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Kites at Last!

August 5, 2021

So Florida Keys Hawkwatch’s newest chapter #KiteFlight2021, has begun with the earliest ever starting date on 1 August 2021. It’s common knowledge that Swallow-tailed Kites migrate early in spring & fall migration based on anecdotal personal sightings, printed bird records in seasonal periodicals, as well as numerous eBird reports (the latter being the easiest to access & search). The graph below showing seasonal distribution of Swallow-tailed Kites across all of Florida is based on >73,800 eBird checklists contributed by volunteer observers (courtesy eBird.org).

data courtesy eBird.org

Note the highest distribution in Florida occurs in late May, June and early July and then steadily decreases through August and September as the kites migrate out. By the usual FKH start date in mid-September, most of the Swallow-taileds are unfortunately, already gone.

FKH ST Kite data

The FKH seasonal count data shows that starting even days earlier, results in more kite sightings and the record high seasons were 2014, 2016, & 2018 when the counts started on September 2, 4, & 8 respectively. The potential value of this Kite migration data has also long been recognized, as there is really nowhere else in the US where significant count data of migrating Swallow-taileds could be gathered. So incorporating a “Kite Flight” has been a long term goal at FKH, but prohibitive costs of lodging in the keys & some uncertainties has kept this at arms length until 2021!

Cabo San Antonio, Cuba is the closest point and shortest water crossing to the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico

Presently, there is very little published data on the migration of these amazing raptors. In 2007, Freddy Rodriguez Santana conducted the Guanahacabibes Hawkwatch in Cuba daily from July 21 – August 30th and reported this data to eBird only recently. The count was conducted from Cabo San Antonio, the western point of Cuba which is the closest jumping off point to Cancun, Mexico on the Yucatan Peninsula (~120 miles WSW). The Guanahacabibes “Kite Watch” tallied an amazing 2,846 Swallow-tailed & 216 Mississippi Kites over that 6 week period and presumably these birds are mostly Florida breeders. It was encouraging to note these Cuban birds seemed to follow “leading lines” (topographical features) to a predictable concentration point at Cabo as well.

Swallow-taileds long wings & forked tail provide very light wing loading allowing these birds to stay aloft & presumable cross water easily

The Avian Research & Conservation Institute (ARCI) has provided nearly all of the rest of what is known to date on movements of these graceful birds of prey. Their satellite telemetry studies show the tracks of ~20 individual Swallow-taileds and these visuals while incredible, actually proved a bit disheartening. Swallow-tailed Kites have extremely long wings and tails making them incredibly buoyant due to their light wing loading (ratio between total wing area and a bird’s mass). When you see these birds, they seem to float effortlessly and the satellite tracks indicated they showed little hesitation in heading out over open water at any point when the winds were favorable, adding a level of uncertainty as to how many of these birds would follow the FL Keys. Recognizing this risk, the thought of essentially doubling the season length and the associated costs to conduct a count that may not work was a bit daunting.

Antillean Palm-Swift, Grassy Key, FL, July 2019 – photo courtesy Jeff Bouton, Kowa Sporting Optics

Looking at the publicly accessible sightings data was not encouraging either, eBird showed just 7 checklists in July & August from the Florida Keys (ever) that showed 10 or more Swallow-tailed Kites. Then in July 2019 a glimmer of hope and source of inspiration from a very unusual series of events. In July 2019, an Antillean Palm-Swift was discovered on Grassy Key (a mere 1.5 miles from the hawkwatch in Curry Hammock State Park) and stayed for weeks drawing dozens of birders to the Florida Keys through July and into August. These hopeful birders hunting for this rare Caribbean stray then started reporting Swallow-tailed Kites…. LOTS of them (more than had ever been reported in all prior years combined)!

On July 22, 2019, twenty-six STKI were reported over Grassy Key and 3 days later, Andy Kratter of the Florida Museum of Natural History and Florida Ornithological Society, reported an amazing 136 STKI from Grassy Key as well with a massive single kettle of 120 individuals! This was the first public report (on eBird at least) of a significant large kettle of STKI migrating over the Florida Keys in “fall”, and the attached image showed a large portion of this group (a real eye-opener especially since this was almost in view of the FKH platform). This sighting was followed by another amazing report with spectacular images of 247 individual STKI in a single kettle over the Key Deer NWR on Big Pine Key on 8/9/19, and then a third record of 150 STKI passing Long Key State Park in 2 large groups 5 seconds apart on 8/25/19. Finally, irrefutable evidence of massive flocks of Swallow-taileds over the Keys in August, passing very near the watch, and the recently reported Cuban count information suggested these free-spirited birds would (at times) follow leading lines in migration. These two precedents were all that was needed to finally toss the FKH hat, or perhaps binoculars, into the ring – “Kite Flight” would become a reality

Kevin Christman’s shared image of the Swallow-tailed Kite Kettle – 8/3/2021 Saddle Bunch Key

In the months leading up to “Kite Flight 2021” a donation link was added to the FKH webpage for the very first time to cover the now doubled seasonal costs. Once again the easily accessible online records were searched and reviewed. Of the now 20+ double digit sightings of Swallow-taileds from the FL Keys only one report was before 10 AM and the peak of sightings was similar to the best period for Peregrines between noon & 2:00 PM. Armed with all of this new data, it seemed the existing Florida Hawkwatch protocol of surveying migrant passerines early and beginning the hawk count near 9 AM would work for STKI as well for the August 1 start. Day one passed with NO Swallow-tailed Kite sightings and then more of the same on the 2nd.

Unfortunately, August 3rd did not start as envisioned. Kevin Christman (doing Spoonbill surveys in the lower FL Keys with FL FWC) posted his sighting of a kettle of 66 STKI over Saddlebunch Keys to Facebook with a welcomed “head’s up” to FKH at 8:05 AM. For those familiar with Florida Keys geography, you realize an issue here as Saddlebunch Keys are ~40 miles PAST the hawkwatch in the lower Keys! The possibilities were few: these birds had flown by in the evening on 8/2 after the count closed and spent the night south of the watch, they bypassed the middle keys entirely crossing Florida Bay from the Western Everglades coming ashore somewhere in the lower keys, or worst of all they snuck by undetected very early while conducting passerine surveys at Long Key State Park. Regardless they’d been missed – Swallow-taileds 1 / FKH 0!

the first Swallow-taileds of #KiteFlight2021

Despite the disappointment of these missed birds, happily it didn’t take long that morning for the first officially counted STKI of Kite Flight 2021 to be recorded from the hawkwatch platform and by day’s end there were 31 Swallow-tailed Kites in the books for the 2021 count season!

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