Saturday, August 21, 2010

Kite day - success!

The scene shortly after 9 am this morning in Hide-A-Way Hills, Hocking County. This was the site of Ohio's first ever Mississippi Kite Day, and from 9 am until noon the good people of this private, gated resort allowed birders to enter and meet what are rapidly becoming their most famous residents.

Many thanks go out to Elizabeth vanBalen Delphia for finding and bringing the birds to light, then serving as the host for the 60+ birders who came to visit this morning. She and her husband Michael were exceedingly patient and gracious hosts, visiting with everyone and guiding people to the best spots. I also want to thank the management of Hide-A-Way Hills for tolerating this rather out-of-the-ordinary invasion of the human kind. The security staff was great, as everyone else down there has been.

Finally, as is nearly always the case, all of the birders that visited, from as far away as Michigan, were great. Many a life bird was notched and lots of fantastic photos were made. Photographers the likes of Steve Jones, Jerry Talkington and Dane Adams were on the scene, and they'll have much better stuff than mine, but I haven't yet had time to seek their permission to use photos.

One of the subjects of our quest: a freshly minted juvenile Mississippi Kite. There were two of the still downy beasts, and fabulous views at great length were had of both. These guys normally just sit like dummies high in the branches of dead trees - the most conspicuous perches about, the better to beg from. As Mississippi Kites normally have only two young, this means that the pair has successfully fledged both.

When a youngster detects an adult flying back with a morsel, it begins emitting high keening whistles reminiscent of a truncated Olive-sided Flycatcher call. While perhaps annoying to the adult kites, it is great for us on the ground, as we have advance warning of an impending food transfer - one of the exciting moments of kite-watching.

One thing that I love about birders is that most are very gracious about sharing birds with others. We must have had 30 residents of Hide-A-Way Hills stop by today, wondering about the hubbub. Everyone was great about providing scope views and explaining the significance of the kites - read my previous post for more on that - and I am confident that there are some new kite fans as a result. Even some very young youngsters got in on the act, and Dave Slager was good enough to lower his scope to ground level to accomodate these Lilliputian gigglers, who added Mississippi Kite to their life list.

It was fun to watch the young kites flex and test their wings. Theirs is a steep learning curve. In short order, they've got to be fattened to the point where they can make the upcoming multi-thousand mile flight to the jungles of South America, where they'll spend the winter. And even trickier, they have to learn to hunt, and catching favored kite fare on the wing is no small feat.

Every now and then, one of the Juniors would make a test flight, wheeling about and showing off their complex, gorgeous juvenile plumage - very different than the grays and whites of the adults.

We had a scope trained on the nest, which is a tiny flimsy affair that only a Mourning Dove would relate to. It was high in the boughs of a White Ash, Fraxinus americana, and is the first nest of Mississippi Kite found in Ohio.

Most people spent their time watching the juveniles as they sat high aloft, awaiting the return of an adult with food. I saw about ten transfers, and all but two were annual cicadas. Even though we couldn't positively identify the victims to species, we heard Linne's, Lyric, and Swamp cicadas singing in the area and it stands to reason that these were the species that were being caught. On one occasion, a Green Darner dragonfly was brought in, and on another a large sphinx moth was the prey.

A few times, the juvenile kite would shy away from the cicada when it was offered, and the adult would then appear to do a bit of surgery on the bug. I am only speculating, but what I suspect was going on is that the cicada was still alive and struggling. When cicadas are threatened, they make incredibly loud agitated buzzes, and that display may have frightened the young kite, requiring the adult to administer the coup de grace before Junior would accept the meal.

We were treated to some truly outstanding displays of the adult kites' aerial prowess. They seem to trace lazy, languid circles not far above the canopy, but in reality their laser eyes are seeking prey. One group saw a kite stoop and grab a cicada from a pine, the bird apparently spotting it amongst the needles. Usually, they spot their prey as the cicadas make short flights from tree to tree, and swoop in with incredible speed. I saw this happen a few times. The kite would suddenly tuck its wings in and drop like a missile, accelerating faster than a Ducati motorcycle and snagging the hapless insect.

This is huge talent. One just doesn't pip from the egg, stretch its wings, and launch right into 70 mph cicada-nabbing power dives. It seems as if the Junior kites spend lots of time on their snags watching the adults, and probably learning by example. This may be in part why they choose such high conspicuous perches - the better to watch mommy and daddy ply their trade.

It was great to have so many residents of Hide-A-Way Hills stop by and get the chance to view the birds. Everyone seemed quite taken with them, and none of the locals seemed to object to sharing their community with kites that are not tethered to strings.

Mother arrives with a fresh cicada for the begging youngster. Missisippi Kites don't arrive until early June or thereabouts at this latitude, and are very late nesters for a raptor. Makes perfect sense, though. If your preferred food are annual cicadas, you've got to time the arrival of your offspring to coincide with peak cicada abundance and these bugs don't peak until mid to late summer.

By early to mid September, this kite family will be off for the South American tropics to winter. There, in remote jungles, surprisingly little is known of them and how they operate. Come next spring, if all goes well, these birds will begin the long northward flight back to Ohio, hopefully to once again set up residence in Hocking County and Hide-A-Way Hills. And perhaps their offspring will also set up territories of their own nearby, further expanding Ohio's new Mississippi Kite population.


Danielle said...

Pity the merlins weren't such a nice show. Ah well. I never did see Tim's photos of them, does he have a site where he posts them? Flickr or something?

Trendle Ellwood said...

thank you for all the wonderful information which is truly exciting to me because this is practically in my back yard. Sorry only that I missed Saturday's party. What wonderful news, I love how you wrote that this is good news because it means the wild is coming back. Go Nature Go!


As always, click the image to enlarge At the onset of last Monday's aquatic expedition (perhaps more on that later) to Rocky Fork ...