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Swallow tailed kite mid flight

Since the spring of 2019, Palm Beach County’s Department of Environmental Resources Management (PBCERM) has teamed up with the Palm Beach Zoo & Conservation Society (Zoo) and the Avian Research and Conservation Institute (ARCI) to further understand the swallow-tailed kites that call our beloved PBC Natural Areas home. The research done by ARCI has provided a clearer picture of how reliant these birds are on properly managed timber and agricultural conservation lands located in the Southeast US, as well as, provides new insights into where these birds travel when they leave us in the middle of summer. The Zoo, with support from the Florida Power & Light Company, generously donated funding to purchase GPS-equipped “backpack” transmitters. Through a team effort involving PBCERM staff leading the research team to nest locations and the crucial role of “Hino” the Zoo’s great horned owl animal ambassador, transmitters are successfully placed on birds that nest and raise their young in our Natural Areas. Read on to learn how this research happens, as well as where these birds go on their epic adventures throughout the year! ​​​​​

Team setting up equipment 

The field team begins setting up at dawn on a muggy June morning. When precious conservation funding is involved, the field team works tirelessly no matter the time or weather to ensure that we are maximizing contribution dollars. 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. ​

Team members setting up perch & netting. 

ARCI designs each tagging effort 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.

Hino, a great horned owl being set on a perch.

The Zoo has included Hino, their great horned owl animal ambassador, as an integral part of the conservation team on several of our tagging efforts in PBC Natural Areas. 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) being caught in the net.

Team members running to secure a swallow tailed kite.

After some waiting (as is usually the case with wildlife research), a kite suddenly flies over the cypress and pine canopy nearby, spots Hino, lets out an alarm call, and dives toward the net.  In this image, you can see the conservation team springing from the blind to secure the bird.  You can see the kite in the upper right third of this image, racing toward Hino (who is safely behind the net).  The team immediately places the captured kite in a protective can to reduce movement and the stress on the bird. 

Team examining the bird

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 collection of cumulative kite measurements since the 1980s. In this image you can see the “ready-to-be-fitted” GPS transmitters next to other data collection gear as the team works up the canned bird in the background.

Team attaching the GPS transmitter to the bird

The kite is removed from the can and a falconer’s hood is placed over the bird's head, again reducing stress on the bird, while the team finishes attaching the backpack transmitter. In this image you can see how compact this adult bird is in the hands of the conservation team…but that changes quite dramatically when they spread their wings!

​​ ​Additional examination of the bird is done prior to release

Finally, the bird’s body condition is noted, the team 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, while the wing shape creates lift for the bird as it slices through air.  Researchers even theorize that the tails on these kites may provide additional lift, like a biplane making flight even more efficient for these long-distance migrants. 
Close up of the swallow tailed kite's feathers 
Like all birds, feathers are the swallow-tailed kite’s lifeline, meal ticket​, as well as the key to almost everything they do.  This image shows a detail of the tail feathers, which are in good condition…but keeping them like this isn’t easy!  In order to keep feathers in tip-top condition birds, like these kites, will spend at least 10% of each day preening their feathers. ​
Juvenile swallow tailed kite cleaning feet on the wing

These extraordinary feathers allow swallow-tailed kites to capture flying insects, and take larger prey during nesting season that includes tree frogs, snakes, lizards, and even baby birds.  Almost everything for this bird is done “on the wing”, meaning the bird does not land to capture prey or to feed on its prey.  They also drink and even clean their feet on the wing, dipping their bill in the water or dragging their feet, as this juvenile bird is about to do (note the shorter outer feathers on the tail…one giveaway that this is a juvenile bird that recently fledged).
Team member getting ready to release bird 

With the team’s work complete, it’s time to send the kite back into the air.  The entire process from capture to release takes approximately 30 minutes.  Here you can see the GPS transmitter on the bird’s back.  The top is a solar panel, to recharge the battery allowing the unit to connect to cell phone towers.  Each day, the bird sends all its data back to ARCI through cell tower networks.

Swallow tailed kite with GPS tracker takes flight 

It is with privilege and gratitude that the conservation team watches this kite return to flight, and with anticipation of what stories she might tell in the months and years ahead.  After release, the movements of the birds are immediately monitored by ARCI staff to ensure normal movements continue.

Swallow tailed kite chicks in nest waiting for parents 

Normal movements mean that soon after tagging the birds are back at the nest, checking in on their fast-growing chicks. These chicks will need a steady stream of food deliveries if they are to make the 5000-mile journey that awaits them at only a few months of age. Swallow-tailed kites are some of the most social raptors on the planet, and when they nest, they do so in loosely clustered “neighborhoods” of 3 to 5 pairs of adults…but the social party really gets wild just before migration. 

​​Swallow tailed kites flying high in the afternoon sky

When chicks leave the nest, they begin moving around with their parents as they learn how to fly, how to forage, and how to read the land below them.  Because of those amazing wings, swallow-tailed kites can use thermals (shafts of hot air rising) to gain elevation without flapping their wings, then glide for miles as they move around the landscape.  During the warmest parts of the day, they will ride these air currents in groups that gain in number as the summer days get hotter and hotter.  Here, a group of 15 birds descends on the forest from high in the sky in the late afternoon sun. 

Swallow tailed kite eating on the wing

 In this critical time before migration, the kites are still taking in high-calorie food, like this juvenile iguana that was snatched from a palm frond in a dramatic dive from above.  Juvenile kites are also spending time honing their skills catching beetles and other flying insects from the open prairies and ranch lands that dot Florida’s interior. 

Swallow tailed kite circling roosting site

In the month before the birds leave on an epic journey that takes them across hundreds of miles of open water, thousands of miles of rainforest jungle, and 14,000-foot tall mountain peaks, they come together in a social display unrivaled in the raptor-world.  Almost the entire swallow-tailed kite population stage in several communal roost sites at important and strategic places within Florida.  Some of these sites have a few hundred birds, while the largest has over 2000, almost 25% of their estimated population, in one place! 
Birds roosting in tree tops as sun sets

Some of these sites are on public lands, but others are on private ranch lands that make up so much of Florida’s interior and which look almost identical to the lands these birds travel to in Brazil during the winter.  It is so important for these birds that we continue to preserve, restore, and manage public lands like our PBC Natural Areas, but it is equally important that we preserve the vast working ranches in Florida, especially the ones that manage their lands sustainably, as these lands provide essential connections between our public lands systems. ​​
Map showing the migration path of 3 swallow tailed kites

ARCI Map:  This map shows the movements of three breeding adult kites, tagged on our PBC Natural Areas, over the course of one year.  When the kites leave us in late July, they may fly singly or in groups from those roost sites, hopping down the Florida Peninsula and keeping Cuba on their wingtips as they fly to the Yucatán Peninsula.  After refueling there, they hop south through the rainforests of Central America until they almost all pass through a single mountain pass in the high Andes Mountains, finally reaching their wintering grounds in Brazil.  While these birds are not listed as Federally endangered, their historic populations and range have seen a decrease of 80%, which makes our PBC Natural Areas, our surrounding public lands systems, and the working ranches in Florida essential to their long-term survival. ​