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 birdsofprey@stpeteaudubon.org.