Last weekend the Midwest Native Plant Society hosted a wonderful conference at Shawnee State Park's lodge. Nearly 200 people were in attendance, and there was much to see: plants galore, snakes, lots of birds, amphibians, and more. The 1,100-acre park is nestled within the 70,000 acres of Shawnee State Forest and the biodiversity is extreme. But it was hard to beat this pair of kites.
While botanizing in the depths of the forest 6 or 7 years ago, in early summer, I heard the unmistakable calls of Mississippi Kites, but could not clap eyes on them. The following year park naturalist Jenny Richards located presumably the same birds near the nature center where they were a fixture much of that summer. A pair of kites has been present ever since.
This year the kites have shifted their base camp to the cabins at the lodge. There are a couple conspicuous dead snags between cabins 14 and 15, and when not out hunting one or both kites sit in those snags where they cannot be missed. There are even conveniently located benches with great views. It's kind of like going to the movies, except you're watching real live kites.
And the kites put on a show. It seemed that about every time the male would join the female at the snags, he would mount her in a hopefully successful effort to produce kitelets. Sometimes he would bring her a grasshopper. Occasionally one of the kites would perch atop an oak directly over the viewing area - they are hardly shrinking violets and paid people no mind. We were especially pleased to see them carrying sticks to a likely nest site somewhere in the nearby forest.
Kites are light and incredibly agile. Flyers extraordinaire, they deftly pluck insects such as cicadas (they'll emerge a bit later) dragonflies, and grasshoppers from the air. Small snakes and birds are also fair game.
The first Ohio record of Mississippi Kite (in modern times at least) was in 1978 in Franklin County. When Bruce Peterjohn published his 2nd edition of The Birds of Ohio in 2001, he only was aware of nine records. In the two decades since then, records have skyrocketed, and multiple birds are now documented annually. The first confirmed nesting was in 2008 in Hocking County and now there are probably at least a few nesting pairs in southern Ohio.
The Shawnee kites are easily observed and if you're in the area, it'd be worth stopping by for a look. If they aren't on the snags around cabin 15, just wait a bit and they'll likely appear. Nearly everyone who attended the recent conference got to see them, and often large throngs of people assembled to ooh and aah over the sporty kites.