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!

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Settling in. Pressing on.

Three satellite-tracked Swallow-tailed Kites have returned safely to the US, beginning to settle into their summer home ranges, while four others continue to press north. 
Tracks and locations of seven satellite-tagged Swallow-tailed Kites from 1 March - 16 March 2015.
Since back in Florida, Day has been traveling along a 17 mile corridor from Ormond Beach to south of Port Orange.

MIA is settling into his past summer territory in south Miami.

Gulf Hammock touched US soil on 8 March after a grueling 68 hours over water, fighting strong winds in the Gulf of Mexico. It pushed her farther west than she wanted to be, making landfall in Louisiana. She took some recovery time for rest and refueling before beginning to inch east to Florida.

Pace took a very similar path as Gulf Hammock, cutting the same “corner” crossing the Bay of Honduras. As of 16 March he was in northern Quintana Roo, Mexico and almost in position to make the cross-Gulf flight to the US.

At 500 miles south of Pace on 16 March, Palmetto was in Nicaragua on the same course as the two kites north of her. Her mate, Bluff was yet another 600 miles south of her just entering into the Darien of Panama.

PearlMS was last in Amazonas of Colombia and about to cross the high peaks of the Andes Mountains.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Windswept, but safe.

As predicted, Gulf Hammock, a female Swallow-tailed Kite tagged as an adult in 2011 in Levy County, Florida, was our next satellite-tracked bird to make it back to the United States. 
Gulf Hammock faced dangerous spring winds on her northbound gulf crossing. Pushed off course, she persevered, staying aloft for 68 hours until finally reaching Louisiana's coast.
Several weeks after leaving her Bolivian winter range and passing quickly through Central America, Gulf Hammock got a jump on most of her fellow kites by cutting across the Bay of Honduras to the Mexican state of Quintana Roo, on the eastern coast of the Yucatan Peninsula. It was a short trip from there to the northeastern tip of the Peninsula, where on 5 March at 9:00 a.m. EDT, she sailed northward out over the Gulf on strong tailwinds (see the wind map for 3/5/15 17:00 UTC). 

Gulf Hammock made exceptionally good time until the middle of the night, when she slammed into powerful headwinds of the approaching high-pressure system that completely halted her northbound progress. As shown by the track segment associated with the map for 3/6/15 06:00 UTC, she looped 90 miles out to the east, then back again nearly to her original position before taking up a northwesterly heading. 

From this point, Gulf Hammock consistently flew 90 degrees off the northeasterly wind for at least 44 more hours, eventually reaching Marsh Island on the coast of western Louisiana. 

In all, this Swallow-tailed Kite had spent 68 hours aloft over the Gulf of Mexico managing her finite energy supply and choosing a path that defied the Gulf’s deadly spring winds.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Gulf Hammock nears a critical moment and shifting winds

We’re pleased to report that MIA and Day, two of our GPS/satellite-tracked Swallow-tailed Kites have made it safely to the US and have returned to their breeding territories.
Northbound migration of seven GPS/satellite-tracked Swallow-tailed Kites from 15 January to 1 March 2015. MIA and Day are the first to return safely to their US home range.

MIA moved quickly and steadily ever since leaving his winter range in southern Brazil. By 22 February he was on the northern coast of Honduras and took a 9-hour overwater shortcut to Dangriga, Belize. Pausing only briefly, he continued north and on the morning of 25 February launched from the tip of the Yucatan Peninsula, committing to nearly 500 miles of open ocean. He covered the distance in 24 hours, making land on Florida’s coast just north of Sanibel Island. He crossed to the eastern part of the state, spending a night in Davie, Florida, before continuing south to his summer home range in southern Miami. On 3 March MIA was spotted bringing Spanish moss to his old nest.

Day launched seaward on the same day as MIA, however she initiated her crossing much farther south from the northern coast of Honduras. Holding a tight northward heading, she sped midway between the Yucatan Peninsula and Cuba. Once through the Yucatan Channel, she turned abruptly to the northeast, setting her eyes on Florida’s southwestern coast. She completed her 830-mile overwater flight in an astounding 28 hours. Day reached the US just south of Sanibel Island, and over the course of 3 days, slowly made her way to her Daytona residence area.

We predict the next kite to make the over-water passage will be Gulf Hammock. Presently in Nicaragua, will she fly to Florida from northern Honduras, or will she stay over land until reaching the northern tip of the Yucatan? The strong, highly favorable southerly winds of the last week or so will turn into strong northerlies by midnight tonight (5 March). The circulation around this large high pressure system will gradually shift to the northeast and east, but winds will remain unfavorable for at least the next three days. This is bad news for Swallow-tailed Kites and birds of all species that are already out over the Gulf of Mexico and heading north. However, the large size of this system at least means that the headwinds are apparent to all the birds now staging on the northern coast of the Yucatan, thus discouraging them from beginning a northbound flight that very likely could be fatal.

Pace slowed his progress in the rich Amazon region of Brazil. He tarried for 10 days between 16 and 27 February. He is now 50 miles into Colombia.

The remaining three birds are still in Brazil and slowly moving north. The breeding pair of kites Palmetto (female) and Bluff (male) are 260 miles apart with Bluff in the lead. PearlMS, the last kite to leave the US and also the northern-most wintering kite, started north on 24 February, the day before MIA and Day crossed the Gulf to Florida. PearlMS is in Rondonia, Brazil.