A hovering White-tailed Kite is beautiful sight that can be seen in southern Florida.
“What’s that bird hovering up there?” our daughter asked, pointing at a white, gull-like bird hanging almost motion-less over the marsh just behind her suburban San Diego backyard. “White-tailed Kite!” I exclaimed as I simultaneously made a dash for my camera. (Full disclosure: Our daughter didn’t really ask what it was, she already knew, I just thought it made an interesting opening line for this article. Also, I didn’t really dash for my camera, for I already had some photos of a White-tailed Kite that I was relatively pleased with, and they're seen here.)
As it turned out, a pair of kites had set up territory in that marsh and could be seen every day of our California visit, although they never were as cooperative as the one we photographed in Florida. My research disclosed that the wings-up, tail-down, dangling-feet flight posture pictured here is for courtship purposes. When hunting, we observed that their hovering is more horizontal, followed by a direct dive onto some poor unsuspecting mouse or vole.
White-tailed Kite is another one of those birds where they keep changing the name. I first learned and saw the bird as “White-tailed Kite.” Then in 1982, the official bird-namers decided it was the same species as the African Black-winged Kite and lumped the two bird species together as “Black-shouldered Kite.” In 1992, they decided that there were enough differences that the two species were split again into Black-winged Kite in Africa, and White-tailed Kite in the new world. There is still a separate “Black-shouldered Kite” species in Australia. Confused? I still think it all has to do with selling more bird books for birders to keep up-to-date. I haven’t seen any reports of DNA studies to definitively resolve the question.
White-tailed Kites almost became extinct in the 1930’s when they were indiscriminately hunted and shot in the large generic group designated “chicken-hawks,” although their diet is mostly mice and voles, and never chickens. With protection they have recovered to the point where they are no longer considered endangered, but they are not tremendously common anywhere.
They are more easily found in California and south Texas, andrange through Mexico into Central America. They are permanent residents wherever they are found including south Florida. (For a range map see: sdakotabirds.com/species/maps/white_tailed_kite_map.htm) In south Florida, your best chance of seeing one is in the Everglades or in the open country south of Lake Okeechobee, where we found the one featured in this article, near Belle Glade. However, a pair nested this summer in Kissimmee Prairie State Park, northwest of Lake Okeechobee, so they are definitely moving closer to St Lucie County. See: www.examiner.com/article/white-tailed-kites-nest-at-florida-s-kissimmee-prairie-preserve. Our gorgeous Swallow-tailed Kite only shows up in the summer; the equally gorgeous White-tailed Kite can be found year-round, so let’s hope its population increases so that we can hear the question more often in Florida, “What’s that bird hovering up there?” (9/15/2012)
(Click photos for larger versions)