It is one of our favorite times of the year.
We actually look forward to the arrival of the Swallow-tailed Kites with something akin to the anticipation of a birthday or holiday.
And when the first birds arrive, the flurry of emails start as people brag about who saw the very first STK of the season.
We’re crazy about kites at the CREW Project and we know some of you are, too. Here are 10 reasons we love Swallow-Tailed Kites.
1 – Aerodynamics
We could watch kites soar all day long. As one of our volunteers pointed out, the entire design of the bird is aerodynamic and sleek, as if their body is made to slide right through the air. They swoop effortlessly and gracefully to grab prey and it’s while soaring that we are able to easily identify them by their long, forked tail.
2 – Migration patterns
Swallow-tailed kites migrate to Southwest Florida each year from South America to breed. We are their first stop on their winter migration and they normally arrive here in the third or fourth week of February, then gradually later through the rest of Florida, according to the Birds of North America website. Once the adults arrive, they begin gathering nesting material and prepare nests often in the same spot or vicinity as they nested the previous year. Swallow-tailed kites will stay in our area until June or July, and then the adults leave several weeks prior to the juveniles’ departure.
Swallow-tailed kites are raptors, but they do not have particular strong feet or talons. That’s why they use Spanish moss as nesting material! They have been seen carrying very small, lightweight sticks, but their primary nesting material is Spanish moss. They also nest very high in the “V” of pine trees which make the nests challenging to spot. And, once they chicks hatch, the adults continue to add nesting materials. So, a nest that starts out convex to hold an egg, will eventually become concave as the chick grows!
(Thank you, Kathleen Smith, CREW biologist, for that fun fact)
4 – Challenge
Everything about the Swallow-tailed kite is challenging! Have you ever tried to get a GOOD PHOTO? Especially of one flying? It’s extremely difficult and we’ve watched plenty of wildlife photographers on the trail gasp in frustration as the birds soar past. And it’s not just capturing the birds on film that is tough – finding the nests is also hard! Because the nests are so high in the trees, and only made sparsely with Spanish moss, they are difficult to find. But, once you have found the nest, you can go back each year and check for activity. For our biologists and volunteer citizen scientists, that challenge is part of the fun of monitoring the kites.
From the beautiful snow-white head and underbody to the sleek inky wings and back, the kite is a study in contrasting colors. It makes them easily recognizable in the raptor family – for their color and for their forked tail.
6 – The Tail
That gorgeous, v-shaped tail is how all of us easily identify the Swallow-tailed Kite. And, as we inch towards summer, we can tell the juvenilles in flight from the adults because the adults will have longer forked tails than the juvenilles.
7- Feeding time fun
Part of loving raptors is loving the fat that they do raptor stuff – meaning we aren’t upset when we see a bird of prey carrying home dinner. The kites are no exception. They will eat large insects, but remember, they do not have strong feet so they don’t pick up heavy prey. Instead, they mainly eat herps – frogs, anoles and snakes. As a hiker and birder, it can be quite fun to try and puzzle out what they are carrying home to feed their chicks.
8 – Nice Neighbors
One thing that makes them different from other raptors is that the kites will nest near other kites, forming loose neighborhoods (thanks for that name, Kathleen!). That makes it a bit easier for our citizen scientists and the CREW biologists when locating nests. It also makes for easy playdate scheduling (just kidding, birds don’t have playdates).
9 – The CREW Trust Logo
The Swallow-tailed Kite is the bird featured on our logo! We are very proud of the kites, and the fact that the 60,000-acre Corkscrew Regional Ecosystem Watershed is land preserved for water and wildlife and provides habitat for these migratory raptors.
10 – Bringing Friends
The nest monitoring done each year by CREW FWC biologists and volunteers has shown that the numbers of swallow-tailed kites nesting within the 60,000-acres is growing! That’s exciting for us and great news for the birds. You have a really good chance of seeing Swallow-tailed Kites at all four of the CREW Project Trails. They roost around the lake at Bird Rookery Swamp (hike out to the lake, under two miles); they swoop over the red trail at Flint Pen Strand; they have a LOT of nests around the Cypress Dome Trails; and we spot them in the pine flatwoods areas of the CREW Marsh Trails. We hope you’ll celebrate the return of the kites – and their growing population within CREW – by coming out with your friends and exploring the trails in hopes of spotting a kite or two.
special thanks to CREW FWC staff and CREW Trust Volunteers for sharing the photos used in this blogpost.