Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Winter Death of PearlMS

PearlMS, tagged by Dr. Jennifer Coulson in 2011 near the East Pearl River in Mississippi, spent most of the 2015 North American breeding season in his previous nesting neighborhood along the West Hobolochitto River near Picaynue, Mississippi. It is not always easy to determine whether a male is nesting, though on several occasions, data showed PearlMS roosting during the day in one particular location – a behavioral pattern that suggests incubation shifts.  Jennifer and her husband, Tom, searched the daytime roost locations, wading through the dark water and mud typical of this lowland forest habitat. They did not find a nest, “only lots of mosquitoes,” and concluded that 2015 was not a breeding year for PearlMS.

Southbound migration and last known location of PearlMS

PearlMS left his summer range on 12 August 2015, taking the western circum-Gulf route as opposed to the trans-Gulf route. At the end of the first day, he overnighted at a roost along the Atchafalaya River, then continued overland through Texas and Mexico, keeping within eyesight of the coast except when crossing the Texas/Mexico border, where he flew 80 miles inland around Reynosa.  On 22 August he passed near the famous River of Raptors migration station near Veracruz, Mexico, but was probably a little too far west to be among the counted!  He followed the contours of Central America and in mid-September reached the lush Pacific forests of the western Colombian Andes. PearlMS moved southwest along the range and slowed some, gaining energy required to traverse the high mountain peaks. Having crossed safely, he spent a few days along the Caqueta River in Colombia, then continued through northeastern Peru into the state of Amazonas, Brazil.  Here, where forested rivers provide ample food for migrating kites, PearlMS slowed again to take advantage of the abundant prey.  

On 13 October 2015, only days from reaching his wintering grounds in southern Rondônia, Brazil, PearlMS’s transmitter went quiet. Unfortunately, the most likely explanation is that he is dead. Dr. Coulson has engaged the help of local scientists, hoping they can access the location of the bird’s last signal to look for any evidence. His last transmission came from a remote area of mixed forest and pasture within a very large farm near a dam, the Saldanha Small Hydroelectric Project on the Saldanha River in the municipality of Alta Floresta D’Oeste in Rondônia, Brazil. Although the biologists have not yet gained access to the area, they intend to persist, hopeful they may find some useful clues.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Settling into an Austral Summer

Yesterday's tracking data shows that almost all nine satellite-tagged Swallow-tailed Kites are settled into their South American summer ranges.
Locations of nine satellite-tagged Swallow-tailed Kites.

All but one bird is in southwestern Brazil; Gulf Hammock has returned to Santa Cruz, Bolivia, for the 4th year in a row.

Three kites, Day, Strong River, and Bullfrog, are in the State of Mato Grosso, Brazil, within 100 miles of the Bolivian border.

The four kites in Mato Grosso do Sul, include three return visitors: Palmetto (4th year), Pace and MIA (3rd year), plus newly-tagged, Lacombe. Lacombe is the southernmost kite, nearing the Parana border.

Sadly, we report that PearlMS has not made it to his wintering grounds this year. His signal was lost on 13 October while passing through the state of Rondonia. There are several reasons why we might stop receiving transmissions from a bird we are tracking: a dead storage battery, premature transmitter failure, harness failure, a broken antenna, or mortality. The batteries in these solar-powered transmitters last over five years, and we have never recovered a Swallow-tailed Kite’s transmitter with evidence of harness failure or a damaged antenna. Complete transmitter failure has been extremely rare for these sophisticated devices and we have not confirmed one such case in the last 15 years. 

With the guidance of Dr. Jennifer Coulson, a small group of local scientists has tried to reach the last known location of PearlMS, but they have not had luck accessing this remote area of mixed forest and pasture within a large farm near a hydroelectric dam. PearlMS has transmitted since 2011 and in that time has sent us well over 50,000 miles of tracking data. We will share more of the story of PearlMS in our next blog so please stay tuned. 

Every marked bird of every species we have tracked has provided remarkable insights vital to conservation. We remember this each time we accept the privilege of attaching a transmitter to a bird. Sharing their stories with you is one way we can thank them for their contributions. We thank you for following, and for caring about these incredible birds.  

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. 

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!  

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.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

A Crossing of Wingbeats

From South Carolina’s lowcountry to Brazil’s vast Pantanal, we have been following Palmetto and Bluff, the first-ever GPS/satellite-tagged breeding pair of Swallow-tailed Kites.
The paths of Palmetto and Bluff cross on the same day during the early leg of their spring migration. Until now, their migration paths have remained many days and hundreds of miles apart.  Palmetto and Bluff are the first-ever breeding pair of Swallow-tailed Kites to be tracked.  

Palmetto (female) and Bluff (male), tagged in 2011 and 2014, respectively, spend their North American summer in an area occupied by the Palmetto Bluff community, a historically and environmentally rich area cradled by the May River and the salt marshes and maritime forests of the southeastern coastal plain. As summer ends there and migration pulls them southward, Palmetto and Bluff, like all of the Swallow-tailed Kites that nest in the United States, settle over 5,000 miles away deep in the southern hemisphere. This far away land, however, is much like a mirror image of their northern breeding range. The Brazilian state of Mato Grosso do Sul, literally “thick forest of the south”, is crisscrossed with river floodplains, humid forests and vast marshes. The kites fly from the steamy, long days of one hemisphere to the steamy, long days of another – truly, an endless summer.

Since tagging Bluff in 2014, we have been learning how the nesting activities, migrations, and wintering destinations of these mates compare. During the breeding season, we saw contrasting movements and behaviors of the adults in their respective parental roles. Bluff, the male, did nearly all the foraging, while Palmetto, the female, spent most of her time incubating, brooding small young, and remaining near the nest until her young fledged and became independent.

By mid-June, Palmetto and Bluff successfully fledged one young. Late in the nesting cycle, Palmetto started ranging farther from the nest, using the area between Palmetto Bluff and the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge and lands along the New River in South Carolina. Bluff, however, lingered on his foraging range until 17 July, when he also headed to the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge and then north up the Savannah River west of Allendale, South Carolina.

Palmetto, newly outfitted with a GPS/satellite
transmitter and ready for release in 2011.
Starting south along the New River on 29 July, Palmetto flew 210 miles to central Florida to spend the night in the Green Swamp in Sumter County. Her last night in Florida, 31 July, was on 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 exhibited true stopover behavior here, staying 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, taking a shortcut from Placencia, Belize, to Cuyamel, Honduras. She approached the Nicaraguan border via the Reserva Biologica Tawahka, Honduras, made her way safely through the narrow Isthmus of Panama and finally crossed the Andes in Columbia. She passed southeastward through the headwaters of the Amazon until she reached her winter range in Brazil on 17 September 2014.  

Bluff started south on 12 August, exactly two weeks after Palmetto’s departure. He moved quickly on his way to Florida, spending one night near the St. Marys River (the Florida-Georgia border) and one night south of Gainesville, Florida, before crossing southeast to the Lower Wekiva River Preserve State Park. On 17 August, he flew all the way to Okaloacoochee Slough State Forest west of Lehigh Acres, Florida, and was south of the Florida Keys by 1:00 pm the next day on his way to western Cuba. Flying through the night just off the island’s northwestern shore, Bluff continued another 130 miles across the Yucatan Channel, reaching Cancun, Mexico, at 11 pm the night of 20 August. By contrast, Palmetto had reached this coastline 17 days earlier and 175 miles to the south. By 29 August, Bluff had crossed from Nicaragua into Costa Rica close to the Caribbean shoreline, and by 9 September had crossed the Andes into Peru. He spent about a month meandering southward on his way to his winter range in Brazil. 

But now, as Palmetto and Bluff head north, we are seeing something new. A week ago, Palmetto, who had wintered 300 miles south of her mate, passed within 40 miles of his range and continued northwest. She slowed down in Rondonia, Brazil, just long enough for Bluff to catch up. On February 14th, between 3pm and 5pm eastern, they were within 5 miles of one another. Considering how independent their southbound migration and wintering season had been, it was interesting to see how closely they passed to each other. One reason simply may be that the kites’ migration corridor, for all its length, is relatively narrow. But the identical breeding schedule and locations of these two individuals could be another reason why they were in such close proximity during this time. We look forward to seeing how closely their paths come during the remainder of their northbound flight. It’s also fun to wonder how many other kites bound for nest territories in southeastern South Carolina may be nearby.

Sunrise at Palmetto Bluff, South Carolina.