On a bright morning last June in a South Carolina forest, a Great Horned Owl perched conspicuously just above a dirt road. In the sky, six Swallow-tailed Kites circled, their long, forked tails acting as rudders as they scolded this perceived intruder. Finally, one kite broke into a dive, headed straight for the owl…and into a waiting mist-net.
Four concealed conservationists burst from their hide to carefully extract the captured kite and safely remove their trained owl, which had been positioned just behind the waiting net. They gently fitted the football-sized black-and-white bird with a solar-powered GPS transmitter to provide crucial insight into the elegant raptor’s future movements.
This might seem like a mean trick to play on an unsuspecting bird, but it’s for a good cause. Along with two other kites, the bird is part of a GPS tracking project. The effort helps inform sustainable management practices in southeastern working forests. The project is sponsored by the fiber products company International Paper, one of American Bird Conservancy’s partners in the Southeast. The two organizations work closely to ensure private forests are both economically viable for landowners and ecologically sound for wildlife, says EJ Williams, Southeast and Atlantic Coast region vice president for ABC.
Swallow-tailed Kites once nested all the way up the Mississippi River into Minnesota, but forest loss, agricultural development, and possibly egg collecting drove them from the northern part of their range decades ago. Now, kites nesting in the U.S. are restricted to Florida and the surrounding southeastern states. The majority of forests in this area are on private land, making close partnerships with companies and landowners key to the conservation of kites and other birds in the region.
The GPS tracking project, a collaboration between ABC’s Williams and scientists at the Avian Research and Conservation Institute in Florida, builds on previous work to locate and map Swallow-tailed Kite nesting sites, which resulted in data that are already used by foresters to make more sustainable forest management decisions.
From June through September, the GPS devices beamed daily data on the birds’ travels when they passed nearby cell towers. Then, all three tagged birds headed to South America. The transmitters stopped sending updates south of Mexico due to a lack of compatible cell towers, but the team was gifted with months of stored data upon the birds’ return. This spring, the transmitters continue to provide fresh insight on how the kites use the landscape as they scout for nests and raise their chicks. — Rachel Fritts, writer/editor, American Bird Conservancy