by Ray Wade, SC Master Naturalist
Photos by Harold Blackwood
Each year, some time in March, a wonderful event plays out in South Carolina. Birds with long forked tails, slim two-foot bodies, and long pointed wings appear, floating above the trees in swampy areas. Those fortunate enough to see more than a glimpse notice also a white head with a dark, small sharply hooked bill and black feathers on wings and tail.
Those of us studying the birds find it easy to imagine some mature individual, on a morning, cocking a head and softly lifting off to travel over 10,000 miles from southern Brazil to seek out just the right place in South Carolina to breed, nest and raise their young.
Early sightings are of a solitary kite, rising on four- foot wings, soaring to find small reptiles, mammals or nesting birds. The marvelous birds spend most of every day on the wing, seldom flapping but constantly searching for food. In March these kites search also for just the right nesting tree, tall loblolly pines are preferred. Kites are most likely to choose a tree where other STK's are nesting nearby. Cypress, water tupelo, sweet gums and willow oaks may be used as well.
The mating pairs build a nest in the upper branches of a chosen treetop. Medium sized branches and smaller twigs are laid in place before, kite watchers get to see the birds flying with Spanish moss clutched in their feet. The moss is used to line the nest in preparation for the laying of one or two eggs.
Earlier days in the US, swallow-tailed kites nested in sixteen states on the east coast and along the Mississippi River north to Minnesota. Today only seven states along the Gulf and Atlantic have nesting sites. Less than 200 breeding pairs now continue the migration to Allendale's Central Savannah River area and to Waccamaw River sites in South Carolina. The Waccamaw Refuge and surrounding area support the highest density of nesting swallow-tailed kites in South Carolina and is the northernmost nesting site for the species.
Swallow-tailed Kite: Elanoides forficatus
Linnaeus in 1758 named the swallow-tailed kite, in 1999 they were renamed the American swallow-tailed kite.
The bird spends much of the day in flight catching insects and other foods, including anoles, treefrogs, small snakes and nestling birds. It eats, drinks and bathes on the wing.
Today the kite occupies a remnant breeding range of 7 southern states that historically included at least 21 states as far north as Minnesota. It is listed by South Carolina Department of Natural Resources as an endangered species and a high priority species of concern by Partners in Flight (PIF). Primary challenges to kites in South Carolina are wetland loss and drainage. The kite prefers large tracts of forested wetlands such as those found at the Francis Marion National Forest and along the lower Savannah, Edisto, Santee and Great Pee Dee Rivers. It shows a strong preference to nest in dominant loblolly pines growing within or on the edges of wetland forests. However, kites will regularly use bald cypress or water tupelo , sweetgum and willow oak. An estimated 120 to 170 breeding pairs nest annually in South Carolina.
Center for Birds of Prey in Awendaw
Radio tracking information: check "Palmetto"
Charleston Audubon blog
Cornell lab of Ornithology
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service South Carolina