Friday, July 14, 2006

Swallow-tailed Kites

A recent post on a Florida birding list and another personal sighting made me remember that I hadn't posted anything on Swallow-tailed Kites since the best shots I got were during the "Time of the Washington Birds" posts. So many posts based on one trip seem to cry out for its own era.

The latest sighting was in a strange spot, to me. Smack over a neighborhood in a crowed portion of Greater Orlando. Even though Kites are very common in Florida through most of the Summer, they are usually seen over open fields or scattered woodlands. Seeing that bird in an urban area was even enough to raise a "Cool!" from my oldest son.

He was also with me recently when we had a pair flying close by in another location and really thinks they are pretty neat. He was actually the first to see a Kite as we headed to a reliable spot to view them.

On the eastern edge of the Lake Apopka North Shore Restoration Area (LANSRA), is a route leading to the restoration area called Lust Road. The public section of Lust Road leads past a few open areas of brushy fields and ends at the LANSRA gate and is a favorite stop for many birders, especially in Winter.

The main reason to stop by in late Spring and Summer is a pretty good chance to see some Swallow-tailed Kites soaring over a weedy field to the south, scanning for something to eat. Every now and then they will swoop down toward the ground and either grab something or wheel back upward and continue scanning.

During the Winter months, this aerial ballet is taken over by Northern Harriers that stalk small birds and snakes which frequent the 3-5 foot weeds which stretch out for miles beyond the locked gates.

Swallow-tailed Kites primarily search for insects, reptiles, and amphibians. They were doing so after my son and I finished up helping on a check of owl boxes in Zellwood and I decided we should see what we could see on the way home.

Besides having the closest views of wild Swallow-tailed Kites, the feeding behavior they were going through was very interesting. There were many times when I could see the Kites pursuing insects. They flew by so quickly that I was spending most of my time trying to urge my camera to focus. I didn't even know I had a bug on film until I saw the prints.

Can you find the bug that was about to become part of lunch?

Swallow-tailed Kite

My older Pentax with autofocus was whining constantly as it was sometimes finding a Kite to lock onto and, more often, missing to target and zooming to infinity. Times like these make me want to snap the lens from the camera body but I stayed with it as long as possible. Every so often I managed to get an OK image.

Swallow-tailed Kite

The most interesting thing for the day was the feeding behavior being used by this pair. They would swoop into the dark green weeds and actually grab clumps of vegetation before angling upward again. Then, they would level out and use one foot to hold the weeds and the other to pull pieces away one by one.

Finally, all that was left was the insect which they would eat on the wing and continue to loop back around and dive for the next batch of insect-bearing weeds. Once they made their way to the end of the fenced area, they would cross the road and swing back toward the fields.

On the closest pass while we were there, a Kite flew directly over me. Maybe 12-15 feet right over my titled head which had a whining camera pressed tightly to it. I ended up with a full frame shot of the Kite's tail.

The next opportunity for an overhead fly-by proved much better. The bird was a little higher, maybe 20-25 feet as it flew over, and managed to cross directly over again. Not knowing how any of these shots might end up, we headed home and dropped off the film.

I was pleased to get at least one nice full frame shot. Look closely and you can even see the grasshopper that was just prized from a clump of weeds moments before.

Swallow-tailed Kite

Pretty soon the Kites will head south, making their way down into South America. I am hoping to run out to Lust Road again before they leave. If I can't make that, we still see them when we band birds out at Wekiva Springs. This years there have been up to 12 Kites circling at a time as the air heats up.

If you would like to see some Swallow-tailed Kites from Wekiva and larger versions of these shots, head over to my photo site and check them out.

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