or finding Laura the best croissant ever (it was at Trifecta, if you’re wondering), we were off hiking.

Of COURSE Portland has a double-decker bus that's a coffee bar
Of COURSE Portland has a double-decker bus that’s a coffee bar

This time we headed about an hour south of town to Silver Falls State Park for our hike. There are so many waterfalls at Silver Falls that there’s a gentle 12km loop called “Trail of Ten Falls” that takes you to–you guessed it–ten of them. They even had a bunch of festive activities for families at the park this weekend.

You've gotta love a PNW sunrise!
You’ve gotta love a PNW sunrise!

The Trail of Ten Falls features the largest in the park, but you pass dozens of smaller waterfalls along the route.

One of ten huge waterfalls at Silver Falls SP
One of ten huge waterfalls at Silver Falls SP
It's hard to tell in the photo, but this one was very high
It’s hard to tell in the photo, but this one was very high

On the north part of the loop, you’re mostly down in the canyon. On the south side, you’re up on the rim looking down.

Waterfall number…6?

One of the coolest things was being able to walk behind several of the largest falls.

The trail behind the South Falls
The trail behind the South Falls
Looking out through the South Falls
Looking out through the South Falls
Behind another waterfall
Behind another waterfall

It wasn’t exactly quiet with all of the rushing water everywhere, so birding wasn’t great.

Hear any birds?

Still, we came across lots of little passerine pockets. It was mostly Golden-crowned Kinglets. There were flocks of them feeding right on the trail at one point! But there were the usual PNW winter birds too: Chestnut-backed Chickadee, Brown Creeper, Pacific Wren, Song Sparrow, Steller’s Jay, Common Raven, and Dark-eyed Junco. It was picture perfect American Dipper habitat too, but I didn’t see one (lots of their droppings on river rocks though).

A tiny Pacific Wren in the leaf litter
A tiny Pacific Wren in the leaf litter
Chestnut-backed Chickadee
Chestnut-backed Chickadee
Lots of Broom Moss on the hike
Lots of Broom Moss on the hike

We actually saw more bird variety on the drive to and from Silver Falls. Lots of Western Scrub-Jay (tougher to find in WA and BC, but everywhere here), Eurasian Collared-Dove, and a lot of American Kestrel.

Since we weren’t on an interstate, we were travelling through the small towns and farming areas that American Kestrels prefer. Still, I was surprised to see no fewer than 7 kestrels–every one on a wire–during the hour-or-so drive.

American Kestrel
American Kestrel

In Vancouver, I don’t see many of these guys (and I obviously need a better photo). To me, they’re the most exotic of our raptors. With the male’s plush orange and blue plumage, covered in clean black spots, they’re certainly the prettiest around. They’re also the smallest raptor I see with any regularity, next to the Northern Shrike.

If you’ve never seen an American Kestrel hunting, you’re missing out! (What are you doing? Get out there and find one!) They dash down (usually from their perch on a wire) and low above the grasses or reeds in their preferred habitats. They’re usually after voles in the areas I see them, but they eat lots of other small rodents, insects, small invertebrates, and small birds too.

NOT an American Kestrel. This is a Rock Kestrel from South Africa. But it's much more pleasing photograph than the one above...
NOT an American Kestrel: this is a Rock Kestrel from South Africa. But it’s a much more pleasing photograph than the one above…

The most astonishing ability of these agile little raptors is their ability to see their prey’s trail of urine. Unsurprisingly, most prey species will immediately pee their pants when they see a kestrel hurtling toward them (wouldn’t you?). While this sheds some weight, kestrels (like many birds) have the ability to see well into the ultraviolet spectrum. This means the trail of urine actually glows along the ground, allowing this beautiful, adorable, killing machine to follow it.

So, when a kestrel is hovering elegantly/hungrily above a specific spot, they’re most likely waiting for that prey to pop back out. And if they manage to catch more than enough food, they’ll actually hide it in trees, fence posts, or bushes to save it for later. Badass.

If you get a chance, make a trip to Silver Falls State Park for a great hike (there are plenty of others beyond the one we did). And go find an American Kestrel! They’re undisputably awesome.


P. S. I recently learned about a project that’s mapping all bird-window collisions around the world. If you’d like to contribute, you can do so at https://birdmapper.org/app/. You can check out the project’s collision reports around the world. Sad, yes, but helpful data!

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