Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Three cheers for Sawgrass, Palmetto, and Lacombe

After 18 days of radio silence, Sawgrass reappeared – in Honduras! Her previous fixes were in Brazil, where she was slowly edging her way north through areas with little or no cell phone coverage. Sawgrass recently moved through the city of Los Leones, Honduras and, like most kites, will skip Guatemala in favor of a quick over-water flight to Belize. She will be the last of our tracked Swallow-tailed Kites to cross the Gulf of Mexico.
Locations of our GPS-tracked Swallow-tailed Kites as of 1 April 2017. 
MIA and Panther are both safely back home in South Florida. MIA has already found a mate and started nesting. We suspect Panther is doing the same. Here's how MIA crossed the gulf.

After losing Bullfrog in an arduous flight over the Gulf of Mexico, we worried over each next kite that followed. We were glad to see Panther make it despite ever-changing winds that zig-zagged her course and prolonged her crossing. The strong northerly winds that prevailed for Bullfrog, and probably countless other migrating Swallow-tailed Kites and birds, finally relented. On 22 March, Palmetto became the fourth of our six tagged kites to start the journey across the Gulf. She flew due north with ease thanks to widespread southerly winds, reaching Mississippi on 25 March. She then worked her way east, weaving through Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina to settle within meters of her 2016 nesting area.

Lacombe reached the northeast coast of the Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula on 24 March, just two days behind Palmetto. The winds pushed him swiftly across to Louisiana in one day. After reaching land south of Morgan City, he wasted no time heading back to the east shore of Lake Pontchartrain near his namesake city of Lacombe, Louisiana.

Lacombe (green) and Palmetto (white) crossed the Gulf of Mexico with favorable winds. They returned home to their nesting areas in Louisiana and South Carolina, respectively. 

Friday, March 24, 2017

At the liberty of the winds

On 13 March, Panther had flown as far north as she could before crossing the Gulf of Mexico. She hovered on the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, faced with strong headwinds produced by the same unseasonably late cold front the late Bullfrog encountered. We hoped she would wait for the winds to calm, as we are all too aware how profoundly weather can affect a migrating Swallow-tailed Kite’s journey across the Gulf. Panther crept east out over the sea, skirting the north coast of Cuba before briefly seeking refuge on a barrier island north of Corralillo, Cuba. After a day of rest, she resumed her journey and made what appears to be an attempt at reaching Florida, just 100 miles north of her. Thwarted by winds from yet another cold front, she careened northwest until stalling over open water on 18 March. Finally, able to direct her path towards land, Panther reached Bradenton, Florida on 19 March. Despite having spent nearly 5 days over the Gulf, she wasted no time, settling back on her nesting grounds on the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge on 20 March. 

Palmetto from South Carolina, our longest-tracked kite, covered a significant amount of ground since we saw her enter Nicaragua on 14 March. She has passed Lacombe and will be the next kite to make the Gulf crossing. Southeasterly winds will be increasing in strength over the next two days, but should calm by Sunday morning. We wish Palmetto the best of luck.

The last time we heard from Sawgrass, she was still in South America in a region where there are few cell-phone towers to which her transmitter can download her accumulated GPS data. We aren’t worried yet. We experienced the same lapse in communication when Panther went through this entire area, not receiving data from her until she came online in Panama after 38 days of radio silence.

Not far behind Palmetto is Lacombe, a male Swallow-tailed Kite tagged in 2015 by our colleague Jennifer Coulson in Louisiana. Last year, he, like most of our satellite-tracked birds, migrated through the Gulf earlier in March and caught a lucky break that took him straight north to familiar grounds of Louisiana (see his path in "Sublime Creatures of the Wind"). What will his route look like this year?

MIA is already paired up and working on a nest in the Miami area.  We are hopeful that all the northbound Swallow-tailed Kites, tagged and un-tagged, will be back soon on the breeding grounds and beginning another annual nesting cycle

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

When no news is bad news

We’ve come to grips with the fact that we are no longer getting satellite data from Bullfrog, a female Swallow-tailed Kite tagged in June 2015 in the Tampa Bay area of Florida.
On 8 March 2017, Bullfrog leapt out over the Gulf of Mexico from the northeastern tip of the Yucatan Peninsula just north of Cancun. At first, she traveled northward with a good tailwind, but a late-season cold front created forceful headwinds that quickly stalled any forward movement. On 10 March, west winds developed and Bullfrog quickly took up a downwind course toward Florida. She made rapid progress until the winds changed again, now from the north, while she was still 200 miles from Florida.  She flew at high speed for nearly another 200 miles – but southward! This leg took her almost to Cuba before she took the ever-changing winds westward to the tip of the Yucatan, from which she had departed 3 days before. We were relieved, at least, that Bullfrog was now within 25 miles of land, where she could rest before making another attempt to reach Florida.

However, our relief was short-lived.  Rather than going ashore, Bullfrog’s drive to reach home took her northwest, riding the wind back out into the Gulf of Mexico, until she was once again struggling with headwinds. At that point, over water more than 4 full days and nights, not even a strong tailwind could carry her to shore in time. Bullfrog’s last location was in the Gulf of Mexico, 270 miles from the closest land. Undoubtedly, many other Swallow-tailed Kites, and many thousands of birds of many other species – untagged and unnamed – met the same fate during this period.

Bullfrog’s situation was, unfortunately, not unique. As we have learned from the similar scenarios that have played out for other Swallow-tailed Kites we were tracking, these birds cannot stay aloft more than 4 days without drinking or eating. In every case, large, unseasonable cold fronts resulted in persistent strong northerly winds, keeping these trans-Gulf migrants from reaching land in time. In 2013, three of the 11 Swallow-tailed Kites we were tracking died while laboring northward over the Gulf of Mexico in a similar weather pattern.

We celebrate Bullfrog today and the wealth of knowledge she provided over the last two years. She fledged two broods of two chicks each – the most any female kite ever accomplishes – during this time, and showed us her unique pre-migration route and communal roost sites through south Florida, her travel routes and winter destination, and all the places, from disturbed and degraded habitats to well-managed protected areas, that posed threats or served as refuges to her along her way.  We are grateful to the Florida Aquarium and its friends and supporters, especially Glory Moore and the St. Petersburg Audubon Society, for providing the necessary funding for Bullfrog’s transmitter and tracking data; and to Microwave Telemetry and CLS America for the technology to “see” into the lives of these amazing birds as they annually traverse the western hemisphere. 

We also thank all of you who are reading this story for your enthusiastic interest, and for being concerned about the well-being of our planet and its wild inhabitants. We appreciate all you are doing, and all we hope you will consider doing, to ensure that our choices and actions do not further imperil the natural world.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Closing the gaps

We have never seen a Swallow-tailed Kite do what MIA just did to reach his nesting area. After watching him seek refuge on Cuba during strong mid-Gulf headwinds, only to embark on a startling trip west across the Gulf to Louisiana rather than flying the short distance back to his Miami nest site, we imagined he would at least travel over land the remainder of the way home. Instead, he took a risky shortcut, launching out over the Gulf once again at Apalachee Bay in Florida’s eastern panhandle. He continued parallel to the west coast of Florida for 300 miles before returning to land in Cape Coral and closing the last 100+ miles to Miami. Finally, he is home.

Bullfrog is making her way across the Gulf of Mexico. She has been pushing against strong headwinds produced by late-winter cold fronts.  We are anxiously waiting for her transmitter to turn back on with good news. 

The last time we checked in on Lacombe and Palmetto, both were crossing the Andes Mountains. Now they are sailing rapidly through Central America. Lacombe is in southern Nicaragua, 420 miles ahead of Palmetto, in Panama. 

Panther has made it to the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico and is now on the cusp of crossing the Gulf. We hope she waits for favorable weather.

Only Sawgrass remains in South America, presumably stocking up on insects, snakes, lizards, and frogs where Brazil, Peru, and Colombia all join, and where most of our tracked kites linger on their way north. 

Friday, March 10, 2017

In the spotlight: MIA

When MIA reached Cuba after changing course to avoid headwinds over the Gulf, we assumed he would be on his Miami nest territory within hours of resuming his flight. We were wrong.  The winds improved a bit as he rested over land, from northwest to southeast, apparently encouraging him the evening of 6 March to head back out over the ocean. However, this meant that, instead of ending up in the Everglades within a few hours, he was carried west-northwestward, missing the Keys and winding up back over the Gulf. Fortunately, he had enough strength and just enough of a southerly component in the wind to reach the Delta National Wildlife Refuge on 6 March, where the Mississippi River empties into the Gulf of Mexico. MIA then turned northward, crossing Chandeleur Sound to find refuge in a small, wooded area near Biloxi, Mississippi. Watching this drama unfold makes it easy to understand why northbound migration is the most dangerous time of the year for the Swallow-tailed Kites that nest in the United States.

Watch MIA cross the Gulf of Mexico in this short video:

To increase the resolution of the video, click the gear icon and select 1080p (HD).

On 26 February, MIA was traveling through Nicaragua. Wasting no time in reaching the northeastern tip of the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, he immediately began to cross the Gulf of Mexico. Interrupted by strong headwinds, MIA veered east to Cuba, taking a pit-stop necessary to wait for favorable crossing weather. But then, the winds shifted, and favorable tailwinds enabled MIA to make it safely to Louisiana. The remainder of the journey will be over land with plenty of resources along the way. 

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Two Sighs of Relief

We last heard from Panther on 26 January – nearly 40 days ago. The weeks went by and we remained hopeful, but the kites face challenges and risks on their winter and migration ranges.  To our great relief, we just received data from Panther as she is making her way northward through Panama.

MIA faced harsh headwinds this weekend as he attempted to cross the Gulf of Mexico - weather that could have resulted in his death.  We know that Swallow-tailed Kites can endure no more than 4 days of over-water flight before becoming unable to continue.  However, MIA veered east in time, with the help of a slight shift in wind direction, and found refuge on Cuba 95 miles east of Havana. The winds have calmed and shifted to southerly, providing a tailwind that will ensure an easy final leg of to Florida and an arrival close to home.

Lacombe is beginning to cross the Andes Mountains. We should soon see Palmetto and Sawgrass do the same as they steadily move northward.

Costa Rica and Nicaragua might have seemed a blur to Bullfrog, who flew over land from Panama to Honduras in only 4 days. She will reach the Yucatan Peninsula within a few days and become our second tagged kite to take on the risky trans-Gulf flight home. 

Sunday, March 5, 2017

This most dangerous time of year

It seems that traversing the Andes Mountains lights a fire in northbound Swallow-tailed Kites. In just 8 days after this daunting crossing in southwestern Colombia, South America, MIA covered over 1,600 miles, including a circuitous path through all of Central America and the length of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula.  He launched on 3 March from the region’s northeastern tip with a welcome tailwind and is now out over the Gulf of Mexico. However, northeast winds with gusts to 32 mph are forecast for the next 2 days. These powerful headwinds will pose a serious challenge to MIA’s passage. At the least, his path and hoped-for landfall will be very difficult to predict. We will keep you informed.

Bullfrog rested briefly after crossing the Andes, but has since covered Panama and is about to cross into Costa Rica.  

GPS-tracking data for six Swallow-tailed Kites showing their location as of 3/3/17.

Notice how quickly MIA and Bullfrog are now moving compared with the leisurely pace of the other swallow-tails we are tracking. Data from the last few weeks for the birds still in South America show a consistent pattern: remain in an area for a few days, travel northward a few hundred miles or less, and repeat. However, once they cross the Andes, they fly continuously each day until reaching the Gulf coast of the northeastern Yucatan Peninsula.

Lacombe, Palmetto, and Sawgrass have all edged northward toward their intersection with the Andes Mountains. Lacombe is currently in the Amazonian rainforest on the north end of Peru. Palmetto traveled roughly 400 miles since our previous blog and is now in Brazil, just west of where Lacombe had passed at that time. Sawgrass cruised into Bolivia over the same ground Palmetto had just traversed.  

Panther’s location depicted on the map was her last fix, which we received on 26 January 2017. She probably has been beyond cell-tower range since then. We are hoping to hear from her soon.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

A new leader, a risky passage

GPS-tracking data for six Swallow-tailed Kites showing their locations as of 21 February 2017. 

The Andes Mountains, the longest continental range in the world, actually consist of three distinct ranges: the Cordilleras Oriental, Central, and Occidental (East, Central, and West, respectively). To continue the journey to their nesting areas, our Swallow-tailed Kites need to cross all three. Our new leader, MIA, is currently in Columbia carefully navigating through the Cordilleras Central. A mere 67 miles behind, Bullfrog is winding through the Cordilleras Oriental. We wish them safe travels through the steep-sided valleys and narrow passes of this demanding terrain, where turbulent winds, quickly-changing weather, and high altitudes must challenge the aviating skills of even the most adept flyers.

Lacombe, 550 miles behind Bullfrog, has moved northwest to the border of Brazil and Peru. Near a meandering branch of the Rio Solimōes and surrounded by dense Amazonian rainforest, Lacombe is likely enjoying a bountiful supply of insects as he makes his way home.

Slowly pushing northward, Palmetto is passing over the farming region surrounding Nova Mamoré in the Brazilian State of Rodôndia. The city sits just east of the Guaporé River, which forms the border between Brazil and northeastern Bolivia. 

Panther’s location depicted on the map was her last fix, which we received on 26 January 2017. She probably has been beyond cell-tower range since then. We are hoping to hear from her soon.

We find Sawgrass in the same area as in the previous blog, now 1,800 miles behind the leader, MIA. She is probably accumulating the last of the fat she needs before taking on the next leg of her northbound migration. 

Friday, February 17, 2017

5,000 miles home

All six of our satellite-tracked Swallow-tailed Kites have left their South American winter ranges on their migration back to the breeding range in the southeastern U.S.  This map will give you a quick idea where they were as of 14 February 2017. 

GPS-tracking data for six Swallow-tailed Kites showing most recent locations
in South America on their northbound migration. 

Bullfrog, tagged near Florida’s Tampa Bay, remains in the lead, but MIA is only 100 miles behind.  Both are in the Amazon rainforest of northeastern Peru. Their tracks reveal a slow-down in this area, most likely to regain some fat reserves by feeding on the plentiful insects this lush forest has to offer. 

We are hoping that Panther is close to MIA and Bullfrog in the remote Amazon.  Although we have not received data from her in a few weeks, we are not yet alarmed because this area has very few human settlements with cell-phone coverage. The location depicted on the map was her last fix, which we received on 26 January 2017.

A little over 500 miles to the southeast of Panther is Lacombe, edging northward.  He is one of the four tracked kites that have not yet made it out of Brazil.

Palmetto is pushing northwestward, having passed through an extensive agricultural region in the state of Rondônia, Brazil.

In the last blog, Sawgrass was on the eastern border of Paraguay. She stayed there a few weeks before continuing east-northeast into Brazil, where the majority of our tracked kites spent our winter (summer there). Sawgrass is now northbound on the same track taken by our other tagged birds before her. She is 500 miles behind Palmetto and 1,400 miles from Bullfrog, the leader. It is interesting that Bullfrog and Sawgrass, the two Swallow-tailed Kites that nested closest to each other (near Florida’s Tampa Bay), are the “book ends” of our 2017 migration story.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Northbound race to breeding sites: Swallow-tailed Kites have started their migration!

It’s that time of year again when we see those familiar GPS fixes in South America begin edging northward. For several years, ARCI has been monitoring satellite-tracked Swallow-tailed Kites on their wintering grounds in South America. We always know that within the last two weeks of January we can expect some of them to begin their migration back to the southeastern United States.

Right on time, the first bird to start north on 17 January was Bullfrog from Tampa Bay Florida, two days earlier than last year. She was our northern-most wintering kite, in Mato Grosso do Sul, Brazil. Today, she remains farther north than any of our tracked kites, along the Bolivian border in the northern part of Rondônia state, Brazil.

GPS-tracking data for six Swallow-tailed Kites during the month of January, 2017 in South America and the start of their northbound migration back to breeding sites in the southeastern U.S.
MIA, from Miami, Florida, started north on 18 January. Even though he wintered 225 miles south of Bullfrog in Brazil, he traveled faster and is probably less than 6 hours behind Bullfrog.

Lacombe, tagged in Louisiana by our colleague Dr. Jennifer Coulson, began moving north on 28 January. He appears to be taking a more westerly route across Brazil’s famous Pantanal, where he now resides, in northern Mato Grosso do Sul.

Palmetto, tagged near her nest in South Carolina in 2011, remains on her winter range near Santa Rita do Pardo in Mato Grosso do Sul. MIA, Lacombe, and Palmetto spent most of the winter within the same area, using the same foraging and roosting sites, where they were joined by Panther in late December.

Panther, from the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge in Collier County, is also edging north and last uploaded GPS locations on 26 January from Rondônia, Brazil, where she was only 15 miles away from Bullfrog. Because Panther and Sawgrass transmit their data via cell towers rather than satellite, we have not yet received the entire location track for this bird. GPS data are collected even when the transmitter is too far from a cell tower. The backlogged data will begin uploading once the bird comes within range of the next tower. However, the bird may move beyond range of that tower before the upload is complete, thus requiring a succession of uploads before all the data get delivered.

Our most unusual wintering Swallow-tailed Kite movements come from Sawgrass, a female tagged in St. Petersburg, Florida. She resided in southern Bolivia along the Argentinean boarder where none of our previously tracked kites have wintered. On 8 January, she wandered east across Paraguay to Amambay Department, where she has been since 17 January. This is 180 miles southwest of the four communal Swallow-tailed Kites in Brazil.

The race is on! We hope these Swallow-tailed Kites have an easy journey back to their breeding grounds in the Southeastern U.S. We’ll keep you posted. Buen viaje!