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