Living Sanibel: Swallow-tailed kite
The swallow-tailed kite, like the magnificent frigatebird, is an impressive bird to witness in flight. In fact, you are most likely to spot and identify this bird when it is soaring high above. With its pure white body, large black-tipped wings and deeply forked black tail, this bird resembles an enormous, snowy barn swallow.
Unlike most of the migratory birds that arrive in Florida, the swallow-tailed kite comes up from Central and South America during the summer. In effect, Florida is its northern breeding grounds. Once a common nesting bird as far north as Minnesota, the swallow-tailed kite has suffered from extensive habitat loss through most of its former North American range.
There is a small resident nesting population at Corkscrew Swamp on the mainland, and more than likely some of the birds found flying over Lee County originate from there. They predominantly eat flying insects including dragonflies, bees, and beetles but while in flight will also pick off snakes, crickets, cicadas, and small birds from the canopy top. A skilled flyer, the swallow-tailed kite can turn its tail feathers almost 90 degrees, allowing it to make sharp turns and quick dives. Its only long-term threat is habitat loss, although some efforts are under way to reintroduce the kite into its former northernmost ranges.
Author’s Note: Over the past several years Sanibel and Captiva Islands have witnessed a steady increase in the resident swallow-tailed kite population. They can be found almost daily flying effortlessly above the Sanibel Post Office or along San-Cap Road. There are several confirmed nesting sites currently established on the island and we seem to have a permanent kite population here on the islands. Once extremely rare throughout all the barrier islands of Florida, this migrant from South America has rebounded to the point where we can enjoy watching this charismatic bird on a regular basis.
This is an excerpt from The Living Gulf Coast – A Nature Guide to Southwest Florida by Charles Sobczak. The book is available at all the Island bookstores, Baileys, Jerry’s and your favorite online sites.