eBird in Action: Headwaters Kestrel Partnership

By Meg Schader, Land Trust Bird Conservation Initiative 12 Jun 2024

Volunteers on their way to monitor an American Kestrel nest box at Fox Hill Preserve in Tewksbury, NJ. Photo credit: RHA

Your eBirding data helps create tools that can be used to further conservation, inspire support, and inform ecological management strategies. eBird in Action is a segment which shares the conservation stories made possible because of your contributions. This edition comes from the Cornell Lab’s Land Trust Bird Conservation Initiative (LTBCI).

Using the American Kestrel as an ambassador for clean water and land protection, the Raritan Headwaters Association (RHA) has been developing a program to install and monitor nest boxes for the species in the Upper Raritan River Watershed of New Jersey. The program began about five years ago and has grown from a handful of nest boxes to over 40 in 2023, with 50 more boxes ready for installation in 2024. In 2021, RHA received a small grant from the Cornell Land Trust Bird Conservation Initiative, which helped the organization build momentum and expand the program to what it is today.

With support from LTBCI, RHA built on its partnership with New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife Endangered and Nongame Species Program to install and monitor nest boxes for American Kestrels—a threatened species in the state—across the working landscape of the region. As part of the project, RHA also formalized the partnership with a webpage, developed and distributed best management practices (BMPs) for farms and fields, and recruited volunteers to build, install, and monitor nest boxes.

“Kestrels are ambassadors for the connection between what we do on the land and the health of our water,” notes Kristi MacDonald, RHA’s Director of Science. “This beautiful, tiny falcon spoke to me as a wonderful way to direct people’s attention toward the conservation messages that we’re trying to send,” she explains.

MacDonald was inspired to develop this program while attending a talk at a local Audubon Society preserve. The speaker was Bill Pitts, a senior zoologist with New Jersey Fish and Wildlife (NJFW), who runs the Kestrel Nest Box Project for the state. Something clicked for MacDonald during that talk, and she realized the potential to advance RHA’s mission while helping Kestrels.

She later talked to Pitts about creating a partnership to install nest boxes on public open space and private working lands in the Upper Raritan, and they initiated the program with five boxes in 2019. By 2020, the program had grown to 20 boxes, and with the funds from LTBCI, the program expanded to 34 boxes in 2021. Along with installing boxes and creating a webpage about the Kestrel Nest Box Partnership, RHA also recruited and trained new volunteers to monitor the nest boxes.

From late April through mid-July, community scientists monitor nesting activity every two weeks. Working in teams of two or three, the volunteers carry ladders to the nest boxes (which are mounted 10 to 15 feet above ground) to monitor Kestrel nesting and assist in capturing birds for banding. To make the monitoring more accessible, RHA devised extendable poles with cell phone holders to allow some volunteers to see into the nest boxes without climbing ladders.

When the nest boxes are located on publicly owned parks and open spaces, the volunteers also enter data from monitoring trips in eBird. This data is then used by RHA to develop and promote improved best management practices for open habitats to benefit birds and pollinators, such as delayed mowing of meadows; this information is also shared with private landowners who install Kestrel boxes and is offered as an online resource that RHA continues to distribute to community members to this day.

MacDonald says RHA is seeing offspring of their monitored nests coming back to the area to look for their own boxes, so 50 more nest boxes will be installed over the next year, more than doubling the current number. Over the past 50 years, Kestrel populations decreased by more than 80 percent in the northeastern U.S., and lack of suitable nesting cavities in open habitats is one of the contributing factors. Through this program, RHA is helping Kestrels find safe places to raise their young in the Raritan Headwaters, and community scientists have helped RHA to bring the success rate of their next boxes up to 25% in 2023.

Community scientists across the country help conservation efforts every time they enter data in eBird or NestWatch—and installing an American Kestrel nest box is a specific action you can take to help this threatened grassland species.

Read more about RHA’s Kestrel Partnership on the Cornell Lab’s Land Trust Bird Conservation Initiative website.