Friday, April 27, 2018

Swallow-tailed Kite Northbound Migration Wrap Up

It’s been an exciting migration season for the 11 Swallow-tailed Kites we’ve all been following. Most have returned to their breeding-season homes. This is the first recorded 10,000 mile round-trip journey for several of the kites, and we feel honored to have the opportunity to share it with you! Let’s catch up with everyone and see what they’re up to:

Two blogs ago, Sawgrass, Apopka, and Wilson were poised at the northeastern tip of the Yucatan Peninsula to cross the Gulf of Mexico.


Wilson was first, leaving on 23 March and arriving in Panama City, Florida, on 25 March. He wasted no time gliding back to Palmetto Bluff, South Carolina, and was back near his previous nesting grounds by 29 March. Sawgrass followed next, departing the Yucatan on 25 March to regain solid ground east of New Orleans, Louisiana, on 27 March. She flew an almost identical route on her northbound migration in 2017. With a few short stops to snack along the way, Sawgrass traveled east along the coast, hopped across the Big Bend area of Florida, and reached St. Petersburg, Florida, on 7 April. As of late, her data show frequent movements between the Tampa and St. Petersburg areas. Sawgrass is not yet staying in one place long enough to suggest nesting, but she may choose to do so later in the season.

Apopka crossed last, leaving the Yucatan Peninsula on 30 March and ending up south of Lafayette, Louisiana, on 1 April. He wiggled his way back east, reaching the vicinity of Apopka, Florida, on 9 April. He is staying local, and is currently in the Altamonte Springs area.



Babcock is back on territory at the Babcock Ranch in Charlotte County, Florida. Not far to the northwest is Sarasota, a homebody on Myakka River State Park in Sarasota County, Florida. Both birds are sticking to small, localized areas, suggesting possible nesting behavior.

Palmetto has returned to Palmetto Bluff, South Carolina, for the seventh time since her tagging. She arrived home on 14 April, 15 days before Wilson, and her data are clearly suggesting nesting behavior. Even though she and Wilson are using overlapping areas, they don’t seem to be cozying up to each other at the same nest site.

Lacombe is residing in Louisiana between the cities of Slidell and Lacombe. This is his third year nesting in this area. He’s not far from Bogue Falaya, whose transmitter stopped on 16 March, shortly after he reached Louisiana after crossing the Gulf of Mexico. A few weeks went by without data. We feared the worst, as winds had delayed Bogue Falaya over the Gulf for longer than we would like. But then Dr. Jennifer Coulson, President and Conservation Chair of the Orleans Audubon Society and the woman who fitted Bogue Falaya with his transmitter, wrote to us saying she has seen him at his former nesting grounds near Pearl River, Louisiana, safe and sound.

If you were to look at MIA’s data, it would show him in Honduras. His transmitter has failed after 6 long years of detailed, captivating data. With a guaranteed lifespan of three years, we were impressed his transmitter endured for twice that time, and knew the units could expire at any time. Thankfully, we know from our dedicated and wonderful volunteers that he is nesting again in Miami, Florida! He was spotted copulating and, more recently, tending to his mate while she incubates the nest.

The whereabouts of Panther and Refuge are unknown. We last heard from them in early February and late January, respectively, when they were still in Brazil and just starting to move northward. Last year, we experienced long data lags for Panther, so we are hoping both birds are doing fine. Our colleagues at the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge are keeping close watch for kites carrying transmitters. We also have to remember that the GSM (cell phone) devices they are carrying have an expected life of just under 2 years. This could explain the lack of data for Panther, tagged in 2016, but not Refuge’s silence.

As for most adults in the U.S Swallow-tailed Kite population, these tracked birds probably are now doing their best to contribute to the next generation of Swallow-tailed Kites. It’s hard work building a nest, laying eggs, protecting against predators, and raising young.

If you detect Swallow-tailed Kite nesting activity please report it to our sightings page.

We hope you’ve enjoyed this Swallow-tailed Kite Northbound Migration blog series and look forward to sharing news on the kites’ southbound movements in the fall.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Bogue Falaya's Uncertain Fate




Bogue Falaya, the Swallow-tailed Kite tagged in Louisiana in May 2016 by our project partner, Dr. Jennifer Coulson, is no longer transmitting. For reasons unknown, the last GPS fix we received showed him in the Florida Panhandle between Crawfordville and Panama City on 16 March 2018. 

Each year we see Swallow-tailed Kites struggle to cross the Gulf of Mexico, especially in the face of unfavorable weather conditions. Northerly winds held Bogue Falaya over the Gulf of Mexico for almost three days; still he reached Florida on 12 March. We speculated he may have been weakened by the extended crossing, suffered fatal effects of extreme dehydration, or fallen victim to predation (by chance, or as a result of being debilitated). Transmitter failure was another possibility. 

Weeks went by with no data. On 11 April, we got word from Dr. Coulson that Bogue Falaya is back on his nesting territory in Lousiana! His transmitter has simply failed. We're relieved he is safe and sound.


Bogue Falaya's track across the Gulf of Mexico and last GPS fix on 16 March 2018.


Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Sawgrass, Wilson, and Apopka Check In


When we last reported  on Sawgrass, Apopka, and Wilson in February, they were still in Brazil. A five week lag in data delivery as they traveled through the remote Amazon region of Brazil and Colombia’s Andes Mountains left us anxious for news until 17 March, when their data stream resumed. We were relieved to learn that Wilson was safely in Nicaragua, Sawgrass in Panama, and Apopka in northern Colombia. The transmitters store each kite’s movement data while the birds are beyond range of cell-phone towers, then download the backlogged locations once their signals are detected.  



After fueling up one last time in early March on the border of Brazil and Peru, Wilson passed from Peru to Colombia. He made short work of the Andes Mountains in Colombia, crossing in just 30 hours. On 12 March, he quickly navigated through Central America, cruising through Panama in three days and Costa Rica in one. When Wilson came back online on 17 March, he was near the small town of San Ignacio in Nicaragua.


Sawgrass reached the State of Acre in western Brazil by 18 February, and by 1 March had left Brazil behind for Peru and Colombia. Our tagged Swallow-tailed Kites usually cross the Andes Mountains many miles south of Bogota, Colombia. Perhaps due to the winds on 11 March, Sawgrass chose instead to remain east of the Andes as she flew northward, eventually entering the mountains east of Bogota as she traversed the Andes on a north-northwesterly heading all the way to the Caribbean coast at Cartagena, Colombia. By 17 March, Sawgrass was halfway through Panama.


By early February, Apopka was in the state of Rondonia in western Brazil. He made her way out of Brazil by the end of the month, crossing through Peru and into Colombia in early March. Apopka reached the foothills of the Andes by 15 March, then crossed these imposing mountains in 2 days, settling onto the Pacific coastal plain by the 17th.



Since then, we have received regular data from all three kites. Wilson crossed into Honduras on 18 March and took a well-used short cut over the Gulf of Honduras to bypass Guatemala. By 23 March, he was perched near the coast of the northeastern Yucatan Peninsula, about to cross the Gulf of Mexico. Sawgrass stopped very little after leaving Colombia, passing through Panama in three days. She then covered Costa Rica in one day, zipped through Nicaragua on 21 March, and reached the Yucatan Peninsula by 25 March. After reaching central Panama, Apopka’s route was nearly identical to that of Sawgrass and Wilson. He toured Costa Rica and was in Nicaragua on 24 March, when he last checked in.

Friday, March 23, 2018

March Madness: Four More Gulf Crossings


For many Swallow-tailed Kites, reaching the tip of the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico means they have entered the home stretch of their northbound migration. One last 500-mile-plus push across the dazzling teal waters of the Gulf of Mexico and they’re back over land, reaching their nesting locations with plenty of juicy, nutritious food available along the way.

But the weather can make or break the trip. Northerly winds pushing down the Gulf of Mexico make the risky, direct route home even more challenging. Instead of riding southerly tailwinds, the kites must struggle upwind. Some end up stalled over open ocean, exhausted.

Luckily, failure was not in the cards for Bogue Falaya, Lacombe, Palmetto, and Sarasota. They all made it safely across the Gulf of Mexico, albeit in unexpected ways.



Bogue Falaya was the first of the four to start crossing the Gulf of Mexico, on 9 March. Strong northerly winds forced him to double back and linger off Mexico’s coast until the evening of 10 March, when he was finally able to resume northward travel. At 4 am on 12 March, Bogue Falaya made landfall in the panhandle of Florida near Carrabelle. He was still in the area as of 20 March.

The last two years, Lacombe was able to fly almost due north from the Yucatan Peninsula to his nesting grounds in Louisiana. But not this year. He left the Yucatan Peninsula on 11 March and was immediately pushed eastward, reaching land near Sarasota, Florida, on 12 March. Ever since, he’s been working his way westward, over land, towards Louisiana.

Palmetto waited until the winds quieted to cross. Leaving on 15 March, she was able to fly due north across the Gulf and reach Panama City, Florida, on 17 March. She cut east to the Florida Panhandle, then turned towards South Carolina just north of Jacksonville, Florida. By 20 March, she had reached her nesting grounds. This seems to be her favored flight path, as she took a very similar route in 2017. Who could quibble with her methods? Since being tagged, Palmetto has survived 7 yearly round-trip migrations – that’s over 70,000 miles. What an amazing feat.

Sarasota left the Yucatan Peninsula on 17 March. Instead of flying the short, direct route back to Sarasota County, Florida, Sarasota slowly drifted northeast for two days and reached Steinhatchee, Florida, on the morning of 19 March. Returning to last year’s nest site will be the next priority.


Sunday, March 18, 2018

First Flights to Florida: GPS-tracked Swallow-tailed Kites return to their breeding grounds


If you live in the Southeast, you may have had the privilege in the last few weeks of spotting a graceful black and white raptor soaring over the treetops. They are starting to settle in to nesting territories and court with display flights. They clutch snakes, anoles, or Spanish moss to attract the right mate to the right tree in the right nesting stand – all to do their best to advance their genes into the next generation of Swallow-tailed Kites. The kites have come a long way, most of them 5,000 miles or more, and some are yet to arrive, but they all are running “on time”. These are things we wouldn’t know without the fantastic tools of satellite and GSM technology, from which we are learning so much about migration timing, routes, roost sites, and habits. We need all this information to conserve this spectacular species.

Here we’ll feature the return of two of Florida’s Swallow-tailed Kites, Babcock and MIA, to their breeding territories after they crossed the often-deadly Gulf of Mexico.


Babcock started north in mid-January. After a 2-week stopover in Amazonas, Brazil, she stuck to a rapid pace through South and Central America. In Honduras she took a short cut, one we see many kites take, across the Gulf of Honduras to northern Belize. After a brief over-night on the Yucatán, Babcock caught a tailwind on the morning of 7 March that enabled her to reach land at Cape Sable, Florida, after 36 hours. She spent a night in the Picayune Strand State Forest near Naples, Florida, then returned to her breeding territory in Charlotte County by 9 March.

MIA perches in a pine.
Photo by Alice Horst 2018.
MIA wintered close to Babcock, in Mato Grosso do Sul, Brazil. They departed their winter ranges within a day of each other, although over 160 miles apart at that point. They took a very similar route northward and were at one time within 3 miles of each other. We’ve had a lag in MIA’s data across the Gulf of Mexico, but have learned from some of our great supporters that he was, in fact, back on his former territory by 8 March. He has been photographed courting and nest building once again. No time wasted!








Monday, March 12, 2018

Movement Update: 26 February 2018


All migrating Swallow-tailed Kites we have tracked since 1996 have crossed the Andes Mountains from east to west in western Colombia before continuing northward. In Colombia, the Andes Mountains consist of three major ridges: the Cordilleras Oriental (eastern), Central, and Occidental (western). On 26 February 2018, MIA and Babcock were over the Cordillera Occidental on their way to Panama.
Bogue Falaya and Lacombe were approaching the Cordillera Oriental in southern Colombia. Wilson and Panther were on the border of Peru and Brazil. Palmetto had surged ahead of Sawgrass, Apopka, and Refuge to join Sarasota in the state of Amazonas, Brazil.

Sawgrass left her wintering grounds on 2 February and was just north of the Bolivian/Brazilian border. Apopka had moved slightly north in the state of Rondônia, Brazil.

Refuge has not sent data in a few weeks. Why does this happen? We use transmitters with two different types of data-delivery methods: one where the data comes to us through satellites; and another that uses the cellular network. Refuge is being tracked with a solar powered GPS/GSM (cellular network) transmitter made by Ecotone Telemetry, Inc., which needs to be within range of a cell-phone tower to upload the data. When a bird is beyond range, the unit stores daily GPS locations until its signal can be picked up by a cellular tower. This is happening right now as the birds are crossing through the great Amazon basin and over the Andes Mountains. Sawgrass, Panther, Sarasota, Babcock, Wilson, and Apopka also are tracked by GPS/GSM transmitters.

MIA, Palmetto, Lacombe, and Bogue Falaya are being tracked by solar powered GPS/satellite transmitters made by Microwave Telemetry, Inc. These units upload data to satellites, always within transmission range, every 2 days, and store GPS locations in the off day while the transmitter recharges, resulting in essentially continuous data delivery.



Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Ready to Return


Before reading on: Be sure to familiarize yourself with the eleven Swallow-tailed Kites we’re tracking in last week’s blog, “New and Familiar Feathers”.

In September 2017, our attention turned to the effects of Hurricane Irma, and reporting the progress of our tagged Swallow-tailed Kites’ southbound migrations fell through the cracks. We’re happy to tell you all eleven individuals safely reached their respective wintering grounds in South America. Nine Swallow-tailed Kites left from the southern tip of Florida to cross the Gulf of Mexico, a familiar route many tagged birds have taken in previous years. Lacombe and Bogue Falaya, both from Louisiana, skipped the ocean option and instead took the less-risky path over land, down the east coast of Texas and Mexico, ultimately rejoining the rest of the southbound birds from the US population.
 
Southbound-migration paths of ARCI's eleven tagged Swallow-tailed Kites, 2017. 
Environmental and biological triggers tell Swallow-tailed Kites to migrate each season; however, each individual’s itinerary looks slightly different. Babcock crossed the Gulf of Mexico first on 13 July 2017. Two weeks later, Refuge and Panther followed, leaving Florida hours apart. Palmetto, MIA, Lacombe, Sawgrass, Sarasota, Bogue Falaya, and Wilson left throughout August. Last but not least, Apopka jetted south just three days before Hurricane Irma hit Florida on 8 September.

Babcock may have left two weeks earlier, but Lacombe, Palmetto, MIA, Panther, and she reached the State of Mato Grosso do Sul, Brazil, within 5 days of each other in early October. Next came Sawgrass, who leisurely joined the others in mid-November. Sarasota, who was in the State of Amazonas in western Brazil in October, reached Mato Grosso do Sul in January 2018. These seven Swallow-tailed Kites all used the same 700 square-mile patchwork of ranchlands and remnant forests.

Three kites, Apopka, Refuge, and Bogue Falaya, over-wintered in the State of Rondônia, about 800 miles north of the wintering grounds in Mato Grosso do Sul. Here the landscape is a mosaic of farms and forest as well. Speeding through Central America, Bogue Falaya wasted no time in reaching Rondônia in early October. Apopka, who left last and spent a few extra days in Cuba, likely waiting for favorable winds after Hurricane Irma, reached Rondônia in early November. Refuge spent September and October on the northern border of Bolivia and Peru, then moved west to join Apopka and Bogue Falaya in December. Wilson spent October in Rondônia, but moved on to the State of Mato Grosso in November, where he stayed until January.

We waited patiently for the data to suggest the restlessness commonly observed in migratory birds about to make their seasonal moves. On 19 January 2018, MIA was first to move north out of his wintering grounds. MIA began his northbound migration on this exact day in 2017. Palmetto did the same, leaving on 2 February in both 2017 and 2018. Talk about consistency! This is most likely due to the kites’ sensitivity to day length as a way to time their migration departures.

The location of 11 tracked Swallow-tailed Kites as of 5 February 2018.
Lacombe left Louisiana on 21 January, one week earlier than in 2017. Panther left one day later than her 2017 departure on 18 January. According to her latest data, Sawgrass remains on her wintering grounds as of 28 January. We expect her to make a move soon (last year, she started north on 10 Feb).

For the six Swallow-tailed Kites tagged in 2017, this is our first glimpse into the paths they will take on their northbound journeys. We hope all of them have uneventful journeys.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

New and Familiar Feathers; Eleven Swallow-tailed Kites begin migrating north


Before we kick off this season’s Swallow-tailed Kite Northbound Migration blog series, we want to recognize all the members of our Swallow-tailed Kite Tracking Program. We are currently tracking eleven individuals: six new kites, all tagged in the summer of 2017, and five veterans tagged between 2011 and 2016. With each passing year and new addition to the program, we expand our understanding of the complex lives and needs of these fascinating raptors. The 11 Swallow-tailed Kites are listed in chronological order by tagging date.
Remembering each tagging experience (clockwise from top left):
Panther, Sawgrass, MIA, Apopka, Bogue Falaya, Palmetto.

Palmetto: Palmetto is a true champion! Tagged in June 2011 in Palmetto Bluff, South Carolina, she has been tracked for nearly seven years, the longest we have followed any Swallow-tailed Kite since we began this program in 1996.

MIA: Not far behind for tracking duration is MIA, who was tagged in June 2012 in Miami-Dade County, Florida. This year’s pilgrimage to his nesting grounds in Miami will complete six migratory cycles for MIA – that’s over 60,000 miles. Amazing!

Lacombe: Lacombe was tagged in July 2015 by our project partner Dr. Jennifer Coulson, President and Conservation Chair of Orleans Audubon Society. Previous kites tagged by Dr. Coulson migrated over land along the western coast of the Gulf of Mexico. However, for the past two northbound migrations, Lacombe flew north from Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula directly to Louisiana. Will he do the same this year?

Panther: Panther was tagged at the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge in Collier County, Florida, in June 2016. Last year, she persevered through strong northerly winds in the Gulf of Mexico to return to her nesting grounds. Hopefully the weather will instead facilitate the kites' return this year.

Sawgrass: This Swallow-tailed Kite is not averse to city life. Sawgrass was tagged in June 2016 at Sawgrass Lake Park in St. Petersburg, Florida, one of the few green spaces peppering this densely-developed island. In the winter months, she trades bustling urban centers for the remote ranchlands of southern Brazil.

Bogue Falaya: Bogue Falaya was tagged in Louisiana last May by Dr. Jennifer Coulson. Dr. Coulson shares with us her experience trapping and tagging Bogue Falaya in this blog.

Refuge: Refuge is the second bird we have tagged at the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge in Collier County, Florida. Her nest was deep in the heart of the NWR. It was quite an undertaking to get gear and our trusty owl to the site on a 45-minute swamp buggy ride. She received his transmitter in May 2017.

Sarasota: Sarasota was tagged in June 2017 at T. Mabry Carlton Preserve in Sarasota County, Florida. County staff and local birders were instrumental in locating and monitoring the Swallow-tailed Kite nests in the area (special thanks to Debbie Blanco of Sarasota County). We had a successful evening capture and now Sarasota is sporting a new transmitter as well.

Babcock: Babcock was tagged in June 2017 at Babcock Ranch Wildlife Management Area (WMA) in Glades County, Florida. We had last minute permission and a one-day-only trapping window to try to capture and tag a bird at this WMA. Luckily, the stars aligned and Babcock flew off with a new radio, the first of our tagged kites to cross the Gulf of Mexico on their southbound migrations.

Wilson: Wilson was tagged in June 2017 at Palmetto Bluff, South Carolina. In the 2017 breeding season, he frequented the same areas as Palmetto. If they both return, will she choose him as a partner this nesting season?

Apopka: Apopka has a unique story. Needing rehabilitation after a car collision, he recovered quickly with the help of the wonderful folks at Avian Reconditioning Center (ARC) in Apopka, Florida. With the amazing fund-raising efforts of ARC’s Paula Ashby and the generous contributions of Audubon chapters, kind individuals and the City of Apopka, ARCI had the means to deploy a transmitter on Apopka in July 2017, who started his southbound migration just ahead of Hurricane Irma. Read his full story here.

We have many people and organizations to thank for their generous monetary and logistical support of the Swallow-tailed Kite tracking program:

Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge
Friends of the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge
Carlton Ward Jr.
Will Randal
Stephanie Green
Mark Danaher
T. M Mabry Carlton Reserve, Sarasota Co.
Deborah Blanco
Erin Myers
Hans Mooyman
Gabe Vargo
Judi Hopkins
St. Petersburg Audubon Society
Dr. Jennifer Coulson
Friends of the Conservancy
Palmetto Bluff Conservancy
Peace River Audubon Society
Sarasota Audubon Society
Friends of the Carlton Reserve
The City of Apopka
Avian Reconditioning Center (Carol and Scott McCorkle)
Audubon Center for Birds of Prey (Diana Flynt)
Halifax Audubon Society
Oklawaha Audubon Society
Seminole County Audubon Society
Tampa Bay Raptor Rescue
Clearwater Audubon Society
West Volusia Audubon Society
Deborah Green
Janet Marks
Eileen Tramontana
Sandie Selman
Disney Volunteers from ARC, Rebecca Grimm and Alyssa Karnitz

Bogue Falaya's Debut from the Bayou


Dr. Jennifer Coulson, President and Conservation Chair of the Orleans Audubon Society, studies population and nesting ecology of Swallow-tailed Kites in Louisiana and Mississippi. She’s also a long-time colleague and friend to ARCI. Dr. Coulson captured and tagged Swallow-tailed Kites Slidell, PearlMS, Pasc, and Strong River, who have since stopped transmitting, and Lacombe, who’s in his third year of tracking. She uses the same trapping technique we’ve carefully developed over the years to safely capture Swallow-tailed Kites – a strategically placed mist net and a lure bird. ARCI’s favorite lure is Trapper, a disabled educational Great Horned Owl, who has worked with us for over a decade. 

Dr. Coulson recounts her exciting experience tagging Swallow-tailed Kite Bogue Falaya with her husband Tom Coulson:

“We trapped Bogue Falaya a stone’s throw from the Bogue Falaya River, one of Louisiana’s Natural and Scenic Rivers, in a forested subdivision. The river flows through pine and bottomland hardwood forests, ideal habitat for Swallow-tailed Kites. Three pairs of Swallow-tailed Kites are known to inhabit a nesting “neighborhood” along the river.

Bogue Falaya's striking profile.
With permission, we set up our trapping equipment on a lawn near one of those known nests. Only 12 minutes after the owl was in place and the nets were opened, the Bogue Falaya male made a bold, earthbound dive in an attempt to drive the owl away from its nest. In doing so, he encountered the net and unwittingly became part of our kite tracking and suburban nest studies.

Tom Coulson displays Bogue
 Falaya's new transmitter.
The kite’s banding measurements and soiled undertail coverts indicated that it was probably male, but we took a small blood sample for DNA sexing just to be sure. The usually-white undertail coverts were soiled from hauling food; males tend to hunt farther from the nest and thus spend more time carrying food than females. Although robust, Bogue Falaya was somewhat small, also suggesting this bird is a male. In raptors, females tend to be the larger sex.

Once Bogue Falaya was tagged and identifiable, we observed his behavior to determine which nest he tended. Four days after tagging him, we watched him deliver a green anole to one of the nests in the neighborhood. Bingo! Bogue Falaya and his mate successfully fledged two healthy-looking young."


Fatherhood completed, Bogue Falaya left his nesting grounds on 19 Aug 2017 and, unlike the kites from Florida who cross the Gulf of Mexico, made his way over land by way of Mexico and Central America to overwinter in Brazil. Winter (actually summer in Brazil) came and went, and on 22 Jan 2018, Bogue Falaya began to inch northward, indicating an imminent northbound migration.

Bogue Falaya takes to the skies upon release.