Thursday, November 23, 2017
News Roundup

It's quite the sight from our fixed perch

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Even bird guide writers, scientists trained to stick to the facts, can't contain themselves when it comes to a migratory raptor now common in Florida skies — the swallow-tailed kite.

They are "agile and graceful," according to my National Geographic book of North American birds.

"Seen in flight, (with their) deeply forked tail and sharply defined pattern of black and white, (kites) are like no other bird except the young magnificent frigatebird."

That, my nonbirding friends, is the closest a field guide will ever come to saying, "These birds are really cool."

So cool, in fact, that their arrival each spring seems like part of a fair deal.

We get months of searing, humid, soul-killing weather. But we also get swallow-tailed kites.

They can be seen coasting above treetops, pastures and wetlands, catching breezes, seldom flapping a wing, navigating with subtle turns of their famous tails.

And they can be seen more often than ever. At least that's my impression. I was barely aware of them a decade ago. Now it seems as if one is in view every time I look up.

It turns out this is also the impression of several of my neighbors in Spring Lake, southeast of Brooksville.

"Anecdotally, you're right," said Mary Dowdell, a biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, who lives off Powell Road. "We do see a lot of kites. And aren't we lucky?!"

Is it possible that this means something good is going on in the environment, something that might make an encouraging story about a rebounding population of a relatively rare bird?

No. Not really, said Gina Kent, a researcher with the private, nonprofit Avian Research and Conservation Institute in Gainesville, which has been studying swallow-tailed kites for more than 20 years.

Like most other bird species, their historic range has shrunk drastically. They continue to face development pressure in their summer home in the southeastern United States and in their winter habitat in South America, which is rapidly being consumed by intensely cultivated sugarcane and soybean fields.

Because kites are social, the arrival of one pair can bring in a couple more. Because they are highly visible, a few breeding pairs can fill the sky.

So, it seems, if there has been an increase in the population in Spring Lake, it's for that reason, a nice accident combined with decent habitat — the mix of woods and fields that kites prefer. The trend doesn't necessarily extend any farther into Hernando or over the rest of their range.

For the past three years, the institute has monitored the population of several roosting spots — including one along the Withlacoochee River — where large numbers of kites gather to fatten up before their leisurely return trip to South America.

"They're done breeding," Kent said of this journey. "It's like their vacation."

So far, it appears as though the population is stable, which, given the decline of so many other wild birds, could, I guess, be seen as encouraging.

So could the story of a kite Kent trapped last year in Dowdell's yard. It was one of 11 birds fitted with the institute's new bird bands that hold tiny solar-powered global positioning systems.

This allowed Kent to track the bird's trip to the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso, known for its grasslands and plateaus. The kite then spent two weeks in the Amazon basin, where it feasted on insects before flying directly back to its nest in Spring Lake.

You might be able to see it yourself. Just drive toward Powell and Emerson roads and check the sky for a very cool display of agility and grace.

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