Thursday, April 8, 2010

Spring babies for swallow-tailed kites (and the rest of us)

When spring really comes, the birds come with it. I've written about the the robins, who lingered this year because of the long, cool spring in the southeast. Besides their annual arrival and departure, there are several other species in which we take careful interest. We note the details informally but with care, mentioning to my friend Sue that the painted bunting arrived, or watching as our pal Pablo posts a photo of one or another denizen of the Anastasia Island bird feeder. Some of them are annual visitors like the painted and indigo buntings and the goldfinches, and others are more specialized. The swallow-tailed kites are among the special visitors, endangered in some states (including South Carolina) and protected in others. Their federal status is "species of concern". The excellent site of the Fish & Wildlife Service gives state-by-state detail and generally refers to these glorious fliers as "imperiled". Have you ever seen one of these birds? Their stunning elegance in flight takes your breath at first. And when you realize there are less than 3,000 of these birds...well, remember the North Atlantic Right Whale?

I keep a rough notebook going back several years, noting the unusual sightings. Beginning in 2006, Rodney and I spotted (and Rod photographed) a family of swallow-tailed kites. We've seen these birds for years but '06 was the first year in which we noticed what seemed like spring courting behavior. In April and May of that year, we watched as the family group expanded from 2 birds to 4. We watched, quite amazed, as the family flew together in great, beautiful circles and ellipses, constantly calling to one another. This was new to us; we'd seen kites alone and in pairs for years, but only very seldom heard them calling to each other. This was different. This was virtually constant sound: "I'm here. Come this way. Here is food. I am here, I am here, I am here..." It sounded like the talk of almost any species capable of vocalization within the range of human hearing. Apparently, kites in family groups raising fledglings (we guessed), relied on vocalizations as heavily as some other species.

This year we began to see (and hear) the mating pair a couple of weeks ago. Their sharp, unmistakable voicings became more frequent and insistent in the past week or so, and this morning I was awakened by the clear sound of the family talking among itself. Rod took this photo, in which he captured 3 of the 4 individuals, in the perfect blue light of this April afternoon.
They're soaring above the Spanish-moss laden oak trees bordering Stokes Creek at the back of our land, and Rodney thought they might have been flying at stunning speeds as they coasted across the thermal air currents and dove through the clear air in pursuit of small prey. Most of the bird books we have seem clear about the on-the-wing lifestyle of swallow-tailed kites; they seem to do almost everything in aerobic acrobatic fashion. They hunt, eat and drink in flight. They court and mate in flight. And they create messy, indifferent nests in which to lay their eggs, presumably because the lure of flight is too irresistible to allow them to dawdle over prosaic details like construction.

And they are positively stunning to watch in the air they seem unable to resist. They inspire. They lure. My own spring fever has been fanned by the fabulous weather and the calling of the kites so that my mind wanders outdoors at every opportunity. Well, in fairness and honesty, the kites aren't singularly responsible. The long winter has given cautiously into spring. Redbud trees have opened with reservation. Some wisteria I've been monitoring with distant affection for years has just emerged, including some along U.S. 1, where the road is under construction and paths are being re-routed. Even the Gatorbone Studios dogwood, I am told, has opened only after long, serious boardroom meetings in which all considerations were weighed, but it would seem that the decision is irrevocably made and the tiny white flowers are beginning to show their faces.

So my dear friends, my teachers: what calls you to spring this year? What makes your heart soar with the kites? What beckons from your window, and pulls you to the change of season? If you've been listening on the sidelines, it would mean the world to hear from you. Do tell. Love, love.

Photo credits: Both photos of kites in this post are (c) Rodney Christensen 2010


  1. My beautiful Angie, I saw a roseate(sp?) spoonbill today ~ just about to cross over the 312 bridge heading home ~ an incredible flash of pink!

    My heart be still!!!

    Love you, Lulu

  2. I sat in my backyard yesterday and watched a pair of cardinals scoping out real estate for a nest. Last year there was a pair as well. I wonder if it's the same pair coming home.

    We slept with the windows opened last night and I awoke at 4:30 this morning to the sound of birds singing. It was still dark!

    I guess the birds are as excited as we for the arrival of spring.

  3. Dear Lulu, how wonderfullly exciting, and is this not early, a bit, for the roseates to arrive with us? Any photos would be welcome (and credited!) thought I know the rosies are notoriously hard to photograph. I must write about them. Seeing them in flight is like seeing something ridiculously PINK in the air. Spring has sprung!
    Michelle, I DO wonder if it's the same pair. In our southern climes (and at my house, under the oak trees) we have a continually present and ever-changing cardinal family. As far north as you are, you must be delighted to see those bright spots of color! Like you, I had open windows last night and woke to bird sounds, but in my case it was those crazy kites calling to each other in the brimming dawn.
    Thank you both for taking time to write about the calls of our birds and our springtime.
    Love, love, love!

  4. Hello Angie! It has been the most bird-and-blossom-filled spring I can remember. We do not have the roseate spoonbills which dear Lulu wrote of seeing but we do have the Swallowtail kites. They have lived somewhere across the road from us ever since we've lived here and you are right- seeing them soar and drift on the air currents is a magnificent miracle. We've had the painted buntings, the blue birds, the woodpeckers. I've seen three types of those, including the pileated which is just one step away from the Ivory Billed. The cardinals are always here and of course the blue jays and the mocking birds and the birds of prey as well- hawks and owls. It is been a real sweetness to watch the finches turn bright yellow this year. As I write this, I can see at least a dozen on our seed sock and in the feeder.
    And then, my favorite domestic birds- my chickens, who have been so happy this spring to cluck and scratch beneath the azaleas, to make dirt nests beneath the shed to nap in.

  5. Oh, Mary, how true - I cannot recall a year more bird-and-bloom filled. The exception for us has been the goldfinches; we've not seen in the abundance we did last year (at one point I noted in my journal that there were 15 goldfinches on feeders or fluttering around the porch at once in 2009!) but most of the others are here in astonishing numbers. Like you, we have a year-round presence of some birds that increases during the breeding season. We've been watching a pair of pileated woodpeckers, a pair of red-breasted woodpeckers (easily confused with the red-headed ones; we've spent hours poring over the bird books!) and a small family of what we think are downy woodpeckers - far smaller than the other guys. We're lucky to have what we think is an extended family of barred owls, often brightening the nights by singing, "Who? Who? Who cooks for youuuuu?" to the stars and moon. And I so love knowing about your lovely chickens, going about their daily work and delivering eggs, ready-made with their delicate lovely colors. Dear Lulu will, I hope, keep us posted on the roseates and as we're lucky enough to have some pals who also hear the call of the sandhill cranes in the morning, perhaps we'll hear about those, too, as the spring unfolds its coming blessings.


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