Be on the lookout this summer for kites flying – a bird with a forked tail, not a toy tethered on a string from a spool clenched in a person’s hands – and file a simple report.
The Avian Conservation Center – The Center for Birds of Prey has posted signage across the region asking about swallow-tailed kites, “Have you seen this bird?” An illustrated flight profile includes brief descriptions such as its black and white plumage, 2-foot length, 4-foot wingspan, and graceful soaring patterns.
Visitors to the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway landing at Swing Bridge Park, off Peachtree Road in Socastee, just west of Dick Pond Road, might notice the sign along a dock, a few feet from the water. Anyone who spots one of these birds is asked to jot down the time, date, place, and behavior (such as flying or vocalizing), and relay the data – simply and easily – at stki.thecenterforbirdsofprey.org, calling 843-971-7474, or by U.S. mail to The Center for Birds of Prey, P.O. Box 1247, Charleston, SC 29402.
Flight demonstrations at the raptor center (www.thecenterforbirdsofprey.org) show the dexterity of a Mississippi kite catching and dining in midair. Visit the site, 4872 Seewee Road, Awendaw – about 35 miles south of Georgetown, east from U.S. 17, the first left south of the Sewee Outpost – and see dozens of birds up close, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays. Guided tours at 10:30 a.m. and 2 p.m., and flight demos at 11:30 a.m. and 3 p.m., are included with admission: $15 ages 17-64, $14 seniors and active duty military, $10 ages 6-16, and free ages 5 and younger. Group rates also are available.
Emily A. Davis, the data manager and special research project coordinator at the raptor center, fielded questions about swallow-tailed kites, to help kindle more interest in these birds, which spend summer here, but winter in South America. She also said that no fancy or expensive equipment such as binoculars or spotting scopes, is needed to “see, observe, and get hit in the gut by the magic of swallow-tailed kites.”
“They stay low, move slow, and are incredibly ‘findable,’ ” Davis said. “Just look up.”
Q: Several times this decade, in multiple places in Socastee, these kites have amused my eyes with their one-of-kind, long, forked tails as instant identifiers. How helpful have signs across the Grand Strand – such as the one along the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway landing at Swing Bridge Park, off Peachtree Road in Socastee, just west of Dick Pond Road – touting these kites and asking people to report their sightings on the The Center for Birds of Prey’s website?
A: The Avian Conservation Center has been receiving swallow-tailed kite sightings for decades. In the early days of the center, Jim Elliott would receive phone calls and letters from all over the state: farmers, fishermen, everyday people who saw something mysterious and needed to explain their experience. “I’m seeing fork-tailed hawks in Colleton Country.” The calls haven’t stopped in 20 years.
On average, the center receives more than 4,000 swallow-tailed kite sightings in a breeding season in the Southeast and beyond. Areas in and around the landing at Swing Bridge Park in Socastee, and throughout the Grand Strand, have counted for 14 percent of all sightings and 16 percent of all swallow-tailed kites seen for 2017, as of June 14. This number is about average annually, but is picking up volume, as more people are seeing and reporting these incredible birds.
Q: What pattern of prevalence by these kites has been observed of late or in recent years, especially in Horry and Georgetown counties, and how far inland might the species’ habitat reach?
A: The preferred nesting habitat for swallow-tailed kites in the Southeast region is changing rapidly. Large areas of dead cypress trees are a testament to salinity intrusion, caused by rising sea levels. Moving more inland and upstream will be increasingly more common. Typically, our inland hot spots are Conway, the Waccamaw National Wildlife Refuge, and Bucksville. Just last year, a swallow-tailed kite was seen in Ohio, deep in Amish Country. Imagine the excitement.
Q: Will data gleaned from sightings prompt another wave of posting signage to raise awareness about these special, soaring birds, and where might be the hot spots for such future notice?
A: Every sighting submitted to the database has conservation significance. We follow these sightings – by website, postal mail, or phone – in order to get a closer look at breeding and foraging areas. Signage at potential and current locations always will play a major role in our growing database.
Q: What’s the easiest way to describe kites’ difference from other hawks in hunting, by not diving, but instead move downward in flight, talons first, to snag their prey, then swooping up, hence their kite name?
A: Kites “eat on the wing,” so they are always moving, often in groups or pairs. Some kite species spend the entire day in the air. Rarely flapping their wings, they use air currents to push them along the tree tops of high pines – often finding food.
Q: What else, besides various insects, makes up these kites’ diet?
A: Kites have a diverse diet. They typically feed on small reptiles, lizards, snakes, amphibians, small frogs, large insects – even an occasional bat. They also have been observed taking an entire nest, intact, of chicks or eggs.
Q: Seeing swallow-tailed kites really is a perk from living in coastal South Carolina. What times of year boast the most potential to see them?
A: As early as March, swallow-tailed kites will arrive in South Carolina, and they stay until about mid- to late August. Late July to mid-August is a good time to watch large groups of swallow-tailed kites foraging together, preparing for the long migration home.
Contact Steve Palisin at 843-444-1764.
If you see a swallow-tailed kite
WHERE: Across Horry, Georgetown and Brunswick counties – or anywhere else.
REPORT DETAILS AT: stki.thecenterforbirdsofprey.org, call 843-971-7474, or by U.S. mail at The Center for Birds of Prey, P.O. Box 1247, Charleston, SC 29402.
ALSO: Visit The Center for Birds of Prey (www.thecenterforbirdsofprey.org), 4872 Seewee Road, Awendaw, 35 miles south of Georgetown – east from U.S. 17, first left south of the Sewee Outpost – and see dozens of raptors up close, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays. Guided tours at 10:30 a.m. and 2 p.m., and flight demonstrations at 11:30 a.m. and 3 p.m., are included with admission: $15 ages 17-64, $14 seniors and active duty military, $10 ages 6-16, and free ages 5 and younger. Group rates available.