Unusual Swallow-tailed Kite Sighting Enlivens Holiday Weekend Birding

Jul 8, 2015

The most beautiful raptor in the world, to this commentator's eyes, is the striking, black and white, rather large Swallow-tailed Kite, with its long thin pointed wings and an almost fake-looking long forked tail. One of these amazing birds was seen on Nantucket on July 1st and seen daily island-wide until July 4th, when it flew over a gathering of people on Tuckernuck Island having their annual meeting, just about 5 miles northwest of the west end of Nantucket. It was last seen on those islands on Independence Day and has not been reported again.

Clearly the America’s most beautiful bird of prey, it is striking in its shape, its pattern, and its extraordinarily graceful flight. Hanging motionless in the air, swooping and gliding, rolling upside down and then zooming high in the air with scarcely a motion of its wings, the Swallow-tailed Kite is a joy to watch. At one time it was common in summer over much of the southeast, but today it is found mostly in Florida and a few other areas of the south. The species population seems to be stable at this time.

An unmistakably marked raptor of wetlands in the southeastern United States, the Swallow-tailed Kite captures flying insects, or plucks insects and lizards from the tops of trees. They have relatively weak feet and do not capture mammals on the ground, but literally kite around through tree canopies where they prefer to catch arboreal snakes, lizards and insects from the tops of trees.

The Swallow-tailed Kite rarely flaps its wings while flying, but it almost continuously rotates its tail, often to nearly 90 degrees, in order to hold a heading, make a sharp turn, or trace tight circles while drifting across the sky. The Swallow-tailed Kite frequently eats while on the wing and is fond of large dragonflies on the Cape and Islands, as they are readily available on sunny days. There are no snakes or lizards in the tree canopies in New England for them to eat.

For the past decade this species has been appearing with increasing frequency and regularity in the spring, especially from the Pilgrim Heights hawk watching site in North Truro. This happens most commonly in late May but anytime from late March thru early June in the past 5 years has produced one or more sightings of this spectacular bird. It appears they are slowly expanding northward.

Swallow-tailed Kites are a tropical species that spend the winter over a large swath of South America, particularly in Amazonia, and then migrate north to breed in Central America and in the southeastern United States. They arrive in Florida during mid-March, and a week or 2 later reach the Gulf Coast and Georgia, where they also breed. During migration they are found throughout the east side of Central America and on many Caribbean Islands.

Swallow-tailed Kite courtship, like everything they do, is graceful in the extreme. It involves aerial chases by both sexes. The male will feed female. The nest site is in tall tree in open woodland, usually in pine, sometimes in cypress, cottonwood, or other tree. The bird typically places its nest near the top of one of the tallest trees available, more than 60' above ground. The nest (built by both sexes) is a platform of small sticks, lined with soft lichens and Spanish moss.

Birds have wings and tails and the long distance migrant Swallow-tailed Kite uses all too great advantage. They are being seen more often in our region, but this bird on Nantucket and Tuckernuck Islands in July is most unusual. Perhaps it is looking for potential nest sites in the future.