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Kite Flight thus far

August 23, 2021

Three weeks into Kite Flight 2021, and we have already made some fascinating observations on Swallow-tailed Kite migratory behavior, counting 627 individuals through August 21st. We are elated to have seen so many Kites already, and are excited to finally be collecting this crucially valuable baseline data on this migration. But each discovery begets ever more questions, so we have a long way to go before we begin to understand the migration of these enigmatic birds. On the graph above you will note that the birds we’ve detected have typically come in larger groups all at once followed by long periods without sightings, including the entire week of August 10-17, 2021. Of course, the presence & effects of Tropical Storm Fred fell right in the middle of this period and has to be considered a likely contributor to lack of migration here (we were closed entirely on 8/14).

Swallow-tailed Kites stream past FKH, August 4, ’21 video still from Luis Gles.

The first Swallow-tailed Kites passed the watch on August 3rd & 4th, and it was awe-inspiring to see these birds pass en masse. The screen capture above is part of the fun video clip posted on our Facebook page, it does a much better job at conveying the movement than these still images alone. We had large groups pass again on August 8th and 9th with 69 and 121 birds tallied, respectively.

Swallow-taileds kettling high above the watch 8/8/21
numerous ST Kites streaming over 8/8/21

As described in our last blog post, the first Kites seen in the FL Keys in August 2021 were not tallied by FKH but from sharp-eyed researcher, Kevin Christman, who spotted a kettle of 66 the morning of August 3rd on Saddle Bunch Key (FKH tallied 31 from the watch that day). On 8/8/21, FKH counted 69 Swallow-tailed Kites, but once again the big event of the day occurred later that evening over Big Pine Key ~33 miles to the west.

Notes and images from K. Christman’s eBird report from 8/8/21

Kevin spent the day watching with us at FKH, then drove to Big Pine Key in the evening, recording the largest group of Swallow-tailed Kites ever reported from the FL Keys to date circling over at 6:19 PM! As you can see in the screen shot from his eBird checklist above, this single kettle contained a mind-boggling 480 individual Swallow-tailed Kites. Perhaps not coincidentally, the previous largest group of STKI ever tallied in the keys, was 247 also seen from Big Pine Key on 8/9/2019.

Satellite tracks of tagged Swallow-taileds published by the Avian Research Conservation Institute (ARCI) has shown that Kites readily undertake long water crossings, so we’ve always suspected birds flying along the gulf coast of the Florida would not hesitate to cross shallow Florida Bay based on these precedents. Birds leaving the lower Everglades and 10,000 Islands region heading on a south to southwest trajectory would make landfall in the lower keys (past FKH), so it isn’t wholly surprising that Big Pine would be an attractive, strategic focal point for these Kites aloft over the bay. Big Pine has the largest land mass of any of the lower keys and is surrounded by dozens of small islands and massive shallow salt flats that extend far to the north (see satellite view below). A large group of 120 Swallow-tailed Kites was actually photographed over Flamingo in Everglades NPP on 8/8 near 2 PM, and may well have represented a portion of the large kettle seen from Big Pine that same day.

The many keys and shallow flats North of Big Pine Key should be readily visible to a bird in flight from a distance

We still have loads to learn and are extremely fortunate to have an additional skilled observer in the field in the lower Keys making & sharing these additional observations which provides a far more complete picture of the Kite migration! Happily, we still have a lot of Kite season remaining with 9 days left in August, and then all of September. During our previous earliest season start in 2014, FKH counted 255 Swallow-taileds from 9/2 forward.

We have seen very little variation in wind direction this season, with winds out of the E to SE on 16 of 21 days. Perhaps a coincidence, but our single best day of the season 8/20, had mostly NE winds (our only northerly wind thus far) and we tallied 250 total raptor species including 214 Swallow-tailed Kites, as well as numerous passerines migrating past (>7,000 swallows alone). With almost no variation on weather though we can’t even begin to guess what winds might be the best for flights of Kites but we will continue to watch and learn!

Thanks as always for following our season as it progresses and thanks to all who have supported the hawkwatch and Kite Flight 2021 through your contributions thus far. Donations are always greatly appreciated, and we would love to see you at the hawkwatch this season so feel free to visit anytime between now and the end of November.

Our dedicated hawkwatchers Mariah & Luis on the job all day, every day

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