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Bird Notes | Swallow-tailed kite, chimney swift returning to Grand Strand, subjects of citizen science projects

Chimney swifts are starting their return to the area.
Chimney swifts are starting their return to the area.

Along with the arrival of spring comes the return of a number of bird species that leave the area for more tropical climes in winter.

At least two of these species are of special concern and the subjects of studies to learn more of their biology and ecology in order to better manage for their continued existence. One is the swallow-tailed kite. Swallow-tailed kites are an elegant bird of prey that may sometimes be seen soaring effortlessly in our area, most often near wetlands where there are an abundance of insect prey. These amazing fliers are primarily insectivores, although they can and do occasionally take other prey, and are extremely fond of dragonflies. These birds are easily identified in flight by their namesake, deeply-forked tail. Perhaps the epitome of grace while on the wing, these kites are able to harness even the mildest of wind currents to soar and swoop while plying their insect-catching trade, rarely flapping their wings.

Swallow-tailed kites are a state endangered species in South Carolina, and the subject of a collaborative study across their current breeding range by various federal and state agencies charged with protection and conservation of our native fauna. They are also the subject of a citizen science project aimed at collecting data on the distribution and abundance of these wonderful birds. Our area is the northernmost extent of their known breeding range, and apparently South Carolina and Florida have the highest numbers of the kites. The Center for Birds of Prey at Awendaw manages a webpage for collecting data of observations anyone may make on their website at http://www.thecenterforbirdsofprey.org/ A link to the kite reporting form is located at the bottom of the page. Should you have the good fortune to make a swallow-tailed kite observation, please take a moment to visit that site and report your sighting.

Another species that is the subject of a citizen science project is the chimney swift. Once common throughout eastern North America, in recent years the swifts’ population has undergone a serious decline, believed to be primarily due to loss of suitable habitat for breeding and roosting. Chimney swifts cling to vertical surfaces rather than perching like other birds, in chimneys, dead trees, etc. During their migrations they often form sizable flocks that will pack into suitable structures to roost for the night. Obligate insectivores, these small birds help to keep insect populations in check, thereby providing benefits to we humans. Driftwood Wildlife Association is engaged in a study to help monitor the birds’ movements and distribution throughout North America. To learn more about these amazing birds and reporting your sighting, go to http://www.chimneyswifts.org/