Be Your Own Birder

Bird of the Week: Swallow-Tailed Kite

Soaring gracefully with a distinct profile and bold coloration, the swallow-tailed kite is one of the easiest raptors to identify in flight. But how much do you actually know about this week’s featured bird beyond its elegant beauty?

Swallow-Tailed Kite

Swallow-Tailed Kite – Photo by Andy Morffew

Name: Swallow-Tailed Kite
Scientific Name: Elanoides forficatus
Scientific Family: Accipitridae (Hawks and Eagles)

Habitat: These raptors prefer wet, tropical habitats such as swamps, marshes, estuaries, inlets and rivers. Large trees are essential for roosting and nesting, and these birds are most comfortable in wooded river areas adjacent to more open spaces.

Range: Swallow-tailed kites are southeastern specialties in the United States, found mostly in Florida also extending as far west as eastern Texas and as far north as southern South Carolina in smaller numbers. They are also found in southern Mexico and throughout Central America into Panama. After the summer breeding season, these birds migrate to South America, spending the winter as far south as Brazil and Bolivia. Because these birds are adept at soaring, they will occasionally be seen far from their expected range, particularly after storms when wind patterns can push them into unexpected areas.

These are sleek, slim raptors with elegant pied plumage. The head and underparts are plain, bright white, contrasting sharply with the black wings, upperparts and tail. In bright sunlight, the black parts of the plumage may show a slight bluish or purplish sheen, and the dark eye stands out in the white face. In flight, the half-and-half black-and-white pattern on the narrow wings is distinctive, as is the long, deeply forked tail. These birds are agile in the air, and use their nimble tails as rudders to twist and turn effortlessly, even helping them roll, dive and do other outstanding acrobatics as they seek out airborne prey, such as large insects. In suitable habitats, several of these birds may be seen in close proximity, making them even more outstanding to watch.

The swallow-tailed kite is special to me, not only because it is an amazing bird (as all birds are!), but because it is my spark bird, that one special species that caused me to notice birds and first take an interest in birding and bird identification. Furthermore, now that I live in the coastal area of central Florida, the seasonal appearance of these birds gliding and soaring over the woods and swamps is a key indication that spring and summer have most definitely arrived (those two seasons not being as distinct as in northern climates). At the end of March and into early April I’ll always be scanning the skies most carefully for the first glimpse of that V-shaped tail and those slim, long wings, and I know the best of birding really has arrived.

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