If you’ve been in south-central Florida in the past two weeks, you’ve probably noticed the arrival of Swallow-tailed Kites.
Swallow-tailed Kites (Elanoides forficatus) are probably the most appropriately named raptor, with their forked swallow-like tail. They have an unmistakable black and white plumage from below, and show dark shoulder patches and primaries from above. In flight, their small head can give them a “pigeon-headed” appearance.
Swallow-tailed Kites are found in forested wetlands in tropical and subtropical regions of Central and South America, and also on the south east and Gulf Coasts. They used to be found as far north as Minnesota, but their range has decreased with habitat destruction. Members of this species that breed in the United States spend the winter in South America, and can be seen in large groups in southern Florida starting in late February each year like clock work.
The first one I saw this season was north of Indiantown on March 1, and I’ve seen more almost every day since in Glades, Highlands, and Hendry counties. Usually, when you see one, you start noticing more and more in the air nearby; one day, I had three in my scope at once! My biggest group so far this year has been six, but last year around this time, Alex and I saw 14 glide over us in a straight line while driving through Orlando. In one day, I saw 9 in Hendry County in various locations, then 5 together in Highlands County. Some seem to be settling on to territories, and I’ve seen one more than a few times at the Route 70/27 intersection in Lake Placid. On Route 98, I saw two carrying nesting material.
If you’re lucky, you can stop your car fast enough to snap a few photos, but photos just don’t do this bird justice. They seem to put very little effort into flying, and take advantage of thermals and unseen air currents to help them drift along over treelines and rivers. Most of their time is spent soaring, using their long forked tail as a rudder, interspersed with steep dives and loops aimed at other nearby kites. They catch and eat prey on the wing, eating mostly flying insects, but sometimes take reptiles, amphibians, and small birds.