Early in the week, I was fortunate to visit one of my favorite parks in Sarasota County: Lemon Bay Park and Environmental Center. I was invited to present to a group of park volunteers about estuary ecology, mangrove best management practices, and to talk about some of the creatures that inhabit Sarasota Bay. We had a great time walking, observing and talking about wildlife, urban parks, and many other things, plus we got to see some cool birds among them a bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus), a belted kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon), and a little blue heron (Egretta caerulea). But it was on my drive back to the office that I got to see one of my favorite birds.
It came out from above the canopy of some pine trees along Interstate 75, gliding, almost motionless compared to the cars driving underneath. The bird disappeared quickly, but I knew right away what it was. The black-and-white colors and the deeply forked tail gave it away. It was my first swallow-tailed kite (Elanoides forficatus) of 2022 in Florida.
Between February and September, swallow-tailed kites are not uncommon in Florida. But for four months of the year, this elegant bird of prey is pretty much gone. By early September, the majority of swallow-tailed kites migrate south, crossing the Caribbean, on their way to South America, and some migrate around the Gulf of Mexico.
The swallow-tailed kite comes to Florida to breed. Courtship may involve aerial chases by both sexes, which can be quite a display of aerial acrobatics since swallow-tail kites are excellent fliers. And it is either soaring or gliding over tree canopies where you tend to see them more often.
When ready to nest, swallow-tail kites will pick tall trees in or near open woodland; typically, pine trees taller than 60 feet. Both parents will care and feed the young for about six weeks after hatching from the egg (between one and three per nest), until the offspring are ready to fly away from their nest. (Watch a Florida Museum video of parents feeding two 14-days-old juvenile swallow-tailed kites)
In Florida, the greatest threat to swallow-tailed kites is habitat destruction. FWC noted that in South Florida, due to loss of nesting habitat, these birds are often forced to nest in unstable Australian pines* where nests fail due to wind. Once kites leave Florida, major threats are also habitat destruction of stopovers (area where birds pause during their migration route) and wintering grounds.
And just like the swallow-tailed kite, there are other magnificent and interesting species of birds that are not permanent residents of our state. So, if you live here or are just visiting, make sure that you visit and go out birding during different times of the year so you can enjoy the great diversity of birds species that we have in Florida.
Perhaps this blog might inspire you to go outside and and visit your local parks. And, do not forget to look up. You might just see a swallow-tailed kite.
* For more information about Australian pines, and other invasive species of trees, please follow this link.