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.