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March winds bring early migrants
by Karen Benson
Mar 29, 2012 | 795 views | 0 0 comments | 4 4 recommendations | email to a friend | print
William H. Majoros photo
The Swallow-tailed Kite is one of the most majestic birds in the Americas. Their effortless kite-like flight takes them from the Gulf Coast states (including Texas) to deep in South America each year. They feed on the wing by taking small prey from the tops of trees. A few of these stunning birds pass through the Beeville area in spring.
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Glorious spring days have a way of calling us outside. Those special seasonal rituals that we have done since childhood come back to mind. We find ourselves digging gardens, planting seeds and taking long drives in the countryside to view wildflowers. You even want to mow the lawn just for the scent of freshly mown clover!

But soon enough, your energy for all the projects you have planned wanes a bit. You just want to be outside enjoying the day. That’s when you remember what the March winds are for. Not to bring April rains, but for kites!

As children, my brothers and I saw March as the time to buy kites. They were inexpensive paper things stretched over a frame of wood and cotton string. I remember unrolling my kite and affixing a bow string to get just the right amount of curvature. We tied on tails made of strips of cloth. And then we ran to the park to get our kites in the air. When all three were up and gently bobbing and pulling on their strings, we were thrilled. Somehow, flying kites made spring official for us.

It was years later when I first realized that there are birds called “kites”. They are called that because, just like paper kites, they can hold their position over the ground simply by hanging in the wind. But unlike the paper kite, a kiting bird has no string attached to its keel. It can hold itself in position simply by virtue of its beautifully aerodynamic body.

There are five species of kites in North America. By far, the most graceful, the most exquisitely patterned, is the Swallow-tailed Kite. Swallow-tailed Kites have long forked tails that resemble the tails of Barn Swallows. These tails allow for incredible maneuverability in flight.

Kites can flow through the air with buoyancy and grace. It is not surprising that they feed, drink and even bathe on the wing! But unlike the other bird species that can do these things too, kites are hawks. A martin or a swift can grab an insect in mid-air with its bill. A kite grabs the prey with its feet!

Needless to say, a kite is much bigger than a swift, so the prey it grabs is larger too. Kites can take large dragonflies from the air, but more often, they delicately pluck a snake or frog from a treetop.

Can you imagine floating over the trees, glancing down now and then to examine your dinner possibilities? What a glorious and abundant world you see below you! When you find a tasty morsel you can swoop over and pick it up with your talons. Then, while holding the food in your feet, you reach down and tear off bites to eat as you fly on. Definitely “fast food” avian style!

Swallow-tailed Kites used to nest all over the southern states, including the eastern half of Texas. Their preferred habitat is very tall trees (up to 200 feet high) for nesting and nearby wet prairies for feeding. Around the year 1900, Swallow-tailed Kites began to become scarce, and by 1910, their breeding range had shrunk to a narrow ring along the Gulf Coast. The largest remaining population was in the Florida Everglades.

Biologists speculate that the decline was due to the felling of nearly all the large trees in the southern forests. That and the accompanying conversion of the prairies into cropland and pig farms took away the Swallow-tailed Kites required habitat. They disappeared from Texas as breeders for almost 80 years. Now, as trees have been allowed to re-grow, the kites are making a comeback.

The occasional migrating kite could be seen in the spring, and sometimes in the fall, just inland from the coast of Texas. These sightings became more frequent in the 1990s. In the first decade of this century, Bee County has had four confirmed spring sightings, all in late March and April. In Goliad County, Claire Barnhart reported seeing one on March 29th of 2009. The coastal bend is definitely on the Swallow-tailed Kites’ migration route.

But where do they go? This question was not answered until 1996. A study using satellite tracking showed that the kites migrated 5,000 miles from the Gulf Coast through Central America to southeastern Brazil. There, they spend the six month rainy season on the borders of the vast wetland known as the Pantanel. In spring, the kites reverse the route to return to the United States.

A larger study completed in 2004 gave a more complete picture. Twenty-nine kites from nesting sites in Florida and Georgia and a few from as far west as Louisiana (the few Texas nests were not included) were fitted with tiny backpacks. Each backpack contained a solar-powered transmitter that would connect with satellites as often as possible. Over five years time, these birds and their signals produced a trail of fixes that tells a surprising story.

First, the kites have two pathways. Two-thirds of the population goes to the Florida peninsula and then over water to Cuba and on to the Yucatan. The other third goes west along the Gulf Coast through Texas and down through Mexico. These birds stay overland and join up with the rest of the migrants in Honduras and move on to Brazil. The journey takes them approximately two and a half months! The study also determined that the kites have stopovers along the route where they rest and refuel. A stopover may last for as little as 36 hours, but some birds lingered for 10 days at a site. Stopover sites and the wintering grounds are obviously as important for the species’ survival as breeding grounds.

High-tech studies have given us a much better picture of bird migration in the last few years. But nothing can compare with the excitement and sheer joy we get from seeing the migrating birds move through in spring. Already, a few warblers are showing up in the Coastal Bend area. Keep your eyes to the skies for the arrival of migrating raptors. A graceful Swallow-tailed Kite, with its four-foot wingspan and its penchant for “fast food,” may be your reward!
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