Friday, March 23, 2018

March Madness: Four More Gulf Crossings

For many Swallow-tailed Kites, reaching the tip of the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico means they have entered the home stretch of their northbound migration. One last 500-mile-plus push across the dazzling teal waters of the Gulf of Mexico and they’re back over land, reaching their nesting locations with plenty of juicy, nutritious food available along the way.

But the weather can make or break the trip. Northerly winds pushing down the Gulf of Mexico make the risky, direct route home even more challenging. Instead of riding southerly tailwinds, the kites must struggle upwind. Some end up stalled over open ocean, exhausted.

Luckily, failure was not in the cards for Bogue Falaya, Lacombe, Palmetto, and Sarasota. They all made it safely across the Gulf of Mexico, albeit in unexpected ways.

Bogue Falaya was the first of the four to start crossing the Gulf of Mexico, on 9 March. Strong northerly winds forced him to double back and linger off Mexico’s coast until the evening of 10 March, when he was finally able to resume northward travel. At 4 am on 12 March, Bogue Falaya made landfall in the panhandle of Florida near Carrabelle. He was still in the area as of 20 March.

The last two years, Lacombe was able to fly almost due north from the Yucatan Peninsula to his nesting grounds in Louisiana. But not this year. He left the Yucatan Peninsula on 11 March and was immediately pushed eastward, reaching land near Sarasota, Florida, on 12 March. Ever since, he’s been working his way westward, over land, towards Louisiana.

Palmetto waited until the winds quieted to cross. Leaving on 15 March, she was able to fly due north across the Gulf and reach Panama City, Florida, on 17 March. She cut east to the Florida Panhandle, then turned towards South Carolina just north of Jacksonville, Florida. By 20 March, she had reached her nesting grounds. This seems to be her favored flight path, as she took a very similar route in 2017. Who could quibble with her methods? Since being tagged, Palmetto has survived 7 yearly round-trip migrations – that’s over 70,000 miles. What an amazing feat.

Sarasota left the Yucatan Peninsula on 17 March. Instead of flying the short, direct route back to Sarasota County, Florida, Sarasota slowly drifted northeast for two days and reached Steinhatchee, Florida, on the morning of 19 March. Returning to last year’s nest site will be the next priority.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

First Flights to Florida: GPS-tracked Swallow-tailed Kites return to their breeding grounds

If you live in the Southeast, you may have had the privilege in the last few weeks of spotting a graceful black and white raptor soaring over the treetops. They are starting to settle in to nesting territories and court with display flights. They clutch snakes, anoles, or Spanish moss to attract the right mate to the right tree in the right nesting stand – all to do their best to advance their genes into the next generation of Swallow-tailed Kites. The kites have come a long way, most of them 5,000 miles or more, and some are yet to arrive, but they all are running “on time”. These are things we wouldn’t know without the fantastic tools of satellite and GSM technology, from which we are learning so much about migration timing, routes, roost sites, and habits. We need all this information to conserve this spectacular species.

Here we’ll feature the return of two of Florida’s Swallow-tailed Kites, Babcock and MIA, to their breeding territories after they crossed the often-deadly Gulf of Mexico.

Babcock started north in mid-January. After a 2-week stopover in Amazonas, Brazil, he stuck to a rapid pace through South and Central America. In Honduras he took a short cut, one we see many kites take, across the Gulf of Honduras to northern Belize. After a brief over-night on the Yucatán, Babcock caught a tailwind on the morning of 7 March that enabled him to reach land at Cape Sable, Florida, after 36 hours. He spent a night in the Picayune Strand State Forest near Naples, Florida, then returned to his breeding territory in Charlotte County by 9 March.

MIA perches in a pine.
Photo by Alice Horst 2018.
MIA wintered close to Babcock, in Mato Grosso do Sul, Brazil. They departed their winter ranges within a day of each other, although over 160 miles apart at that point. They took a very similar route northward and were at one time within 3 miles of each other. We’ve had a lag in MIA’s data across the Gulf of Mexico, but have learned from some of our great supporters that he was, in fact, back on his former territory by 8 March. He has been photographed courting and nest building once again. No time wasted!

Monday, March 12, 2018

Movement Update: 26 February 2018

All migrating Swallow-tailed Kites we have tracked since 1996 have crossed the Andes Mountains from east to west in western Colombia before continuing northward. In Columbia, the Andes Mountains consist of three major ridges: the Cordilleras Oriental (eastern), Central, and Occidental (western). On 26 February 2018, MIA and Babcock were over the Cordillera Occidental on their way to Panama.
Bogue Falaya and Lacombe were approaching the Cordillera Oriental in southern Columbia. Wilson and Panther were on the border of Peru and Brazil. Palmetto had surged ahead of Sawgrass, Apopka, and Refuge to join Sarasota in the state of Amazonas, Brazil.

Sawgrass left her wintering grounds on 2 February and was just north of the Bolivian/Brazilian border. Apopka had moved slightly north in the state of Rondônia, Brazil.

Refuge has not sent data in a few weeks. Why does this happen? We use transmitters with two different types of data-delivery methods: one where the data comes to us through satellites; and another that uses the cellular network. Refuge is being tracked with a solar powered GPS/GSM (cellular network) transmitter made by Ecotone Telemetry, Inc., which needs to be within range of a cell-phone tower to upload the data. When a bird is beyond range, the unit stores daily GPS locations until its signal can be picked up by a cellular tower. This is happening right now as the birds are crossing through the great Amazon basin and over the Andes Mountains. Sawgrass, Panther, Sarasota, Babcock, Wilson, and Apopka also are tracked by GPS/GSM transmitters.

MIA, Palmetto, Lacombe, and Bogue Falaya are being tracked by solar powered GPS/satellite transmitters made by Microwave Telemetry, Inc. These units upload data to satellites, always within transmission range, every 2 days, and store GPS locations in the off day while the transmitter recharges, resulting in essentially continuous data delivery.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Ready to Return

Before reading on: Be sure to familiarize yourself with the eleven Swallow-tailed Kites we’re tracking in last week’s blog, “New and Familiar Feathers”.

In September 2017, our attention turned to the effects of Hurricane Irma, and reporting the progress of our tagged Swallow-tailed Kites’ southbound migrations fell through the cracks. We’re happy to tell you all eleven individuals safely reached their respective wintering grounds in South America. Nine Swallow-tailed Kites left from the southern tip of Florida to cross the Gulf of Mexico, a familiar route many tagged birds have taken in previous years. Lacombe and Bogue Falaya, both from Louisiana, skipped the ocean option and instead took the less-risky path over land, down the east coast of Texas and Mexico, ultimately rejoining the rest of the southbound birds from the US population.
Southbound-migration paths of ARCI's eleven tagged Swallow-tailed Kites, 2017. 
Environmental and biological triggers tell Swallow-tailed Kites to migrate each season; however, each individual’s itinerary looks slightly different. Babcock crossed the Gulf of Mexico first on 13 July 2017. Two weeks later, Refuge and Panther followed, leaving Florida hours apart. Palmetto, MIA, Lacombe, Sawgrass, Sarasota, Bogue Falaya, and Wilson left throughout August. Last but not least, Apopka jetted south just three days before Hurricane Irma hit Florida on 8 September.

Babcock may have left two weeks earlier, but Lacombe, Palmetto, MIA, Panther, and she reached the State of Mato Grosso do Sul, Brazil, within 5 days of each other in early October. Next came Sawgrass, who leisurely joined the others in mid-November. Sarasota, who was in the State of Amazonas in western Brazil in October, reached Mato Grosso do Sul in January 2018. These seven Swallow-tailed Kites all used the same 700 square-mile patchwork of ranchlands and remnant forests.

Three kites, Apopka, Refuge, and Bogue Falaya, over-wintered in the State of Rondônia, about 800 miles north of the wintering grounds in Mato Grosso do Sul. Here the landscape is a mosaic of farms and forest as well. Speeding through Central America, Bogue Falaya wasted no time in reaching Rondônia in early October. Apopka, who left last and spent a few extra days in Cuba, likely waiting for favorable winds after Hurricane Irma, reached Rondônia in early November. Refuge spent September and October on the northern border of Bolivia and Peru, then moved west to join Apopka and Bogue Falaya in December. Wilson spent October in Rondônia, but moved on to the State of Mato Grosso in November, where he stayed until January.

We waited patiently for the data to suggest the restlessness commonly observed in migratory birds about to make their seasonal moves. On 19 January 2018, MIA was first to move north out of his wintering grounds. MIA began his northbound migration on this exact day in 2017. Palmetto did the same, leaving on 2 February in both 2017 and 2018. Talk about consistency! This is most likely due to the kites’ sensitivity to day length as a way to time their migration departures.

The location of 11 tracked Swallow-tailed Kites as of 5 February 2018.
Lacombe left Louisiana on 21 January, one week earlier than in 2017. Panther left one day later than her 2017 departure on 18 January. According to her latest data, Sawgrass remains on her wintering grounds as of 28 January. We expect her to make a move soon (last year, she started north on 10 Feb).

For the six Swallow-tailed Kites tagged in 2017, this is our first glimpse into the paths they will take on their northbound journeys. We hope all of them have uneventful journeys.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

New and Familiar Feathers; Eleven Swallow-tailed Kites begin migrating north

Before we kick off this season’s Swallow-tailed Kite Northbound Migration blog series, we want to recognize all the members of our Swallow-tailed Kite Tracking Program. We are currently tracking eleven individuals: six new kites, all tagged in the summer of 2017, and five veterans tagged between 2011 and 2016. With each passing year and new addition to the program, we expand our understanding of the complex lives and needs of these fascinating raptors. The 11 Swallow-tailed Kites are listed in chronological order by tagging date.
Remembering each tagging experience (clockwise from top left):
Panther, Sawgrass, MIA, Apopka, Bogue Falaya, Palmetto.

Palmetto: Palmetto is a true champion! Tagged in June 2011 in Palmetto Bluff, South Carolina, she has been tracked for nearly seven years, the longest we have followed any Swallow-tailed Kite since we began this program in 1996.

MIA: Not far behind for tracking duration is MIA, who was tagged in June 2012 in Miami-Dade County, Florida. This year’s pilgrimage to his nesting grounds in Miami will complete six migratory cycles for MIA – that’s over 60,000 miles. Amazing!

Lacombe: Lacombe was tagged in July 2015 by our project partner Dr. Jennifer Coulson, President and Conservation Chair of Orleans Audubon Society. Previous kites tagged by Dr. Coulson migrated over land along the western coast of the Gulf of Mexico. However, for the past two northbound migrations, Lacombe flew north from Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula directly to Louisiana. Will he do the same this year?

Panther: Panther was tagged at the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge in Collier County, Florida, in June 2016. Last year, she persevered through strong northerly winds in the Gulf of Mexico to return to her nesting grounds. Hopefully the weather will instead facilitate the kites' return this year.

Sawgrass: This Swallow-tailed Kite is not averse to city life. Sawgrass was tagged in June 2016 at Sawgrass Lake Park in St. Petersburg, Florida, one of the few green spaces peppering this densely-developed island. In the winter months, she trades bustling urban centers for the remote ranchlands of southern Brazil.

Bogue Falaya: Bogue Falaya was tagged in Louisiana last May by Dr. Jennifer Coulson. Dr. Coulson shares with us her experience trapping and tagging Bogue Falaya in this blog.

Refuge: Refuge is the second bird we have tagged at the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge in Collier County, Florida. His nest was deep in the heart of the NWR. It was quite an undertaking to get gear and our trusty owl to the site on a 45-minute swamp buggy ride. He received his transmitter in May 2017.

Sarasota: Sarasota was tagged in June 2017 at T. Mabry Carlton Preserve in Sarasota County, Florida. County staff and local birders were instrumental in locating and monitoring the Swallow-tailed Kite nests in the area (special thanks to Debbie Blanco of Sarasota County). We had a successful evening capture and now Sarasota is sporting a new transmitter as well.

Babcock: Babcock was tagged in June 2017 at Babcock Ranch Wildlife Management Area (WMA) in Glades County, Florida. We had last minute permission and a one-day-only trapping window to try to capture and tag a bird at this WMA. Luckily, the stars aligned and Babcock flew off with a new radio, the first of our tagged kites to cross the Gulf of Mexico on their southbound migrations.

Wilson: Wilson was tagged in June 2017 at Palmetto Bluff, South Carolina. In the 2017 breeding season, he frequented the same areas as Palmetto. If they both return, will she choose him as a partner this nesting season?

Apopka: Apopka has a unique story. Needing rehabilitation after a car collision, she recovered quickly with the help of the wonderful folks at Avian Reconditioning Center (ARC) in Apopka, Florida. With the amazing fund-raising efforts of ARC’s Paula Ashby and the generous contributions of Audubon chapters, kind individuals and the City of Apopka, ARCI had the means to deploy a transmitter on Apopka in July 2017, who started her southbound migration just ahead of Hurricane Irma. Read her full story here.

We have many people and organizations to thank for their generous monetary and logistical support of the Swallow-tailed Kite tracking program:

Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge
Friends of the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge
Carlton Ward Jr.
Will Randal
Stephanie Green
Mark Danaher
T. M Mabry Carlton Reserve, Sarasota Co.
Deborah Blanco
Erin Myers
Hans Mooyman
Gabe Vargo
Judi Hopkins
St. Petersburg Audubon Society
Dr. Jennifer Coulson
Friends of the Conservancy
Palmetto Bluff Conservancy
Peace River Audubon Society
Sarasota Audubon Society
Friends of the Carlton Reserve
The City of Apopka
Avian Reconditioning Center (Carol and Scott McCorkle)
Audubon Center for Birds of Prey (Diana Flynt)
Halifax Audubon Society
Oklawaha Audubon Society
Seminole County Audubon Society
Tampa Bay Raptor Rescue
Clearwater Audubon Society
West Volusia Audubon Society
Deborah Green
Janet Marks
Eileen Tramontana
Sandie Selman
Disney Volunteers from ARC, Rebecca Grimm and Alyssa Karnitz

Bogue Falaya's Debut from the Bayou

Dr. Jennifer Coulson, President and Conservation Chair of the Orleans Audubon Society, studies population and nesting ecology of Swallow-tailed Kites in Louisiana and Mississippi. She’s also a long-time colleague and friend to ARCI. Dr. Coulson captured and tagged Swallow-tailed Kites Slidell, PearlMS, Pasc, and Strong River, who have since stopped transmitting, and Lacombe, who’s in his third year of tracking. She uses the same trapping technique we’ve carefully developed over the years to safely capture Swallow-tailed Kites – a strategically placed mist net and a lure bird. ARCI’s favorite lure is Trapper, a disabled educational Great Horned Owl, who has worked with us for over a decade. 

Dr. Coulson recounts her exciting experience tagging Swallow-tailed Kite Bogue Falaya with her husband Tom Coulson:

“We trapped Bogue Falaya a stone’s throw from the Bogue Falaya River, one of Louisiana’s Natural and Scenic Rivers, in a forested subdivision. The river flows through pine and bottomland hardwood forests, ideal habitat for Swallow-tailed Kites. Three pairs of Swallow-tailed Kites are known to inhabit a nesting “neighborhood” along the river.

Bogue Falaya's striking profile.
With permission, we set up our trapping equipment on a lawn near one of those known nests. Only 12 minutes after the owl was in place and the nets were opened, the Bogue Falaya male made a bold, earthbound dive in an attempt to drive the owl away from its nest. In doing so, he encountered the net and unwittingly became part of our kite tracking and suburban nest studies.

Tom Coulson displays Bogue
 Falaya's new transmitter.
The kite’s banding measurements and soiled undertail coverts indicated that it was probably male, but we took a small blood sample for DNA sexing just to be sure. The usually-white undertail coverts were soiled from hauling food; males tend to hunt farther from the nest and thus spend more time carrying food than females. Although robust, Bogue Falaya was somewhat small, also suggesting this bird is a male. In raptors, females tend to be the larger sex.

Once Bogue Falaya was tagged and identifiable, we observed his behavior to determine which nest he tended. Four days after tagging him, we watched him deliver a green anole to one of the nests in the neighborhood. Bingo! Bogue Falaya and his mate successfully fledged two healthy-looking young."

Fatherhood completed, Bogue Falaya left his nesting grounds on 19 Aug 2017 and, unlike the kites from Florida who cross the Gulf of Mexico, made his way over land by way of Mexico and Central America to overwinter in Brazil. Winter (actually summer in Brazil) came and went, and on 22 Jan 2018, Bogue Falaya began to inch northward, indicating an imminent northbound migration.

Bogue Falaya takes to the skies upon release.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Go With the Wind; A Swallow-tailed Kite gets the best migration conditions

WOW! Apopka, the rehabilitated Swallow-tailed Kite with the GPS/GSM-transmitter, made it safely to Central America. Was Apopka lucky, or did it know a change in the weather loomed? We believe it was the latter. Birds detect variation in barometric pressure and other subtle weather characteristics, sensing change well before us humans. We believe Apopka was more ready than ever to begin migrating to South America, and the strong northern winds on the west side of Hurricane Irma came just at the right time.

Since 5 August, Apopka had been feeding, fattening, and preparing for 5,000 miles of migration in a remote portion of Brevard County, Florida. On 6 September, just three days before the brunt of Hurricane Irma ravaged the area, Apopka headed south. Hurricanes are low-pressure weather systems that circulate in a counter-clockwise direction. The immense size of this storm resulted in favorable winds over a large portion of Florida, and Apopka took advantage of the opportunity. 

On the first night after leaving its roosting/foraging area in Brevard County, Apopka stayed in St. Lucia County, continuing to Big Cypress National Preserve for last day and night in the United States before leaving the Everglades and heading out to sea from Florida’s southwestern shore on 8 September. The winds were definitely picking up in advance of Hurricane Irma as Apopka crossed the Straits of Florida. It only took four hours, at an average speed of 30 miles per hour, to reach the northern coast of Cuba, near Veradaro. By this time, Hurricane Irma was a Category 5 Hurricane and just 200 miles away. 

The sustained southbound winds carried Apopka across the width of Cuba to the southwestern part of the Zapata Peninsula, which is a large, protected natural area where swamp forests and wetlands meet coastal marshes. Twenty-four hours later, the eye of Irma passed over Veradero with sustained winds of  125 mph while Apopka, only 80 miles away, held tight through maximum winds of 50 mph.  Apopka stayed on the Zapata Peninsula through more stormy weather for seven days, then spent two nights on the Isle of Youth (Isla de Juventud) off the southwestern coast gaining strength and fat reserves to complete the ocean crossing to the Yucatán Peninsula. 

Apopka made that final ocean crossing on 17 September with a safe landfall in the state of Quintana Roo, Mexico, 18 hours later. Having since followed tracks similar to all the Swallow-tailed Kites before it, it is already in Honduras.

The hard part is over for Apopka, the remaining migration is all over land. This rehabilitated bird’s survival is a true success story with or without a major hurricane (see our blog posted on 1 September 2017). We are so happy that Apopka is doing well, and grateful to the rehabilitators at Avian Reconditioning Center for investing their time, resources, and practiced care in this once-injured Swallow-tailed Kite. We particularly thank Carol McCorkle and Paula Ashby. 

Generous donations towards the cost of the tagging operation, transmitter, and data acquisition came from:

The City of Apopka - Mayor Joe Kilsheimer
Halifax Audubon - David Hartgrove
Oklawaha Audubon - Stacy Kelly
Seminole County Audubon - Lewis Gray, Margaret Terwilliger, Sarah Donlan
Tampa Bay Raptor Rescue - Barbara Walker
Clearwater Audubon - matching the challenge issued by Tampa Bay Raptor Rescue
West Volusia Audubon - Stephen Kintner
Deborah Green from Orange Audubon (personal donation)
Janet Marks from West Volusia Audubon (personal donation)
Eileen Tramontana, Director of Trout Lake Nature Center (personal donation)
Sandie Selman from West Volusia Audubon (personal donation)
Disney Volunteers from ARC, Rebecca Grimm and Alyssa Karnitz