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Ohio sighting of swallow-tailed kite draws birders

A swallow-tailed kite is a study in black and white

September 18, 2016

NATURE
Jim McCormac

People who seek rare birds are called “chasers” or “listers” in the United States and “twitchers” overseas. To some people, such an avocation might seem silly, especially if the quarry is an obscure sandpiper or sparrow.

One look at a swallow-tailed kite, though, and anyone can understand why a bird-watcher might go out of his or her way to see it.

This graceful raptor is Rudolf Nureyev on wings, a sleek aerialist that would turn the Blue Angels blue with envy.

A swallow-tailed kite is a study in black and white. The dark tail and outer wings contrast strikingly with the snowy-white underparts and head. From stem to stern, the kite measures almost 2 feet, and its long slender wings span just over 4 feet.

Although the kite is as large as a red-tailed hawk, it weighs less than half as much. Its lightness lends a buoyancy and agility that makes most other raptors look clumsy in comparison.

The kite’s most striking feature is its namesake tail. It is cleft into two long streamers, which the kite manipulates in flight to instantaneously tweak course.

On Aug. 28, a swallow-tailed kite appeared on the Holmes County farm of David Yoder. Word rocketed through the birding network, and binocular-toting admirers were soon on their way.

I made the trip on the morning of Sept. 11. Yoder’s farm is nestled in a picturesque valley skirted by rolling hills and scattered farms. An azure sky dotted with fluffy clouds made the scene all the better.

Soon after I parked, David Yoder came out and welcomed me. A nicer guy would be hard to find. He and his neighbors have tolerated an incursion of 700 to 800 birders. After a chat, two Amish boys and I struck out for the magical alfalfa field.

After pushing through a gate, dodging heifers in a pasture, scrambling under a barbed-wire fence and climbing a steep hill, we reached the lofty hayfield. The kite swooped into view almost instantly. We stood entranced at the aerial acrobatics of the magnificent raptor, and I did my best to capture photos of the fleet predator.

Swallow-tailed kites are largely insect eaters, and the bird entertained us by deftly plucking large grasshoppers from the clover during high-speed strafes. The kite would then soar aloft and eat its victim on the wing.

Kite food abounded. Amish are good stewards of the land, and Yoder’s farm is a patchwork of woods, fence rows and contour-farming practices.

He told me he wasn’t mowing the alfalfa field until he was sure the kite had departed. The field teemed with grasshoppers, sulphur and black swallowtail butterflies, migrating monarchs and various crickets and katydids.

Evidence suggests that swallow-tailed kites bred in Ohio before European settlement, but they had disappeared by the 1830s. There have been about nine recorded sightings in the past 20 years, including one in the Dayton area this summer.

A steady increase in kite sightings well north of their Florida/Gulf Coast breeding range gives hope that the spectacular birds might eventually recolonize former breeding haunts.

Naturalist Jim McCormac writes a column for The Dispatch on the first, third and fifth Sundays of the month. He also writes about nature at www.jimmccormac.blogspot.com.

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