Monday, August 15, 2011

Kite Day '11

Yesterday marked Ohio's 2nd "Kite Day"; an opportunity to oberve the only known nesting pair of Mississippi Kites in the state. Kite enthusiasts come streaming down the lane in the photo above. Ground zero for these kites is Hide-A-Way Hills (HAH), a private 1,650-acre resort in northern Hocking County. The community, as last year, allowed birders in for a half-day to see the birds. About one hundred people came, from all over the state. There would have been more but parking and other constraints limit the number of people that can enter at one time.

A few notes of thanks are very much in order. Elizabeth vanBalen Delphia is the one that brought the kites to light, and she and her husband Michael were outstanding hosts for Kite Day. Fittingly, the young kite, as we shall see, spent nearly the entirety of Kite Day perched high aloft in a snag in their yard. Melissa Krygier is another part-time HAH resident and she regularly monitors the birds and provides updates.

Warren Levicoff was indispensable in providing traffic control and providing information to Kite Day attendees. The Ohio Ornithological Society (join now!) provided everyone who came with background information about Mississippi Kites and other useful materials, including info on the Midwest Birding Symposium. You want another great time, be sure and attend MBS! Jason Larson greeted people, passed out OOS material, and was his usual ebullient self. Also, the management of Hide-A-Way Hills has been great about tolerating this invasion of birders and that's most appreciated.

At least three well-known bloggers made the scene and have or may offer up their take on Kite Day '11: Heather, Kathi, and Susan. Finally, Dane Adams was there with his big gun camera and man oh man, wait until you see the images that he made of these kites! Dane takes amazing images and is always willing to share the fruits of his labor so that I can share them with you, and I really appreciate his generosity and skills.

This is Elizabeth and Michael's driveway, and the young kite spent nearly the entire day atop that spindly dead tree just to the left of that shed in the background. In addition to the 100 birders who had registered for Kite Day, many of the local residents were overcome by curiosity and stopped by for a look. That's Jason Larson in the red, on the right, greeting some visitors.

The vibes from this event are great - especially since the birds cooperated and everyone got to watch the kites to their heart's content. When Elizabeth first approached me with news of these birds and I came down for a look, the setup seemed conducive for safe viewing without bothering the kites. So we hatched Kite Day '10, and that worked well. This year's event was nearly a mirror copy of last year's, except the birds were even more cooperative and there were even more people.

Photo: Dane Adams

The young kite, beautifully ornamented with chestnut chevrons, peers curiously at all of the strange bipeds far below. For the most part, the kites utterly ignore the earthbound masses, scarcely deigning to even glance at us. This young bird is only about two months old and left the nest but two weeks ago or thereabouts. It can fly well, and makes occasional test flights, but cannot yet catch its own food. The adults feed it regularly, and Junior is even good enough to alert us to a feeding by loudly whistling when an adult draws near.

For many people, this was their first experience with Mississippi Kites. These incredibly acrobatic animals are aerialists supreme and great fun to watch. Kite-watching is the antithesis of scrabbling for a look at a rare sparrow in the weeds - this is more like going to the IMAX cinema and seeing the birds plastered up on the big screen. They just can't be missed and provide a lot of action to boot. It was also great to have so many young kids make the scene - we're talking ten and under. We made sure that scopes were dropped to their level and everyone, no matter their size, got good looks.

Photo: Dane Adams

This is a fabulous photo for obvious reasons, but made all the more so because these food exchanges happen with great rapidity. The adult is often in and out in seconds. During the four hours that I was there, the adult kites must have delivered food to the youngster 35 times or more. I spent a fair bit of time watching the young kite when he wasn't feeding. The bird scans the skies like a, well, hawk and I am sure that he watches every move that his parents make. Visually tracking them and closely observing how they manage to capture prey undoubtedly plays a large role in how the young bird will eventually form the skills necessary to master the fine art of deftly plucking small flying insects from the air.

We would also spend time in a nearby field, over which the adult kites would frequently hunt. There are other raptors within HAH and we saw Broad-winged and Red-tailed hawks from this spot, and heard Red-shouldered Hawk.

Photo: Dane Adams

One of the adult Mississippi Kites screams overhead, showing its flashy chestnut primaries. There are very few birds that can fly as well as this species can. A Mississippi Kite is only marginally smaller than a Peregrine Falcon in overall dimensions but weighs only a bit more than a third of what the falcon weighs. This translates to an incredible bouyancy when airborn and an astonishing ability to jig and jag in the blink of an eye. Such skills are required when you make your living by harvestng fare such as dragonflies. Ever try to catch a dragonfly with a big net? It ain't easy and plucking one with small talons must be much harder.

I found this shed exoskeleton of an annual cicada stuck to a tree where we spent most of our time watching the kites. Of the few dozen feeding exchanges that I saw, every one involved a cicada. In one noteworthy session of gluttony, the adults brought Junior three plump cicadas within seven minutes. This big juicy insects serve well in fattening up the little guy for his upcoming big trip.

There were at least three species of annual cicadas singing in the area: Linne's, lyric, and swamp. I'm sure the kites catch them all. Annual cicadas live for several years as bizarre-looking nymphs underground, tapping the juices from tree roots.When their time is up, the nymphs crawl from the ground, starting in early July, and transform into the winged adults. A photo sequence of this transformation can be seen HERE. The kites time their nesting to coincide with the peak annual cicada emergence, thus assuring the young birds wil have an abundant and nutritious food source.

Photo: Dane Adams

The young kite teeters on his perch while holding a chunky cicada. Cicadas do not like being grabbed by the sharp talons or bills of kites, and if not killed quickly will emit incredibly loud screehing buzzes. That audio barrage is their last-ditch effort to try and get the predator to drop them. Once, the adult kite flew in with a cicada in full screech mode and we could hear it from several hundred feet. Last year, we noticed that the young kites seem somewhat intimidated by still screeching cicadas and the adults would have to thoroughly silence the bugs before the youngsters would accept them.

Photo: Dane Adams

Hopefully all while go well for these kites, and in a few months they will be deep in the Amazonian basin of South America. We'll look forward to seeing them back at Hide-A-Way Hills next year. I think we'll be seeing more nesting kites in the Buckeye State in future years, too, as these wonderful raptors continue to expand their range.

Thanks once again to everyone who came out for Kite Day, and to all who worked hard to make the event possible.


Anonymous said...

Jim, thanks again for putting it together.

English Jim.

Heather said...

Wow, Dane's images are something else. Now that I've seen his rig in person, I understand how such close images are technically possible (and obviously there is much skill involved, as well!). Much thanks again for helping put this on, Jim. You are one of those kind birders I'm referring to in my post about the day.

Tucano said...

Interesting article about my favorite summer neighborhood bird here in Gainesville, Fl. Congratulations to the photographer for the spectacular images. Just one other comment. Mississippi Kites do not winter in the Amazon even though they pass through western Amazonia in their way to their wintering grounds in south eastern Bolivia, southwestern Brazil, Paraguay and northwestern Argentina. Most of their wintering range is within the Paraná river basin, the second longest river in South America, which flows in a north-south direction from its source in the central Brazil plateau towards the Plata river where it joins the Atlantic ocean near the Argentinian capital city of Buenos Aires. See, for example, the map in .

Jim McCormac said...

Thanks for your comments, all, and I'm glad you like Dane's fabulous images.

I would point out that this is one of our most poorly known birds on its wintering grounds, but a significant chunk of the population certainly must winter in the amazonian basin, at least the western fringes, based on what little data there is.

abirdersnotebook said...

I'd like to thank you for getting the word out and organizing Kite day 2011. This was a life bird for me, and well worth the drive from Southwest Ohio. I to write a blog an included some of my own pictures and penned a few lines for my readers. Hopefully this pair will return so others can enjoy not just the Kite's, but a beautiful part of Ohio.

Margaret Badham said...

What a superb site. When I visit Ohio it is quite difficult to identify species as I have no-one to ask. Any info like this is great. Margaret B Hertford England