SIB “Bird of the Week” – Kites: Mississippi vs Swallow-tailed

Mississippi Kite – Ictinia mississippiensis
Length: 14″ Wingspan: 31″ Weight: 10 oz

Swallow-tailed Kite – Elanoides forficatus (endangered in South Carolina)
Length: 22″ Wingspan: 51″ Weight: 12 oz

Living at a beach community, I’m sure many people are accustomed to looking at kites in the sky along the beach – you know, the kind that Ben Franklin used.  But have you ever looked up to see either of these birds?

Mississippi Kite (left) & Swallow-tailed Kite (right) - Ed Konrad
Mississippi Kite (left) & Swallow-tailed Kite (right) – Ed Konrad

Both of these birds, the Mississippi and the Swallow-tailed Kites, can be seen on Seabrook Island and we (Flo & Nancy) have seen both within the past two weeks!  We’ve seen a Mississippi Kite pair flying over both Crooked Oaks and Ocean Winds golf courses on at least three occasions and we saw a pair of Swallow-tailed Kites flying over Bohicket Marina just a week ago!

The two species look quite different from each other and are quite unmistakable from other birds.  Swallow-tailed Kites are large but slender and buoyant raptors. They have long, narrow, pointed wings, slim bodies, and a very long, deeply forked tail. The bill is small and sharply hooked. Swallow-tailed Kites are a sharp contrast of bright-white head and underparts and gleaming black wings, back, and tail. From below, the wing linings are white and the flight feathers are black. Its most unique characteristic is the elongated, forked tail (hence its name).  This large raptor is built like a glider with huge wings and small streamlined bodies. They rarely flap their wings; instead soar effortlessly, changing course with minute adjustments of their distinctive forked tails.  The species is now listed as endangered in South Carolina.

Mississippi Kites are a slender and much smaller raptor with long, pointed wings. The tail is fairly long and square-tipped. The strongly hooked bill is small and delicate.  They are an inky mix of gray and black, lightening to pale gray-white on the head and in the secondaries of the wings. The wingtips and tail are black. Juveniles are streaky, with brownish chests and underwings, and banded tails. Though known for their graceful, acrobatic flight, Mississippi Kites also spend time foraging on the ground and in shallow water.

Both species of kite feed on the wing, snatching dragonflies and other insects out of the sky and eating them while still in flight. They may also feed on small amphibians such as frogs, large insects, crickets, small birds and small mammals including bats. Swallow-tailed kites inhabit mostly woodland & forested wetlands near nesting locations. Nests are built in trees, usually near water. Both male and female participate in building the nest. Sometimes a high-pitched chirp is emitted, though the birds mostly remain silent.  Mississippi Kites breed in scattered areas of the southern and central United States, using very different habitats depending on the region. East of the Mississippi River, they nest in mature, diverse, low-lying forest—especially tracts that are large and unbroken but have nearby open habitat, such as pasture, cropland, waterways, country roads, or small lakes. They nest in almost any tree species, as low as a few feet off the ground to more than 115 feet high.

Both kites are creatures of the air, spending most of their day aloft and rarely flapping their wings. They tend to circle fairly low over trees as they hunt for small animals in the branches. At times they soar very high in the sky, almost at the limits of vision.

Swallow-tailed Kites once nested in 21 States. By 1940 after a sudden decline the Kite’s range shrunk to 7 States, from South Carolina to Texas. The species nesting habits have made the swallow-tailed Kite difficult to study. Researchers must come to them and climb high in Loblolly pine to observe nests. Nesting adults and their young are subject to predation by Great Horned Owls. They migrate North in the Spring across the Gulf of Mexico and can be swept off course by storms. During migration they may form large flocks.  Read this fabulous article featured in the April/May 2016 issue of Nature Conservancy.

If you see kites – researchers want to know about it. You should always document your bird sightings in eBird.  In addition, The Center for Birds of Prey, located in Awendaw, SC manages & tracks log sightings of the Swallow-tailed Kite. Visit www.thecenterforbirdsofprey.org for more info. The website guides you through a series of questions about the location, number and activities of the bird or birds sighted.

A group of kites has many collective nouns, including a “brood,” “kettle,” “roost,” “stooping,” and a “string” of kites.

Look for both species of Kites in South Carolina during the spring and summer breeding months over swamps, marshes and large rivers. Besides Seabrook Island, Caw Caw Interpretive Center is a great location to view kites.  They nest high in the loblolly pines.

(See the range map following the photographs below.)

If you would like to learn more about these birds visit:

Notes from photographer Ed Konrad:  “These photos were taken at Skeen’s Farm, Glenville GA, which is an incredible place to see the Kites up close and in action. A very memorable photographic day. We see Kites at Caw Caw, and on the way to Seabrook in Allendale SC and at a cattle farm outside of Augusta. But not up close as at this farm.”

This blog post is part of a series SIB will publish on a regular basis to feature birds seen in the area, both migratory and permanent residents.  When possible we will use photographs taken by our members.    Please let us know if you have any special requests of birds you would like to learn more about.

Submitted by Nancy Brown with information from Janice Watson-Shada.
Photographs compliments of Ed Konrad

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Author: sibirders

SEABROOK ISLAND BIRDERS / “watching, learning, protecting” Seabrook Island Birders (SIB) are residents, renters and guests of Seabrook Island, SC who have an interest in learning, protecting and providing for the well-being of the incredible variety of birds that inhabit Seabrook Island throughout the year.

6 thoughts on “SIB “Bird of the Week” – Kites: Mississippi vs Swallow-tailed”

  1. Thank you for this article. I thoroughly enjoyed enjoyed it.
    Can you tell me if the hummingbirds are in the area yet. I have put out my feeders but haven’t seen any so far.

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    1. Hi Kathleen. Thanks for your feedback! And yes, the Ruby-throated Hummingbirds have been seen by many residents starting about a month ago. We saw our first one at our home about 10 days ago. Be sure to keep fresh food in the feeder as it does go bad quite quickly with our warm weather. We hope you see them soon! Nancy

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  2. Nice piece on the Kites, Nancy. Was not aware either were ever seen over Seabrook.
    Assume you knew Judy and I had Ruby-throated Hummingbirds at our feeders all winter — unusual, I think.
    George

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    1. Thanks George! I thought I remembered some people mentioned they had Hummers over the winter. In fact I also believe David Gardner had the Black-chinned Hummingbird at their feeders but I never had a chance to see them. Hopefully they will be here again next winter.

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