Dramatically, with outstretched wings, the Snail Kite sweeps down to grasp the freshwater Apple Snail. In shoreline vegetation of south-western Lake Okeechobee, this male extends long, curved claws to capture and transport the snail to a feeding perch. The Snail Kite uses its highly adapted, sharp sickle-like bill to insert inside the curving shell and slice the muscle holding the flesh to the shell. Instantly fresh escargot!
Snail kites were not discovered in Florida until 1844. The species was never painted by Audubon who may not have had access to the remote interior river basins and marshes of the St. John’s and Kissimmee. Presently, Snail Kites occur from east Orlando wetlands to the Everglades where their exclusive prey, freshwater Apple Snails, are plentiful. Not breeding elsewhere in the U.S. or Canada, they are common in Cuba, Mexico, Central and South America (excluding Chile).
In 1967, Florida Snail Kites placed on the Endangered Species Preservation list led to research on why populations were rapidly declining from 3000 in 1997 to below 800 in 2009. Since 2013, estimates of 1200 seem stable, perhaps because Florida Snail Kites have adapted to eating the larger South American invasive Apple Snail Pomacea maculata that is replacing native Florida apple snails (P. paludosa).
Mac Stone spent many days in the water devising a means to photograph the capture. “I spend a lot of time working and talking with biologists. In order to make the images that really bring viewers in, I want to know as much about my subject as possible. I want to work with people who have dedicated their lives to these animals. The more time you invest behind the scenes will ready you for the decisive moment behind the lens when the real action happens.”
Snail Kites are a Florida unique species to be treasured.
Juanita Baker, Coordinator
Florida Bird Photo of the Month
Pelican Island Audubon Society