Species profile: Watching a nesting Swallow-tailed Kite in Louisiana
A Swallow-tailed Kite's return to the nest turns a springtime walk into a goose-bump moment
Published: March 1, 2008
|Drive over the big bridge. Take an immediate right turn onto the bumpy gravel road. Go up and over the steep railroad grade. Turn left and then right. Continue until you reach a shrub marked with four red ties, stop, and look up. The directions seem simple, and they are. I stop and look up, and there it is, easily visible, nestled 40 feet above me in the upper reaches of an eastern cottonwood tree: a good-size stick nest, a foot deep and 20 inches across, draped with Spanish moss and exposed to the elements, such as yesterday's torrential rains and tree-swaying winds, a Swallow-tailed Kite's nest. |
I'm enjoying the morning. Carolina Chickadees sing their sweet car-o-lin-a names. White-eyed Vireos emphatically tell me to "step to the rear." The distant peetza of an Acadian Flycatcher and loud warbles of Hooded Warblers resonate from the woods, while insistent Prothonotary Warblers dominate the chorus. Two Mississippi Kites soar high overhead, and a Little Blue Heron is winging it to somewhere. It's a thrill to be in a Louisiana lowland hardwood forest of water oak, sycamore, and sweet gum trees on a cool spring morning, listening to avian songs this Wisconsin birder rarely hears. An added bonus is that I'm standing under the nest of one of the rarer nesting birds found in the United States.
I look at it from several angles before I finally see two long, pointed, black tail feathers extending over the rim. They could easily be mistaken for twigs. I look again, and another Swallow-tailed Kite appears, soaring effortlessly.
My heart always beats a little faster each time I see the falcon-like wings and deeply forked tail of this uncommon bird. I find its color pattern, the bold contrast between black tail, secondaries, and primaries and white body, head, and underwing coverts, very pleasing.
|Besides, it's an easy bird to identify.|
This is a bird that flies with unparalleled grace and fluidity, a bird of the skies, a bird capable of soaring for hours yet agile enough to pursue and capture zig-zagging dragonflies and camouflaged tree-hugging anoles and snakes. Its wings never seem to flap. The ruddering tail opens, closes, rotates, rises, and falls all so smoothly and imperceptibly as it helps the bird maintain balance and direction.
The incoming kite seems to move in slow motion. If it were flying any slower, it would surely lose lift and plummet to earth. I watch as it circles above the nest. In ever tighter circles, without a sound, without a wing beat, and with hardly a tail twitch, it descends. It's barely 40 feet overhead, this elegant bird that I usually see high in the sky, carried aloft on a thermal. Through my binoculars I can see individual wing feathers. It drifts lower, still circling. Then, completing one final, graceful arc, it approaches the nest and gently, silently, touches down.
No audible or visible partner-greeting-partner display follows. Instead, the incubating bird spreads its slender wings, floats off the nest, and disappears. Within seconds, the incoming kite is settled upon the mass of sticks.
The exchange -- from when I noticed the circling bird to final touchdown -- took less than two minutes. But what a two minutes it was. It was one of those special goose-bump moments that occur infrequently and when I least expect them. They remind me how glorious the natural world is if I just linger and quietly watch.
I wasn't here in late February or early March, when the kites returned from their overwintering grounds in South America. Nor did I watch as the birds made countless trips to pluck twigs and gather Spanish moss for their nest. I missed courtship. Nor will I see the young leave the nest about six weeks after hatching.
All I observed was a few moments of the kites' 28-day incubation of two to four brown-splotched white eggs. Yet I have memories of that one glorious southern morning when a Swallow-tailed Kite slowly circled low overhead, and I was allowed a brief glimpse into the private lives of a pair of truly extraordinary birds.
Anita Carpenter is a naturalist who writes about the natural world for Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine and other publications. She was an atlaser for the recently completed Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas and is a charter member of the North American Butterfly Association. She likes nothing better than taking to the field to discover more of nature's secrets.