Monday, September 22, 2014

Riding the coastline, lifting on wind

Three of our satellite-tracked Swallow-tailed Kites made it to Brazil!  Their GPS data indicate that Day and Palmetto have almost caught up to MIA, who has been far ahead of the other migrants since leaving Florida on 30 July. Two more of our tagged kites, Gulf Hammock and Bluff, are in Peru. Pace is making his way through Panama and PearlMS has passed overland through eastern Mexico.

Tracks of seven tagged Swallow-tailed Kites on their southbound migration from 7 Jul - 9 Sept 2014
Raptors often follow coastlines and mountain ranges during migration, probably as an aid to navigation, but also to exploit the lift produced when winds are deflected upward by ridges. 

Satellite-tracking reveals how Swallow-tailed Kites use coastlines and mountain ranges as migrational aids.

These images show the tracks of six tagged Swallow-tailed Kites moving south along the coastal plain of southern Costa Rica and northern Panama. Note how close their tracks are as they parallel the nearby coast, and how the kites make use of the coastal mountain range to remain aloft using as little energy as possible.  

Can you imagine how many other migrating Swallow-tailed Kites and other species of birds are using these areas?  We hope our tracking information can be used by governments and conservation groups to help protect these valuable migration corridors and to keep them safe for the countless numbers of birds that rely on them each year.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

A snapshot at summer's end

A snapshot of the locations of seven satellite-tagged Swallow-tailed Kites on their southbound migration. 

PearlMS has lingered in the floodplain of Louisiana’s Atchafalaya River for 7 days.  He spent most of his pre-migration on the Pearl River.

Pace is stopping over in the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve of Quintana Roo, Mexico.

Bluff crossed from Nicaragua into Costa Rica, staying close to the Caribbean shoreline.

Gulf Hammock is 150 miles south of Bluff near the Caribbean coast of Panama.

Palmetto, Day and MIA have safely crossed the Andes and are making their way southeastward through the headwaters of the Amazon.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

PearlMS sets forth...heads west?

PearlMS begins his southbound migration heading west to circumvent the Gulf of Mexico. 
The last of our seven GPS-satellite tagged Swallow-tailed Kites has begun his southbound migration...heading west. Ten days later than last year, PearlMS left his summer range near the Pearl River in Mississippi on 27 August, and began flying westward around the Gulf of Mexico.  His first stop, 120 miles away, was the rich lowlands of Bayou Nezpique, near Jennings, Louisiana, where he remained as of 31 August. 

During either their spring or fall migrations, Swallow-tailed Kites like PearlMS 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. 

By comparison, Swallow-tailed Kites that nest in the eastern portion of the species’ U.S. range (South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida) cross the Gulf of Mexico during their spring and fall migrations, but their routes differ depending on the season. Migrating southward at the end of the nesting season, they fly from southwestern Florida to the northeastern Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico either directly or with brief stops on Cuba. When they return in the spring, they depart from the Yucatan Peninsula and make landfall somewhere along the northern Gulf coast, from Louisiana to Florida. 

Jennifer Coulson of Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries
Photo by Tom Coulson
If you have followed our blogs, you know that PearlMS is one of three kites tagged in Louisiana and Mississippi by our long-time colleague Jennifer Coulson.  Dr. Coulson has studied Swallow-tailed Kites in this region for many years.  

Learn more about her work here:

Monday, August 25, 2014

The Florida flurry subdues. One kite tarries in the Magnolia State.

Bluff, Gulf Hammock and Pace depart the U.S. PearlMS the last tagged bird to remain. 

Bluff and Gulf Hammock left their pre-migration areas on the same day, 12 August. Bluff had been cruising the Savannah River floodplain forest and adjacent farm fields for weeks, but recently hopped down to the Altamaha River near Jessup, Georgia, and headed to Florida two days later.  Moving quickly, he spent one night on the St. Marys River (the Florida/Georgia border), one night south of Gainesville, Florida, crossed southeast to Lower Wekiva River Preserve State Park, then made great time on 17 August flying all the way to Okaloacoochee Slough State Forest west of Lehigh Acres, Florida.  The next day, he was south of the Florida Keys by 1:00 pm on his way to western Cuba.  Flying through the night just off the northwestern shore, Bluff continued another 130 miles across the Yucatan Channel, reaching the shore of Cancun, Mexico, at 11 pm the night of 20 August.  We’ll see if he will linger on the Yucatan before continuing south, as most of the tracked kites have done.

Gulf Hammock has been right on Bluff’s tail.  On 12 August, she began edging southward along the Oconee River, Georgia, after her six-week stay in the region.  She spent one more night in Georgia, in the Okeefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, before passing just east of Gainseville, Florida as she picked up speed.  Gulf Hammock roosted north of Leesburg, Florida, on 15 August, in the Lake Wales Ridge State Forest of central Florida the next night, then spent her last night in Florida on the coastal fringe of Everglades National Park before flying out to sea by 10:00 am on 18 August.  Gulf Hammock passed 15 miles west of Key West, Florida, before coming ashore near Santa Lucia, western Cuba, in the early dark hours of 19 August.

Pace also began his migration last week.  After a 12-day pre-migration visit to Sumter County, Florida, where he feasted on flying insects over pastures and melon fields with many other Swallow-tailed Kites, he flew 145 miles south on 18 August to arrive near the Caloosahatchee River just east of LaBelle, Florida, for the night.  By the next night, Pace had reached the Florida Keys, where he roosted in Long Key State Park, putting himself in a prime position to cross the Straits of Florida the next day.

We are still watching PearlMS in Mississippi to track his southbound route to Central America, which most likely will be very different from the Florida and South Carolina birds.  In the last three years, PearlMS has circumnavigated the Gulf, remaining over land for his entire trip through Mexico.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Swallow-tailed Kite migration update on all birds

13 August 2014 update of seven satellite-tracked Swallow-tailed Kites.

Pace continues to stage in Sumter County, Florida (west-central peninsula), where he has been since 6 August. He makes foraging trips 13 to 28 miles north and east from his roost site.

PearlMS seems to be exploring a little farther and wider from his nesting area. He’s got a favorite foraging field 8 miles southeast, and also is making forays north on the Pearl River.

Bluff continues to use his roosting and foraging areas along the Savannah River between Sylvania, Georgia and Estill, South Carolina.

Gulf Hammock has been lingering along the Ocmulgee River south of Abbeville, Georgia for the last month, but her latest GPS location, on the night of 12 August, was 21 miles to the south. She could be our next Swallow-tailed Kite to leave the United States.

After arriving on to the Yucatan Peninsula 3 August, Palmetto exhibited true stopover behavior within Quintana Roo. She stayed in one area for seven days, no doubt resting and feeding after her 200 mile overwater flight from Florida via Cuba. On 11 August, Palmetto proceeded south, took a shortcut from Placencia, Belize, to Cuyamel, Honduras. She is now nearing the Nicaraguan border in the Reserva Biologica Tawahka, Honduras.

Day is moving along steadily in Central America. Once she made it to southern Nicaragua, she began hugging the Caribbean coastline, a good navigational aide and, with its coastal lowlands, probably a good source of food. Day is nearing Panama City, Panama.

MIA is 640 miles ahead of Day and recently crossed the Andes Mountains near Popayan, Colombia. He is almost to the State of Huila and moving steadily.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Pace: Not lost but found!

Pre-migration movements of Pace, a satellite-tagged Swallow-tailed Kite.  
Pace had been using a relatively small area around Doctors Lake in southern Jacksonville, Florida close to his nesting area. On 6 August, he made an abrupt move to northwest Sumter County, about 100 miles, where he spent the night. The next day, he set off to forage with 200 or so other kites over farm fields west of Oxford, in central Florida. This foraging aggregation has been giving birders and photographers a spectacular show for several weeks. 

One such photographer, Will Randall, captured an amazing photo of Pace amongst the hundreds of foraging kites. You can see the GPS satellite transmitter, which looks to be in excellent condition after over 2 years on the back of a Swallow-tailed Kite that has carried it on two round-trips to Brazil and while helping raise two broods of young in northern Florida. During this time, Pace has clocked over 25,000 miles! 

Pace photographed by Will Randall on 
7 August 2014 Sumter County, Florida. 
A real needle in a haystack! 
Pace is one of three of our tagged kites that have been photographed in foraging aggregations, which aid swallow-tails in locating large groups of insects on which to feed. You may recall that Palmetto, from South Carolina, was spotted in 2013 north of the Altamaha River in Georgia. In addition, Bluff, Palmetto’s mate, recently was seen over a foraging field near Allendale, South Carolina. These communal feeding sites are vital to Swallow-tailed Kites as they put on fat for their long-distance migration. Some individuals will return to the same areas year after year and remain a month or more before migrating southward. 

These locations provide a great opportunity for bird enthusiasts – or those so encouraged by such a sight – to watch impressive numbers of Swallow-tailed Kites in beautiful aerial displays as they repeatedly snatch and swallow insects, often just above the ground.  The photographer of Pace's photo, Mr. Randall, a sailplane and regular airplane pilot most of his life, described it in his email to us:

"I always marvel at the way god created the swallow-tailed kite. The bird has a high aspect ratio wing, a small low drag head and beak, a nearly retractable landing gear, low drag body, and scissor tail. This is everything a high performance sailplane has today. The bird came several hundred thousand years before the sailplane!"

Some of these flocks will number in the hundreds, another striking example of how the Swallow-tailed Kite’s highly evolved social behaviors have helped this species persist.

You can be a guardian of Pace and the other six Swallow-tailed Kites by pledging to be a monthly sustainer in our Keep on Trackin' program. Your gift will keep their streams of information beaming to satellites, granting ARCI the precious opportunity to learn more about their lives in order to develop techniques to protect them in a world that threatens to change faster than they can adapt.

Learn more about your opportunity to "Keep on Trackin'"

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Day and Palmetto set forth

If you guessed that Day would be the next of our GPS satellite-tagged Swallow-tailed Kites to migrate, you would have been correct! However, Palmetto was not far behind.

Day and Palmetto set forth on their 2014 southbound migration. 
Day departed her communal roosting sight on 27 July after spending 20 nights there in preparation for migration. She roosted 18 miles east of Lake Kissimmee on the night of the 27th and traveling east of Lake Okeechobee the following day, she made good time southbound (most of our satellite-tracked kites, including Day, usually travel south along the western side of the lake), passing through sugar cane and other agricultural fields and over the Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge just in time to sleep in southeastern Hendry County. From there, it was a non-stop flight to Cuba via the Everglades, Florida Bay, and the Florida Keys, arriving near the town of La Teja in the middle of the night of 30 July. Unlike the usual route through western Cuba to the Yucatan Peninsula, Day flew directly south at mid-island and embarked on an amazing 550-mile trans-Caribbean flight to the Honduran island of Roatan where she remained for the night. After a quick 35-mile flight the next day to the Honduran mainland, Day struck out over land and reached northern Nicaragua by 3 August.

Palmetto also has made the big move to Central America. She had been in her pre-migratory location along the Altamaha River on the coastal plain of Georgia for 19 days before starting south along the river on 29 July. After one more night on the Altamaha, she made a run for central Florida, flying 210 miles to spend the night in the northern Green Swamp in Sumter County. Her last night in Florida, 31 July, was in the Babcock Ranch Preserve in Charlotte County. Continuing her speedy way south, she left Cape Sable at the extreme southern tip of peninsular Florida around 6 pm and arrived on Cuba, 30 miles west of Havana, in the middle of the night. She took the predictable westerly route through Cuba the next day, and made her way across the Gulf of Mexico to arrive in the state of Quintana Roo, Mexico, on 3 August before the sun rose. She is now in the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Preserve, which often serves as a stopover location for our southbound Swallow-tailed Kites. We’ll see how long she stays here.

Because of Day’s long over-water flight, she is now within 470 miles of MIA. He slowed a bit in Honduras and Nicaragua, hugging the Caribbean coast, and is now in eastern Panama.

Bluff continues to forage and roost along the Savannah River near Allendale, SC. (Local Swallow-tailed Kite enthusiasts, including the dedicated conservationists of the Lower Savannah River Alliance and their supporters, recently spotted a bird with a transmitter, most likely Bluff, within a flock of kites foraging on insects over a farm field), Gulf Hammock is on the Ocmulgee River in Georgia, her habitual pre-migration conditioning site many miles north of her Florida nesting territory. Pace is still along Doctor’s Lake in southern Jacksonville, and PearlMS remains near the Pearl River in Mississippi.

Friday, August 1, 2014

MIA on the fast track

Movements of MIA from 18 July 2014 to 29 July 2014

MIA has wasted no time on his southbound trek that began 18 July.

After a brief respite east of Havana, Cuba, following his midnight arrival, he left the shoreline of Guanahacabibes Peninsula on the evening of 20 July, coming ashore again in the middle of the night 14 miles south of Cancun, Mexico. When the sun rose, he continued south to the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, where many southbound Swallow-tailed Kites are known to stopover for a week or more after their arduous over-water flight (ARCI’s Gina Kent described this and other details of kite migration in her Masters research). MIA, on the other hand, spent less than 24 hrs here before continuing south. 

He left the Belize coast near Placencia on a short-cut across Guatemala’s Amatique Bay, then continued moving rapidly over the Caribbean coastal plain of Honduras and Nicaragua to his present location not far from the Costa Rican border. MIA has made impressive southbound progress every day since leaving Florida, stopping only at night to rest. 

Which Swallow-tailed Kite will be the next to leave Florida?

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Pre-migration begins!

By now, nearly all Swallow-tailed Kite nests have either fledged young or failed (on average, a bit more than half fledge at least one juvenile). This is the time when all the birds – including the 4 to 5 month old young of the year – need to add significant fat reserves to their light-weight frames so they can endure the 5000-mile flight ahead of them. The first big obstacle will be crossing 400 miles of water from southern Florida to Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula without any rest.

Three of our seven GPS-satellite tracked Swallow-tailed Kites have started moving into pre-migratory roosts and foraging aggregations where they can fatten up on ephemeral insect swarms and congregate with other kites.

Pre-migration of seven GPS-tagged Swallow-tailed Kites 

Gulf Hammock left Levy County, Florida, a few days before her regular 3rd of July departure. She heads to Abbeville, Georgia, every year, where she roosts at night along the Ocmulgee River and forages in nearby fields during the day.

Late in her nesting cycle, Palmetto began using the area between Palmetto Bluff and the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge and lands along the New River in South Carolina. On 10 July, she moved west to the Altamaha River and the fields near Glennville, as she and many other Swallow-tailed and Mississippi Kites have been known to do at this time of year.

On the evening of 9 July, Day began roosting 25 miles west of her nesting area in Ormond Beach, Florida. On some days, she flies back to Ormond Beach and Daytona, but she also has made daily 60-mile round-trip commutes to feed on the Lake Apopka Restoration Area, where impressively large aggregations of Swallow-tailed Kites are regularly seen at this time of year.

Bluff patrolled his nesting territory in Palmetto Bluff, South Carolina until 17 July. He probably was tending to his recently-fledged young. He then began foraging and roosting in the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge, but has since headed farther north along the Savannah River, where he now roosts and feeds west of Allendale, South Carolina.

Pace remains in his nesting area, spending time around Doctor’s Lake in southern Jacksonville, Florida. He most likely has young in tow.

PearlMS has a recently-fledged chick, so it makes sense that he is still close to his nest area on the Pearl River in Mississippi.

For one of our tagged Swallow-tailed Kites, pre-migration is already over! Unfortunately MIA’s nest failed. However, he never strayed far from his nesting home range in southern Miami, Florida, indicating that he was able to find ample food in this urban area to prepare for migration. He left for Cuba on the afternoon of 18 July, making him our first satellite-tracked Swallow-tailed Kite to migrate this season. This was nine days earlier than he did so in 2013, perhaps because his parental duties ended sooner this year.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Locations of eight Swallow-tailed Kites on 16 June 2014

We have much to share with you about Swallow-tailed Kites and this year’s nesting season. This also is a good time to ask if you would become part of our tracking efforts by making a one-time donation, or by pledging to become a sustainer of our “Keep on Trackin'” program for as little as $10 a month. We learn so much every day from our satellite telemetry studies of Swallow-tailed Kites and the six other species we are presently tracking. At $100 per bird each month, the costs add up quickly for the 33 birds now transmitting (grant funds cover only the first one to two years). 

Locations for eight satellite-tagged Swallow-tailed Kites  on 16 June 2014

In our last Swallow-tailed Kite blog, we reported that all seven tagged kites made it back to their prior summer/breeding territories. All but one nested this year. The exception was Suwannee in Dixie Co, FL, who stayed within a tight area in the Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge until we suddenly lost her signal on 2 April. Although we have not been able to locate any remains, experience suggests Suwannee died, perhaps due to predation, while in her night roost.

Gulf Hammock nested in Levy Co, FL, and produced one nestling that was depredated at about three weeks old. Very soon after, a pair of Mississippi Kites took over the abandoned nest and produced eggs. It is unlikely that the Swallow-tailed Kite nestling was killed by one of the Mississippi Kites. We’ll keep monitoring this nest to determine its fate.

Pace in south Jacksonville, Day of Daytona Beach, Pearl MS in Mississippi, and Palmetto in South Carolina will all have fledged nestlings by this week. MIA in Miami has young nestlings in what may be a second nesting attempt after an early failure (we do not know if his present mate is the same as his first). His offspring should fledge by early July. Re-nesting is very rare for Swallow-tailed Kites, which have a very short breeding season sandwiched between two 5,000 mile migrations. This case is noteworthy because we have never seen it at the same nest within the same season.

Our best news is the deployment of an additional satellite/GPS device on a male Swallow-tailed Kite in Palmetto Bluff, South Carolina. This is particularly exciting because Bluff, a male, is the mate of Palmetto, which we tagged at the same site in 2011. 

Movements of Palmetto and Bluff from 28 May 2014 to 16 June 2014

We are now obtaining valuable data on this breeding pair of Swallow-tailed Kites, providing an opportunity to learn how the nest-season activities, migrations, and wintering destinations of these mates compare. Already, we can see the contrasting movements and behaviors of these adults in their respective parental roles (e.g., extended foraging trips for the male, close nest guarding by the female). 

The financial and logistical support of the Friends of the Palmetto Bluff Conservancy and the Conservancy staff (Jay Walea and Charlie Bales), and the field assistance of Mike and Shane Rahn of Walcam Land Group, were instrumental in tagging this kite. We are grateful for all their contributions to this collaborative project, and excited that this pair of kites makes Palmetto Bluff their home.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Five tagged Swallow-tailed Kites back in last year's nesting areas, two more yet to reach the US.

ARCI’s 3/12/14 blog confirmed that one kite, MIA, had reached the US and was already back near his Miami nesting neighborhood. We also described oceanic flights-in-progress for four additional kites. We are glad to report that all had favorable outcomes, but not without very hard work and many dangerous hours for the birds.

MIA remains settled into the area where he nested in 2012 and 2013. As you can see on the map, it was a long and winding trip back. In mid-Gulf, MIA encountered strong headwinds and circled out to the west to save energy while awaiting better conditions. Riding on the continuously changing wind, his path soon brought him right back to his original pathway where he had begun his life-saving excursion. The winds had become more favorable by then, so he flew swiftly to the nearest shore, then turned immediately toward his south-Florida nesting territory.

After a rapid trip over the western Caribbean aided by consistent winds from the south, Pace crossed Cuba and the Florida Straits, passed 25 miles west of the Dry Tortugas, and reached the Florida Panhandle near Santa Rosa Beach on 11 March, a 15-hour over-water flight from Cuba. He quickly made his way to the area near Jacksonville, Florida, where he had nested the previous two years.

Our last report for Day had her over the Gulf of Mexico benefitting from tailwinds but due for a change in the weather. Fortunately, she beat the shift to strong northerly winds and came ashore just southeast of Panama City early on the morning of 12 March. Since leaving the northern coast of the Yucatan Peninsula, Day had endured 33 hours of over-water flight. The same day she reached the Florida coast, she began a long flight east to her previous nesting site, arriving 13 March. Soon after, local observers who had alerted us to Day’s nest in 2011, identified her by the short transmitter antenna above her back.

Gulf Hammock made a very long, downwind flight from Honduras northward along the western edge of the Caribbean, stopped briefly near the northeastern tip of the Yucatan, then pushed on for 34 hours across the Gulf to arrive before daybreak on 12 March in Levy Co., Florida. Rather than resting, Gulf Hammock continued through the dark another 25 miles to the area where she had previously nested.

In our previous blog, Suwannee was the bird we are most concerned about. She took off from northern Honduras and flew 18 hours in favorable winds before resting briefly on the northeastern Yucatan near Playa del Carmen on 10 March. She launched out over the Gulf of Mexico the next day and made good progress at first, but strong northerly winds soon pushed her southeast onto Cuba. Suwannee spent at most five hours over land, resumed her journey late on 13 March, and encountered strong headwinds. It seemed unlikely she would survive long enough to reach any shoreline (four days has been the maximum any kite has survived over water). However, sometime late on 15 March, 56 hours from the Yucatan and almost to the northern Gulf coast, Suwannee turned and flew hard to reach the west coast of Florida near her previous nesting area. As you can see on the map, her flight was both long and circuitous, at one point creating a long, looping extension far east to the coast of Cuba as she explored ways to exploit the rapidly changing winds that characterize this region.

Palmetto has crossed the Andes and flown the length of Central America to the northern coast of Honduras, where he has lingered during onshore winds. PearlMS made it to Panama before his radio turned off to recharge. Still no further signal on Slidell, last detected in northwestern South America two weeks ago.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

MIA is back! Four birds over water.

**Note: Today's narrative reflects the most recent satellite data as of late last night, 11 March. The map shows movements only through 10 March. 

MIA launched from the Northern Yucatan at about 1 p.m. on 4 March. When still 220 miles off the coast of Sarasota, Florida, he encountered headwinds and turned back toward the southwest. After a loop of almost 300 miles, he finally regained his northwesterly course and reached land near Tarpon Springs, Florida, around midnight on 7 March, where he roosted. MIA had been over water for 58 hours. After daybreak, he turned south, traveling to the Corkscrew Swamp area south of Lehigh Acres for the night. On 8 March, he arrived in the suburban area south of Miami, Florida, where he had nested in 2012 and 2013.

Pace is now crossing the Straits of Florida from Cuba toward southern Florida after an amazing trip over northern South America and the Caribbean. In the Colombian Andes, he passed between snow-covered, 17,000-foot peaks, some of the highest in the entire mountain chain, to eventually arrive at the Colombian coast southwest of Barranquilla. On 6 March at around 11 a.m., Pace started a 68-hour over-water journey following the coast of Central America to the western tip of Cuba. Like MIA, Pace landed to rest for the night. After taking a day to make his way northeast over Cuba, he departed for Florida on the morning of 10 March.

When Day reached Panama, she took an over-water shortcut and made good time to the coast of Nicaragua. From there, she flew out across the Bay Islands until making landfall near Belize City. Day moved quickly from there and was over the northern Gulf of Mexico approaching the Florida panhandle when her transmitter turned off at 2:00 p.m. on 11 March. If the southerly winds continue as expected, Day should have seen a beach pass under her wings before dawn of this morning, 12 March.

Gulf Hammock left the northern coast of Honduras sometime on 9 March while his solar-powered transmitter was recharging. By 8 p.m. on 11 March, he had flown downwind more than 900 miles over the western Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico to a point just seaward of his nesting territory in Gulf Hammock, Florida. As we write this late on 11 March, Gulf Hammock’s transmitter has turned off and he is making his way across the last 60 miles of the Gulf of Mexico. The tailwinds that brought him all the way from Honduras are forecast to continue for at least four hours – enough time for him to reach land and get some rest before starting his day where he has nested at least since 2011.

In mid-afternoon on 11 March, Suwannee had just flown out to sea from the northern coast of Honduras, very near the place from which Gulf Hammock departed two days before. The favorable winds that carried Gulf Hammock swiftly north are expected to persist through the 12th. However, before sunrise on the 13th, just about the time this kite will be passing between the eastern Yucatan Peninsula and the western tip of Cuba, the winds are forecast to reverse direction quickly, becoming strong from the north. This is the scenario that poses the greatest risk to Swallow-tailed Kites – and no doubt to many thousands of other migrating birds – at this time of year when they must navigate through the volatile and sometimes deadly weather of this region. Suwannee’s transmitter will be off to recharge until the afternoon of 13 March, so we will not know until then whether she made it safely to southern Florida, took refuge on the Yucatan or Cuba, or could fly no more and perished at sea.

Palmetto has picked up speed and should be crossing the Andes Mountains in southwestern Colombia by early 12 March. Pearl MS is not far behind, inching through the western fringe of the Amazon Basin toward the eastern foothills of the Andes. It is in this area where we received the last transmission on 25 February from Slidell, a bird tagged in Louisiana in 2011 by our collaborator, Dr. Jennifer Coulson. We are still hoping that the long lapse (it has now been two weeks) may be due to a temporary obstruction of the solar panels. However, at this point, based on how well the transmitter was performing prior to 25 February, we suspect that Slidell has died, perhaps killed by a predator.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Swallow-tailed Kite Migration: Birds on the move

MIA has coursed up through Central America, making his way to northern Nicaragua. With a tailwind, he could fly directly from Honduras, overwater to the Yucatan, or even all the way to Florida. We’ll see by the next report.

Day and Gulf Hammock have both safely crossed the Colombian Andes. Day is ahead by 130 miles in the Choco region of Colombia while Gulf Hammock is in Valle del Cauca, Colombia.

Also within Colombia are Pace in Meta, and Suwannee, 80 miles south in Caqueta. Both are nearing the Andes, a dangerous place for kites.

Slidell has shifted her path farther to the west and is now in Loreto, Peru, now closer to the pathway of the eight satellite-tracked kites who are ahead of her.

After a few days rest in Rondonia, Brazil, Palmetto has made her way to the northeastern corner of Bolivia.

PearlMS, the last to leave his winter range, trails Palmetto 60 miles to the south and is over an extensive forested area in northwestern Rondonia, Brazil.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Swallow-tailed Kite Migration

MIA is making headway through Colombia, crossing a challenging obstacle along the migration route, the Andes Mountains.

Day, also in Colombia, broke from the pack at the Peruvian border and is 460 miles south of MIA.

Gulf Hammock has moved into northeastern Peru, traveling slowly through this largely forested area.

Still in Amazonas, Brazil, just south of the Peruvian border, are Suwannee and Pace, feeding over productive floodplain forests.

To the east 330 miles, Slidell also remains on her foraging grounds in Amazonas, Brazil.

500 miles south is Palmetto, slowly making her way through the state of Rondonia, Brazil.

PearlMS continues to hold closely to his winter range.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Swallow-tailed Kite Migration: MIA takes the lead, PearlMS still at wintering site

As of 17 February, MIA has taken the lead among the eight satellite-tracked kites. He skipped through the northeastern corner of Peru and is just across the border into Colombia.

Two hundred and fifty miles back are Gulf Hammock, Day, Suwannee and Pace. They are deep in the Amazon River Basin where Brazil, Peru and Colombia nearly converge. They seem to have slowed down here for the last five to ten days, where resting and foraging conditions may be optimal, giving them an extra boost for migration.

Also in Brazil’s Amazon River Basin, is Slidell. She has paralleled the group to the northeast, however she broke out to the west for 200 miles only to turn back around and end where she started. This area appears to be a stopover site 60 miles south of Rio Solimoes.

Palmetto is steadily progressing north and is in the western part of Rondonia, Brazil.

PearlMS remains on his winter range in southern Rondonia, Brazil.


Thursday, February 20, 2014

Swallow-tailed Kite Migration: Pearl MS last to begin migration

Movements of eight, satellite-tracked Swallow-tailed Kites as they begin their journey north. 
Day and Slidell are about tied for first place on their northbound migration. Both are in the Brazilian Amazon Basin, but Slidell has taken a more eastern route.

Most of the eight kites we are tracking by satellite are still in Brazil. The exceptions are Gulf Hammock, moving north through Bolivia, and MIA, which has taken a southward turn into Bolivia, where he appears to be following the Mamore River. Along the way, he passed through Rondonia Brazil, where Pearl MS has been wintering.

Suwannee is making good time passing through the vast agricultural areas within Rondonia, Brazil.

Pace is migrating over the floodplain of the Guapore River, which serves as the border between Bolivia and Brazil.

Palmetto remains the farthest south of the eight northbound satellite-tracked kites. On February 4th, she began her northbound passage over the Pantanal, 350 miles of expansive wetlands.

Pearl MS is the last kite to begin migrating but his winter range was the most northerly of all the kites' ranges. 

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Swallow-tailed Kite Migration: Heading North

Heading north

Five of our eight satellite-tracked birds have started heading north from their winter ranges in Brazil. This last leg of spring migration always is the fastest, driven perhaps by the urgency of regaining former nesting territories and mates in the southeastern U.S.

These are the five northbound kites with departure dates and northbound distances travelled thus far:

MIA, 20 January, 720 miles.
Day, 20 January, 1,000 miles.
Slidell, 26 January, 400 miles.
Suwannee, 28 January, 520 miles.
Pace, 28 January, 275 miles.

The 2014 northbound migration of the Swallow-tailed Kite begins. 
The first of the tagged birds began moving north on 20 January 2014. 
Three of the five northbound kites - Day, Suwannee, and Pace - had been using the same night roost in Brazil for at least the last month (along with Palmetto, still in Mato Grosso, Brazil). The tracking data indicate that Pace and Suwannee spent most of their first northbound day together before Suwannee shifted east to a parallel route. Day is in the lead, having already reached the state of Rondonia, Brazil.

In addition to Palmetto, Pearl MS and Gulf Hammock are still on their winter ranges in, respectively, Rondonia, Brazil and eastern Bolivia.

As we wait to see which bird will be first to reach its habitual breeding area in the U.S., we also are watching the weather. March of 2013 brought an unprecedented period of strong, nearly relentless northerly winds. Three of the 11 Swallow-tailed Kites we were tracking at that time apparently died after battling headwinds over the Gulf of Mexico for three to four days.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Summary of 2013 Southbound Migration and Wintering Range

Satellite-tracking Project 

This research was supported in part by contributions of $2,940 from the Brevard Zoo and $100 from the Teen Volunteers, a support group of the Brevard Zoo. ARCI is grateful for these generous contributions to this important long-term research addressing the conservation ecology of the Swallow-tailed Kite.

The Swallow-tailed Kite

The northern subspecies of the Swallow-tailed Kite (Elanoides forficatus) breeds in the southeastern United States and spends the boreal winter in South America (Cely 1979, Robertson 1988). This strikingly beautiful Neotropical migrant, which once nested in 17 and perhaps as many as 21 states (Meyer 1995), suffered an abrupt decline at the turn of the century, perhaps as a result of shooting, habitat loss, and egg collecting (Robertson 1988). The breeding distribution has changed little, if any, since the 1940's, when the population reached its low point. Nesting presently occurs only in Florida and small portions of six other southeastern states. Estimates place the U.S. breeding population at 1,700 to 2,500 pairs, or about 7,000 to 10,000 individuals at the end of the breeding season counting non-breeding adults and young of the year (Meyer et al, unpublished data). Florida probably harbors about two-thirds of the remaining Swallow-tailed Kites, with sub-populations numbering no more than about 200 to 300 pairs in each of the other southeastern states (Meyer 1995).

ARCI's Research

Since 1996, Avian Research and Conservation Institute (ARCI) has been deploying satellite transmitters on Swallow-tailed Kites in the southeastern United States to determine their migration routes, wintering destinations, and year-round conservation needs, virtually none of which was known prior to this study. Our research has revealed a very narrow and consistently used southbound corridor stretching from the southeastern United States to central South America, a distance of at least 5,000 miles. This pathway winds through parts of Cuba and Mexico, eastern Central America, western Colombia, northern Peru, northern Bolivia, and western Brazil before ending in several concentrations of wintering activity in southwestern Brazil and eastern Bolivia. The narrow migration corridor and restricted winter range implies greater risks than previously envisioned for the small U.S. population of kites. On the other hand, this concentration provides us with unusually good opportunities for monitoring and conservation.

A GPS-equipped satellite transmitter. 
In 2011 and 2012, we deployed highly-accurate tracking devices, produced by Microwave Telemetry Inc., on 15 adult kites captured near their nesting territories in Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, and, with colleague Dr. Jennifer Coulson, in Mississippi and Louisiana.

During each day, solar energy recharges the on-board batteries of the GPS-equipped satellite transmitters, which collect eight fixes at set times every 24 hours, mainly during daylight. For eight hours every other day, the transmitter uploads the GPS fixes to orbiting satellites. The satellites promptly re-transmit this encrypted data to a commercial facility on Earth, which then processes and provides the location data to us at a cost of $1,200 a year for each bird (each GPS-satellite transmitter costs $4,000).

The 2013 Southbound Migration

We are currently tracking eight Swallow-tailed Kites whose 10,000 mile round-trip journeys connect the kites’ nesting territories in the southeastern United States (Florida, South Carolina, Louisiana, and Mississippi) with their wintering grounds in Brazil and Bolivia.

The entire 2013 southbound (fall) migration of the eight Swallow-tailed Kites. The wintering destinations for these tracked kites were Brazil and Bolivia. Each of the eight colors represents the pathway of an individual Swallow-tailed Kite.
Palmetto (Female) - Tagged in Palmetto Bluff, South Carolina, in 2011. After leaving her nesting site 24 July, she spent over two weeks with other Swallow-tailed Kites in foraging flocks and night roosts near the Altamaha River in Georgia from late July to early August. In this way, Swallow-tailed Kites gradually work their way south through good foraging habitats to prepare for the longer migratory flights that lie ahead. By gathering with other Swallow-tailed Kites in communal night roosts, individual kites gain the benefits of daily group foraging, one of the many important advantages of this species’ year-round social behavior.
Palmetto photographed by Todd Schneider (Gerogia DNR).
The antenna is visible over the bird's back.

Todd Schneider, a wildlife biologist with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, photographed an aggregation of about 50 Swallow-tailed Kites and 20 Mississippi Kites in late July in Long County, Georgia. When he later reviewed his photos, he noticed an antenna on one of the birds. Todd contacted us with the time and coordinates, from which we concluded that the kite was Palmetto.

After leaving the Altamaha roost on 5 August, Palmetto reached Gainesville, Florida, where she spent the night in a suburban neighborhood. She continued south the next morning, spending that night in the Green Swamp of Polk County, Florida. Palmetto left shore and began her long southwesterly flight over the Gulf of Mexico early in the evening of 7 August, launching from Pine Island in Lee County, Florida, significantly farther north than the four tagged kites that preceded her on their 2013 migration.

Palmetto flew parallel to the north of Cuba rather than using the island as a stepping stone, covering 500 miles of open water before making landfall 29 hours later near Rio Lagartos on the northern shore of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. We have documented trans-Gulf flights in unfavorable headwinds that have forced tagged Swallow-tailed Kites to remain in the air for up to four days and nights, the maximum endurance for this species.

Palmetto had an eight-day stopover in the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve of the eastern Yucatan, one of the largest protected areas in the region. She resumed her southward migration on 18 August, moving steadily, foraging and resting along the way before crossing the Andes in southwestern Colombia and continuing into northeastern Bolivia, where her path brought her within 190 miles of our tagged kite Gulf Hammock in the State of Santa Cruz.

Gulf Hammock prior to release. The transmitter is outfitted
 to a light harness and carried like a backpack. 
Gulf Hammock (Female) - Tagged in Levy County, Florida, in 2011. Gulf Hammock departed her Florida nesting area on 4 July 2013 for a pre-migration aggregation over 85 miles north in Dodge County, Georgia, near the Ocmulgee River. This was the third year in a row in which she used this staging area. Gulf Hammock’s northbound pre-migration flight was the longest of the kites we tagged in 2011 and 2012, but a few kites in previous years made similar northward flights, some as far as 170 miles.

After spending 36 days in her Ocmulgee staging area, Gulf Hammock flew in one day to the Steinhatchee Conservation Area in Lafayette County on the northeastern coast of the Florida peninsula. She spent the next night in the Green Swamp, where Pace and Palmetto also stopped on their way south. Gulf Hammock slept in the Everglades just south of Chokoloskee, Florida, on 12 August before flying out from Cape Sable, the southern tip of peninsular Florida, on 13 August, the last Florida-tagged Swallow-tailed Kite to leave the United States. Gulf Hammock spent most of the night over the Straits of Florida and reached northwestern Cuba around 4:00 a.m. Instead of stopping, she continued west off the tip of the Guanahacabibes Peninsula on a direct, five-hour over-water flight to Cancun, turning south once onshore to spend the night in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo, 30 miles northwest of Tulum. She quickly moved on from there, foregoing the typical stopover on the Yucatan Peninsula that our telemetry studies have documented for most of the southbound kites. Her well-traveled route eventually took her to a commonly used wintering destination an additional 4,000 miles to the south, in Mato Grosso Do Sul, Brazil.

Pace (Male) - Tagged south of Jacksonville, Florida, in 2012. After leaving his nesting area in Jacksonville on 27 July, Pace lingered in the Wildwood area of central Florida, traveling 12 miles each day between this feeding and roost sites. He departed to the south on the first leg of his migration on 5 August, and on 7 August at 3:00 p.m. he slipped off shore at Cape Sable. At this point, Pace was committed to crossing the Florida Straits through the night, sailing southwest by alternately gliding slowly downward, then circling to regain altitude. Within 24 hours, he made landfall on the Guanahacabibes Peninsula of extreme western Cuba. He stayed for two days, then resumed his journey south at 10:00 a.m. on 11 August. For five hours, he flew over the water until he reached the Yucatán Peninsula 10 miles south of Cancún. It took Pace nine days to travel from the Mexican/Belize border to northwestern Colombia. He crossed the Andes just north of San Juan de Pasto, where there is a narrow pass through which the birds are able to cross the rugged mountain range. Pace made his way southeast, taking up a winter range in a landscape dominated by agricultural lands near Rolim de Moura, Rondonia, Brazil.

Suwannee (Female) - Tagged at the Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge, Florida, in 2011. Suwannee was our first tagged Swallow-tailed Kite to leave the United States this year, starting south on 24 July. She roosted one night on the Peace River near Fort Meade, Florida, and the next east of Wauchula, Florida. After spending the next night in the Picayune Strand State Forest, Big Cypress Swamp, Collier County, she left Florida via Cape Sable on the afternoon of 27 July and crossed over the Florida Keys at Marathon on her way to Cuba. Eighteen hours later, she reached the Parque Nacional de Quintana Roo, Mèxico, where she remained for almost a week. This is classic stopover behavior as described by Gina Kent in her thesis research at Georgia Southern University. Heading south once more, Suwannee made her way slowly through Quintana Roo, hugged the eastern coast of Belize, and entered Guatemala after a four-hour shortcut across Amatique Bay on 13 August. Suwannee continued through Central America and safely crossed the Andes into the high-elevation cloud forests of the Caqueta region of Colombia, the ecological boundary between the Andes and the Amazon. She then made her way to the ranchlands of her winter range in Mato Grosso do Sul, southwestern Brazil.

Residents get an up-close view of Day before 
she is released with her transmitter. 
Day (Female) - Tagged in Daytona Beach, Florida, in 2011. Day spent three weeks near the St. Johns River making daily feeding trips to the Lake Apopka Restoration Area, where a large foraging aggregation of Swallow-tailed Kites forms every year. On 2 August, she began moving southwest and
spent the night in the Hillsborough River area. The next night, her last in the United States, she roosted in the Corkscrew Regional Ecosystem Watershed in Collier County, Florida. Her route from the United States to Mexico was very similar to Suwannee’s. She departed from Cape Sable and flew over Cuba to the eastern shore of the Yucatán Peninsula. She continued southward until she reached the same stopover area used by Suwannee, near Tulum, southern Quintana Roo, Mexico. She resumed her southbound flight six days later and appeared to be traveling very near Suwannee during this time as they moved through Belize from 9 to 14 August. Their paths diverged in Honduras where Day remained at the Sierra de Agalta National Park. After an 11-day passage through Central America, she slowly moved through the undeveloped Choco region of western Colombia, an area with some of the greatest biodiversity in the world. From there, Day followed a track nearly parallel to that of Pace through the Andes Mountains. She continued through Brazil where she settled in for the winter near Sapezal, Mato Grosso, Brazil.

Greta Mealey and Gina Kent tagging MIA in Miami, Florida.
MIA (Male) - Tagged in Miami, Florida, in 2012. MIA moved south quickly after leaving Florida and, unlike most of our tagged study birds, paused for only one night in the state of Quintana Roo, Mexico, after reaching the Yucatan Peninsula. He then spent one night each in Belize, Honduras, and Nicaragua before slowing a bit through Costa Rica and Panama. He crossed the Andes Mountains in Colombia by 15 August, the earliest of any kite we’ve tracked. MIA passed through the upper reaches of the Amazon River in Peru and rapidly skirted the western fringe of the Amazon Basin to cover the first 3,500 miles of his southbound migration in just five weeks. Initially, he lingered in near Rosario Oeste, Mato Gross do Sul, Brazil, the most southeasterly of any of our tagged kites. Eventually, however, he settled into foraging areas close to two of our other tracked birds, Pace and Suwannee, on ranchlands east of Campo Grande, Brazil.

Slidell (female) - Tagged in 2011 near Slidell, St. Tammany Parrish, Louisiana. When she arrived at her 2012 breeding area late on 11 April 2013, Slidell’s previous year’s nest was already occupied. Rather than nesting elsewhere, she spent the nesting season making long excursions through the Gulf coastal states. On 30 July, she began flying south from Louisiana’s Atchafalaya Basin, crossed the Gulf of Mexico, and arrived in Campeche, Mexico, on 1 August. Slidell spent 19 days along the northwestern border of Guatemala, then moved through Central and South America to just north of Juara, Mato Grosso, Brazil. Slidell’s wintering site is the farthest north of any of our satellite-tracked kites.

Pearl MS (male) - Tagged in 2011 on the Mississippi side of the Pearl River northwest of Picayune, MS. By 8 August, Pearl MS had moved to a communal night roost on the Bogue Chitto National Wildlife Refuge, and by mid-August he was using previously-identified roost sites on the nearby Old River Wildlife Management Area in Pearl River County, Mississippi. Pearl MS had the latest departure date of our tagged Swallow-tailed Kites, leaving his nesting area in the Pearl River Basin on 16 August.

As noted above, Swallow-tailed Kites nesting along the northern Gulf coast are more likely to fly overland through Mexico (circum-Gulf) rather than a more direct over-water route (trans-Gulf). Not surprisingly, Pearl MS adopted this general strategy. However, his flight was atypical (although not unprecedented) in that he stayed well inland. Once in the state of Tamaulipas, Mexico, he rejoined the coast to continue southward. Ten days later, he was in southern Nicaragua, where his track merged with those of the other tagged kites. He eventually reached his wintering destination near Nova Brasilandia d’Oeste, Rondonia, Brazil.

Wintering Locations

Detail of the kites' winter range in South America
from 1 October 2013 to 11 December 2013.
By mid-October, the Kites had settled into their winter ranges. Pearl MS is in the state of Rhondonia Brazil, 70 km south of Alta Floresta d’Oeste. Based on aerial imagery, this landscape appears to be a matrix of forest and cattle pasture. The other western-tagged kite, Slidell from Louisiana, spent six weeks near Juara, Mato Grosso, but moved south 240 miles on 30 November to an area southeast of Nova Mutum, where she has remained. Gulf Hammock has been residing in an area about 60 miles west of Concepcion, Bolivia. This kite occupied a similar winter range in 2012. Palmetto Bluff, took 20 days to pass through Bolivia, where she wintered last year, to settle into the state of Mato Grosso do Sul, Brazil. The Suwannee Swallow-tailed Kite is wintering 45 miles west of Tres Lagoas, Mato Grosso do Sul, Brazil, since 12 October. She forages over an area spanning 40 miles north to south that consists of mixed pasture, cropland, and forest patches along small rivers.

Incredibly, MIA, Pace, Day, and Palmetto Bluff all occupied the same roost at one point in Mato Grasso do Sul, Brazil. These birds, tagged in different places (Miami, Jacksonville, and Daytona Beach, FL; and Palmetto Bluff, SC, respectively) converged on this area independently. These four kites represent half of our present satellite-tracked population. We are eager to learn how many Swallow-tailed Kites use this area over the season. We do know from our many years of field studies on the Brazilian winter range that the Swallow-tailed Kites from the United States are flocking at this time with thousands of breeding and wintering Plumbeus Kites (a Latin American species) plus a large portion of the wintering Mississippi Kites from the United States. This is a strong reminder of how important it is to protect the foraging and roosting habitats on the winter range and to ensure that compatible farming and logging practices are maintained.

The Return North

The Swallow-tailed Kites will start moving north again in later this month and early February. Watch to see whether Pearl MS and Slidell navigate across or around the Gulf and where the other birds come ashore when returning to their established nesting areas in February and March of 2014. 
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