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Recording Mauritius: Return to the Kestrel’s Nest

By Jon Erickson
Mauritius Kestrel
Mauritius Kestrel by Jon Erickson.

A couple of weeks ago we checked in with Jon Erickson in Mauritius. He had just climbed into the hills of Black River Gorges National Park, where he had a brief encounter with a Mauritius Kestrel, a species whose population had dwindled to just four birds in the mid-1970s—but has now climbed back to nearly a thousand. This bird was a male looking for a mate, so Jon decided to camp out on the cliffs to track the bird’s progress and to record any calls the bird made. Here’s how things turned out. –Hugh Powell

Hear the kestrel:

When I arrived at the clifftop, sweating after carrying two days worth of food and gear, I searched the nearby tree branches for my friend, but he was absent—probably hunting. I decided to peek over toward the nest to see if his search for a mate had been realized.

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I felt that strange sensation when you know someone else is nearby without having heard or seen them. I turned around slowly and, sure enough, there he was about eight feet away on a low branch. The Mauritius Kestrel is not a big bird, I’d say about the size of a Blue Jay, but they have this particular way of glaring over that small and deadly curved beak. It’s very unsettling when they apply that gaze in your direction.

I slowly backed away, but he apparently decided he’d had enough of this giant nest-raiding mammal and flew directly at my face. I’d like to think I ducked fast enough to prevent a direct talon to the eyeball, but I’m pretty sure that he meant this flyby as a warning.

Back in safety I readied my gear, pointed the microphone at the bird, and pressed record, but he wasn’t in the mood. After a while he began preening and stretching his wings.  It looked as if he was having a hard time staying awake.

From behind me, I heard the shriek of an approaching kestrel. I spun to point the parabola in its direction as the bird swooped toward me. It alighted next to my dive-bombing friend with a large lizard in its talons. The two birds began to chatter and chirp to each other and finally, the second bird relinquished the lizard to the original bird and flew away.

So I had rushed to conclusions! My friend had found a mate after all and this is whom I had been watching all along. Watching her eat her lunch, I felt a small rush of excitement.  The male-female ratio of kestrels on this side of the island is not as balanced as it is on the eastern side.  Many males go through the breeding season without finding a mate.

This male had a beautiful mate, but he also had his work cut out for him. During the breeding season, the male kestrel spends a majority of his time hunting for small lizards and mammals and carrying them to the female, which perches near the nest and tries to conserve energy in anticipation of the egg-bearing process.  I sat the rest of the day and watched as the male returned time after time (averaging about 45 minutes per round), with meals for his mate.

After several hours I had accumulated a fair number of good recordings and had also affectionately named the birds “Archie” and “Edith.” I was thoroughly enjoying myself, but it was getting late and I needed to find a campsite. I located a nice spot overlooking the valley, laid out my bivy, and began cooking some noodles. As I did, dozens of Ring-necked Parakeets were flying up into the valley shrieking their particular brand of vocalization. A giant fruit bat, the size of a crow, flew past me headed for the forest. White-tailed Tropicbirds soared above me in majestic spirals.

The crepuscular species began to come alive around me and my instinct was to grab my microphone and begin recording. But I had to resist, as I had used a fair amount of battery life during the day and needed all I had to fulfill my kestrel commitment. I made a mental note to return and record the parrots, the bats, the tropicbirds, and the day turning into the night. It took me a long time to fall asleep.

My work with the field recorder has changed my way of thinking. I hear the noises around me differently now and my mind cannot help but try to identify the species and determine if conditions are sufficient for recording it. I listened to the geckos and the bats flying overhead and, at one point, heard the snuffling sound of what may have been a tenrec rooting through the leaves and soil nearby.  I finally did fall asleep, although it’s difficult to distinguish awake from asleep in a place like this.

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American Kestrel by Blair Dudeck / Macaulay Library