As Spring approaches, the weather becomes warmer here in South Florida, and we will say goodbye to a variety of winged winter visitors. Many of the songbirds and warblers that visit here will return north as the snow melts and the opportunity for a new food supply again graces the lands.
Also, the amazing White Pelicans that visit here will be traveling back to their homelands to prepare for the nesting and mating season. I hate to see them go. They are so beautiful and graceful in flight! And huge! They sport the second largest wingspan of any North American bird, with an outreach of more than nine feet for the fully-grown pelicans.
However, saying goodbye to some also means that we can say hello to others. Least Terns will be scraping the beach sands to sculpt their nests pretty soon. They fly here all the way from Venezuela. They will not be alone as other migratory birds prepare for the Summer warmth.
Wait! As these warm–weather guests arrive soon, one species is already here! Just this past week, on February 28th to be exact, my first sighting of the ever-graceful Swallow-Tailed Kite brought me to jaw–dropping amazement. It happened on a sunset tour when a group stopped to observe an Osprey with a couple of 2 weeks old chicks in her nest. Over the mangrove trees, another bird caught our attention and, sure enough, as it performed its “hawking” technique in feeding, it turned to its side to reveal that forked tail and black and white coloring to confirm it was indeed the Swallow-Tailed Kite.
This is one of the most beautiful of all raptors and it has arrived! They sometimes seem to hover motionless, then swooping and rolling from side to side, periodically turning upside down with hardly any movement of the wings.
They arrived here through a 5,000-mile journey.
Migration takes place from their winter grounds in the depths of South America and usually begins in mid–January, with the kites arriving in Florida in late February or in March. Their journey brings them across the Andes mountains to the northern reaches of South America, then up Central America to the western coast of Mexico near Cancun. Next, a journey across the waters to western Cuba and finally over the Gulf straights to Southern Florida.
Some will stop and rest in the local Picayune Strand before moving on to their nesting areas. This is where the action really begins! Nests are built, courting rituals take place, then mating and eventually the hatching a baby Kites. Florida, Southern Georgia and parts of Louisiana are the birth locations for these chicks.
How is this information possibly known and done so accurately? The Avian Research and Conservation Institute (ARCI) has equipped some of the captured birds with tiny solar GPS satellite tags that track their movement from Brazil to the United States. In 2019, sixteen tracked Swallow-tailed Kites were monitored to detail their flight on this 5,000-mile journey. With names like Babcock, Sarasota, Suwanee and Apopka you can get an idea where some of these birds might nest. These trackers can perform the monitoring task for years.
After spending Summer in the warm southeast US, the Kites return to the Brazilian ranchlands that have a landscape very similar to the Florida plains and prairies. This is where they will winter with their young before making the voyage again the next January. The reason for summering here and wintering in Brazil is easily understood. A primary source of food for these raptors are bugs. There are fewer bugs here during our winter months and the same for summer in Brazil. Also, on the Kites’ menu are snakes, anoles and small rodents.
ARCI has been tracking Swallow-tailed Kites since 1997 so the study of the nesting locations, migration paths, time and distance of the journey to and from the nesting sites has helped tremendously in understanding this bird’s current behavior and changes that occur over time.
Keep an eye on the sky because these beauties are here now, and amazing to watch. A local nesting area to Naples would be Sugden Park along south Tamiami Trail, around the lake. Also, watch the sky near the Isle of Capri.
They’ll be here for several months so catch a glimpse while you can!
Bob is a Naturalist for a dolphin study team on board the Dolphin Explorer. He is the author of two books and is an award-winning columnist for this newspaper. He is a regular speaker at area venues and… Bob loves his wife very much!