KEMPTON VALLEY - A valley full of rolling hills and farm fields is ahead Jean-Francois Therrien, a native of Quebec, and local resident Sue Robertson as they set off to check nest boxes meant for the American kestrel falcon.
In a program that started more than 40 years ago, experts and volunteers of Hawk Mountain Sanctuary place more than 200 boxes on farmlands, hoping to attract and give the raptor a place to nest.
They approached local farmers and property owners whose lands make a rich hunting and nesting area for the birds.
Therrien is part of the expert staff at the sanctuary and has studied raptors all over the world. In late May, he picked up Robertson, a long-time volunteer, to do another round of checks on the boxes and to band some kestrel fledglings.
"She knows where to go," Therrien said during the ride to Robertson's farm.
More than 120 nest boxes are monitored as soon as breeding season begins. The birds inside are in various but similar stages of development.
The kestrel falcon has seen a decline in numbers. Experts said it probably is related to habitat destruction.
The birds are cavity nesters and usually nest in a hole in a tree but will use boxes such as the ones provided by Hawk Mountain or built by landowners.
Raptors are a very good environmental indicator and can be a farmer's assistant when it comes to pests.
Insects make up the bulk of a kestrel's diet, Therrien said. They also will eat mice, voles and lizards.
Farmland makes an ideal hunting ground because kestrels prefer to hunt in short grass and because farm animals can attract pests such as mice and voles.
"They like open areas with some trees in the fields," Therrien said.
The small falcons also like to be where there are telephone poles and electrical lines, where they can perch and overlook their hunting grounds, Robertson said.
"The ideal kestrel location (for a box) is around animals, fields and a stream running through it," she said.
The best placement for boxes are on out buildings or in a single tree in a farm field. Placing two or three boxes in an area helps ensure one of them is used.
After the boxes are cleaned in the spring, breeding season begins.
"They (the boxes) are checked in mid-May to (see) what is being used and what is not," Therrien said.
The boxes then are examined about every other week and each stage of any nestlings' growth is monitored.
The group bands kestrels to help keep track of their behavior, to see where they are going and where they have been.
"It's the basic way to do science with birds," Robertson said.
The information goes to national databases that keep track of all banded birds.
The bands help identify the origin and journey a particular bird takes.
The first stop was an abandoned farm house with a large barn decorated with hex signs.
Robertson said she thinks most of the birds laying eggs in the nest boxes here were a little early this year.
On the side of the whitewashed barn was a large nest box. Boxes usually are 24 inches long with a 3-inch hole in the front.
Therrien scaled a ladder he had placed against the barn, then pulled a blue
hankerchief from his pocket and placed into the hole in the front of the box.
Robertson said this prohibits the fledglings from coming out of the hole.
The mother kestrel was out of the box, but she wasn't far away. She was spotted flying above the barn, screaming out a warning to the intruders rifling around in her nest.
Inside were four fledglings estimated to be about 16 to 18 days old. Therrien placed them into one side of a picnic basket.
"There is a dead mouse in here," he said, noting that the parent kestrel apparently left a meal for the chicks to snack on.
Robertson and Therrien worked together to attach a dainty metal band stamped with a number to one leg of each bird.
Each fledgling was weighed and measured and data including sex, age and band number was recorded.
Therrien said sometimes they use colored bands that can be identified from a distance by using binoculars.
"They are behaving nicely," Robertson said.
She said she probably has banded about 3,000 birds in her lifetime.
Before putting each bird back into the picnic basket, Robertson checks the crop of each to see if they had eaten. All four were empty.
"Look at them all lined up. They are being so quiet," she said as she opened the lid to the basket.
The four female fledglings were put back into the nest box and the two banders drove off to the next site.
After two nest box checks, they had banded eight chicks.
Therrien and Robertson drove on. It seemed like around every winding bend or corner, there sat a farm, and a nest box.
Robertson mentioned a few places that didn't have one but where she would really like to put one up.
The day didn't end with just the banding. A few more boxes were checked to see if they were being used and if they were, how many eggs, chicks or fledglings were in them.
Therrien and Robertson made plans to go out again later in the week to do more banding and box examination. They even talked about seeing some nesting screech owls Robertson knew about.
She then spotted a kestrel flying along the passenger side of the car.
"What are you doing here?" she said, surprised to see the bird in that area because the box nearby hadn't been used for awhile.
She marked it down on her list to check later.