Late July and early August is usually a relatively slow time for birding in Alabama. For most birds, the breeding season has ended, and it's too soon for most migrants, such as many of the warblers, to start passing through the state. But it is the best time of the year to see one of Alabama's most beautiful and uncommon birds -- the Swallow-Tailed Kite.
The Swallow-Tailed Kite is listed as "threatened," with its range in the United States shrinking over the past century. But the Mobile Bay estuary in spring and West Alabama in the late summer remain places where these beautiful birds can be seen, although it usually takes a little effort to find them.
A great way to see the Swallow-Tailed Kite and its more common cousin, the Mississippi Kite, is to take part in one of several field trips that Birmingham Audubon schedules in late July and in August to locations where the kites are likely to be found.
I joined about 30 other birders last week on one of these field trips to Autauga and Lowndes counties in search of kites, as well as Wood Storks and other birds. We found Mississippi Kites in Autauga County west of Prattville in the morning, but we didn't come across Swallow-Tailed Kites until the afternoon in Lowndes County. But when we did find them, they were kind enough to put on an aerial show for us. (See photo gallery.)
Kites are members of the same bird family as eagles and hawks. Their diets consist mainly of grasshoppers, bees, butterflies, other insects and lizards.
A great way to search for kites in West Alabama is to look for farmers using tractors to mow and roll hay. 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 hay cutting and rolling stirs up insects, and kites are not shy about following the tractors to capture those insects when they take flight.
But last week that strategy didn't work. The hay fields were soaked from rain the night before, making it unlikely that hay processing would be occurring. But Birmingham Audubon field trip leader Greg Harber found both types of kites anyway.
We saw five of the striking black-and-white Swallow-Tailed Kites gliding over a large hay field, scanning below for insects. The kites barely moved their wings but constantly twisted their split tail to adjust to the wind. As we watched, we would suddenly see their heads and tails twist and their wings fold back as the birds swooped down to just a few feet off the ground. Then they would spread their wings to brake, drop the last couple of feet talons first, and then fly away. It would take just seconds, but the birds would repeat the process every few minutes.
Sometimes it would seem as if all the kites came up with were talons full of hay that trailed behind it. But then the kite in mid-air would duck its head to snack on a grasshopper in its talons. This mid-air eating is common for both the Swallow-Tailed and Mississippi Kites, especially after nesting season when the birds are not carrying food back to nestlings.
The Swallow-Tailed Kite is slightly larger than the Mississippi Kite (48-inch 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. For a copy of the checklist, see their website.
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, their population had dropped dramatically -- probably because of habitat loss -- and their 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, even in urban areas. I've seen them this summer soaring over Montgomery residential neighborhoods, and they can sometimes be seen near Blount Cultural Park, an Alabama Birding Trails site.
But by early fall, the kites have left on a perilous migration to winter grounds in South America.
(Kites, of course, were not the only birds we saw on the field trip. Solitary Sandpipers and Spotted Sandpipers were a highlight of the morning, and at a rookery in South Montgomery County we saw scores of nestling Cattle Egrets and as many as 2,000 adult Cattle Egrets roosting in nearby trees, as well as White Ibis and a scattering of Little Blue Herons. See photo gallery.)
-- "Chirps and Chips," a casino-themed evening, will be Saturday, Aug. 19, from 7 to 10 p.m. at Rosewood Hall at SoHo Square, 2850 19th St. South, Homewood. Sponsored by Raptor Force, the junior board of the Alabama Wildlife Center, the event will feature games, live entertainment, a silent auction and a drawing, as well as heavy hors d'oeuvres. Proceeds will benefit the Alabama Wildlife Center to help with its rehabilitation program for native Alabama birds. Tickets are $50 per person. Details at: www.awrc.org
-- Birmingham Audubon Society: Greg Harber will lead a field to West Alabama and the Tombigbee River near Gainesville and Aliceville and go the chalk cliffs in Epes. The trip will be Aug. 12 from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. The trip is free and open to both members and nonmembers. For details, go to: birminghamaudubon.org
-- The deadline for the Alabama Ornithological Society photo contest is Sept. 1. There are three categories -- Backyard, Flight and Natural Habitat. Details: aosbirds.org
-- The Alabama Birding Trails web page has a comprehensive list of upcoming birding and nature-related activities around the state that is much more detailed than space allows here. Most of the activities are open to the public and many are free. See it at: alabamabirdingtrails.com
Ken Hare is a retired newspaper editor and writer who now writes for wsfa.com. Feedback appreciated at firstname.lastname@example.org. To see other columns, go to Ken's page.
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