Spring Series: Eagle Scout Project Invites Kestrel Comeback

Apr 6, 2018

There is a type of treehouse in Dutchess County awaiting special visitors this spring. Not only do the nesting boxes aim to increase a declining Kestrel population in the mid-Hudson Valley, but an 11th-grader has taken on the project to earn the rank of Eagle Scout. WAMC’s Hudson Valley Bureau Chief Allison Dunne has the latest installment of our spring series.

After prepping the box on the ground, there was a lengthier discussion about how to secure the nesting box to the tree.

With the ladder securely against the tree, whose prime spot was chosen well in advance, Kristopher O’Brien climbed several rungs to put the first of two Kestrel boxes in place at Drayton Grant Park at Burger Hill in Rhinebeck.

“It looks pretty good,” O’Brien says. “I’m glad that you can see the Fleur de Lis brand really nice.”

The Fleur de Lis is a symbol associated with the Boy Scouts. O’Brien is a Boy Scout with Troop 128, and attends Rhinebeck High School.

“It’s been fun. I really like this project. It was really good, and I’ve learned a lot about the birds and about this park and all the different, I mean, you learn so much — the construction, the birds, the environment, everything about them,” O’Brien says. “And I’ve done a lot of work writing up… There’s going to be an information poster here about the Kestrels, so I’ve  done a lot of research about them and I’ve learned a lot about them, so that’s been really nice.”

Mounting the Kestrel boxes on a February day was among the final stages of the project O’Brien undertook toward earning the rank of Eagle Scout. He began planning the project in the winter of 2017, and has been partnering with the Winnakee Land Trust.

“So we went to my grandma’s house one day and worked in her garage and we just cut all the boxes using a design that I found, or was given to me. And we cut all the boxes and then we followed the directions and we put them all together,” O’Brien says. “So the rough cut lumber is more natural. Instead of treated lumber, this will probably last longer and it won’t rot or deteriorate, so this’ll, and then it’s also better for the birds because it’s rough and they can and work around and they’re better. And then, and then there’s the nail on one side so it can be swung open to clean inside so, after a season.”

“I’m very proud of him,” says John O’ Brien. “It’s turned out well. It’s been a lot of hard work and, but he’s done a great job with it.”

That’s John O’Brien, Kristopher’s father and Scoutmaster. He says starting in 2017, the Boy Scouts implemented an increase in service hours, a mandatory requirement for each rank.

“Now the community service, the service hours, at least 50 percent of them for each rank have to be conservation or environmental related to get kids back outdoors. So many people just sit in front of their computers and video games now. The push is to get kids back outdoors, and that’s why those requirements are that way,” says John O’Brien. “So this works out great because everything that Winnakee does is outside. So we help clear trails and we help clear brush here in the fall, on Burger Hill, and then we have this Kestrel project going.”

“Yeah, we have two new Kestrel boxes at Drayton Grant Park at Burger Hill,” Henneberry says. “We’re so excited.”

Ellen Henneberry is director of development at Winnakee Land Trust, where Kristopher O’Brien is donating another eight or so boxes.

“I believe Bard College will take one,” says Henneberry. “We’re going to talk to Vassar for their Vassar Farms area where there’s some open space that Kestrels might nest, and some other areas where we think it would be good to have Kestrels.”

A stroll across a rolling meadow takes the Kestrel nesting box enthusiasts to a second tree where the box mounting procedure is repeated, a good distance from the first, as Kestrels are territorial. At one point came the realization, with a bit of amazement, concern actually, among the non-birders in the group that Kestrels would not build nests inside the boxes. Frank Margiotta is a Winnakee Land Trust Board member and Education Committee co-chair of the Ralph T. Waterman Bird Club. He confirms the Kestrels’ preference for minimalist homes.

“There’s supposed to be wood chips or anything like that at the bottom or something?”

“No, no, they don’t…” Margiotta says.

“Just a box?”

“Just a box. That’s it,” says Margiotta.

“How do they… They sit in there and lay the egg, though, right?”

“Oh yeah, yeah, yeah,” says Margiotta.

“But the eggs won’t break, rolling, I mean, with no cushion? asks Dunne. “They won’t build a nest in there, you said, right?” asks Dunne.

“No, they won’t put a nest in. So they, that’s their, it’s fine, it’ll be okay because those shells, as long as those shells are sufficiently strong, and that’s what I said to you before, that’s what the pesticides do, they weaken that shell. And that’s what the problem was with the Peregrine Falcon and all your eagles, they sit on the egg, the egg would break. So there shouldn’t be a problem because of DDT control. DDT was the main culprit of that.”

“Now how many eggs will a female lay?” Dunne asks.

“Somewhere around five, four-to-six,” says Margiotta.

“And what’s the survival rate of those four-to-six?” asks Dunne.

“They’re not all going to make it, no,” says Margiotta. “If they can fledge four or five, they’re not all going to make it to adult. You hope one or two.”

The Environmental Protection Agency in 1972 imposed a ban on nearly all uses of DDT. In a 2016 news post by Audubon, professors who study Kestrel populations say modern-day pesticides could be to blame for the decline in Kestrels, particularly impacting the bird’s food sources. Meantime, Margiotta says the first year is a tough one for young Kestrels, dodging prey and myriad other challenges. In addition to pesticides, tough competition for real estate among dwindling habitats has been another factor in population decline.

“They’re cavity nesters so they compete with an awful lot of other birds because they can’t make their own hole in a tree. They’re not a woodpecker, so they have to find a good size woodpecker hole to go into,” Margiotta says. “So these boxes are a big benefit, and these open areas where they can hunt. And they tend to hover, like a helicopter, so when you’re looking for them out here… I’ve seen them down in here, but not recently. So they’ll hover and then come down, hit their prey.”

The American Kestrel is North America’s smallest falcon and one of the more colorful raptors. Thanks to Kristopher O’Brien’s Eagle Scout project, Kestrels could increase their numbers in Dutchess County. Winnakee Land Trust’s Henneberry appreciates working with the Boy Scouts.

“We had another Eagle Scout project doing a viewing platform at the vernal pool on the other side of this hill. And they support us in many ways,” says Henneberry. “I was just talking to Kristopher’s mother and, she said, please be in touch with us for trail cleanup, etcetera. So it’s really wonderful that they give back to their community.”

Elizabeth O’Brien is Kristopher’s mother.

“I have three sons, all involved in Troop 128,” says Elizabeth O’Brien. “My oldest son Jack is already an Eagle Scout. Kristopher is mid-project right now, and Logan is just set to begin his project.”

“And what did your oldest son do for a project?” asks Dunne.

“He installed, built, designed and installed 10 benches at the cross trails at the Rhinebeck Rec Park,” says Elizabeth O’Brien.

Again, Margiotta.

“The more you can connect people to the natural world, what that promotes is advocacy for conservation,” Margiotta says. “And it helps not only birds, it helps all wildlife.”

Especially important, he says, is connecting young people, like Kristopher O’Brien, who is springing into action in the name of community and conservation. Here’s Henneberry.

“Our mission is to conserve land — that’s our core mission — to expand trials, and to connect the community to the land. So the core mission being to conserve land, part of that is habitats. And a Kestrel habitat is super important,” Henneberry says. “And what I’ve learned with this project is that the Kestrel population had reduced in this area, so we’re looking to bring them back.”

Nesting season began in March and, reportedly, Kestrels are in the vicinity. In fact, a few were spotted April 3, and Margiotta says this likely indicates that the birds are aware of the boxes and may be nesting in one or both.