Friday, February 17, 2017

5,000 miles home

All six of our satellite-tracked Swallow-tailed Kites have left their South American winter ranges on their migration back to the breeding range in the southeastern U.S.  This map will give you a quick idea where they were as of 14 February 2017. 

GPS-tracking data for six Swallow-tailed Kites showing most recent locations
in South America on their northbound migration. 

Bullfrog, tagged near Florida’s Tampa Bay, remains in the lead, but MIA is only 100 miles behind.  Both are in the Amazon rainforest of northeastern Peru. Their tracks reveal a slow-down in this area, most likely to regain some fat reserves by feeding on the plentiful insects this lush forest has to offer. 

We are hoping that Panther is close to MIA and Bullfrog in the remote Amazon.  Although we have not received data from her in a few weeks, we are not yet alarmed because this area has very few human settlements with cell-phone coverage. The location depicted on the map was her last fix, which we received on 26 January 2017.

A little over 500 miles to the southeast of Panther is Lacombe, edging northward.  He is one of the four tracked kites that have not yet made it out of Brazil.

Palmetto is pushing northwestward, having passed through an extensive agricultural region in the state of Rondônia, Brazil.

In the last blog, Sawgrass was on the eastern border of Paraguay. She stayed there a few weeks before continuing east-northeast into Brazil, where the majority of our tracked kites spent our winter (summer there). Sawgrass is now northbound on the same track taken by our other tagged birds before her. She is 500 miles behind Palmetto and 1,400 miles from Bullfrog, the leader. It is interesting that Bullfrog and Sawgrass, the two Swallow-tailed Kites that nested closest to each other (near Florida’s Tampa Bay), are the “book ends” of our 2017 migration story.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Northbound race to breeding sites: Swallow-tailed Kites have started their migration!

It’s that time of year again when we see those familiar GPS fixes in South America begin edging northward. For several years, ARCI has been monitoring satellite-tracked Swallow-tailed Kites on their wintering grounds in South America. We always know that within the last two weeks of January we can expect some of them to begin their migration back to the southeastern United States.

Right on time, the first bird to start north on 17 January was Bullfrog from Tampa Bay Florida, two days earlier than last year. She was our northern-most wintering kite, in Mato Grosso do Sul, Brazil. Today, she remains farther north than any of our tracked kites, along the Bolivian border in the northern part of Rondônia state, Brazil.

GPS-tracking data for six Swallow-tailed Kites during the month of January, 2017 in South America and the start of their northbound migration back to breeding sites in the southeastern U.S.
MIA, from Miami, Florida, started north on 18 January. Even though he wintered 225 miles south of Bullfrog in Brazil, he traveled faster and is probably less than 6 hours behind Bullfrog.

Lacombe, tagged in Louisiana by our colleague Dr. Jennifer Coulson, began moving north on 28 January. He appears to be taking a more westerly route across Brazil’s famous Pantanal, where he now resides, in northern Mato Grosso do Sul.

Palmetto, tagged near her nest in South Carolina in 2011, remains on her winter range near Santa Rita do Pardo in Mato Grosso do Sul. MIA, Lacombe, and Palmetto spent most of the winter within the same area, using the same foraging and roosting sites, where they were joined by Panther in late December.

Panther, from the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge in Collier County, is also edging north and last uploaded GPS locations on 26 January from Rondônia, Brazil, where she was only 15 miles away from Bullfrog. Because Panther and Sawgrass transmit their data via cell towers rather than satellite, we have not yet received the entire location track for this bird. GPS data are collected even when the transmitter is too far from a cell tower. The backlogged data will begin uploading once the bird comes within range of the next tower. However, the bird may move beyond range of that tower before the upload is complete, thus requiring a succession of uploads before all the data get delivered.

Our most unusual wintering Swallow-tailed Kite movements come from Sawgrass, a female tagged in St. Petersburg, Florida. She resided in southern Bolivia along the Argentinean boarder where none of our previously tracked kites have wintered. On 8 January, she wandered east across Paraguay to Amambay Department, where she has been since 17 January. This is 180 miles southwest of the four communal Swallow-tailed Kites in Brazil.

The race is on! We hope these Swallow-tailed Kites have an easy journey back to their breeding grounds in the Southeastern U.S. We’ll keep you posted. Buen viaje!

Monday, November 21, 2016

Catching up with the Kites as they reach their winter ranges

We were able to follow some spectacular migratory movements of our seven GPS-tracked Swallow-tailed Kites. With precarious over water flights, stopovers in the Yucatan Peninsula, quick and safe crossings over the high Andes Mountains, and lots of extra time spent in the Amazon, most all of our tracked birds have made it to their wintering grounds.
Migratory paths of seven Swallow-tailed Kites GPS tracked from breeding locations in the U.S to wintering locations in Brazil and Bolivia.
Five of our birds are in Mato Grosso do Sul, Brazil. Four of the five are in locations they used in previous years.

Bullfrog is near two big rivers in eastern Mato Grosso do Sul, the Rio Correntes and Rio Ápore.

Panther is 170 miles to the south-southeast of Bullfrog, near the town of Água Clara.
Winter locations for seven GPS-tracked Swallow-tailed Kites in South America, November 2016.
Lacombe, Palmetto and MIA have been sharing the same exact roost and foraging areas 100 miles east of Panther, in the mixed agricultural and ranch lands near Ribas do Rio Pardo. Both MIA and Palmetto also have been to an area 100 miles south near Angélica, where they are roosting within a homestead on ranchland.

It is amazing to see that birds from scattered breeding areas - in this case Louisiana, South Carolina and Florida - end up wintering together on the exact same farms over 5,000 miles from their nest sites!

Sawgrass migrated along a more westerly path through Bolivia. Her last location was on the Argentinian border in a location where we have not seen our GPS-tracked birds go before. Sawgrass is one of three Swallow-tailed Kites that we tagged with cell-phone (GSM)/GPS tracking devices, which we had not previously used. The other four tracked kites are carrying satellite/GPS units.

Carlton (another of the three kites with GSM/GPS devices) is a bit of a mystery. We last received data from him in early September while he was near the Panama/Colombia border. We hope that his transmitter will soon be detected by the cell-phone system and reveal where he has been. Migration is the most demanding and dangerous part of the Swallow-tailed Kite’s annual cycle. We hope that this bird has successfully completed its southbound journey and has found a safe place to spend the northern winter.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

The shortest route may not be the safest.

Tagging the Swallow-tailed Kite named Sawgrass was a breeze with the sighting tips from the observation crew from the St. Petersburg Audubon Society (SPAS). They had been observing the Swallow-tailed Kites at Sawgrass Lake Park since the birds arrived in early March and knew their commonly-used flight paths.
Gina Kent of ARCI gets ready to place a hood on a Swallow-tailed Kite held by Gabe Vargo of SPAS. This bird was captured and radio-tagged at Sawgrass Lake Park in Pinellas County, FL. Photo by JoAnna Clayton, SPAS
Sawgrass’s movements throughout Pinellas County, Florida, in the weeks following tagging indicated that either her nestlings had fledged and were on the wing, or that her nest had failed (we think this kite is a female due to her size). After a month of ranging widely over Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, Sawgrass headed north on 14 July to some of the more well-known foraging areas and roosting sites used by Swallow-tailed Kites prior to their southbound migration. She spent 11 days in parts of Sumter and Marion counties, at one point making a big loop northeast to Volusia County for two days. Her adventures pushed her even farther north to other Swallow-tailed Kite staging areas on the Altamaha and Savannah rivers, in Georgia and South Carolina.
Gina Kent of ARCI releases Sawgrass, a GPS-tagged Swallow-tailed Kite at Sawgrass Lake Park, Pinellas County, Florida. Photo by John Ogden, SPAS
By 4 August, Sawgrass had turned south once again, soon returning to Florida. She slept the next three nights in each of three of the state’s large, well-known communal roosts before her last night in the United States, on the southwestern coast of the southern Everglades. The morning of 13 August, she slipped offshore to the southwest, obviously heading toward the kites’ traditional destination on the northeastern coast of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula.
Movement of a GPS-tracked Swallow-tailed Kite named Sawgrass, from 13 June tag in Pinellas, Co. FL through 7 September in Nicaragua on her southbound migration.
However, the cyclonic circulation around a passing tropical depression launched her due west instead, pushing her for the next three days all the way to northeastern Mexico. Although infrequent, such a track is not surprising under these conditions, when the kites will take up a longer but safer heading to a certain landfall, instead of fighting headwinds on a shorter route that will likely end in their death before they can reach shore. As of 7 September, Sawgrass was in central Nicaragua after progressing safely southward over land for 1,540 miles.

We are grateful to SPAS for providing the funds that made the capture, tagging, and tracking of Sawgrass possible. We also thank Pinellas County Parks for their interest in Swallow-tailed Kite conservation and for granting access to Sawgrass Lake Park. It is exciting to be part of SPAS’s new Raptors on the Move program, which is giving local teachers and students the opportunity to use Sawgrass’s tracking data in the classroom. If you are an educator who would like more information on this program, please contact

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Carlton the Swallow-tailed Kite takes a classic migratory course

One of the three kites GPS-tagged this summer includes an adult male (Carlton) captured 14 June 2016 on the T. Mabry Carlton Jr. Memorial Reserve in Sarasota County, Florida, the first Swallow-tailed Kite tagged in this part of the state. The dedicated staff of the Reserve, especially Debbie Blanco and supporting biologists, were instrumental not only in finding nesting Swallow-tailed Kites, but also by seeking the help of local conservation organizations to cover ARCI’s costs for the transmitter, data acquisition, and the work involved. The Venice Area Audubon Society immediately and very generously rose to the challenge, gradually leading Sarasota Audubon Society, Peace River Audubon Society, and The Friends of Sarasota County Parks to join the cause. Thanks to their help, the tagging process began just in time to deploy a transmitter on one of the Reserve’s nesting kites before the birds departed the area on their southbound journey. 

Avian Research and Conservation Institute staff Dr. Ken Meyer, Amanda Powell, Gina Kent, and Trapper the Great Horned Owl safely handle a recently captured Swallow-tailed Kite. Trapper has worked with ARCI for over 16 years and volunteers from the Avian Reconditioning Center, her permanent home. Photo by Mac Stone.

Carlton first moved east to a large foraging aggregation and roost site on the western edge of Lake Okeechobee in Glades County, Florida, on 7 July. After 28 days, he flew 25 miles south to another core roosting area for an additional six days, feeding on insects and adding further to his fat reserves. His migratory restlessness got the best of him on 10 August, when he flew to the westernmost Everglades for one last night in the United States. The next day, he crossed the Straits of Florida for Cuba and continued west over land before striking out over the ocean once again from the narrow tip of the Guanahacabibes Peninsula. After 400 miles over the Gulf of Mexico, Carlton arrived on the Yucatan Peninsula on 13 August. A week later, Carlton is still resting and feeding on the Yucatan, the only major stopover point for the U. S. breeding population on its 5,000 mile southbound migration. 

Swallow-tailed Kite "Carlton's" track from his tagging location in the T. Mabry Carlton Jr. Memorial Reserve in Sarasota County, Florida through his pre-migratory movements and the start of his southbound migration into the Yucatan Peninsula.

Everyone is excited about watching the stories of Carlton and the other tagged Swallow-tailed Kites unfold as each bird moves through the fascinating annual cycle of this spectacular species.

Monday, August 15, 2016

A 600-mile, northbound, pre-migratory destination for a South Florida Swallow-tailed Kite

Tracking data from "Panther," a Swallow-tailed Kite tagged at the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge in June 2016. Yellow star indicates tagging location.
Adult Swallow-tailed Kite Panther was tagged on the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge (FPNWR) on 8 June 2016.  Although this bird’s sex is unknown, we believe it is a male based on its size. ARCI is grateful to the US Fish and Wildlife Service staff at FPNWR in southwestern Florida for their interest in our long-term Swallow-tailed Kite telemetry study, and for helping us increase our sample of tracked kites with a bird from the Big Cypress Swamp. We also thank The Friends of FPNWR, who provided much-needed monetary support for the transmitter, data acquisition, and tagging effort.
Mark Danaher of Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge with Gina Kent of Avian Research and Conservation Institute as she places a hood on a Swallow-tailed Kite to calm the bird prior to radio-tagging. Photo by Kevin Godsea, USFWS
Panther remained on FPNWR for just five days after being tagged (due to unmanageable delays, we began trapping at the very end of the capture season). He then flew north from his summer nesting area, foraging over agricultural fields near Ocala, Florida, for a week before continuing northward up the Atlantic coastal plain of eastern Georgia and South Carolina until reaching the Pee Dee River in eastern South Carolina.  

Panther spent his pre-migratory preparation time ranging throughout the Pee Dee and Little Pee Dee drainages, as far north as southernmost North Carolina, at least 660 miles from his FPNWR nest territory!  Swallow-tailed Kites often make these long-distance moves after nesting and prior to southbound migration, probably to find good foraging areas to fatten up on insects, but also to explore the larger U. S. range of their species while they can, learning where other kites nest, feed, and roost together as they get ready for their long journey to South America. 
Adult Swallow-tailed Kite flying over the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Mark Danaher, USFWS
After 17 days over the beautiful coastal lowlands of South Carolina, Panther began flying south. Along the way, he spent his nights roosting in the swampy flood-plain forests of the region’s major rivers, including the Savannah, Altamaha, and St. Mary’s. He also hunted some of Florida’s most beautiful and biologically-diverse conservation lands - Pinhook Swamp, San Felasco Hammock, Green Swamp, Corkscrew Swamp, Picayune Strand, Fakahatchee Strand, and Ten Thousand Islands. 

Panther left Florida on 22 July, crossing the shoreline just east of Marco Island. Flying nonstop (how else?) across 490 miles of open ocean – 490 miles! - he reached the northeastern tip of the Yucatan Peninsula on the evening of 23 July, a flight as speedy and true as it was perilous. After resting and feeding in the area for a week, he took up a southerly heading, moving steadily through the Mexican state of Quintana Roo, Belize, and Honduras before reaching the Caribbean shore of eastern Nicaragua. In the 56 days since he left his family’s nest site, Panther traversed a total of at least 2,600 miles (measured in a succession of straight-line segments). Half of these miles were devoted to his round-trip excursion to southern North Carolina, before he finally began his actual southbound migration from his Big Cypress breeding territory. 

Other tracked kites are following Panther’s lead. We love sharing their stories with you, and hope you enjoy knowing that your support is what makes this research possible.