Cy Phillips, citizen scientist

Refuge volunteer's decade-long kestrel nesting project in Tule Lake-Malin area leads to resurgence of North America's smallest raptor


by Jon Myatt,
Pacific Southwest Region Web Communications Manager
US Fish and Wildlife

Driving south along Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway on the western edge of Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge, 77-year-old Cy Phillips scans the landscape on a cold, cloudy March morning. He is looking for an old oak tree blown down during a recent storm.

Phillips checks his GPS and slows his red 1996 Ford Explorer, pulling to the side of the road. “There is it is,” he says, pointing to a gnarled tree laying on its side on the rocky hillside about 40 yards away.

A nesting box for American kestrels is attached to the tree’s trunk -- safe, but inaccessible at the moment.

Citizen scientist, Cy Phillips received a $750 grant from the Klamath Basin Audubon Society in 2011 to build 80 kestrel nest boxes for installation in the Malin-Tule Lake area. More than half of them were placed on or near the Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge. Above, Cy marks a downed tree with a nesting box mounted to it. Credit: Jon Myatt/USFWS

Citizen scientist, Cy Phillips received a $750 grant from the Klamath Basin Audubon Society in 2011 to build 80 kestrel nest boxes for installation in the Malin-Tule Lake area. More than half of them were placed on or near the Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge. Above, Cy marks a downed tree with a nesting box mounted to it. Credit: Jon Myatt/USFWS

Philips pulls out a roll of yellow “caution” tape and scrambles up the rocky, unstable embankment to mark the spot so Tule Lake refuge personnel can retrieve the nest box. “It looks like it can be saved,” he said.

Phillips, a refuge volunteer and member of the local Klamath Basin Audubon Society chapter was making his weekly 55-mile trek to monitor and maintain some of the nearly 50 American kestrel nest boxes he built and installed nearly a decade ago. His project is part of a national American kestrel nest box program designed to help the birds cope with habitat encroachment.

Cy Phillips. Credit: Jon Myatt/USFWS

Cy Phillips. Credit: Jon Myatt/USFWS

While the kestrel, North America’s smallest raptor, is declining in the western half of the United States according to The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, it is making a resurgence in the Klamath Basin around Tule Lake. And Cy Phillips is the one person directly responsible for their dramatic improvement in this rural section of southern Oregon.

Phillips and his wife, Beth, are long-time members of the local Audubon chapter. Beth has served the chapter as treasurer, program director and through other roles, and also assists with the annual Winter Wings Bird Festival held in Klamath Falls each February.

Cy, though, born into a farming family in Nebraska, prefers to be “outdoors doing the hands-on work.” “I leave the Audubon meetings and policy stuff to her,” he says.

He met and married Beth while attending the University of Colorado. After graduation and a series of business positions in Washington, Oregon and Hawaii, the couple finally landed in Woodland, California, where they raised their family and started a business. But wildlife -- birds and raptors in particular -- were never far from Cy’s mind.

After their granddaughter was born, Cy and Beth made frequent trips to national wildlife refuges in California’s central valley. With their granddaughter in tow, they spent hours identifying ducks and other birds that occurred there.

As his business career was coming to an end and he eyed retirement, his daughter and son-in-law moved 1,500 miles away to Michigan – with his granddaughter. “When they moved it left a hole in my heart,” said Phillips. “I needed to find something to fill it.”

Cy Phillips with a banded kestrel during the 2018 fledgling season. Courtesy photo provided by Cy Phillips/USFWS

Cy turned his attention to raptors. “When we sold our business, we looked for a place to relocate where we could continue our interests, and we had been to the Klamath Basin refuges in the past. The Malin (pronounced “mah-LIN”), Oregon area seemed like a good fit,” he said.

Soon after moving to Malin, Cy was hired as a “ditch rider” for the Klamath Irrigation District, which covers the agricultural area southeast of Klamath Falls and includes the smaller Oregon towns of Merrill and Malin. Ditch riders, Phillips explained, manage the district’s water conveyance system that supplies water to individual farms.

“I was able to develop relationships with local farmers and obtain access to conduct annual raptor counts, and to later ask permission to install kestrel nest boxes on their properties,” said Phillips.

At the same time, he began volunteering at Tule Lake refuge, maintaining walking trails, installing interpretive signs and building hunting and photo blinds. In addition, he was monitoring raptors for the Audubon chapter’s winter raptor survey project.

In 2011, Cy received a $750 grant from the Klamath Basin Audubon Society to build 80 kestrel nest boxes for installation in the Malin-Tule Lake area. More than half of them were placed on or near the Tule Lake refuge. “That was the beginning our local kestrel monitoring program,“ explained Phillips. “We ended up building nearly 85 nest boxes, installed about 50 and provided some to other birders, but most of them are still in use in the area today.”

In his shop in Malin, Oregon, Cy Phillips displays a kestrel nest box "jig" he made to speed up production of the 80 boxes he and associates produced at the beginning of the project. Credit: Jon Myatt/USFWS

Matthew Stuber, a biologist and eagle coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Medford, Oregon, monitors the American kestrel program in Oregon and Northern California, and learned of Cy’s project at the Winter Wings Bird Festival in 2017.

“It was at Winter Wings where I met Cy’s wife,” Stuber recalls. “A few weeks later Cy called me to chat and he told me he had erected as many as 60 kestrel boxes in southern Oregon and northern California.

“Cy is a very passionate guy. He found out years ago that there was a need for kestrel box programs throughout the country, and he decided to help. And help he has,” Stuber added. “His interest is in having all of the nestlings in his boxes banded. It’s a great goal that I support.”

Phillips cleaning a nesting box along his Malin, Oregon route in March 2019. Credit: Jon Myatt/USFWS

Cy’s nest box project covers roughly 120 square miles over two routes, a large 55-mile loop around and through Tule Lake refuge, and a smaller 30-mile loop surrounding the town of Malin. As a citizen scientist, Cy’s meticulous documentation of the nest activity and fledging chicks is visibly contributing to the national kestrel program, Stuber says.

Stuber hand delivered all of Cy’s field notes and documentation to the Peregrine Fund, who coordinates the American Kestrel Partnership. “They were so excited to get them,” he said. “Cy has contributed in a big way to this fantastic project.”

In the first six years of nest monitoring, nearly 400 eggs were laid and from these, “305 young kestrels were fledged,” Phillips recounted. “These boxes have averaged about 60 young kestrels fledge each year. During this past 2018 nesting season we were able to band another 59 chicks.”

He estimates that his project has produced about 450 kestrels for the Tule Lake-Malin area since 2011.

Chris Vennum, a doctoral candidate and biologist at Colorado State University began working with Philllips in 2015. Vennum has a bird handling permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to conduct a related kestrel nesting study in a neighboring valley. He realized that the two projects could complement each other and offered to assist Phillips.

“Cy is a valuable asset to kestrel conservation,” said Vennum. “It’s not just caring about birds, he’s helping with data collection, monitoring egg production and bird health. I wish we had more people like him.”

Back out on the refuge, Phillips gingerly slides down an embankment. He is moving a little slower these days. Both Cy and his red Ford Explorer are showing some age. As his health declines he admits he doesn’t know how much longer he can continue the weekly treks around his project loop, or climb up rocky embankments while carrying ladders.

Cy Phillips refreshes a kestrel nest box while his friend, Dennis Chabot, steadies the ladder along Road 120 on the eastern side of Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge. Credit: Jon Myatt/USFWS

He says he’s interested in “passing the project on to a younger generation,” but hasn’t received much interest. But from March through July, Phillips will return weekly to check each box and document his observations; sometimes jokingly tricking his friends into joining him to “go for a ride.”

“Some ride,” said Phillips friend Dennis Chabot, who accompanied him to steady the ladder on this blustery day in March. Dennis ducked as the contents from the nest box showered down on him. “Hazardous duty,” Dennis said under his breath as he moved out of the way.

“Kestrels are poor housekeepers,” said Cy. “They leave these boxes filthy dirty, filled with what you would expect in a raptor nest, unlike starlings that sometimes use the nest boxes. They keep them so clean you would hardly know they used them.”

For now, though, he continues cleaning out the nest boxes and preparing them for the 2019 spring nesting season. “I’m just trying to do my part to give them a chance, to give them some cavities to nest in and a chance to do their thing,” he said.

Then, he and Dennis loaded the extension ladder in the old red Explorer and headed down the road to the next kestrel box.

Cy Phillips and friend Dennis Chabot move on to the next kestrel nest box near Newell, California. Credit: Jon Myatt/USFWS

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