Snail Kite in Flight

For the second year, PBCERM has teamed up with two amazing non-profit organizations, the @palmbeachzoo and the @ARCInst to further understand the incredible swallow-tailed kites that call our beloved #pbcnaturalareas home. This partnership was formed through great relationships between scientists and conservationists at each organization that share an unending passion for the conservation of imperiled species in our home state. The research done by @ARCInst has provided a much clearer picture of how reliant these birds are on conservation lands as well as properly managed timber and agricultural lands in the southeast US, and provided new insights into where these birds travel when they leave us in the middle of summer. This year the great folks at @palmbeachzoo, with support from the Florida Power & Light Company, generously donated funding to purchase three GPS-equipped “backpack” transmitters to track more birds that nest and raise their young in our Natural Areas. The @palmbeachzoo also brought their Animal Ambassador and great horned owl “Hino” to the field to help with the tagging efforts while PBCERM staff led the research team to nest locations that land managers have been monitoring during this nesting season. Check out the following photo-story of how this research happens, and read through captions to learn more about the details, as well as where these birds have been moving around the area since receiving their fresh new backpacks!
Picture of field team setting up 

The field team begins setting up at dawn on a stormy morning in June. When preciously valuable conservation funding is involved, the field team works tirelessly no matter the weather to ensure that contribution dollars are being maximized.
description of the image 

The camouflaged “blind” in the foreground is set up near the trap site so researchers can quickly untangle a bird that is caught in the net.
Staff setting up the net

Each tagging effort done by @ARCInst is specifically designed to maximize capture success and minimize stress on the birds during the tagging process. For swallow-tailed kites, a special net is deployed near kite activity, where the birds are drawn in by an educational great horned owl that is tethered to a low perch.
Nonamé, A great horned owl rescued by Avian Reconditioning Center

Nicole Jones, volunteer with the Avian Reconditioning Center brought out their educational owl “Nonamé” for the first capture effort.  Nonamé came into their facility with a wing injury that could not be rehabilitated, and now she serves as the resident educator and “mother” to orphaned great horned owl chicks that come to the sanctuary.
Nonamé getting settled onto her perch

Before the rain began in earnest, the team finalized setup of the net as Nonamé got settled onto her perch. Great horned owls are used in swallow-tailed kite tagging efforts because the kites will vigorously defend their nesting territory when they spot a great horned owl, their top predator, by swooping towards it and hopefully getting caught in the net.
Snail Kite Captured 

After some waiting (as is usually the case with wildlife research), a kite suddenly flew over the cypress canopy nearby, spotted Nonamé, alarm called, and dove toward the net. The team sprang from blind to secure the bird. Gina Kent, Senior Conservation Scientist at @ARCInst, removes the bird from the net as ERM land manager David Witmer stands ready with a can. The bird is immediately placed in the protective can to reduce movement and the stress level of the bird.
Staff tending to snail kite captured for tagging 

While the bird is “canned” measurements are taken of tail length, weight, and leg size in order to determine the proper size for this bird’s new identification leg band. All information is recorded on data sheets in the field and transcribed to a database, adding to ARCI’s cumulative kite measurements since the 1980s.
Falconer's hood being placed on snail kite

The kite is then removed from the can and a falconer’s hood is placed over the birds head, again reducing stress on the bird while the team finishes attaching the backpack transmitter. In this image you can see the details of the kite’s talons. Swallow-tailed kites capture flying insects, and take larger prey during nesting that includes tree frogs, snakes, lizards and even baby birds. All this is done “on the wing”, meaning the bird does not land to capture prey or to feed on its prey.
Snail kite being assessed for health

Finally, the bird’s body condition is noted, as Gina inspects the bird for parasites, feather molt, and other body-condition indicators. This image highlights the extraordinary wingspan of these birds, as well as their important tail feathers. The broad and streamlined wings are perfectly adapted to allow this kite to “float” through the air with minimal wing beats, as the wing shape creates lift for the bird as it slices through air. Researchers even theorize that the tails on these kites may even provide additional lift, like a biplane…making flight even more efficient for these long-distance migrants.
Getting ready to release tagged snail kite 

Land manager David Witmer carries the first tagged kite to release back into the wild. The entire process from capture to release takes approximately 30 minutes. The movements of the birds are immediately monitored by Gina Kent and other ARCI staff to ensure normal movements continue.
Snail Kite being released

Palm Beach Zoo staff member Mike Terrell releases the second tagged kite…one day before the team successfully tagged a third. These three kites are now busy doing kite things…namely foraging and feeding and teaching their young all the things they need to know before they embark together on a 5,000 mile journey to South America, crossing hundreds of miles of open water, thousands of miles of rainforest jungle, and 14,000-foot tall mountain peaks…the youngsters making this journey at only 3-4 months of age!
Map showing range of tagged snail kite birds

Four swallow-tailed kites tagged and GPS-tracked from Palm Beach County, Florida by ARCI. After the nest season, swallow-tailed kites start to move to areas of abundant food sources (insects) to gorge and put on the necessary fat to prepare for their migration to South America. Many kites find each other at communal roost sites and foraging aggregations across the southeastern U.S. Two of our Palm Beach Kites (PBC-ERM Male and Jeaga 2) have found foraging areas throughout Palm Beach County to prepare for migration. Jeaga 1 has circled west around Lake Okeechobee and is now using agriculture areas in St. Lucie County. Jeaga 3 has traveled the farthest, making a day trip to the Altamaha River of Georgia from a core area between Lake Apopka and Palatka, Florida. These birds could leave Florida any day now, and we are excited to see where their journeys take them and where they will decide to winter in South America.