Majestic Swallowtail Kites Return to Southwest Florida for Breeding Season
Let the aerial displays begin.
The swallow-tailed kites are back in Southwest Florida for another year, bringing their majestic flying skills back to our corner of the globe.
Residents and visitors alike often see them flashing overhead during the spring months as they hunt just above the treetops.
A white and black raptor with a deeply forked tail, forked tail kites exhibit acrobatic twists and stunts while hunting everything from insects to snakes and anoles.
This species once ranged as far north as Minnesota, but is now mostly restricted to Florida, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
For many bird and outdoor enthusiasts in the area, the arrival of social kites is a sign of the warmer, wetter spring and summer to come.
These kites spend the spring and much of the summer here before returning to South America, where they live from late summer through winter.
Here’s a preview of a forked tail kite feature we released in March 2021:
They are acrobatic magicians, raptors who hunt, eat and live mainly in flight.
Known for their aerial grace and ability to snatch sneaky prey from the air, swallowtail kites spend much of the fall and winter in South America, but come here to Florida in February or March for the breeding season.
They are here now and will hover, dive, twirl and twist overhead for the next six months.
“The toy we’re flying on a string is named after these birds,” said Audubon Florida biologist Paul Gray. “The swallow-tailed kite is a world-class bird – the striking black and white colors and the grace with which it soars through the air.”
When hunting, they seem to hang motionless in the air, waiting for the next dragonfly or leaping lizard.
And they sleep late, much later in the day than most birds.
“They don’t even wake up until 9 or 10 a.m.,” Gray said. “(It’s) because the air is getting warmer and they see the heat rising, and they spread their wings over the thermals and float.”
Thermals are puffs of warm air that push energy skyward.
Kites use this energy to push them high into the sky, which saves them energy because they don’t have to flap their wings as often as other birds.
“It’s a bird that we don’t know much about,” said Brenda Brooks, watershed manager for the Corkscrew Regional Ecosystem, or CREW. “They have a certain mystical quality because we don’t see them all year round. Not much research has been done until recent years. To me, they’re interesting for all their unknowns. Also, that’s my favorite bird.”
CREW is a huge watershed that spans southern Lee and Collier counties and is home to bobcats, black bears and panthers.
Pines and open savanna are their preferred habitat.
Swallow-tailed kites also eat small mammals, other insects, and frogs.
“They feed a lot in wetlands, but they don’t nest there,” Gray said. “They catch a lot of aerial insects, but they’re also very good at finding snakes and lizards in trees, especially during nesting season. They can bring them back to their babies. (But) often when they catch a lizard on their own, they just eat it while they fly.
Numbers have dropped in recent decades, mainly due to habitat loss.
The winter breeding population in North America currently ranges from the east coast of Texas to the Carolinas.
And although they can be found in several states, they are not that easy to find.
Most sightings happen accidentally, while hiking or simply landscaping the yard.
Going out into the wild and deliberately trying to find one can be very difficult, especially if you don’t know where to look.
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“They hang out in areas where the public don’t venture as often,” Brooks said. “Swallow-tailed kites don’t hang out at the beach, as more and more people venture inland to this area of Florida and find the CREW trails, they’re also discovering this unique species. for the first time.”
Many bird lovers sometimes find it difficult to focus on kites when observing them in the wild.
But that’s okay because the birds fly relatively low, just above the tree canopy, and are easily visible to the naked eye.
Yet getting a clear photo is another challenge for wildlife lovers.
“They are incredibly graceful and elusive even to photographers, as they are very difficult to photograph,” Brooks said. “These aerial acrobats spend very little time on a perch. They hover in search of prey and even feed on the wing, hardly ever slowing down. You can see their characteristic kite tails rapidly twitching to change direction. direction.”
CREW is a good place to see swallowtail kites in the wild, as some visit the preserve land every year.
Brooks said kites prefer certain parts of unspoilt land.
“Look for them on the CREW Cypress Dome Trails and parts of the CREW Marsh Trails,” she said. “Listen to the calls of these highly social raptors as they often roost and hunt together.”
In July, the birds will congregate at a particular location in the Everglades.
In August, half of the total kite snail population will roost near Fisheating Creek, the last natural tributary flowing into Lake Okeechobee and the historic Everglades.
“Florida is important for food because obviously 99% (across the Gulf of Mexico) isn’t far enough,” Gray said.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission says protecting its low-lying breeding habitat is crucial to the continued survival of white kites.
Connect with this reporter: @ChadEugene on Twitter.