Check with Allison@CREWtrust.org to make sure your membership is current so you can take advantage of early registration for all CREW Trust programs.
Member’s only week is starting October first this year, so be sure to mark your calendars and check back often to CREWtrust.org for more information on all our programs.
Back by popular demand – the Fall and Spring Wildflower walks with Roger Hammer. Enjoy new birding programs and carnivorous plant Specialty Walks. A whole new line-up of Strolling Science Seminars, exciting new family friendly programs and overnight experiences.
Members will have the first week in October to sign up ahead of the general public. Stay on the lookout for our pop-up programs throughout the year, such as our seasonal Wet-Walks and Moonlight tours.
CREW Trust Season of Events will go on sale at 8 AM, October 1st, 2022. General admission will begin on October 9th at 8 AM.
If you’ve hung around any tall pine trees lately, there’s a chance – even if you didn’t notice – that you’ve been within view of one of southwest Florida’s most social flying raptors, the swallow-tailed kite (STKI). Returning from South America in mid-February every year like a romantic poem written especially for a birder just in time for Valentine’s Day, they almost immediately start circling the tall tree tops in search of their favorite nesting spot. We have a lot of unanswered questions regarding these world travelers, but there is plenty that we do know! This article will be a refresher course covering some of the top questions we hear from you about our black and white aerial artists at the CREW Trails.
STKIs Journey to Nest
When we begin to spot STKIs in Florida in mid-February, they must be tired from their long journey because they’ve just flown in from South America, a journey of up to 6,000 miles. Some of them make it as far as seven of the southernmost states in the U.S. but Florida is their preferred destination and we see them in the greatest numbers here. We’re fortunate at CREW because they have a few favorite nesting areas within the CREW Project and between February and August we have the privilege of seeing them circle and soar over the treetops.
On arrival they begin looking for suitable nesting sites. There are two essentials for nesting, which they do in loose communities. They need tall trees (preferably pines, occasionally cypress and other tall trees) in open woodland where they can hunt abundant prey by sight, and they prefer to be near a source of water – a swamp, river, marsh or a slough – because they also capture and consume creatures living next to or in the water. Most STKIs return to the same nesting sites every year, often fixing up an old nest. In the early part of their stay in Florida, you’ll see them circling high overhead inspecting the territory.
Relationships of Swallow-tailed Kites
STKIs are believed to be monogamous. They may continue a relationship from the previous year, or they may find a mate during migration. Once the colony has chosen a good nesting site, they establish small territories around and above the nests and they guard their territories (or neighborhoods) by flying in small circles above the nest tree. Intruders are repelled with dive bombs and scolding cries sometimes described as loud, squeaky whistles.
Both males and females bring nest materials to the site. They can build the nest quickly, in only one day, or more slowly, up to two weeks. They begin by making a platform of small, loosely woven sticks and then line it with soft materials such as lichen or Spanish moss, creating either a flat surface or a shallow cup. Most STKI nests are situated at least 60 feet above the ground.
Each pair of STKIs produces a clutch of one to three eggs which incubate for 27 to 33 days. After the eggs hatch, the parents feed them frequently. The male STKI catches and carries prey in his talons to the nest, where he passes it to the female. She then tears it up and feeds it to the young.
Photos by CREW Trust Volunteer Dick Brewer illustrating STKI development stages (starts at top left).
Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner – Feeding on the Wing
To catch that prey, the male hunts during the day “on the wing”, while in flight, picking prey off trees, shrubs and vegetation along rivers or other water bodies. And what are they looking for? STKIs like large insects such as dragonflies, wasps, cicadas, beetles and grasshoppers which they eat while flying. During the breeding season, adults also hunt small vertebrates, including tree frogs, lizards, nesting birds, and snakes. Occasionally STKIs devour bats, fish or fruit.
We’re fortunate in southwest Florida to welcome these magnificent birds. You can identify them, at the right time of year (between February and August), first by noticing their long, forked tails and then by observing their graceful flight. They swoop and glide high overhead, catching insects in the air or descending to the treetops to find small creatures to eat. Unlike some other birds, they rarely flap their wings, and you should count yourself lucky if you see them on the ground. An individual STKI has a shrill “pee, pee, pee” call, but when they gather in flocks you’ll hear sweet, shrill cries or soft whistles. It’s a magical experience to find yourself looking up at a circling flock and hearing those whistles.
You may have noticed that the CREW logo features the swallow-tailed kite. We don’t like to choose favorites, but it’s hard to resist these charismatic birds which are recognized by many as the most beautiful bird of prey. Just ask Brenda Brooks, CREW Trust Executive Director until 3/31/22, when she will make her own version of a migration north.
What is your hiking personality type? Do you have one? Never thought about it? Some would say that where you spend most of your time looking while on the trail says a lot about your interests, like one of those repetitive questionnaires that asks the same question several different ways to find a pattern. For instance, is your head up in the clouds with the birds or are you flipping through your wildflower book while you crouch near the flora? Does every little insect catch your eye, or are you more the type to roll over a downed tree to see what’s hiding underneath? Whatever your type, when you’re out hiking the CREW trails you’ll find a rich assortment of interesting distractions to catch your eye, hold your attention, and spark your imagination.
If you’re the kind of person that tends to look down while you’re hiking you can fit into several categories. For one, perhaps you’re simply clumsy and/or cautious about wildlife crossing your path – in which case I suggest finding a good hiking stick. However, you might be the type to look to the ground with intention, scanning the earth for a sign of life, whether that be a wandering turtle or a seasonal wildflower.
If you have a practical preoccupation with the ground in front of you – often you’re a quick trail runner or speed hiker who doesn’t slow down for anything, except perhaps a faster runner. You’re on the right track as long as you’re moving fast enough to blur your vision of the verdant landscape surrounding you. You prefer the smells of the trees over the blast of exhaust fumes and therefore opt to test your endurance in the company of wildlife, even if you’re moving too quickly to witness them. That’s alright, because you yourself are a wild thing, gracefully caressing the ground with your quick footsteps under the canopy of trees and sky. You are a trail runner.
Then again, maybe you’re one of the many who take their time looking at each leaf and petal, searching through the many layers of green to identify something unique in the abundant chaos. You have the ability to see hidden gems, glowing silently in the leaf litter, distinct in their ecosystem. You admire how they grow, for no one in particular, but simply because we have set aside spaces like CREW for them to do so. They blossom with their seasons, adorning the landscape with pops of improbable colors. They complete their life cycle unaided and unattended, capturing your attention if you’re one of those who seeks out their inherent beauty. You are a wildflower seeker.
Then there are the unique people who find themselves seeking out the most diverse group of organisms on the planet, insects. Given that insects represent approximately 80 percent of the world’s species, it’s a fair bet that you’ll find a good collection to observe on each hike. In fact, at any time, it is estimated that there are some 10 quintillion (10,000,000,000,000,000,000) individual insects alive. Bug nerds like you probably already know that, which is why you’re out with your macro camera lens, focusing in closely on that mother green lynx spider protecting the next generation in her silken web. You are a bug person.
The last predominant subcategory of those that ‘tend to look down while hiking’ includes the herpetologists. These patient seekers know where to look and also that it’s unlikely to find anything. Not to worry though; when you’re as patient and observant as those in this category tend to be, you’ll eventually be rewarded with a cool snake or mud-soaked turtle when you least expect it. That’s when you impress your friends with your reptile spotting skills and knowledge of their behavior, calming your friends’ nerves with helpful advice about how best to interact with our reptile neighbors (give them lots of space and respect). You are a herper.
Let’s not forget about those who look up to the sky for the birds. You know you’re a birder when you prefer trails with level ground or bring along a friend specifically to walk in front – so you don’t trip. Bird nerds, as you’re often called by your nearest and dearest friends, will sometimes politely hush hiking friends not so immersed in the sport to allow you to parse out the chorus of warblers, distinguishing their unique calls. You’re an eagle-eyed scout who can often tell a species by their wing shape or flight patterns, counting the number of birds flocking with a best estimate. With all the migratory birds finding their way to or through Florida this season, you’re sure to find your way to the CREW trails soon and often. You are a birder.
Next time you’re out hiking CREW trails, take note of where you tend to look. And then try looking elsewhere to discover new interests. There are many other wonderful things to observe out hiking around the CREW Trails this winter. What do you look for on the trails? Will you try something new?
Hiking around the CREW Cypress Dome trails and into Caracara Prairie Preserve you’re likely to find at least one pair of sandhill cranes foraging together. These are often residents, as opposed to migratory, as our region of Florida is one of the few places to find year-round residents (ironic, we know).
These impressively long-legged, long-necked, heron-like birds fly with necks outstretched like geese and trumpet their calls with a distinct flair, like loud rattling bugle calls that can be heard up to 2.5 miles away. Calls are made in flight as well as on the ground for many reasons, including courtship. Their unique trumpeting is a product of anatomy: long tracheas (windpipes) curl into the sternum and help the sound develop a lower pitch.
Sandhill cranes find a mate around two years of age and stay with that one mate for the duration of their lives. Courtship rituals may be observed with patience and good timing, for which you may be rewarded with shows of dancing that includes jumping, running, and wing flapping. Males are larger than females, but external markings are identical. Sandhill cranes live to be older than most birds, some reaching 20 years old which makes their monogamous pairing even more significant.
Nests are built by both mates with grass, moss, and sticks from vegetation, starting with dried pieces and adding green material later in the nesting cycle. Both mates may gather material, tossing it over their shoulders to form a mound. Sandhill cranes breed in open wetland areas surrounded by shrubs and trees. Two eggs are normally laid incubating for 32 days and both males and females participate in incubating the eggs. When you see a solitary sandhill crane, that usually indicates that they are one half of a breeding pair, and their other half is with the nest.
The future of the sandhill crane population is mainly tied to the fate of their habitat which is another reason we should preserve wetland habitats. The sandhill crane populations are generally strong, however isolated populations in Cuba and Mississippi are endangered.
Meine, C.D. and G.W. Archibald (Eds.). 1996. Sandhill Crane (Grus canadensis) in The cranes: status survey and conservation action plan. IUCN, Gland, Switzerland and Cambridge, U.K. 294 Pp. http://www.npwrc.usgs.gov/resource/birds/cranes/gruscana.htm . Accessed 10/25/2010).
Nesbitt S.A., 1996. Florida Sandhill Crane. Pages 219 – 229 in J.A. Rodgers, Jr., H.W. Kale II, and H.T. Smith (Eds.). Rare and endangered biota of Florida, Vol. V: Birds. University Press of Florida, Gainesville, FL.
As the water dries down at CREW’s Flint Pen Strand trails, an abundance of wading birds have become regular visitors to the lakes. You can access the lakes two different ways: by hiking from the Main Parking lot or parking in the smaller Lakes Parking lot adjacent to the lakes. If you want to see these birds arrive early for sunrise or later for sunset. Take your time approaching these flighty hunters and you will be rewarded with views perfect for unbelievable photographs. For some inspiration, take a look through this collection from CREW Trust volunteer, Bill Zaino’s recent photos capturing White Pelicans, Roseate Spoonbills, Woodstorks, Tricolored Herons, Great Egrets, Snowy Egrets, Limpkins and Greater Yellowlegs .
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.
Ready to hit the trails this season, but looking for a few fun new tools? Check out these apps for your smartphone that can help take your trek to the next tech level.
IveGot1: This app from FWC is for reporting sightings of non-native invasive animals, like pythons, which have been spotted within the CREW Project. Get as much information as you can, including photos of tracks. Just remember when taking a photo to place something, like a coin or a pen or a tube of chapstick next to the track to help with noting the size. (http://myfwc.com/wildlifehabitats/nonnatives/reporting-hotline/)
WeatherBug: This app has a program within the app called Spark which will show how close lightning is to your location. When should you find shelter and get far away from lightning? We say follow the pool rule – if lightning is within ten miles, get to shelter. Florida is the lightning captial of the United States and it is always better to be safe than sorry.
PlantNet: Can’t remember the name of that pretty purple flower? You can jog your memory with the use of this app and maybe correctly identify the plant. This is part of a global project so, if your plant isn’t in the app, you can help by adding it! Check out this shot of a flower I took by our office, then searched for, and quickly identified!
Merlin Bird ID by Cornell Lab: This app lets you load bird packs (birds in your area) so you can tailor the app to where you are, or where you are travelling to.
Peterson Bird Identifier & Field Guide: They had me at field guide. This includes over 800 species of North American Birds and looks enough like your hardcover field guide that you’ll feel right at home.
Audubon Bird Guide: Reviews say it is the best free bird field guide available and it lists nearby observations. You can log your sightings and connect to a social community of birders. And, if you love owls, check out the Audubon Owl Guide app.
AllTrails: This app is one we are starting to use ourselves to get our trails out to the world! This app lets you explore trails and check out reviews. It’s also helpful if you are looking to explore more trails in the area (and more of our trails) or heading out of town on vacation and want to scope out the local landscape.
Bird Rookery Swamp is closed for boardwalk construction, so today’s critter count from Dick Brewer comes to us from Caracara Prairie Preserve. Brewer noted it is very wet in some areas and that he was knee deep in one small marsh.
For the last two weeks, the CREW Trust staff and FWC biologists have been anxiously watching the skies.
It’s Swallow-tailed Kite time.
Reports trickled in from our volunteers. Jayne posted on Facebook that she saw kites during a hike with students from FGCU on the Marsh Trails . Peggy sent us an email that she saw two at the observation tower at the same trails and they were “calling like crazy!”
I led a small group of volunteers through trail steward training on Sunday and kept one eye on the sky but still, no sightings.
Swallow-tailed kites come to SWFL to breed and are always spotted mid-February, right around Valentine’s Day. Sightings are not limited to our trails, but the birds do require tall trees for nesting and tend to choose open pinewoods near marshes or cypress swamps as their habitat.
In other words, CREW is great breeding spot for them.
The kites will be here until late August. If you’re eager to spot one or two, head out to Cypress Dome Trails (3980 Corkscrew Road) or CREW Marsh Trails (4600 Corkscrew Road) and keep your eyes on the skies!
Each week volunteers Dick Brewer and Rick Mears walk the trail at Bird Rookery Swamp and complete a critter count. Below is this week’s list. This is a great example of citizen science and we hope you’ll hit the trails and see if you can match any of their findings!