Monday, November 21, 2016

Catching up with the Kites as they reach their winter ranges

We were able to follow some spectacular migratory movements of our seven GPS-tracked Swallow-tailed Kites. With precarious over water flights, stopovers in the Yucatan Peninsula, quick and safe crossings over the high Andes Mountains, and lots of extra time spent in the Amazon, most all of our tracked birds have made it to their wintering grounds.
Migratory paths of seven Swallow-tailed Kites GPS tracked from breeding locations in the U.S to wintering locations in Brazil and Bolivia.
Five of our birds are in Mato Grosso do Sul, Brazil. Four of the five are in locations they used in previous years.

Bullfrog is near two big rivers in eastern Mato Grosso do Sul, the Rio Correntes and Rio Ápore.

Panther is 170 miles to the south-southeast of Bullfrog, near the town of Água Clara.
Winter locations for seven GPS-tracked Swallow-tailed Kites in South America, November 2016.
Lacombe, Palmetto and MIA have been sharing the same exact roost and foraging areas 100 miles east of Panther, in the mixed agricultural and ranch lands near Ribas do Rio Pardo. Both MIA and Palmetto also have been to an area 100 miles south near Angélica, where they are roosting within a homestead on ranchland.

It is amazing to see that birds from scattered breeding areas - in this case Louisiana, South Carolina and Florida - end up wintering together on the exact same farms over 5,000 miles from their nest sites!

Sawgrass migrated along a more westerly path through Bolivia. Her last location was on the Argentinian border in a location where we have not seen our GPS-tracked birds go before. Sawgrass is one of three Swallow-tailed Kites that we tagged with cell-phone (GSM)/GPS tracking devices, which we had not previously used. The other four tracked kites are carrying satellite/GPS units.

Carlton (another of the three kites with GSM/GPS devices) is a bit of a mystery. We last received data from him in early September while he was near the Panama/Colombia border. We hope that his transmitter will soon be detected by the cell-phone system and reveal where he has been. Migration is the most demanding and dangerous part of the Swallow-tailed Kite’s annual cycle. We hope that this bird has successfully completed its southbound journey and has found a safe place to spend the northern winter.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

The shortest route may not be the safest.

Tagging the Swallow-tailed Kite named Sawgrass was a breeze with the sighting tips from the observation crew from the St. Petersburg Audubon Society (SPAS). They had been observing the Swallow-tailed Kites at Sawgrass Lake Park since the birds arrived in early March and knew their commonly-used flight paths.
Gina Kent of ARCI gets ready to place a hood on a Swallow-tailed Kite held by Gabe Vargo of SPAS. This bird was captured and radio-tagged at Sawgrass Lake Park in Pinellas County, FL. Photo by JoAnna Clayton, SPAS
Sawgrass’s movements throughout Pinellas County, Florida, in the weeks following tagging indicated that either her nestlings had fledged and were on the wing, or that her nest had failed (we think this kite is a female due to her size). After a month of ranging widely over Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, Sawgrass headed north on 14 July to some of the more well-known foraging areas and roosting sites used by Swallow-tailed Kites prior to their southbound migration. She spent 11 days in parts of Sumter and Marion counties, at one point making a big loop northeast to Volusia County for two days. Her adventures pushed her even farther north to other Swallow-tailed Kite staging areas on the Altamaha and Savannah rivers, in Georgia and South Carolina.
Gina Kent of ARCI releases Sawgrass, a GPS-tagged Swallow-tailed Kite at Sawgrass Lake Park, Pinellas County, Florida. Photo by John Ogden, SPAS
By 4 August, Sawgrass had turned south once again, soon returning to Florida. She slept the next three nights in each of three of the state’s large, well-known communal roosts before her last night in the United States, on the southwestern coast of the southern Everglades. The morning of 13 August, she slipped offshore to the southwest, obviously heading toward the kites’ traditional destination on the northeastern coast of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula.
Movement of a GPS-tracked Swallow-tailed Kite named Sawgrass, from 13 June tag in Pinellas, Co. FL through 7 September in Nicaragua on her southbound migration.
However, the cyclonic circulation around a passing tropical depression launched her due west instead, pushing her for the next three days all the way to northeastern Mexico. Although infrequent, such a track is not surprising under these conditions, when the kites will take up a longer but safer heading to a certain landfall, instead of fighting headwinds on a shorter route that will likely end in their death before they can reach shore. As of 7 September, Sawgrass was in central Nicaragua after progressing safely southward over land for 1,540 miles.

We are grateful to SPAS for providing the funds that made the capture, tagging, and tracking of Sawgrass possible. We also thank Pinellas County Parks for their interest in Swallow-tailed Kite conservation and for granting access to Sawgrass Lake Park. It is exciting to be part of SPAS’s new Raptors on the Move program, which is giving local teachers and students the opportunity to use Sawgrass’s tracking data in the classroom. If you are an educator who would like more information on this program, please contact

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Carlton the Swallow-tailed Kite takes a classic migratory course

One of the three kites GPS-tagged this summer includes an adult male (Carlton) captured 14 June 2016 on the T. Mabry Carlton Jr. Memorial Reserve in Sarasota County, Florida, the first Swallow-tailed Kite tagged in this part of the state. The dedicated staff of the Reserve, especially Debbie Blanco and supporting biologists, were instrumental not only in finding nesting Swallow-tailed Kites, but also by seeking the help of local conservation organizations to cover ARCI’s costs for the transmitter, data acquisition, and the work involved. The Venice Area Audubon Society immediately and very generously rose to the challenge, gradually leading Sarasota Audubon Society, Peace River Audubon Society, and The Friends of Sarasota County Parks to join the cause. Thanks to their help, the tagging process began just in time to deploy a transmitter on one of the Reserve’s nesting kites before the birds departed the area on their southbound journey. 

Avian Research and Conservation Institute staff Dr. Ken Meyer, Amanda Powell, Gina Kent, and Trapper the Great Horned Owl safely handle a recently captured Swallow-tailed Kite. Trapper has worked with ARCI for over 16 years and volunteers from the Avian Reconditioning Center, her permanent home. Photo by Mac Stone.

Carlton first moved east to a large foraging aggregation and roost site on the western edge of Lake Okeechobee in Glades County, Florida, on 7 July. After 28 days, he flew 25 miles south to another core roosting area for an additional six days, feeding on insects and adding further to his fat reserves. His migratory restlessness got the best of him on 10 August, when he flew to the westernmost Everglades for one last night in the United States. The next day, he crossed the Straits of Florida for Cuba and continued west over land before striking out over the ocean once again from the narrow tip of the Guanahacabibes Peninsula. After 400 miles over the Gulf of Mexico, Carlton arrived on the Yucatan Peninsula on 13 August. A week later, Carlton is still resting and feeding on the Yucatan, the only major stopover point for the U. S. breeding population on its 5,000 mile southbound migration. 

Swallow-tailed Kite "Carlton's" track from his tagging location in the T. Mabry Carlton Jr. Memorial Reserve in Sarasota County, Florida through his pre-migratory movements and the start of his southbound migration into the Yucatan Peninsula.

Everyone is excited about watching the stories of Carlton and the other tagged Swallow-tailed Kites unfold as each bird moves through the fascinating annual cycle of this spectacular species.

Monday, August 15, 2016

A 600-mile, northbound, pre-migratory destination for a South Florida Swallow-tailed Kite

Tracking data from "Panther," a Swallow-tailed Kite tagged at the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge in June 2016. Yellow star indicates tagging location.
Adult Swallow-tailed Kite Panther was tagged on the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge (FPNWR) on 8 June 2016.  Although this bird’s sex is unknown, we believe it is a male based on its size. ARCI is grateful to the US Fish and Wildlife Service staff at FPNWR in southwestern Florida for their interest in our long-term Swallow-tailed Kite telemetry study, and for helping us increase our sample of tracked kites with a bird from the Big Cypress Swamp. We also thank The Friends of FPNWR, who provided much-needed monetary support for the transmitter, data acquisition, and tagging effort.
Mark Danaher of Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge with Gina Kent of Avian Research and Conservation Institute as she places a hood on a Swallow-tailed Kite to calm the bird prior to radio-tagging. Photo by Kevin Godsea, USFWS
Panther remained on FPNWR for just five days after being tagged (due to unmanageable delays, we began trapping at the very end of the capture season). He then flew north from his summer nesting area, foraging over agricultural fields near Ocala, Florida, for a week before continuing northward up the Atlantic coastal plain of eastern Georgia and South Carolina until reaching the Pee Dee River in eastern South Carolina.  

Panther spent his pre-migratory preparation time ranging throughout the Pee Dee and Little Pee Dee drainages, as far north as southernmost North Carolina, at least 660 miles from his FPNWR nest territory!  Swallow-tailed Kites often make these long-distance moves after nesting and prior to southbound migration, probably to find good foraging areas to fatten up on insects, but also to explore the larger U. S. range of their species while they can, learning where other kites nest, feed, and roost together as they get ready for their long journey to South America. 
Adult Swallow-tailed Kite flying over the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Mark Danaher, USFWS
After 17 days over the beautiful coastal lowlands of South Carolina, Panther began flying south. Along the way, he spent his nights roosting in the swampy flood-plain forests of the region’s major rivers, including the Savannah, Altamaha, and St. Mary’s. He also hunted some of Florida’s most beautiful and biologically-diverse conservation lands - Pinhook Swamp, San Felasco Hammock, Green Swamp, Corkscrew Swamp, Picayune Strand, Fakahatchee Strand, and Ten Thousand Islands. 

Panther left Florida on 22 July, crossing the shoreline just east of Marco Island. Flying nonstop (how else?) across 490 miles of open ocean – 490 miles! - he reached the northeastern tip of the Yucatan Peninsula on the evening of 23 July, a flight as speedy and true as it was perilous. After resting and feeding in the area for a week, he took up a southerly heading, moving steadily through the Mexican state of Quintana Roo, Belize, and Honduras before reaching the Caribbean shore of eastern Nicaragua. In the 56 days since he left his family’s nest site, Panther traversed a total of at least 2,600 miles (measured in a succession of straight-line segments). Half of these miles were devoted to his round-trip excursion to southern North Carolina, before he finally began his actual southbound migration from his Big Cypress breeding territory. 

Other tracked kites are following Panther’s lead. We love sharing their stories with you, and hope you enjoy knowing that your support is what makes this research possible.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Swallow-tailed Kites on the move: Introducing The Class of 2016 and the first southbound movements of the season

It’s been a great summer for ARCI and the satellite-tagged birds we are following. We have so much to share, but we will take it one blog at a time so we can give you lots of details. The first news is that we successfully deployed three new GPS-equipped transmitters on Swallow-tailed Kites in Florida in June, bringing our total sample of tracked birds to seven, including Lacombe, the kite tagged in Louisiana by our long-time colleague and friend, Dr. Jennifer Coulson. First, we will tell you about the three newly-tagged kites.

Panther was tagged on 8 June at the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge in Collier County, Florida. Many thanks to The Friends of Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge and the Refuge staff for their monetary and logistical support, which made this possible. After completing his nesting duties, Panther made some incredible pre-migratory moves, which we will share in our next blog.

Sawgrass was tagged on 13 June at Sawgrass Lake Park in Pinellas County, Florida. We have great support and interest from the St. Petersburg Audubon Society, which has started a Raptors on the Move education program with which teachers and students can apply the movement data from Sawgrass to any lesson. We will have more details on Sawgrass’s movements soon. 

Carlton was tagged on 14 June at the T. Mabry Carlton Jr. Memorial Reserve in Sarasota County, Florida. The fantastic staff, especially Debbie Blanco, and supporting biologists at the Reserve were instrumental not only in finding nesting Swallow-tailed Kites on the property, but also by helping us fundraise with the local citizen conservation organizations. We are grateful for the financial support of the Venice Area Audubon Society, Sarasota Audubon Society, Peace River Audubon Society, and The Friends of Sarasota County Parks.

The four previously-tagged Swallow-tailed Kites we are tracking have completed the nesting season. All four attempted to nest, and all except Lacombe (in Louisiana) were successful, raising two chicks each. MIA and Bullfrog re-used their 2015 nests, while Palmetto, in South Carolina, had moved to a new area, 4.5 miles north, after her mate, the tagged male Bluff, and young were killed by a predator near their 2015 nest.

Lacombe and MIA are still on their summer ranges. Palmetto has spent her pre-migration time in Georgia, first along the Savannah River and recently on the Altamaha River, as she has done in the past.

Bullfrog, the real mover, already is on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula! She spent some pre-migration prep time in Glades, Hendry and Manatee Counties. On 25 July, she flew at noon from Marco Island and arrived just south of Cancun, Mexico, 30 hours later. 
Movements of 7 GPS-tracked Swallow-tailed Kites from 15 to 27 July 2016 showing their tagging location and the start of fall migration.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

The 2016 Swallow-tailed Kite count is here!

The Avian Research and Conservation Institute invites you to participate in Florida’s Swallow-tailed Kite population monitoring surveys for 2016.

ARCI’s synchronized surveys, which began in their present form 27 years ago – in 1989 – have become a very important tool for monitoring trends in the U. S. population. We systematically photograph roosts on the same dates in late July, the period when numbers have consistently reached their peak.

Every year since 1989, during a 10-day window in late July, ARCI has conducted systematic aerial surveys at 12 large Swallow-tailed Kite pre-migration roosts. These roosts, of up to 4,000 birds, provide an extremely rare and valuable opportunity for long-term population monitoring of this imperiled species.

We know that of all the kites that can be counted across 7 southeastern states at this time, 90% are roosting in Florida. However, we also know we are missing kites when we count the birds in the 12 large roosts.

How many we are missing? This is where your help is so vitally important. You can help us increase the accuracy with which we are able to estimate the size of the entire U.S. population.

Last year, for the first time, we asked you to help us with the count. And you did! Your submissions, totaling 991 birds, increased our peak count by 5%. This was a very impressive contribution!

At this time of year, Swallow-tailed Kites are gathering in foraging aggregations and communal night roosts, where they gain behavioral information from each other that helps them find swarms of insects and other prey to put on weight rapidly and prepare themselves for migration. 

This year, for the second time, we want to synchronize public sighting reports with Florida’s systematic aerial surveys on the 4 most important days.

Participation is easy. Just report the date, time, location and number of Swallow-tailed Kites and what they were doing when you saw them on these four days:

19 July
22 July
25 July
28 July

Enter your data in the online form. The form is responsive to your smart device, so you can even report from the field!

We look forward to hearing about your Swallow-tailed Kite sightings and including them in this Florida-wide synchronized population survey.

Special thanks to these organizations and individuals for their financial and in-kind support: The Florida Aquarium, Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens, Santa Fe College Teaching Zoo, Natural Encounters, Inc., St. Augustine Alligator Farm, Mac Stone, Joe DiRodio, Char Gregg

Thursday, May 12, 2016

The Good and the Bad

2016 has been tough so far for our satellite-tracked Swallow-tailed Kites.

As you may recall (see our previous blog), Day and Gulf Hammock both apparently died in South America before they could return to nest again in Florida. Day last transmitted from a soybean field in Brazil in November 2015, and Gulf Hammock was last detected above dense tropical forest near the border of Brazil and Peru soon after starting north.

As of our last update, six satellite-tagged kites had returned to their U. S. breeding territories. Each had settled into nesting, with Bullfrog, MIA, Lacombe, and Strong River in the exact same nesting areas as last year. Palmetto moved over 2 miles, probably because last year’s nest was targeted by a predator that killed her mate, Bluff, and their offspring. Pace moved because last year’s nest tree got destroyed in a storm.

Six satellite-tracked Swallow-tailed Kites returned to their U.S. breeding territories. 

Bullfrog’s, MIA’s and Palmetto’s nests remain active, with eggs that should hatch any day. Lacombe’s nest in Louisiana failed in the last week of April. Fortunately, Lacombe is still alive.

Strong River’s signal was lost on 10 April. Dr. Jenn Coulson investigated the area and found a few piles of kite feathers. Jenn could not find the transmitter or carcass – not unusual. She inferred that a raptor had eaten the kite.

We lost Pace’s signal on 18 March, after he had returned to his 2015 nesting area south of Jacksonville, Florida. However birders in the area saw and photographed the kite a few days later (thanks very much to Joe Brooks and his dad, Billy). In the photo, it was clear that the transmitter was missing its antenna and off-center, and that the bird was also missing flight feathers in one of its wings. Did he get attacked and manage to escape? Although Pace has not been seen recently, we are hopeful that he is safe and that we will be able to recapture him and remove the transmitter before he migrates south.

Swallow-tailed Kites are using the same nest that Day occupied in 2014 and 2015, but no one has been able to determine whether the female is banded. We would like to know, in case Day somehow lost her transmitter in Brazil and survived the winter. The radio continues to broadcast occasionally from the soybean field it has been in since November. Friends in Daytona Beach will keep trying to see a band, but the legs of Swallow-tailed Kites are very short and covered by feathers.

Most of the young kites that reach fledging age will be on the wing by late June, when they will join feeding flocks over fields and gradually gather with Swallow-tailed Kites of all ages in pre-migration night roosts. These aggregations will grow as the birds prepare for migration, reaching peak numbers in the last week of July. Once again, ARCI will use synchronized aerial photo-surveys during this period to document the number of kites using the 12 largest roosts in Florida. These surveys, which we began in 1989, provide a rare opportunity to track numeric trends for the national population of Swallow-tailed Kites.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Sublime Creatures of the Wind

Finally! As we write, favorable winds are pushing Swallow-tailed Kites northward over the Gulf of Mexico.

Movements of six GPS-satellite tracked Swallow-tailed Kites from 19 Feb - 11 Mar 2016

Welcome back, MIA, to your nest site in Miami, Florida! Although we never doubted his beautiful GPS track (yellow in the map) as the satellites charted his path, it’s now official: Our friend and fellow birder, Alice Horst, spotted MIA, antenna intact, near last year’s nest. He reached the U.S. on a welcome tailwind that pushed him ashore near Homosassa, Florida, then immediately headed south, safely over land for the last 280 miles of his 5,000-mile+ journey. Welcome, indeed! 

Given their last satellite reports and the long-awaited southerly winds now on their tails, our two most-recently tagged Swallow-tailed Kites, Bullfrog from Florida’s Tampa Bay area and Lacombe from southern Louisiana, should now be safely ashore and heading toward last year’s nest territories. 

Pace, from Jacksonville, last reported from the Yucatan Peninsula’s northern coast, no doubt awaiting a tailwind to speed him across the Gulf. He is most of the way home, but the most difficult and dangerous part of his trip lies just offshore. 

Strong River, from Mississippi, is moving fast through Central America and is now in Nicaragua. Closing the gap is Palmetto, from South Carolina. She has made it safely over the Andes Mountains and is working her way through Panama.

Unfortunately, we have not detected a signal from Gulf Hammock of Florida since 10 February. Her last signal came from the massive rainforest headwaters of the Amazon River, near the border of Brazil and Peru. While we hold out some hope, it seems unlikely she is still alive.

Sea below, sky above, land beyond the horizon. Drama to spare! But there are more layers to these stories. It is the forces of the atmosphere that, ultimately, determine the fate of each one of these sublime creatures of the wind. It is all playing out as we write. We will tell you more soon.

Swallow-tailed Kites coming in off the Gulf at St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge on Saturday March 12, 2016.
Photo by Adam Kent.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Out Over the Perilous Deep

We received a lot of “First of the Year” Swallow-tailed Kite sighting reports on 2/24/2016, and it’s no wonder after a look at the following wind maps. The arrows show the wind directions around two high-pressure systems that were moving from west to east (left to right) on 24 and 25 February. The air in a high-pressure system always circulates clockwise and outward, whereas the air in a low flows counter-clockwise and inward. The more “feathers” on the wind arrows, the faster the winds.

Map 1.  11:00 Eastern 2/24/16

On 2/24 (Map 1), a high that had just passed into the eastern Gulf of Mexico was producing southerly winds (i.e., blowing from the south) over the Yucatan Peninsula. This would have encouraged kites staging on the northern Yucatan to begin flying northward. By late morning on the 24th, as this high was leaving the Gulf to the east, it was being replaced by another high approaching from the west. The clockwise-and-outward flow around this second, approaching high produced strong westerly winds across the northern Gulf of Mexico, which blew any northbound Swallow-tailed Kites in that area directly toward the Florida Peninsula (Map 1).  This explains the sudden up-turn in sightings in Florida on the 24th. For the previous 15 days, northerly winds had dominated the region. Most of the birds reported in peninsular Florida on the 24th probably had just reached land.

Map 2. 07:00 Eastern 2/25/16

But wind directions and velocities are continuously changing, and they change particularly fast over the Gulf of Mexico. Just 20 hours later, at 7:00 a.m. on 2/25/2016 (Map 2), the same high had shifted farther to the northeast and was now creating steady northerly winds from the southeastern U.S. southward across the Gulf and deep into the Yucatan Peninsula. This would have discouraged any kites still on the Yucatan from migrating northward. They were safe as long as they stayed on land.

This could not be said for the Swallow-tailed Kites - and all the other northbound migrants of many species - that had already struck out over the Gulf. These birds were now facing solid headwinds. Some that were already close to Florida may have gotten blown far enough south or southeast to encounter Cuba and survive.  But we know from our satellite-tracking studies that many northbound Swallow-tailed Kites come to a virtual stand-still out over the Gulf, turning in circles awaiting a change in the winds that will help them reach shore. We have learned that they can remain aloft over the water for three to four days. Most northbound kites will experience favorable winds in time and reach land. The rest will perish.