Hart Beat by Hart Rufe

First published November 6, 2012 ... Contact Hart at hartrufe@gmail.com

Courting Swallow-tail kites

A frog makes a welcome gift in this Swallow-tailed Kite couple's courting ritual.

The Other Kites

Regular readers of this column will remember that several weeks ago White-tailed Kites were the featured bird of the Hart Beat. http://stlucieaudubon.org/hartBeat/hb2012/hb120915Kites.html. There are two other Snail Kitekite species that regularly occur in Florida.

The Snail Kite (left) is here year round, but is considered a rare and endangered species in the United States with fewer than 400 breeding pairs believed to be remaining. However, there is a healthy population in South America and for that reason it is not thought to be in danger of extinction, notwithstanding its low distribution in the United States, pretty much limited to Florida.

The third kite to be found regularly in Florida during its breeding season between March and August of each year is the gorgeous Swallow-tailed Kite (flying, below). In August and early September large Swallow-tailed Kite flyingconcentrations of Swallow-tailed Kites gather, preparing for migration, in an undisclosed location between Lake Okeechobee and the Gulf Coast, and if one is lucky enough (not me, yet) to stumble across it, it is possible to see probably half of all the Swallow-tailed Kites, estimated at between 800 and 1500 breeding pairs, in North America at one time. Here is a shaky, but definitive, video of the roost: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2B5fldpvLlc.

So there you have it birding fans, three spectacular kite species, none real common here, but all possible to find in south Florida in the right time and season.

Where, you ask? Well, for the White-tailed Kite please see the recent column mentioned at the outset of this Hart Beat article. To see the Swallow-tailed Kite you must now wait until March when they return from South America. They nest along the St Lucie River and the participants who take one of the daily trips on the River Cruise run by Deena and Dana Wade are almost certain to see one or more in April, May and June. http://www.riverlillycruises.com/. Or, they can pop up just about anywhere at any time of day soaring over the tree tops searching for snakes, lizards and frogs, or large insects such as grasshoppers and crickets.

Female Swallow-tailed KiteIn the photos a female (right), with a broken left tail feather, awaits a courting male, bringing a frog, which it then gives to the female in a re-enactment of a ritual that is so familiar to all of us. I can confirm that he did indeed “get lucky” shortly thereafter, but no photos; this is family column.

Snail Kites, formerly called the “Everglades Kite,” (bottom two photos) are among the rarest of birds in North America. On the first week-long field trip I led years ago to south Florida it was the most desired of all the species the 22 participants hoped to see, including me. Despite diligent searching and chasing many fruitless leads we learned that a pair might be found along the canal behind the Miccosukee Indian Restaurant on the Tamiami Trail. After hours of eye-wearying scanning we finally found one male visible, at a great distance, only through our most powerful telescope.

Snail KiteNow, after 13 years of wintering in St Lucie County, I know they can be found along almost any canal road in the farm country in the western part of the county, but they move around depending on the apple snail population. They breed at STA-5 just south of Lake Okeechobee, and they are regularly found in the Three Lakes Wildlife Management Area, both places that St Lucie Audubon often conducts field trips.┬áSnail Kites feed almost exclusively on apple snails, and have a longer, more pronounced curve to their bill, which enables them to insert that bill into the snail’s shell to cut the muscle and extract the meat. It is not uncommon to find a fairly impressive pile of discarded apple snail shells beneath a Snail Kite favorite feeding perch. Escargot anyone?

Snail KiteWhen I searched for the derivation of the word “kite” as applied to this particular family of raptors, I found four definitions: 1. The obvious light cloth or paper framework “kite” flown in the wind on a long string; 2. Light sails of a ship, used only in a light wind; 3. A bank check drawn on insufficient funds to take advantage of the time interval required for collection; and, of course, 4. The various predatory birds in the hawk family Accipitridae, “having a long, often forked tail and long pointed wings.” It occurred to me that the common thread here is the fact that all four of these defined “kites” tend to soar or glide gracefully and effortlessly, including a “kiting” victim’s funds that just waft away in the breeze. At least the other three defined “kites” can be very beautiful. (11/6/2012)

(Click photos for larger versions)