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

Friday, April 24, 2020

Sawgrass returns for the 4th time!

Sawgrass returns for the 4th time! A GPS-tracked Swallow-tailed Kite from Pinellas County Florida.

Sawgrass, a female Swallow-tailed Kite, was tagged in 2016 at Sawgrass Lake Park. Our longest-tracked Swallow-tailed Kite, we have been with her through triumph and failure. Her nests have failed the last two years while nesting in Pinellas County, but her perseverance has allowed her to escape predators and illness to complete four 10,000-mile migrations to South America and back!

Sawgrass wintered in Mato Grosso do Sul, Brazil and started north on 7 February. Her route took her along the east side of the Andes Mountains and down to the Colombian coastal plane, where she cut across the Pacific Ocean to Panama. Another over-water shortcut was between the northern coast of Honduras and Quintana Roo, Mexico. She spent the night at the northern tip of the Yucatan Peninsula, then launched 29 March on a tail wind that took her due north, arriving 37 hours later on the Gulf coast of Mississippi. Once on land, she obviously knew the route back to Pinellas County, taking a few shortcuts to arrive “home” fast, on 1 April. We are watching her movements closely to see where she will settle into a nesting location. Sawgrass seems to be focusing this time on the Safety Harbor area. Let’s hope this harbor is, indeed, a safe place for her to fledge her chicks.

We are grateful to Pinellas County Parks for their interest and access, and for the very generous monetary support of the St. Petersburg Audubon Society (SPAS), which has made this long-term tracking effort possible. We are excited to be contributing to SPAS’s Raptors on the Move program, which gives local teachers and students the opportunity to use Sawgrass’s tracking data in classrooms. If you are an educator and would like more information on this program, contact

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Third Time is a Charm!

Third time is a charm! Apopka, a rehabilitated Swallow-tailed Kite tracked by GPS returns to Florida.

Apopka, like all our GPS-tracked Swallow-tailed Kites, has a wonderful story, but his is unique in that it began in the summer of 2017 after he was hit by a car, when he was skillfully rehabilitated by the Avian Reconditioning Center for Birds of Prey (ARC). The good folks at ARC asked if ARCI would be interested in fitting this doomed-but-turned-lucky bird with a tracking device. Given the kite’s excellent recovery, and knowing that we had little time (by then, southbound migration was already underway), we quickly got in gear. Simultaneously, an enormous amount of support began pouring forth from the greater ARC community, several Audubon Society chapters and other conservation organizations, and caring individuals. See the heart-warming thank-you list below, and view Apopka’s full story in our other blog: 

This year, Apopka wintered in Rondônia, Brazil, as he had the previous two years, and started northward on 16 January, 2020. He, like other GPS-tagged kites before him, slowed his pace in the Amazon region of Brazil and Colombia, most likely taking advantage of good feeding conditions to put on some body weight for the lengthy journey ahead.

Apopka’s northbound GPS track was the safest of all the Kites we’ve monitored this year, staying over land until reaching the north central shore of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. On 17 March, he set off over the Gulf of Mexico and arrived on shore thirty hours later near Mobil, Alabama. His was a very quick and direct flight. Most likely exhausted, he took four days to reach his former summer territory near Altamonte Springs, FL.

We were ecstatic to receive a message from Sam Mitcham, a birder from the area, who was in the right place at the right time. Sam was photographing Swallow-tailed Kites when he noted one with a transmitter on its back! We were quickly able to identify this as Apopka. It’s a rare treat when we get to see our known birds, but even better when the photographs are so good showing the transmitter in its safe position on a fine-looking kite!

**Note the photos above are of Apopka. Look for the "bump" transmitter on the back.

Apopka’s story would not be possible without the support and generosity of the following people and organizations:

Avian Reconditioning Center for Birds of Prey – Paula Ashby and Carol McKorckle
Audubon Center for Birds of Prey
City of Apopka- News, Events, & Info - Mayor Joe Kilsheimer
Halifax River Audubon - David Hartgrove
Oklawaha Valley Audubon Society - OVAS - Stacy Kelly
Seminole Audubon Society - Lewis Gray, Margaret Terwilliger, Sarah Donlan
Raptor Center of Tampa Bay - Barbara Walker
Clearwater Audubon Society - matching the challenge issued by Tampa Bay Raptor Rescue
West Volusia Audubon - Stephen Kintner
Deborah Green from Orange Audubon Society(personal donation)
Janet Marks from West Volusia Audubon (personal donation)
Eileen Tramontana, Director of Trout Lake Nature Center (personal donation)
Sandie Selman from West Volusia Audubon (personal donation)
Disney Volunteers from The Avian Reconditioning Center for Birds of Prey - Rebecca Grimm and Alyssa Karnitz

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Good news from Northbound Kites

Let’s give you some good news. Plenty to celebrate with GPS-tracked Swallow-tailed Kites on migration.

ARCI, together with Orleans Audubon has been tracking Swallow-tailed Kites with GPS-transmitters on their return to the US from wintering in South America.
We have 8 kites back in the U.S!  

Ponchitolawa has made it back to Louisiana, and from our last few posts, you know that Sanibel and PBC-ERM male had similar migrations to Florida. Also, back on Florida territories are Babcock, Sarasota, Suwannee, and most recently, Apopka.

Pritchard made it back to Palmetto Bluff, South Carolina on 24 March.

We’ve received news on Sawgrass! He’s creeping through Nicaragua and our next Swallow-tailed Kite to cross the Gulf of Mexico.  

Not pictured are Wilson and JAX, last in Brazil and away from cell-network data uploading and we anxiously await their signal. OK and PBC-ERM female are two kites that we have not heard from since August but hope to see them alive and well near their last breeding locations in Florida.
Wishing speedy tailwinds to all our kite friends heading back to the US.

Monday, March 23, 2020

Northbound Routes of Two Swallow-tailed Kites

As our GPS-tracked Swallow-tailed Kites are completing the last and most dangerous stage of their return to their United States nesting areas, we will be sharing their migration progress with you here. Each individual kite writes a new, unique story each year as it faces extraordinary, unpredictable risks unlike those they must overcome in any other season. Migration is very difficult and dangerous for any bird, but it is especially so for those that must cross large bodies of water, something that very few raptors ever attempt even over very short distances of just a few miles.

In our previous post, we shared Sanibel’s migration story (gray). Now, we would like to show you how the male Swallow-tailed Kite PBC-ERM accomplished the same dangerous mission just a few days later by taking a route that was, with some very impressive-but-frightening exceptions, nearly identical. We have temporarily used red here instead of white to contrast the routes. The data pins will help you track their progress along the map.

Sanibel wintered 525 miles south of PBC-ERM and started north 8 days earlier, on 18 January, 2020. On his way north, Sanibel passed right through PBC-ERM’s wintering area. Soon, they were within 50 miles and 3 days of each other as they glided northward, a time-space relationship they maintained all the way to Mexico.

Tailwinds apparently encouraged both kites to make an otherwise unusual and very risky over-water crossing from the northern coast of Honduras to the city of Cancun, on the northeastern tip of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. The difference was that, after flying 10 hours, Sanibel stopped for the night, whereas PBC-ERM skirted Cancun and embarked on a nonstop over-water flight to Florida. His daring passage spanned 930 miles of open ocean without rest, food, or water, a trip he completed in just 38 hours at an average ground speed of 25 miles per hour! Most northbound Swallow-tailed Kites cross no more than about 600 miles of the Gulf of Mexico from the Yucatan to the panhandle of Florida, which is already an amazing feat for any raptor.
Early on the morning of March 6th, PBC-ERM reached land within the Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge of Collier County, Florida. He rested there for 5 hours, waiting for the day’s thermals to begin forming so that he could use their lift to continue his journey. Once aloft, he immediately headed east across peninsular Florida and soon reached his former Palm Beach County nest site. 

As we noted in our previous post, Sanibel ended his rest on the northern Yucatan Peninsula on March 5th by catching a fast ride on strong southerly winds, crossing the Gulf of Mexico to the Big Bend region of northern Florida in just 24 hours. En route over the Gulf, he shot past Sanibel Island (at considerable distance). However, immediately after making land-fall, he turned southward along the shoreline towards his familiar Sanibel breeding grounds.

We are waiting for the next data upload and hoping it will show that Sanibel has settled back into his nesting neighborhood on Sanibel Island.

ARCI is grateful to the Palm Beach Zoo and Conservation Society and to the Palm Beach County Department of Environmental Resources Management for making it possible for ARCI to tag and track male Swallow-tailed Kite PBC-ERM. We also thank the Sanibel-Captiva Audubon Society, the family of the late Jim Griffith, the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation, and the Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife(CROW) for supporting the tagging and tracking of Sanibel.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Sanibel’s trip to Florida

After a winter holiday in Campo Grande, Brazil, Sanibel, the male Swallow-tailed Kite with a GPS-GSM transmitter, started his journey back to Florida. Each day he made northbound progress, roosting at night in a safe place until the morning’s sunlight stirred rising thermals on which he could continue gliding northward with as little expenditure of energy as possible. Sanibel slowed down in the State of Amazonas, Brazil where, we can imagine, the diversity of insects and small prey were boosting his fat reserves for the long flight ahead.

His first major obstacle was the Andes Mountains, with their barren, high-altitude peaks and ridges that are devoid of the insects on which migrating kites rely. He managed to cross the mountains from February 21 to 23, soon reached coastal Colombia, and continued through Central America by hugging the Caribbean coast. 

Tailwinds apparently encouraged Sanibel to make an otherwise risky over-water crossing from northern Honduras to Cancun, Mexico, in just 10 hours! He spent the night there in a wooded area. At 10:00 the next morning, he resumed his fast ride on strong southerly winds, flying 24 hours across the Gulf of Mexico to the Big Bend region of northern Florida, thereby overshooting Sanibel Island, his 2019 breeding area on southwest Florida’s coast. However, on reaching shore, he immediately turned southward along the shoreline towards his former nest site. 

We now are waiting for the next data upload, with hopes it shows Sanibel settled back into his familiar neighborhood on Sanibel Island.

Our gratitude for Sanibel-Captiva Audubon Society, SCCF, and CROW - Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife, Inc. to make it possible to tag and track Sanibel.

Monday, March 16, 2020

The good and the bad of GPS-tracked Swallow-tailed Kites on migration

ARCI, together with Orleans Audubon has been tracking Swallow-tailed Kites with GPS-transmitters from their breeding grounds in the US to their wintering grounds in South America. Kites are returning to the US now on favorable winds from the Yucatan.  

Ponchitolawa has made it back to Louisiana, however we’ve lost the signal from Lacombe, a male Orleans Audubon has been tracking since 2015. His last location, in northern Costa Rica, can be seen in this map. He was the living kite we have tracked for the longest time, almost 5 years. We are fortunate for him, and the data he’s contributed over these past years that have led to our accruing knowledge of Swallow-tailed Kites.

Our friend Sarasota also reached Florida in the last few days, landing in the Panhandle, and now making his way back to the T.M. Carlton Reserve over dry land.
Next in line for a Gulf of Mexico crossing is Apopka, Pritchard, and Suwannee, all with last locations in Nicaragua this week.

Not pictured are Sawgrass, Wilson, and JAX last in Brazil and away from cell-network data uploading; as well as OK and PBC-ERM, two kites that we have not hear from since August, but hope to see them alive and well near their last breeding locations in Florida.

Wishing speedy tailwinds to all our kite friends heading back to the US.

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Two more GPS-tracked Swallow-tailed Kites in the US!

ARCI, together with Orleans Audubon has been tracking Swallow-tailed Kites with GPS-transmitters from their breeding grounds in the US to their wintering grounds in South America. Kites are returning to the US now on favorable winds from the Yucatan.  

Babcock has been on her breeding range in Charlotte Co. FL since 27 February. This passed weekend both PBC-ERM male and Sanibel have returned to FL! PBC-ERM male had a perfect tailwind to carry him straight to Palm Beach Co., while Sanibel’s tailwind took him straight to Dixie Co. and he will be making his way to Sanibel Island quickly.

Five birds are quickly passing through Central America. Next in line to make their way to the US are Ponchitolawa and Sarasota at the north shore of Honduras. Not far behind is Apopka, Suwannee, and Lacombe in southern Nicaragua. 

Pritchard has set off on his own path, a few hundred miles east of the path others had taken in Colombia. He is soon to cross the Andes Mountains.

We are waiting anxiously to hear from three kites that last were in Brazil and are now out of cell reception to transfer their location data. Sawgrass and Wilson were last in Rondonia, and JAX’s last fix was in Mato Grosso in January.  

Wishing speedy tailwinds to all our kite friends heading back to the US.

Monday, March 2, 2020

Swallow-tailed Kites fly in!

We’ve seen many reports of Swallow-tailed Kites in Florida already! We hope you get to see these beautiful birds soar across the sky if you haven’t already. Remember that ARCI is interested in your Swallow-tailed Kite sighting, especially if it is a nest site or roost site. Please follow this link to report your sightings to us:

Twelve GPS-tracked kites have begun their northbound migration as of 2 March, 2020. Babcock not only produced data last week, but he snuck back to Florida!! He’s our first of 14 kites back in the US!

JAX is the farthest south, in the State of Mato Grosso, Brazil, while 4 kites are in the State of Rondônia, Brazil with Pritchard in the lead and Wilson, Apopka, and Sarasota not far behind. Sawgrass gave us relief when she showed data once again from northern Bolivia. These birds will be crossing the cell-free area of the Amazon and we hope they travel safely through to cell range once again to tell their migration stories.

Suwannee checked in from Colombia this week and is about to cross the treacherous Andes Mountains. The two Louisiana Kites, Lacombe and Ponchitolawa have cruised over the Andes of Columbia and are just getting to Panama now.

Two Kites tagged in 2019, Sanibel and PBC-ERM Male are in Nicaragua and will be our next to watch returning to Florida.

Not pictured are OK and PBC-ERM female where we lost their signals in August of last year in Colombia on their southbound migration. We are holding hope that they will be seen on their breeding grounds this season and that their transmitters produce data once again.

Monday, February 17, 2020

Northbound progress, but all Kites still in South America

ARCI will be reporting on the 14 Swallow-tailed Kites we are tracking with GPS-equipped transmitters as they return from their wintering grounds in South America. These kites were tagged during the summer on their breeding range in the southeastern US from 2015 to 2019. They are named after the area where they were tagged.  

Please get to know our Swallow-tailed Kites. Each has its own story, continuing to unfold, and wonderful sponsorship and support teams that have made this tracking project possible.

Eleven tracked kites have begun their northbound migration. As of 17 February, 2020, in the State of Mato Grosso, Brazil, Pritchard and JAX are the farthest south, and Suwannee has not shown signs of migrating just yet. Many kites are in the State of Rondônia, Brazil where Wilson and Sanibel take the lead and the other four; Apopka, Sawgrass, Sarasota and PBC-ERM Male not far behind. Our two Louisiana kites, Lacombe and Ponchitolawa are cruising through the Brazilian Amazon State. The biggest surprise was Babcock, now at the Colombia/Panama border. We had not heard from her since mid-December and now she’s the farthest north.

All of these kites are carrying solar-powered GSM/GPS transmitters that communicate through the cell phone network. When birds are beyond cell-tower range, they are unable to upload their GPS data. When this happens, the data are stored until the birds move within range of a cell tower. Therefore, we may go for long periods not “hearing” from birds as they migrate through and/or winter in remote areas. If something goes wrong during these times, we have no way of knowing what might have happened. Some of the Swallow-tailed Kites we have tagged remain beyond tracking range for their entire wintering period, and we must wait in anticipation for their radios to resume transmission once they have begun migrating again. When this happens, we receive all of the GPS fixes that have been received and stored while the transmitter has been silent. Not displayed on the map are OK and PBC-ERM Female, both last heard in Colombia in August 2019 on their southbound route. We are still hoping that they have only been beyond cell-tower range and may soon begin uploading their stored GPS locations. 

The other type of tracking unit contributing to this study are solar-powered satellite/GPS transmitters, for which the GPS data are uploaded every other day from anywhere in the world. These are being carried by two birds tagged in Louisiana by our colleague Dr. Jennifer Coulson of the Orleans Audubon Society. When we do not receive data from this type of tracking unit, we know that something is wrong with either the transmitter or the bird. The solar-powered transmitter may be damaged or otherwise unable to charge its batteries. This may occur when the bird has been in dense vegetation, or if it has shed the transmitter or died is in a location where the radio cannot recharge or transmit. This has been the case with Bayou Vincent in Bolivia this winter, and now with Hobolochitto in the State of Amazonas, Brazil, which had already begun moving northward. We remain uncertain as to the fates of these birds.

Friday, February 14, 2020

Swallow-tailed Kites are Heading North

ARCI, together with Orleans Audubon, tracked 16 Swallow-tailed Kites with GPS-transmitters from their breeding grounds in the United States to their wintering grounds in South America last fall. They have been settled in parts of Brazil and Bolivia since the end of September. Then on January 18, 2020, we had our first report of a northbound kite! This map update is from 4 February, 2020.

That first northbound kite was Sanibel, a male from Sanibel Island, Florida. Although he was the first, he was not the farthest north. Hobolochitto from Mississippi has also started to migrate and is the farthest north, in the State of Amazonas, Brazil. We’ve recently lost signal on Hobolochitto and are hoping there is just a technical problem with the transmitter.
Five tracked kites are in Rondônia, Brazil, where Wilson, Sanibel, and Apopka are about 150 miles north of Lacombe and PBC-ERM Male.

Ponchitolawa and JAX have also started migrating and are in the State of Mato Grosso, Brazil, where both Sarasota and Suwannee are still wintering.

Farthest south in Mato Grosso do Sul, Brazil, Babcock and Sawgrass are wintering in remote areas where we have not received their signals for four to five weeks. We hope when they start north they will come into contact with cell towers and upload their location data.

*Not pictured is Bayou Vincent, who most likely died on her wintering grounds in Bolivia, and OK and PBC-ERM Female, both last heard in Colombia in August 2019 on their southbound route. We are still holding hope that they are out of cell service, preventing the transfer of their location information.