When a dozen cars following closely after one another drive down a rural road in Central Alabama, it is common for other drivers, thinking they're meeting a funeral procession, to pull their cars to the side of the road. But when such a convoy drove through southern Autauga and northern Lowndes counties Saturday, the drivers weren't searching for a misplaced cemetery but kites -- the bird kind of kites.
A birding field trip organized by the Birmingham Audubon Society had as its goal two of Alabama's most beautiful birds -- the uncommon Swallow-Tailed Kite and the more common but still beautiful Mississippi Kite. Kites are members of the same bird family as eagles and hawks, and like their cousins they are carnivorous. Their diets consist mainly of grasshoppers, bees, butterflies, other insects and lizards.
[SLIDESHOW: Ken's Hare's photos]
As the birders drove along, they were not so much scanning the skies for birds as they were scanning the fields for tractors mowing and rolling hay. Because in August in Central and West Alabama, where there is hay cutting there are likely to be kites somewhere nearby -- and often right behind the mower.
The morning started slowly, with not much birding activity at most of the fields we drove by. But when we found a tractor mowing hay southeast of Autaugaville, there were the kites -- four Mississippi and one Swallow-Tailed, swooping and diving and coming up with grasshoppers and dragonflies. (See photos.)
The striking black-and-white Swallow-Tailed Kite glided at treetop level over the hay field, scanning below for insects, barely moving its wings but constantly twisting its split tail to adjust to the wind. Suddenly its head and tail twisted and it swooped down to just a few feet off the ground, then spread its wings to brake, dropped the last couple of feet talons first, and then flew away. It took just seconds.
At first, it looked as if all the kite came up with was talons full of hay that trailed behind it. (See photos.) But then the kite in mid-air ducked its head to snack on a grasshopper in its talons, and after the insect was consumed, dropped the grass behind it. Both the Swallow-Tailed and Mississippi kites exhibited similar foraging techniques.
That afternoon, the convoy of birders found another crew mowing hay in northern Lowndes County. The leader of the field trip, Greg Harber of Birmingham, estimated there were about 35 kites at this location about evenly split between the two species.
The Swallow-Tailed Kite is slightly larger than the Mississippi Kite (four-foot wingspan vs. 33-inch wingspan in the Mississippi Kite), and can easily be distinguished by its white and black plumage. The Mississippi Kite is a soft gray color, with black around its eyes giving it an almost owl-like look when seen head on.
There are fives species of kites in the United States, but the Mississippi and Swallow-Tailed Kites are the only two commonly found in Alabama. (The Alabama Ornithological Society checklist of Alabama birds shows the White-Tailed Kite -- usually found in Texas and South Florida -- as an occasional visitor to the state.)
But while the Mississippi Kite actually has been expanding its territory in recent years, the Swallow-Tailed Kite has remained on the list of threatened birds.
In the 1800s, Swallow-Tailed Kites nested in 21 states -- including states as far north as Wisconsin. But by the mid-1900s, its population had dropped dramatically -- probably because of habitat loss -- and its range had dwindled to just those states stretching from South Carolina to Texas.
While most Swallow-Tailed Kites are found in Florida, Alabama's Mobile and Tensaw river delta is an important breeding area for the birds. But after breeding season ends, by late July and August the birds range farther into Alabama in search of food.
Mississippi Kites more readily can be seen in Alabama. In the summer of 2015, for instance, I had about a dozen sightings of them inside the Montgomery city limits from June through August. (See photos.) Two even spent a couple of weeks in two tall trees near the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts in Blount Cultural Park, perhaps attracted by an abundance of cicadas in the park. (Blount Cultural Park is an Alabama Birding Trails site.)
But by early fall, the kites have left on a perilous migration to winter grounds in South America.
-- Birmingham Audubon field trips are usually open to non-members and free. For information on future Birmingham Audubon field trips, go to: http://birminghamaudubon.org
-- To report a sighting of a Swallow-Tailed Kite, go to: www.thecenterforbirdsofprey.org
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