SCBWF January 23, 2014: Swallow-tailed Kites and Owl Prowl

After my adventure with Laura and Corey, and a quick trip to the MINWR Visitors’ Center, I had a classroom presentation given by Gina Kent for the Avian Research & Conservation Institute (ARCI).

ARCI tracks and researches various endangered and threatened species in the United States. They’ve been tracking Swallow-tailed Kites from Florida and other southeastern states along their migration paths to and from South America.

It was an interesting presentation, and they elicit information on kite sightings by interested parties to get a better picture of how these magnificent birds are faring year to year throughout their lives. For more information, visit the ACRI website and their Swallow-tailed Kite project.

When the presentation ended, I wandered the exhibit hall and bumped into Dave Goodwin at the Florida Ornithological Society booth. I talked a bit with Dave last year during the field trips he led (including the pelagic trip), and it was good to see him again.

I proceeded to head to the Sams House at Pine Island Conservation Area, on Merritt Island for an owl prowl. Despite the frigid start to the day, the evening was pleasant (particularly after putting on my fleece pullover), as we waited for sunset to see the area Barred Owls.

The prowl had a promising start, as we heard two owls calling loudly to each other while still getting organized around the campfire (yes, we did have marshmallows, by the way, and mine were quite delicious!).

Once on the trails in the dark, however, the owls were silent and we had no evidence of them until some of the group saw one fly overhead as we came back to the campfire. We only ever caught fleeting glimpses of them against the starlight and heard them call once more as the group headed home. It was a beautiful night, and I caught some great views of Jupiter and its Galilean moons, and the Orion Nebula in my binoculars.

On the way home, I stopped off of FL-405 to watch a rocket launch from Cape Canaveral, which was a spectacular end to the day.

Florida’s Official Bird of Awesomeness

I didn’t go birding this weekend (at least not as an “official” activity with birding specifically in mind), but seeing some Swallow-tailed Kites on several occasions, it got me to thinking about these most graceful of flyers.

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Eating on the wing. Copyright David Oakley.

When we moved to Florida over a decade ago, I noticed these birds during our first spring and summer. By our second spring, they were a common sight almost daily on the stretch from our apartment out to the interstate (which was much less developed than now). In 2004, we got a “double whammy” from hurricanes Frances and Jeannie and along with other formerly common species (most notably the Brown Pelicans), the local population of Swallow-tailed Kites all but vanished from our skies.

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The Great Florida Birding & Wildlife Trail uses the Swallow-tailed Kite as it’s “official” bird. Why not the State of Florida?

Slowly, since then, there are more and more of them overhead, and this year they are about as numerous as they were in 2003. I have seen family groups soaring together a few times and they are a comforting and familiar sight almost every day. [Note: other birds, like the Brown Pelican have also recovered nicely since 2004]

Florida and closely adjoining areas of the US are the northern limits of this species’ normal breeding range, and due to their aerial skill and prey choice (lizards, insects, frogs) have managed to adapt to human incursions on their territory. I have seen them soaring over The Villages, Kissimmee, Venice Beach, Lake Wales, Melbourne and Key West.

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Florida is the USA’s Swallow-tailed Kite Central.

These kites are migratory and leave for warmer climates in Central and South America each autumn. They return around March and begin breeding through the spring and summer.

Some US states list them as endangered or threatened, but I believe this is in part due to these states lying at the extreme of this species’ range. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) notes that Swallow-tailed Kites have a very large global range and its population trend is increasing. This does not mean that these kites are unaffected by environmental degradation or habitat loss, but compared to some other animals and birds of prey in particular, they seem to be holding their own, at least globally.

Given their striking appearance, grace and population concentration in Florida, it’s strange to think that this bird is not the official State Bird. That honor belongs to the Northern Mockingbird. Although it’s insignificant to many other social, legislative and ethical problems today, I would be glad to see an initiative to see Swallow-tailed Kites as the State Bird of Florida.

SWALLOW-TAILEDS!!

I saw my first Swallow-tailed Kites of the year today! I was in a job status meeting and looked out one of the conference room windows and there they were! The Great Blue Heron might be my spark bird, and will always hold a treasured, majestic place in my heart, but Swallow-tailed Kites are my most-looked-forward-to birds of all time. I love them! 

Of course watching the pair of them did nothing for my concentration at the status meeting.  Here are a couple of shots I found online showing you this truly majestic bird.

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Spectacular!

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Stupdendous!

Fittingly, I think this marks my 100th species this year (whew, took far longer to get here than I thought!)