I’ve had the fortune of seeing this long-rumped raptor outside of the United States, where they are now considered rare despite their wide range throughout the Caribbean and Central and South America. And although the population did decrease in the last several decades, the IUCN does now list the species as having an “increasing” population trend. This interesting article in The Nature Conservancy, however, does raise concern over habitat loss and the species’ vulnerability. Ginger Strand reports:
Maria Whitehead yanks her feet out of the water as something crashes into Bull Creek next to the boat. Seconds later, a 10-foot-long alligator surfaces a few yards away. As the prehistoric reptile glides off, leaving a sinuous wake in the tannin-brown river, Whitehead casually retrieves her binoculars and goes back to watching a nest of swallow-tailed kites near the top of a soaring pine.
A project director for The Nature Conservancy in the South Carolina Lowcountry, Whitehead seems unfazed by nearly losing a toe on the job. So does Craig Sasser, manager of the Waccamaw National Wildlife Refuge. Wading into primeval cypress swamps, scaling 100-foot pine trees, paddling up tidal rivers through clouds of insects in triple digit heat: These are all part of researching swallow-tailed kites, a spectacular but poorly understood raptor.
Swallow-tailed kites are built like gliders, with huge wings and small, streamlined bodies. They rarely flap their wings; instead, they soar effortlessly, changing course with minute adjustments of their distinctive forked tails. They feed on the wing, snatching dragonflies and other insects out of the sky. Watching a swallow-tailed kite in flight is to be entranced. Even the Peterson Field Guide seems almost effusive about the bird, calling it “a sleek, elegant, black-and-white hawk that flies with incomparable grace.”
But admiration alone is not driving the urge to learn more about these rare birds. Subject to a variety of pressures, the kites have already undergone a historic population crash. Now, new threats are emerging that require land managers not only to understand the birds better but also to change their conservation approaches to preserving the near-coastal habitats that sustain them.
Swallow-tailed kites once nested in 21 states. Records from the 1800s show nesting pairs as far up the Mississippi Valley as Minnesota and Wisconsin. Then the population underwent a sudden decline. By 1940, the kite’s range had shrunk to seven states, from South Carolina to Texas—and the reason was unclear. Nor did anyone know how many birds remained or where exactly they flew when they migrated south.
“The birds are really hard to understand because they’re hard to put your hands on,” Whitehead says. Finding their nests—well-hidden in the tops of pines—is difficult. Catching birds to tag with radio collars is tricky. Satellite tracking was impossible until recently, when transmitters got small and light enough to be affixed to the birds without hindering them. But the more researchers have learned about kites, the more concerned they have become. The species is now listed as endangered in South Carolina, although it is not on the federal list.
“By definition they’re a little more vulnerable than some other species,” says Jim Elliott, founder and executive director of South Carolina’s Center for Birds of Prey, which maintains a database of swallow-tailed kite sightings.
A number of factors contribute to that vulnerability: The birds do not reach breeding age for three to four years, and females do not breed every year. Nesting adults and their young are subject to predation by great horned owls. They have high mortality on their migration between the southern United States and southern Brazil—especially in the spring, when they fly north across the Gulf of Mexico and can be swept off course by storms. And there just aren’t very many of them. Past estimates have guessed that there might be only a few thousand breeding pairs left in the country, scattered from South Carolina to Texas.
Read the rest of the original article here.