Thursday, July 23, 2009

Swallow-tailed Kite - the Coolest Raptor in Florida


Although hawks, eagles, and falcons are much maligned and misunderstood, they serve a vital role in the proper functioning of an ecosystem. Some like the Golden Eagle are essential in the maintenance and control of populations of jack rabbits and ground squirrels on the grasslands of the western United States. Still others like the Red-shouldered Hawk common to almost all of Florida and the eastern United States are essential in keeping populations of small rodents in check. Despite most raptors being considered meat eaters, the Swallow-tailed Kite is an insect eating raptor. It is one of very few insectivorous raptors in North America.

I started thinking about this beautiful raptor, to me the most beautiful raptor in North America, while bicycling this afternoon and watching a probable family group of four of these gorgeous birds slowly drifting south over University Parkway. Given the time of year I couldn't help but think that if they weren't already migrating south from some place north of here, these birds were practicing for the big push by early next month.

Data from the Florida Breeding Bird Atlas show that Swallow-tailed Kites nest throughout almost all of the state from the Keys northward to Georgia and Alabama. The first Swallow-tailed Kites I ever saw were along the Altamaha River near Brunswick, Georgia in June 1984. Their presence soaring over live oak trees that dripped with Spanish moss epitomized the "south" to me.

Swallow-tailed Kite breeding range in the United States is much reduced from historic times. I well remember a diorama of this species and its habitats on display in the James Ford Bell Museum of Natural History on the University of Minnesota campus. The diorama depicted a nesting site of this species along the bluffs of the Mississippi River in southeastern Minnesota in the late 1800s. Those days are long gone. As the current range map indicates, this raptor nests in the southeastern United States south through Central America and as far as Peru in South America. Most birds that nest in the US winter in South America.

I remember like it was yesterday a scene in the mountains of Bolivia in October 1997. A group of 6 of us were walking along a lake at about 8,000 feet in the Andes hoping to find a bizarre species of duck when suddenly our attention was drawn to movement over the lake. Not 100 feet from us we saw a group of four Kites, possibly a family group, gliding gracefully and effortlessly over the surface of this lake plucking freshly hatched dragonfiles from the air as they emerged after hatching in the lake's water. Despite having seen bundles of birds in my life, that scene in Bolivia watching these birds is one of the scenes most completely etched in my mind.

Wikipedia has some basic information about Swallow-tailed Kites at this link.

From about now until late August if you are out and about enjoying the beauty of South Florida and its varied habitats keep an eye trained on the sky just over the tops of the forests. With luck you might see a Swallow-tailed Kite working its way south the tropics while it exhibits the grace and agility in flight that we most often ascribe to a ballet dancer. Its that grace and agility topped by their spectacular tail feathers that to me make this the coolest raptor in Florida.

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