April 2013 Bird Photo of the Month

My eye is on you © Crystal Samuel
Swallow-tailed Kite (Elanoides forficatus)

The most amazing acrobatic flier is the Swallow-tailed Kite! Such extraordinary aerial skill, and with its striking black-and-white pattern and sharply forked tail, this unique raptor is such a graceful beauty. Weighing only a pound, kites can hang motionless on the wind, rarely flapping their 4-foot long wings. However, hundreds of kites in a “kettle,” with a slight tilt or flick of their forked tails, can dart, dive, and twist this way and that, even astoundingly reverse direction, to chase insects; yet they never collide!

Such sights are possible in south central Florida from early March-May where thousands gather to roost post-migration before dispersal to Florida and surrounding states’ nesting sites. Using one or both feet, they expertly capture insects in mid-air, then transfer prey to mouth. Although 98% of their diet is insects, including fire ants, they also pluck frogs, snakes, anoles, or nesting birds from the surface of vegetation, more often to feed their young than themselves. Kites not only eat on the wing, but also dip low over rivers, ponds, or lakes to skim water for a drink.

To maintain their feathers for their aerial feats, they spend early morning, just after dawn, grooming, sunning, and drying each feather as shown in this photograph by Crystal Samuel taken with her Nikon D3000 and 200-mm zoom lens.

Gregarious, Swallow-tailed Kites return in early March to our swamps, lowland forests, and marshes edged with tall pine trees where, at the top, several pairs may nest. Although non-breeding kites may also associate with these monogamous pairs to provide extra eyes for predators, they will not help in caring for the fledglings. All hunt and communally roost at night near the nests. They gather again in August in large, pre-migratory groups to store energy for their long journey to Central and South America.

Juanita Baker, Coordinator
Florida Bird Photo of the Month
Pelican Island Audubon

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