I admit that I have a thing for raptors. They are magnificent creatures. They all have a look, life history, and abilities that are jaw-droppingly astonishing. A perfect blend of artistry and purpose-built ‘engineering’. Kites, and especially Swallow-tailed Kites, are a top-of-the-marquee example. In my opinion.
Let’s start with looks. How about I just let pictures do the talking.
Their life history is intriguing. In part, because much of it remains a mystery. It has long been known that the sub-species population breeding in the summer in North America (once in 21 states, now down to 7 southeastern states) were long-haul migrants. But, just how long of a trip was a guess. The guesses were made even tougher because exactly where the northern breeding populations wintered among the South American year-round residents and the routes taken to and from breeding and wintering grounds were vague, at best.
Recent advances in satellite and geo-locator tracking are beginning to shed light on an extraordinary 10,000+ mile roundtrip journey from deep South America – primarily Brazil and Paraguay – to specific breeding sites in the southeast US, including Georgia’s coastal plain. A lot of the original guesses are being second-guessed or flat out proven wrong. For example, except for a very few individuals, the majority of the migrants do not fly directly over the Caribbean to the coast of northern South America as once thought. Instead, in the spring they travel a route over the Andes and along the eastern coast of Central America to the Yucatan peninsula where they make a quick hop across the Gulf of Mexico before staying over land until they reach their final destination. They reverse in the fall.
This is all important data for conservation, and hopefully turnaround, of the declining population. When reaching the southeast, almost all of their fly and stop overs is private land, especially large tracts of managed lumber, pulp, and paper forests. Swallow-tailed Kites need upwards of 100,000 acres for their ‘neighborhoods’ (small groups of breeding pairs). It is not possible to set aside that much public land in the southeast, especially FL. Public and private cooperation and coordination is a necessity. Fortunately, some of the largest lumber and paper companies are actively participating with NGOs. Of special note is how some of the family owned farms, such as Skeen Farms in Long County, are taking steps to provide bug-rich habitat for flocks of kites preparing for Fall migration.
For Georgia birders, an interesting nuance of this route happens in the fall. Almost all of the known GA breeding nests are in the coastal plain and concentrated in four major river drainages: Altamaha, Savannah, Ogeechee, Satilla. In late July and early August, these birds will move inland (west) and form small flocks, often mixed with Mississippi Kites. The attraction is the peaking of grasshopper and june bug populations in open pasture lands and hay fields. These bugs are a protein and fat buffet for the Kites as they prepare for their 5,000+ mile journey back to the open ranges of Brazil and Paraguay. That just happen to be in the peak season for bugs in their grasslands and open prairie. It will be summer down there. Nature’s timing is a wonder.
These gatherings of Kites are showcases of the Kites’ raptor abilities. They are astonishing aerial displays of grace and athleticism. They are fun to photograph, but sometimes I put down the camera and watch. It is jaw-droppingly astonishing.