By Jonathan Phelps
---- — IPSWICH — The American kestrel is a beautiful bird that has been in decline for years.
Haven’t heard of them? They are the smallest of the falcons and are found in a range of open and semi-open habitats. Although they are common in North America, their numbers have dropped steadily, especially in New England — by about 50 percent over the last 30 years, according to Mass Audubon.
But a sign of hope was found earlier this summer in a little wooden box perched high on a utility pole on Strawberry Hill, a town-owned conservation property off Jeffreys Neck Road. In July, five of the birds — three male and two female — were hatched there.
In 2007, the Essex County Ornithological Club asked the town for permission to place the nest box on the 91-acre property of open fields and marsh adjacent to the Eagle Hill River. The Conservation Commission agreed. It was one of dozens of boxes that have been placed around Essex County since 2007, including at Appleton Farms in Hamilton and Ipswich and Witch Hollow Farm in Boxford.
For years, though, nothing happened. Sometimes other bird species moved in, but it wasn’t looking good for kestrels. Then in June Jim Berry, an Ipswich resident and member of the club, and Beth O’Connor, the town’s open space stewardship coordinator, spotted a pair of kestrels near the box.
It was the first time a nest box had successfully attracted a kestrel family in the seven years since the program started.
Five baby kestrels hatched in June, and a month later they were banded by experts from Mass Wildlife and Mass Audubon, to track their whereabouts. The young birds were flying by earlier this month, and there are hopes there will be future success.
O’Connor said scientists don’t know why the number of kestrels has been declining. “It could be their habitat,” she said.
But this shows the value, she said, of preserving open space and conservation land.
“I think it demonstrates that protecting conservation land for wildlife is working,” she said, “and we can partner with local birders and other naturalists to manage conservation land for all different interests.”
Staff writer Jonathan Phelps can be reached at 978-338-2527 or by email at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at JPhelps_SN.