Thursday, August 27, 2015

Bullfrog and MIA set forth

Movements of MIA and Bullfrog from 20 July - 17 August 2015. 

We’ve been watching closely as our most recently-tagged Swallow-tailed Kite, Bullfrog, began his first migration tracked by satellite. From the west side of Florida near Tampa, where he was tagged, Bullfrog settled into Glades and then Hendry counties, Florida (west of Lake Okeechobee), for a total of 23 days, preparing for migration by foraging out each day from one of the largest pre-migration night roosts we monitor as part of our annual population surveys. On 9 August, he spent the night on the southern shore of Cape Sable before migrating to Cuba. He passed quickly south across the country to spend the next night on the southern coast south of Havana. The next day, Bullfrog followed Cuba’s southern coast west off the tip of Guanahacabibes and arrived on the Yucatan Peninsula on 12 August. Unlike Palmetto, he continued southward over land without stopping to rest, passing through Belize and Honduras before reaching Nicaragua.

1) Gina Kent of ARCI sets a mist net. 2) The serial number from the transmitter is recorded on a data sheet. 3) Bullfrog is ready for release; the antenna of the transmitter is visible at the bird's back.  [Photos: Allison Miller]

MIA left his nesting home range south of Miami on 8 August, just a day before Bullfrog left Cape Sable, Florida, for Cuba. His southwesterly path was nearly identical to that of Bullfrog, with a night on the southern shore of Cuba and a day over the Gulf of Mexico before arriving near Cancun on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula in the early morning hours of 10 August. MIA moved slowly through the Peninsula for the next three days but is now in Nicaragua, 100 miles ahead of Bullfrog.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Tracking Palmetto

Palmetto, an adult female Swallow-tailed Kite, was tagged in the summer of 2011 In Palmetto Bluff, in southeastern South Carolina, where she has nested ever since. She is now on her 4th southbound migration tracked by a satellite transmitter that provides highly accurate GPS fixes. 
Palmetto begins her southbound migration. 
Each year, she has used a similar area along the Altamaha River in Georgia, where she gathers with other kites to feed over crop and fallow fields as preparation for her impending long-distance migration of at least 5,000 miles. 

This year, Palmetto left the Altamaha River on 30 July and started moving south at a steady pace. She spent four nights in a pre-migration communal roost in Citrus County, Florida, and another night in the Corkscrew Swamp of Collier County, Florida. These two consistently-used roosts are part of 12 such sites that ARCI has been monitoring annually for many years as part of our efforts to track national population trends by conducting synchronized aerial-photo surveys. We have discovered that these systematic surveys in Florida account for 90% of the Swallow-tailed Kites counted range-wide during the peak of their migration departures at the end of each summer. 

Palmetto reached the Florida Keys after dark on 5 August and spent one more night in the United States before heading to Cuba. After a full day over the Florida Straits, she over-nighted on the Guanahacabibes Peninsula of extreme western Cuba before continuing to Belize – a 400 mile flight entirely over water, typical for Swallow-tailed Kites breeding in the United States but extremely rare for a raptor. Palmetto is now exhibiting true stopover behavior in Belize for the last four days, no doubt resting and feeding before continuing the long journey southward to her winter range.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Some surprises as the first Swallow-tailed Kites of the 2015 breeding season fly south

Although we are never sure which of our satellite/GPS-tracked Swallow-tailed Kites will leave the U. S. first on their southbound migration, one of the trends has been for birds nesting the farthest south, such as MIA, to leave the soonest; and for those nesting along the northern Gulf coast to depart later. This year Day, a female tagged in 2011 in Daytona Beach, Florida, was the first to go.  
Day, a Swallow-tailed Kite tagged in Daytona, Florida, is the first tracked bird to 
depart the U.S. for the 2015 fall migration. 
After nesting, she moved into a large communal roost in Volusia County, east-central Florida, where she remained for 24 days before starting south on 25 July.  Day spent a night in the ranchlands of Osceola County, Florida, then another three nights in the largest of the known night roosts just west of Lake Okeechobee.  
Day's plumage is inspected for parasites and molt just prior to release 
in Daytona Beach, Florida. 
Her final night in Florida was on Cape Sable, the tip of Everglades National Park at the southern extreme of the Florida peninsula.  At daybreak on 30 July, she slipped across Florida Bay, the Florida Keys, and out over the Florida Straits on her way to Cuba.  Day was over water for 14 hours before reaching the islands northern shore and rested only a few hours before continuing westward for the length of the Guanahacabibes Peninsula and out over the Yucatan Chanel to the Yucatan Peninsula.  We will see if she makes a lengthy stopover here, which many kites do, before resuming her long southbound migration entirely over land.
Locations and movements of nine GPS/Satellite-tracked Swallow-tailed Kites 
as the 2015 southbound migration commences. 
The second bird to leave the U.S. was Strong River, which our collaborator, Dr. Jennifer Coulson, tagged late in the nesting season in Mississippi.  This is the first time that a kite tagged west of the Florida Panhandle began its southbound migration so early. More on Strong River’s trip in our next blog.

MIA, Pace, Lacombe, PearlMS,
and Gulf Hammock are still in their same locations described in our previous blog.

The Swallow-tailed Kites to watch are Bullfrog, still feeding and roosting south of Lake Okeechobee in Hendry county Florida; and Palmetto of South Carolina. Palmetto recently left her pre-migration staging area on Georgia’s Altamaha River and has made her way south to Sumter County in west-central Florida.

You can help ARCI continue to acquire tracking data and share the stories of these birds lives on this blog by becoming a Keep on Trackin' sponsor. A gift of just $5/month buys two weeks of satellite data each year. Learn more on our Keep on Trackin' program page

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Fueling up for a long flight

It’s an exciting time of year for Swallow-tailed Kites as they gather in big groups, finding food and resting for their migration ahead. Five of our nine GPS-tagged Kites have started moving.
Movements and locations of nine satellite-tracked Swallow-tailed Kites between 20 July and 27 July 2015.

Palmetto, from South Carolina, has returned to her favorite spot on 17 July on Georgia’s Altamaha River. 

Gulf Hammock made her yearly trek 170 miles north to Georgia’s Ocmulgee River on 17 July as well.

Day, from Daytona, moved into a large roosting aggregation on 1 July but started south on 23 July.

Two of the newly-tagged birds have also moved. Bullfrog, from the Tampa area, has moved to Lake Okeechobee on 24 July, and Strong River from Mississippi headed to the Sabine River on the Texas border on 16 July.

The four remaining birds are still near their summer ranges: Pace in Jacksonville, MIA in Miami, and PearlMS and newly-tagged Lacombe along the Pearl River on the LA/MS border.

Today is the last of our three Swallow-tailed Kite survey days. We hope you will report your sightings, but if you are seeing large numbers of birds foraging/flying or roosting after that, we would like to know those dates and locations too.

Go here for sightings in North Florida
Go here for sightings in Central Florida
Go here for sightings in South Florida

Friday, July 17, 2015

Another Swallow-tailed Kite migration about to begin! Who are we currently tracking?

In 2011, 2012 and 2014 ARCI deployed GPS-equipped satellite transmitters on 13 Swallow-tailed Kites in Florida, South Carolina, and Georgia; and our collaborator, Jenn Coulson of Orleans Audubon Society, tagged three additional birds in 2011 in Louisiana and Mississippi - a total of 16 tracked kites. Seven of these birds were still alive and transmitting at the start of the 2015 breeding season. Four had disappeared during migration, one on the South American winter range, and four while in the U.S. during or after nesting. One of the latter was Bluff, the male of a breeding pair we had tagged near their nest on Palmetto Bluff, South Carolina, who disappeared the night of 5 June 2015. The circumstances suggest that he may have been killed by a predator at a night roost near his nest (a Great Horned Owl would be the most likely possibility). The next day, Bluff’s mate, Palmetto, captured in 2011 (three years before we tagged Bluff), moved 10 miles southwest to the Savannah River floodplain, an area she occupied prior to her southbound migration in each of the previous four years. Palmetto would not have left so soon if she still had dependent young, leading us to believe that the nestlings may have been killed the same night as Bluff. 



That was at the end of May. Now, in mid-July, other Swallow-tailed Kites – adults that may or may not have nested, and young-of-the-year that are just two to three months old – are moving about the Southeast, forming foraging flocks by day that prey on insects over pastures and farm fields, and gathering at night in roosts large and small as they prepare for their southbound migration. These may be places they know from prior experience; or, they may find them anew simply by consorting with kites who have learned of these sites in previous years - traditions passed on, an annual ritual that will lead them 5,000 miles to their species’ ancestral wintering grounds. 

By the third week of July, as we have over the last 26 years, we will begin ARCI’s annual synchronized aerial surveys of the largest pre-migration roosts of Swallow-tailed Kites, all in Florida. This protocol is designed to track trends in the U.S. population of Swallow-tailed Kites by systematically counting them when and where most of this population is concentrated at the start of their southbound journey. These photographic counts tallied 6,741 individual kites at the peak of last year’s roost season. This year, for the first time, ARCI has secured enough funding to do the job more thoroughly than ever, thanks to contributions from a consortium of Florida zoos that feel strongly about supporting conservation: The Florida Aquarium, Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens, and the Brevard Zoo.

1) Gina Kent of ARCI sets a mist net. 2) The serial number from the transmitter is recorded on a data sheet. 3) Bullfrog is ready for release; the antenna of the transmitter is visible at the bird's back.  [Photos: Allison Miller]

In addition, our kite telemetry project now has a new tagged bird, which Gina Kent captured in short order near a nest with recently-fledged young on Hillsborough County’s Bullfrog Creek Scrub Nature Preserve. This effort was made possible by the generous support of friends and volunteers of The Florida Aquarium and beyond, all due to the enthusiastic efforts of Glory Moore. Furthermore, Jenn Coulson successfully tagged two additional kites, one along the Strong River in Mississippi and another near Lacombe, Louisiana. Thanks to all for bringing our current sample of tracked kites up to nine with the addition of “Bullfrog”, “Strong River” and “Lacombe”!

"Bullfrog" is outfitted with a backpack-style, GPS-equipped solar transmitter bringing the total number of  satellite-tracked Swallow-tailed Kites in the U.S. to nine. 

We will begin posting updates soon on 2015’s southbound Swallow-tailed Kite migration. You also will be seeing reports on other exciting work ARCI is doing in Florida and the Caribbean:
  • Adding another nine satellite-tracked White-crowned Pigeons, in Puerto Rico and southern Florida, to our collaborative range-wide project examining seasonal movements, threats, habitat use, and survival (these new tagging efforts thanks to Puerto Rico’s Department of Natural and Environmental Resources and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission). 
  • Expanding our satellite-telemetry study of Reddish Egrets northward beyond the Keys by deploying three more GPS-equipped transmitters on birds in Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge, as well as the first study of prey selection and abundance for this species (with generous funding and in-kind support from the Ding Darling Wildlife Society, Sanibel-Captiva Audubon Society, an anonymous donor, and the Refuge).
  • Beginning new research on the potential occurrence of an insidious disease in Snail Kites, which may be affecting this Endangered species on the central-Florida lakes where most of its nesting effort now occurs (we thank The Bailey Wildlife Foundation for funding this project).
  • Joining with Microwave Telemetry, Inc. (MTI), the Jost van Dykes Preservation Society, and the University of Roehampton (UK) to deploy solar-powered satellite transmitters on Roseate Terns in the British Virgin Islands (with major support from MTI and the Darwin Initiative). This species is endangered and declining throughout its western North Atlantic range, yet migration, stopover, and wintering areas are poorly known. The two terns we recently tagged represent the first use of MTI’s ground-breaking 2.2-gram transmitters, which are the smallest satellite-tracking devices ever produced, only half the weight of the next-largest satellite transmitter and 2% of a Roseate Tern’s body mass (the safe limit is considered 3%). If all goes as planned, we will expand this important study over a larger portion of the species’ breeding distribution in the coming year.

Correction: An earlier version stated we are tracking ten kites. The correct number is nine. 

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Empty nests are warm again

We are relieved that all seven of our GPS/satellite-tracked Swallow-tailed Kites made it back to the U.S safely from their winter destinations in South America. As we have learned from previous years’ tracking, crossing the Gulf of Mexico can be a deadly endeavor for Swallow-tailed Kites.
Locations of seven GPS/satellite-tracked Swallow-tailed Kites on 24 April 2015
The concentrations of GPS locations suggest that all seven tagged Swallow-tailed Kites are nesting. Day is using the exact same nest tree as last year, which often happens. All the other kites are very close to where they nested in 2014.

The South Carolina pair, Palmetto and Bluff, are together again. At this point, all the nests of tagged kites would be in the incubation or early nestling stage. Our tracking maps will continue to look about the same through mid-July. The males will be foraging as close as possible to their nests, while the females will finish incubating, tend to their small young, and remain nearby as the nestlings grow and learn to fly in the nest area.


Nestling Swallow-tailed Kites in a typical nest made of 
cypress twigs and epiphytes. (2011)
Typically, nests are constructed at the tops of emergent pines (also maples, cypress and oaks) from cypress twigs and epiphytes like spanish moss and old man's beard. Although typically placed nests suffer exposure to wind and avian predators, they probably enjoy several advantages relative to lower nests: easier access (probably most important factor), more support from closely spaced limbs, less chance of damage from fire, and fewer mosquitoes. Broken and wind-thrown nests are a common cause of nesting failure. Nest material is added throughout the incubation and nestling stages to maintain or restore structure and perhaps to cover excrement. Consequently, nests become filled in and are flat or convex on top by the time of fledging (Meyer and Callopy 1990).



Your business can support Swallow-tailed Kite conservation by becoming a sponsor of the Swallow-tailed Kite migration blog. Thanks to Subaru of Gainesville for being our first sponsor! Email Marjesca Brown to receive a blog sponsorship packet: Marjesca@arcinst.org 

Thursday, April 2, 2015

The Gulf washes into memory for seven triumphant Kites

Good news since our last blog entry, all of the Swallow-tailed Kites have conquered the most dangerous leg of their northbound journey – the crossing of the Gulf of Mexico.  All but one have made it back to their summer home ranges. 
Tracks and locations for seven GPS/satellite-tagged Swallow-tailed Kites on northbound migration from 11 Mar - 31 Mar 2015
PearlMS is rounding the Gulf along the coast of Mexico to get back to his Mississippi home on the Pearl River. His route was very similar to the other seven kites coming across the Andes Mountains in Colombia and winding through Central America until he reached Nicaragua. Here he took a more inland route on a trajectory that would take him to the south rim of the Gulf of Mexico in the state of Tabasco. For the last 4 days he’s progressed northward through Mexico within sight of the Gulf Coast.

Once she made landfall in western Louisiana after 68 hours over water, Gulf Hammock took a week to return to her former Levy, County Florida nesting area. She’s focusing on a small spot where we hope she’ll settle down and nest.

Day and MIA have returned to their 2014 nest sites. Both have been observed on the previously-used nest structures.

Pace was the next kite to cross the Gulf of Mexico and it was a similar feat to that of Gulf Hammock a week prior. He left on good tail winds from the Yucatan, only to fight a headwind once 250 miles north. He made a 200-mile loop to the southeast over a 26-hour period, and then was able to ride winds to the north northwest and make landfall near Morgan City, Louisiana. He arrived on US soil on 20 March after 76 hours over water. He has already returned to the Jacksonville area where he nested in previous years.

Palmetto and Bluff also have returned to their summer ranges, and only 2 days apart. Palmetto and Bluff are the first-ever tagged, breeding pair of Swallow-tailed Kites. Palmetto, the female, made it back first, and her route across the Gulf of Mexico was quick and safe. She rested on the northern tip of the Yucatan on 20 March and set out across the water the next day. Thirty-four hours later she was resting on the Wacissa River in the Florida Panhandle. After three days, she was back on the New River of South Carolina in familiar territory. Her mate, Bluff was on a fast track and caught a lucky break between cold fronts pushing down from the north. Beginning 22 March he took a long shortcut from Honduras to northern Quintana Roo, Mexico where it appears he did not stop to rest before continuing across the Gulf to Florida. His path north was quite direct all the way to Naples, Florida where he arrived on 24 March. It took him 4 days to traverse Florida and Georgia to make his way home. The night of 28 March, Palmetto and Bluff were roosting within 100 meters of each other and their data suggest that they were together the next day as well.



Thank you to our first sponsor of the Swallow-tailed Kite Migration blog, 
Subaru of Gainesville!