Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Catching up with the kites

It’s been a while so we know you are waiting to hear where the nine satellite-tagged Swallow-tailed Kites are along their migration. All the birds made it safely across or around the Gulf of Mexico, through Central America, over the high elevation mountain passes of the Andes, and are now in South America.

Locations of nine satellite-tracked Swallow-tailed Kites. 

All have followed the same migratory path within days of each other. Once in Brazil, Palmetto sped up, took the lead, and is 540 miles ahead of newly tagged Strong River.

Most of the birds are now in the State of Rondonia Brazil – MIA, Day, Bullfrog, and Lacombe. Gulf Hammock is just across the border in Bolivia.

Another 560 miles northwest, PearlMS is in the state of Amazonas, Brazil. Last is Pace, who left Florida on 2 September 2015. Pace is in northeastern Ecuador, 470 miles from PearlMS.

Soon these birds will settle into winter ranges where they will feast on a variety of insects over forests and fields in Brazil and Bolivia. We look forward to learning where the three newest tagged Kites (Lacombe, Strong River and Bullfrog) will spend their winter.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Two ways not to fly over the Gulf of Mexico

Our colleague and collaborator, Dr. Jennifer Coulson of Louisiana’s Orleans Audubon Society, tagged two adult Swallow-tailed Kites at the close of the 2015 nesting season. The following account describes the start of their southbound migration. 

During either their spring or fall migrations, Swallow-tailed Kites from the western subpopulation (Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana) may fly south directly across the Gulf of Mexico, or they may head west and travel entirely overland, following the Gulf coastline through Louisiana, Texas, and Mexico. This year, both tagged birds from the western subpopulation circumnavigated the Gulf, but one surprised us by taking an easterly track. 

Jennifer and Tom Coulson prepare to
release Strong River. © Jennifer Coulson
Strong River, newly-tagged near his nest in central Mississippi, left his summer range quite early for a bird west of the Florida Panhandle. After departing his breeding territory, he headed southwest to a known gathering area on the Sabine River, along the Louisiana–Texas border. He spent some time there, probably foraging daily with other kites and fattening up on insects, before moving southward through Texas. By 1 August, he had crossed the Mexican border, then spent the next eight days continuing south along the coastal plain within 20 miles of the western shore of the Gulf of Mexico. Strong River slowed down once he reached Guatemala and Belize. Perhaps he began encountering large numbers of Swallow-tailed Kites that had migrated through Florida and across the Gulf of Mexico, making landfall just to the north and resting after their 400+ mile over-water flight. As we know from years of satellite tracking and Gina Kent’s Masters’ research, this region in southeastern Mexico and northeastern Central American is the most vitally important stop-over area along the U.S. population’s 5,000 mile southbound migration route.

Strong River circumnavigates the Gulf to the west, typical for a bird of the western subpopulation. 

Lacombe. © Jennifer Coulson
Adult male Swallow-tailed Kite Lacombe, tagged by Jennifer in southeastern Louisiana, surprised us all by taking an eastern route through the Florida Panhandle and then turning south through the Florida peninsula. He spent one night in a known roost in Citrus County, Florida, then the next near another roost in the Corkscrew Swamp in Collier County before sailing off the southern shore of remote Cape Sable (the southern tip of the Everglades and Florida) late in the afternoon of 10 August. Lacombe passed over the Florida Keys that night and headed west past the Dry Tortugas to begin his 400-mile crossing of the Yucatan Channel. We have learned that the trans-Gulf flights for most tagged kites begin in the afternoon, perhaps giving the birds the advantage of cooler temperatures and less water loss while flying through the night. Lacombe reached the northern tip of the Yucatan Peninsula 42 hours later and settled in not far south, probably resting and regaining weight by feeding over the expansive tropical forest and scattered Mayan temples west of Tulum, Quintana Roo, Mexico. 

Lacombe, although tagged in Louisiana, takes a route typical for birds of the eastern sub-population.

Thanks to Jennifer Coulson for raising the necessary funds and safely capturing and tagging these birds just before they left the country. We are grateful for her contributions to the Swallow-tailed Kite tracking study over the years.

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.