White-tailed Kites in Florida

Anna FasoliBirding, Field Work3 Comments

One of the most dramatic raptors found in Florida is the White-tailed Kite, Elanus leucaris. It is rare and found locally in south central/south eastern Florida. It is also commonly found from south Texas to California, and is rare along the Gulf Coast and to the north. Recently, its range has been expanding northward and along the Gulf Coast, although it is a non migratory species. From below, adults appear white in flight, with dark carpal patches and dark primaries, and show a long white tail that is slightly notched. From above, adults appear pale gray with a white head, have long pointed and relatively narrow wings, and show a black patch on the leading edge of the wings (which appear as black shoulders on perched individuals). Juveniles are similar to adults, but show rusty brown streaking on the upper breast, brown on the back, and a narrow band on the basal end of the tail. Adults have bright red oval-shaped eyes, while juveniles have yellowish eyes. In general, White-tailed Kites are one of our smaller raptors, about the size of a Mississippi Kite (or Broad-winged Hawk).Where they are common, they can gather in large roosts.

(All of the following photos are of adults.)

Note dark primaries from below
Note dark carpal patches

In North America, there are 5 different species of kites, each belonging to a different genus. The White-tailed Kite belong to the Genus Elanus (Elanus is Latin for “kite” while leucarus is Latin for “white-tailed”). This species has pointed-wings (similar to Mississippi Kites and Swallow-tailed Kites) as opposed to paddled-wings (like that of Hook-billed Kite and Snail Kite). New world kites are referred to as “kites” for their similarities to Old World kites of the genus Milvus. Apparently toy kites were named “kites” because of their similarities to the kites of the genus Milvus.

White-tailed Kites prefer open fields of scattered bushes, scrub, and marshes, where they can find rodents, which make up the majority of their diet.

In hunting flight, kites have a very distinct behavior. At first glance, they appear more gull-like or kestrel-like, hovering over land with wings held in a strong dihedral, exaggerated by pointed wings. They seem to work the land similar to harriers, hovering along in rows, but at a slightly higher altitude. When prey is spotted from a hovering position, kites make a steep dive towards the earth. In general their flight appears very light and graceful, and to say they look like a large white butterfly is not a stretch! White-tailed Kites also perform elaborate aerial courtship displays.

White-tailed Kite hovering nearby
White-tailed Kite in steep dive towards earth; note strong dihedral

In January at one of our project sites, I observed a pair of adult White-tailed Kites in an area known to have a breeding pair of Crested Caracara. While we didn’t end up seeing any Caracara that day, an adult kite flew in from the south, and proceeded to hunt the tall overgrown grasslands south of our truck (soon to be converted to an STA, or Storm Water Treatment Area). It flew directly over our truck and landed in a snag less than 50 meters away! I had seen White-tailed Kites before in New Mexico, Arizona, California, and Mexico last summer, but this was by far the closest I had ever seen a White-tailed Kite! After a few minutes it continued its hunt northwards into an overgrown cattle pasture, and landed on a snag where another adult White-tailed Kite apparently flew in and perched while we were observing the first! A few weeks earlier a pair had been reported on this land (Allapatah Flats Wildlife Management Area), and I assume it is the same pair. We have since seen Crested Caracara perched in the same snag that the kites perched in, and both raptors are likely breeders or will be breeders in the area soon.

White-tailed Kite perched on snag
White-tailed Kite in flight
a pair of White-tailed Kites

Sources:
Hawks of North America. W.S. Clark and B.K. Wheeler. 2001 (Second Edition)
The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America. D.A. Sibley. 2008.
Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America. R.T. Peterson. 2009.