Photo by Doug Little
I thought it might be fun to do a series of some special friends' favorite birds, animals, and plants seen along the St. Johns River, starting with wildlife photographer and Mentor Man Extraordinaire, Doug Little. Doug says his very favorite bird is the gorgeous and graceful swallow-tailed kite, and it's very easy to see why. They are certainly my favorite raptor (bird of prey), and a bird almost everyone considers breathtaking.
The largest of the North American kites, swallow-tails have black upper parts which contrast perfectly with their white head and shoulders, and the white wing linings.
There is no mistaking this bird in flight. Nothing else moves with the same grace and agility, and has that deeply forked tail, which can reach 15" to 16" long. Swallow-tailed kites range from 19" to 25" inches in length, with a wingspan of 45 to 50 inches, perfect for their particularly buoyant flight. With slow, deep wingbeats, they steer using that deeply forked tail. They are not only graceful in flight, but the most extraordinarily nimble and acrobatic of all raptors. Feathered poetry in motion!
The diet of the swallow-tailed kite consists of large insects, lizards, nestling birds, and snakes, which they snatch right out of the tops of trees. They also really, really like frogs.
Once the bird has snatched their fly-by meal from the treetops, they generally eat it on the wing. You can see that this guy is doing just that. He brings his feet forward, and his head downward, et voila! No need to look for a landing place.
Of course, some meals are meant to be shared. The kites take their insect, or snake, or lizard, or . . . frog! . . . and return to their roosting or nesting spot,
where they share . . .whatever it is . . . it with their mate!
Of course, if they have young on the nest, they share their fresh-caught kill with them.
(As you can probably tell, FROGS are not very fond of swallow-tailed kites! Go figger!)
Not only do kites eat on the wing, but they also drink that way, too. They swoop low over the water, dip their head down, and take a sip. (Did I mention how incredibly agile and graceful they are, especially for such large birds?)
A group of kites can be called a brood, a kettle, a roost, a stooping, or a string. I'm going with kettle,
because a "kettle of kites" is so very alliterative. (We writers think about things like that, you know.)
As you can see from the range map, swallow-tailed kites are found mostly in Florida, or parts south, though their range does spill over into the southern parts of Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and, just barely, into Louisana. They are here during their breeding season, and once the summer has drawn to an end, the kites migrate back to South America. (Can't stand those freezing Florida temperatures, I guess.)
This pair of kites hasn't built a nest yet, but they are exhibiting lovely courtship behavior. How can the female resist such courtly treatment? Once he's won her heart and she's accepted his favors, she will lay 1 to 3 creamy white eggs, marked with dark brown. And after 28 to 31 days, here's the payoff:
Okay, so he's not quite as cute as the limpkin chicks from last week, but hey. He's going to be one of the most beautiful birds in the world when he grows up! In the meantime, his doting parents will feed him loads of grasshoppers, dragonflies, lizards, and . . .you guessed it . . .FROGS!
If you want to see swallow-tailed kites, the best place to look is UP. Whether alone, like this one,
or by the "kettle," like these,
you're most likely to spot them high overhead, effortlessly "kiting" along on the breeze.
If you're really lucky, you might see one "stooping." Probably spotted a tender morsel in a treetop that he'd like to have for lunch. Oh, heck. Why don't I just say it? He's obviously lookin' for FROGS!
A couple more pictures for you, because, BEAUTIFUL!
And that about wraps it up for this week. Hope you've enjoyed seeing Doug's favorite bird, up close and (sorta) personal. In another month or two, those of you in Florida might want to start sky-gazing. The kites will be arriving and settling down to raise their young. The Orlando Wetlands area near Christmas, Florida, is an excellent place to see them in large numbers. It's truly an unforgettable sight, believe me. You can watch them for hours, but be prepared . . .
. . . some of them will no doubt be watching you back!
Until next week, don't forget to keep your eyes open. Otherwise, you miss
out on cool stuff like the invasion of the swallow-tailed kites!