Monday, July 27, 2020

A Special Swallow-tailed Kite from Sanibel Island

At the close of the 2020 Swallow-tailed Kite breeding season, when most kite families had already moved on from their nest sites to prepare for fall migration, ARCI succeeded in capturing and deploying a GPS backpack transmitter on an adult, Sanibel South, near its nest on West Gulf Drive on Sanibel Island, Florida. We are grateful for the enabling support of the Sanibel-Captiva Audubon Society and the family of the late Jim Griffith, whose boundless energy and generosity inspired and fueled so many successful conservation endeavors on Sanibel Island.  
Audrey Albrecht of SCCF holds a Swallow-tailed Kite in a protective can while Gina Kent of ARCI takes leg measurements and Amanda Wilkes of ARC records notes. Photo by Cheri Hollis

At a different nest last year, but also in honor of Jim, ARCI tagged and began tracking a male Swallow-tailed Kite, named Sanibel. Although this bird proceeded to complete a full round-trip migration between Florida and its Brazilian winter range, his GPS data stream ceased in early March soon after he reached the Gulf coast of Florida’s Big Bend region. We have not been able to discern whether Sanibel died or his transmitter failed prematurely. Many able observers on Sanibel watched for a Swallow-tailed Kite carrying a transmitter near Sanibel’s former nesting territory. However, given the low profile and internal antenna of the tracking device he was carrying, Sanibel’s fate may remain a mystery.
Gina Kent of the Avian Research and Conservation Institute gets ready to release Sanibel South, a GPS-tracked Swallow-tailed Kite.  Photo by Cheri Hollis.

After successfully fledging two offspring, Sanibel South made her way inland to the ranch and farmlands west of Lake Okeechobee, in Glades County, Florida, where she began preparing for her southbound migration. However, rather than lingering there, she continued 220 miles north to Gilchrist County, Florida, where she spent her nights roosting along the Santa Fe River.  
Movement of Sanibel South, a Swallow-tailed Kite GPS-tracked by the Avian Research and Conservation Institute through July, 2020.
Sanibel South stayed there for the better part of 20 days, apart from two interesting field trips. One was a 140-mile overnight venture to the St. Mary’s River (the Florida/Georgia state line) within the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. The other trip was 23 miles due east of her Santa Fe roost to Gainesville, Florida, where she spent a night five blocks away from the ARCI office!  The next day, she promptly backtracked to her Gilchrist County foraging area (although we didn’t get to thank her personally, we imagined her Gainesville visit a nice gesture).

Alachua County, Florida foraging aggregation of Swallow-tailed Kites over melon fields, July 2020.  Photo by Adam Kent
We had the opportunity this week to make a day trip to Sanibel South’s foraging area. To our great surprise, Sanibel was in the company of over 600 Swallow-tailed Kites!!  These birds were taking advantage of the insects swarming over fallow fields, rotting watermelon crops, and small pine plantations along a busy county road – a Swallow-tailed Kite phenomenon that occurs sporadically at this time of year. Although we were unable to pick out Sanibel South, just knowing that she was in good company among the swirling masses of foraging kites and rapidly preparing for her imminent 5,000-mile migration gave us welcome piece of mind.

Sanibel South has since made a southward move into Collier County, Florida. We expect that she soon will be making her 400+ mile crossing over the Gulf of Mexico to pick up the traditional southbound, overland pathway of thousands of other Swallow-tailed Kites temporarily vacating their breeding range here in the southeastern United States. This is always a joyful-yet-sad time of year for us, all the more so as we remember Jim Griffith. However, with March likely to be here before we know it, and if we and the kites are all fortunate enough to be able to partake of another intoxicating southern spring, we can once again celebrate this glorious avian parable of nature’s inexplicable beauty and resilience. 

Special thanks to Cheri Hollis, Audrey Albrecht of Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation, Amanda Wilkes and Nonamé the Great-horned Owl of the Avian Reconditioning Center, Phyllis Gresham and Debi Griffith, all for whom this research would not be possible.

Monday, July 20, 2020

ARCI’s GPS tracking of Swallow-tailed Kite during the 2020 breeding season

This has been a difficult nesting season for Swallow-tailed Kites and researchers. There were many nest failures, and COVID-19 greatly restricted our ability to find and monitor nesting kites. Here is a summary of what we have noted and suspect based on the results of ARCI’s GPS telemetry research, which we feel particularly fortunate to have in place.

Apopka once again enjoyed his summer without committing to a nest site. He spent most of his time around Longwood, Florida, a familiar area.
Apopka, a GPS-tracked Swallow-tailed Kite (note the small transmitter on his back). Photo by S. Mitcham.

Location data from the beginning of the nesting season indicated that Pritchard, tagged on Palmetto Bluff, South Carolina, returned to and initially remained near his previously used home range at the beginning of the season, but suddenly moved to an area around a previously identified roost site several miles to the north, on the New River. Although this may have resulted from predation at his habitually used nest site, we have no way of knowing.

In Florida, we were grateful to several local land managers for field investigations of clusters of GPS locations on three properties:  Palm Beach County Environmental Resources Management lands, the Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge (Levy County), and the T. Mabry Carlton Jr. Memorial Reserve (Sarasota County).  Recently used but vacant nests were observed on each of the territories of the tagged males PBC-ERM, Suwannee, and Sarasota. Given the timing, these observations suggest that all three nests failed prior to the time when fledging would have occurred, most likely due to predation.

Dr. Jennifer Coulson, Orleans Audubon reported that Ponchitolawa’s nest in Louisiana was depredated.

Female Sawgrass was spotted and monitored for nesting behavior by local naturalist Mia Majetschak, who had observed them nest building but was unable to detect the kites in the area a few days later.  Either the pair did not produce any eggs, or the eggs were depredated soon thereafter.

Sawgrass, a GPS-tracked Swallow-tailed Kite (note the small transmitter on her back). Photo by M. Majetschak.
Based on our observations and those of others at nest territories that have been active in recent years, some Swallow-tailed Kites nested successfully this year. However, such success was not reflected among the sample of kites we are currently tracking.

Even when COVID-19 was not an issue, it has been impossible for ARCI’s small but experienced staff to visit and monitor the Swallow-tailed Kite nests throughout Florida. This is why we developed the Eyes on Kites nest monitoring program to which many of you have contributed.  Now is the time to finish up and submit your-nest fate forms.  If you knew of a nest site this year, we would love to have the location and final-outcome data for our Florida Kite Nest database, so please consider signing up and sharing your contributions through our form.

Thank you for all your sightings!  Together we can learn about keep up with nesting locations and success throughout Florida.

Friday, July 17, 2020

Swallow-tailed Kite Population Monitoring Surveys during COVID-19

@ D. Brewer 2018. Swallow-tailed Kites in roost tree.

Every year since 1989, ARCI has conducted systematic aerial surveys to count Swallow-tailed Kites at more than 15 large pre-migration roosts during a 10-day window in late July. These roosts, some of which hold up to 4,000 birds, provide an extremely rare and valuable opportunity for long-term population monitoring of this imperiled species. This year, however, health, safety and funding constraints resulting from COVID-19 have forced us to scale back ARCI’s monitoring surveys by limiting our coverage to just the four largest roosts (which usually account for at least 85-90% of the birds observed) and by conducting fewer flights by focusing more tightly around the likely peak time period.

As a result, it will be particularly valuable this year to have YOU and YOUR KITE SIGHTINGS serving as our eyes on feeding and gathering places that we could not otherwise monitor and include in ARCI’s surveys. 

Pre-migration roosts are places where Swallow-tailed Kites gather for the night after their nesting responsibilities are over, but prior to departure on their southbound migration. These night roosts also serve as jumping-off points for daily foraging flights, for which Swallow-tailed Kites usually travel in small flocks. In these ways, individual kites benefit by having a safe place to sleep (more eyes and ears to detect predators) and also from what they can learn from each other about good foraging opportunities over the surrounding landscape, which may shift in location over periods of days and even hours. Knowing the most productive places to feed allows the kites to gain weight rapidly and prepare themselves for their imminent 5,000+ mile southbound migration, which begins with a very dangerous 450 to 600-mile flight over open ocean to Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula.

From years of conducting these carefully designed aerial photo surveys, we are confident that we are probably counting most of the Swallow-tailed Kites that nest and hatch in Florida each breeding season, and at least two-thirds of the individuals associated with nests across the seven southeastern states that represent the current United States breeding range of this species. 

However, we know that we are missing kites that are NOT using these large roosts as pre-migration staging areas. This is why it is so useful to have your help in counting Swallow-tailed Kites during the same time period when we are conducting our systematic aerial surveys. 

@ Beckner 2019.  Swallow-tailed Kites in roost tree.
How would you go about this? First and foremost, it is important that you protect your health and that of others by keeping your distance and wearing a mask when near others. Some of you may be able to see kites right in your neighborhood. Others may know of or suspect good observation conditions in secluded places within driving or paddling range, where you can search for roosting and foraging kites while maintaining safe distances from other people. 

Besides considering the health of those around you, please be extremely careful not to disturb or flush any roosting kites. Even one such intrusion might discourage individual kites from returning to a well-known and favored roost sight where they can sleep safely and, in effect, share information about productive feeding areas, which are critically important to their health and safety during the long over-water first leg of their arduous southbound journey. If any kites suddenly rise up in energetic flight, or even if they just call at you or seem to continually look alert in your direction, please assume you are too close and back off immediately.

To contribute to our growing community database of Swallow-tailed Kite sightings during this very special time of year – and under these challenging current conditions – please report the date, time, location, number, and behavior of kites you see with this 2020 Population Monitoring Survey form. The form is responsive to your smart device, so you can even report from the field!

We are very grateful for your valuable help monitoring Swallow-tailed Kite population trends!

-The ARCI Team

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

While Swallow-tailed Kites settle into summer ranges, we re-cap the importance of tracking their movements.

The Avian Research and Conservation Institute, together with Orleans Audubon (Louisiana), has been tracking Swallow-tailed Kites with GPS-transmitters to learn about breeding behavior, habitat use, roosting locations, their migratory path, and winter activity ranges in South America.

The nesting season is in full swing for Swallow-tailed Kites throughout the U.S. The map below shows nine kites on their breeding ranges.  We suspect all but Sanibel and Apopka have settled into nesting. Apopka has been using an area in Altamonte Springs for the last 3 years but has not shown signs of nest attendance.

Babcock was our first tracked kite to return to the U.S.  She immediately went to her former breeding area in Charlotte County, Florida, but we have not gotten any data since early March. The most likely explanation is that her transmitter exceeded its life expectancy.  Similarly, Sanibel’s radio stopped transmitting soon after he reached the Florida Panhandle and began making his way south.  We have not received data from him on his Sanibel Island nesting range, but our partners there are watching for a kite with a small “bump” on its back. Sanibel’s transmitter was not yet due to expire, but we remain hopeful that it might otherwise have failed and that he will still be spotted.

Five of our tagged males do appear to be nesting: PBC-ERM male, Sarasota, Suwannee, Ponchitolawa, and Pritchard.  Sawgrass was our latest GPS-tracked Swallow-tailed Kite to return to the U.S. and she appears to be settling into a familiar nesting area in Pinellas County, Florida.

Given ARCI’s small staff, and especially now with limited travel options, we are very grateful for our collaborator’s Eyes on Kites to help us monitor these GPS-tracked birds and other nesting kites on habitually used nesting areas.

It has been challenging these last nine months monitoring the 16 Swallow-tailed Kites that we were tracking at the end of the 2019 breeding season. Our study sample is now down to seven individuals. Most of the missing birds were carrying transmitters due to expire soon (see the next paragraph on related technical and cost considerations). Furthermore, every annual migration cycle poses serious risks to the kites’ survival. In fact, after monitoring years of annual migrations of tagged Swallow-tailed Kites, we would have expected that, on average, at least two or even three of the 16 birds that left the U.S. at the end of last summer (July-August 2019) would not survive to nest again in 2020. This reality, combined with the large number of kites recently carrying radios with imminent expiration dates, apparently has left us with a relatively sudden reduction in the number of transmitting kites.  As these birds face increasingly more severe storms, wildfires, habitat destruction, and persecution, it is more important than ever to be tracking these growing threats and conveying the impacts they are having on wildlife.

It is worth commenting here on the lifespan of the equipment we are now using to track Swallow-tailed Kites. Although cell-phone/GPS devices have storage batteries that repeatedly recharge via solar panels, these batteries, necessarily very small, can withstand only so many charge/recharge cycles before their stored energy is insufficient for transmission to cell towers (in our experience, lifespan has varied from about 1.5 to 3.0 years). The satellite/GPS devices we used more in the past last much longer (5.5 to 7.0 years), but they cost over three times as much per unit and tracking location.

Our trend toward using more cell/GPS tracking technology (i.e., accepting the trade-off between longer radio life versus being able to afford tagging more individuals) reflects our current research priorities for addressing the critical management and conservation needs of Swallow-tailed Kites. These include detecting losses of vital nesting, migration, and wintering habitats; discovering new and re-located pre-migration roosts sites, which support long-term population monitoring and require surveillance for human disturbance and habitat degradation; informing land-management practices that favor nesting, foraging, and wintering kites; and identifying anthropogenic sources of mortality throughout the year.

This last research need, which requires detecting when and where kites die, highlights the value of remotely tracking Swallow-tailed Kites. Human-induced changes in global climate regimes, the accelerating destruction of natural habitats by unsustainable economic and social conditions, and increasing applications of agricultural pesticides and herbicides harmful to wildlife are rapidly elevating the risks confronting the Swallow-tailed Kite’s U. S. breeding population all across their annual, 10,000-mile hemispheric range. Of particular concern are threats on their migratory and winter range– vast areas that lie beyond what we can observe and monitor directly. In the next two months, as we have periodically in the past, we will analyze all the satellite and cellular tracking data we have collected since 1996 to illuminate patterns in where and when mortality has occurred, and how these patterns may be shifting over time. What we learn will be posted on this site.

We hope that you enjoy these blogs and, like us, are inspired by each and every kite’s story. Our promise is to continue making the very careful, informed decisions needed to safely gather the data needed for science-based bird conservation. The benefits of remote tracking are enormous. However, as you can imagine, it is costly. As ARCI’s mission keeps growing in importance, so too do the challenges in raising the necessary financial support. Would you like to be part of our sponsoring team and join the list of ARCI’s supporters with a one-time or monthly donation? You can find more information on our Make a Gift page.

As always, we are grateful to all of the organizations and individuals who have made ARCI’s long-term studies of Swallow-tailed Kites possible, thus helping us understand how these amazing birds need our help. The ever-growing list of current contributors includes:

Audubon Center for Birds of Prey
Caloosa Bird Club
Clearwater Audubon Society
CROW - Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife, Inc.
Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge
Friends of Palmetto Bluff Conservancy
Friends of the Carlton Reserve
Friends of the Florida Panther Refuge
Friends of the Lower Suwannee & Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuges
Halifax River Audubon
Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens
Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge
National Audubon Society
Oklawaha Valley Audubon Society
Orange Audubon Society
Orleans Audubon Society
Palm Beach County Department of Environmental Resources Management
Palm Beach Zoo
Palmetto Bluff Conservancy
Peace River Audubon Society
Sanibel-Captiva Audubon Society
Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation SCCF
Sarasota Audubon Society
Seminole Audubon Society
St. Petersburg Audubon Society
Sunrise Wildlife Rehabilitation
The Avian Reconditioning Center for Birds of Prey
Venice Area Audubon Society
West Volusia Audubon