Swallow-tailed Kites

Swallow-tailed kites are perhaps one of the most graceful and elegant birds that visit Florida each year. This post on a pair of encounters I had with them last summer is long overdue. I am just now getting around to processing images from last summer and in some respects, that is a good thing. When I first reviewed these images last summer after I took them, I wasn’t impressed with many of them. In fact, I only remember being impressed by 1 out of hundreds I took. Now that I am reviewing them nearly a year later I am finding several keepers and a few gems in the batch. I love to watch swallow-tailed kites as they glide effortlessly through the sky and I think my initial reaction to my images just didn’t compare with the experience I had on those two mornings. Now that the excitement of being out on the lake with them has faded, the images stir my emotions again and I realize that some of them capture the essence of the encounter quite nicely.

Swallow-tailed kites only spend about 6 months a year in the US. They arrive from South America in February and setup their nesting areas, breed and raise their young. By late July the youngsters are strong enough to make the trek back to South America and the birds begin to migrate back south. Although swallow-tailed kites are solitary nesters they don’t migrate individually. Instead they tend to congregate and migrate in large flocks. There are several places in Florida where the kites will roost for a couple of weeks while they gather together to begin their long journey south. It is at these roosts that the beauty and elegance of these high-flying acrobats can bring about some amazing images.

Typically swallow-tailed kites are seen high in the sky where it is very difficult to take a good image of one. Enjoy the images by clicking them for a larger view.

Typical Swallow-tailed Kite shot.  High in the sky with harsh light.
Typical Swallow-tailed Kite shot. High in the sky with harsh light.

But at the migration roosts, hundreds of birds can be seen perched in the trees as they wait for the air to warm up. The warmer air provides the thermals they use to soar and glide with minimal effort. It is these same thermals that will take them south and allow the birds to traverse the distance with as little effort as possible.

Swallow-tailed kites roosting.
Swallow-tailed kites roosting.

For a bird that prides itself in frustrating avian photographers, these migration roosts provide for great opportunities if the light is right. In this image, I found a single kite perched lower in a tree than the others. He was quite happy to pose for us as we photographed him.

Cooperative swallow-tailed kite
Cooperative swallow-tailed kite

But the best part of the migration roost is what the kites do when the air is warm enough to soar. They take advantage of the sheltered water to bathe and drink. Swallow-tailed kites do not land on the ground to get a drink of water and they do not splash around at the shoreline to wash their feathers. Instead they do both on the wing. It is these dramatic flights of the kites skimming the water to drink and bathe that makes the migration roost special.

Swallow-tailed kite
Swallow-tailed kite
Swallow-tailed kite
Swallow-tailed kite
Swallow-tailed kite
Swallow-tailed kite
Swallow-tailed kite
Swallow-tailed kite
Swallow-tailed kite
Swallow-tailed kite
Swallow-tailed kite
Swallow-tailed kite

Having the kites fly right by you as they drink and bathe make for some great flight shot opportunities too.

Swallow-tailed kite
Swallow-tailed kite
Swallow-tailed kite
Swallow-tailed kite
Swallow-tailed kite
Swallow-tailed kite

I’m looking forward to getting back out there again this summer!

3 Comments

  • Uncle Don

    July 9, 2014 at 10:39 am

    Michael:
    Great shots, keep up the good work.
    Don

  • Debbie Tubridy

    July 9, 2014 at 5:53 pm

    I love these shots Michael! I too look forward to the arrival of the STKs every spring down in the Everglades. A few months ago, we drove across Tamiami Trail to the west coast and came across so many of them … it was quite a thrill!

  • […] On this particular day, I got an invitation to go out to a secluded spot where hundreds of kites roost each night. Estimates range from several hundred to over 1000 kites will roost at this particular spot each summer before heading south. My story begins after navigating the rivers and lakes by boat to arrive at this roost. Here the kites will take off from their roost, grab a drink in the river, and then ride high up into the thermals and travel to their feeding grounds. You can see some of the images of this behavior I have taken in the past in a previous blog post. […]