A Creature of the Wind

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By Joe Guidry, former opinion editor, The Tampa Tribune

One of spring’s most inspiring sights is the elegant swallow-tailed kite swooping and circling through the air against a vivid blue sky. It is beauty in motion. So, I was delighted the kite was chosen as the central motif of The Florida Aquarium’s new Mosaic Center, which offers meeting rooms and event halls with panoramic views of the waterfront. But, the Aquarium’s commitment to the kite involves much more than the remarkable photographs and sculptures in its new facility.

The black-and-white raptor is a stunningly beautiful and remarkably graceful bird, but its life history is characterized by tenacity, danger and mystery. For years the Aquarium has partnered with the Avian Research and Conservation Institute (ARCI) to advance kite research.

According to ARCI, which monitors the welfare of a number of key bird species, the swallow-tailed kite nested in at least 21 states in the early 1900s. Now it nests in only seven, mostly Gulf of Mexico states, so its long-term prospects remain uncertain. Florida hosts two-thirds of the nation’s estimated 8,000 to 10,000 birds, which stay in the United States roughly from March through July before making a daunting 5,000-mile trip to South America.

Fortunately, ARCI has been satellite tracking the kites for more than 20 years, revealing many of the birds’ previously unknown habits.,As Gina Kent, ARCI Research Ecologist and Coordinator, explained to me, each year the birds migrate to South America – Brazil, Paraguay and Bolivia – where they feed throughout the winter. They return to the United States in the spring to nest.

The birds in Texas and Louisiana make the South America trip over land. But the birds from Florida and the states to its north must fly across the Gulf of Mexico to the Yucatan. It can be a perilous journey, as was tragically demonstrated this year with a kite the ARCI called Bullfrog, a bird of special significance to the Aquarium.

Swallow-tailed Kite trip 4

Its staffers and volunteers had raised the $4,000 for a satellite transmitter that was put on Bullfrog in 2015.  (The birds are briefly captured with netting and fitted with the tiny solar-powered transmitter.) This March, after signals showed Bullfrog had attempted to fly across the Gulf, being aloft for more than four days over water, transmission was lost.

The unavoidable conclusion: Bullfrog had perished. Such losses are heartbreaking for Kent, who can observe how blustery cold fronts frustrate a bird’s gutsy efforts to return to the U.S. from the Yucatan, the point of departure for the birds’ return Gulf trip.  The birds, which gorge on insects to fuel up for the flight, may be forced to spend more time over the ocean than they can physically handle.

“They are creatures of the wind,” Kent said. If winds are favorable, a kite can cross the Gulf in as little as 24 hours. But headwinds can make the trip last for days, burning up the bird’s precious energy supplies. There is little food to be had while flying over the Gulf.  She added, “The birds can survive perhaps three nights or four days over the water before they become too weak to continue.”

Swallow-tailed Kite Trip11

The birds always return to the same nesting area. The return flight is more hazardous than the fall migration, and not solely because of windy cold fronts that stall the birds’ progress or blow them off course, causing them to land hundreds of miles away. “In the spring, they are more antsy to begin nesting,” Kent said. “They are more likely to take risks.” They may push on, as Bullfrog did, when they should return to the land and replenish themselves by feasting on dragonflies and the other large bugs that are their favored prey. (The kites also kill lizards, snakes, frogs and other small critters, but primarily to feed nestlings.)

Weather isn’t the only threat. A major concern is the transition of South American forests and ranches to soybean, sugarcane and other agricultural operations that destroy habitat and use pesticides and herbicides, with the chemicals threatening the kite’s food supply and the birds themselves. Kent said they are seeing disturbing cases of birds dying there, though there are plenty of bugs to feed them. The scientists are uncertain what is causing the deaths.

Swallow-tailed Kite11

Development also is a threat in the United States. Kent said the birds, while fairly social for raptors, are relatively solitary much of the time. But they gather in massive “pre-migratory roosts,” where they can fatten up on insects for a month or so before setting out on their incredible journey.

In Florida an estimated 5,000 birds, about half the country’s kite population, gather on a privately owned South Florida woodland. Development of the tract obviously would be devastating to the kite population. Scientists also worry that a nearby sand mining operation may adversely affect the birds. The situation underscores the continuing need for Florida to spend more on land conservation, either buying land outright or acquiring development rights.

There are, of course, natural predators: the great horned owl, being the primary one.  Snakes, raccoons and other raptors also can be a threat, primarily to eggs or nestlings.

Kent said that the longest her organization has tracked a kite is seven years, but no one knows  how long they can live. Researchers do know only 30 percent of nestlings survive their first year. Despite those odds, and their treacherous annual migration, these “creatures of the wind” are holding their own, but without much margin for error. Perhaps with some thoughtful human assistance, the swallow-tailed kite’s beauty and grace will continue to inspire wonder for generations to come. social-media-profile-image

Please Note: Gina Kent will be among the featured speakers at the Florida Birding & Nature Festival Oct. 13-15 at the Hillsborough Community College South Shore Campus in Ruskin. The event will offer expert speakers, seminars, field trips, exhibits and artwork and other products for nature lovers.  The Florida Aquarium and Mosaic are among the sponsors. You can learn more at fbnfestival.org.)

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