I have never had the opportunity to rescue a bird in distress before. But this weekend, I was able to witness and photograph the rescue of a Swallow-tailed Kite.
Every year in late July through early August, Swallow-tailed Kites congregate in Central Florida before migrating south to South America for the winter. They roost in various places throughout the area while the young kites build up strength and they all fatten up for the long journey south. When the wind conditions are just right, they soar high in the sky and ride the thermals south expending as little energy as possible. As readers of this blog know, Swallow-tailed Kites are one of my favorite birds to watch and photograph. They are so elegant and graceful as they glide effortlessly and adjust their flight path with just a small twitch of their tail. They are also a very difficult bird to photograph since their topsides are black and their undersides are white. They also tend to remain high in the sky unless you see them coming out of their roosts in the morning. They are as challenging to photograph as they are beautiful.
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.
On this particular trip, we were blessed to have 3 Audubon volunteers on board. One of them, Reinier Munguia is a licensed avian rehabilitator with the Audubon Birds of Prey Center in Maitland, Florida. He brought some friends of his for the outing. Husband and wife team Mike and Heather are Audubon volunteers who brought along their daughter Olivia. Reinier also brought his friend Kayla who just happens to consider the Swallow-tailed Kite her favorite bird. When we arrived at the roost, hundreds of kites were resting in the trees waiting for the rising sun to heat the earth and create the thermals they would use to journey to their feeding grounds. Kayla had only ever seen 1 or 2 kites at a time and infrequently at that. She was very happy when she saw hundreds of them roosting in the treetops. Click the images to view larger.
About 30 minutes after our arrival, a flock of birds took off from the roost and took to the sky. One of the birds was obviously laboring as she trailed a large clump of Spanish moss behind her. Despite her efforts to remain aloft, she slowly drifted towards the water and eventually crashed into the water and went under. She popped back up seconds later but was clearly in trouble. With the now wet moss entangled on her talons and her feathers soaked, she would not be able to lift off from the water without help. She would soon drown or become breakfast for one of the many gators.
Immediately, Reinier sprang into action and directed Lance, our captain, to slowly approach the bird so she could be rescued. Reinier has rescued countless birds over the years and knows how to handle raptors without injuring himself or the bird. Reinier and Mike went to the bow of the boat and lifted the distressed kite from the water.
Her talons were hopelessly entangled in the moss, so Reinier and Mike handed the bird to Kayla who gently held the kite against her chest as Reinier and Mike carefully removed the moss from her talons.
Did I mention that Kayla’s favorite bird is the Swallow-tailed Kite? The look on her face as she was able to hold one and help it in it’s time of need was priceless. It certainly made her early wake up call worthwhile!
By the way, those talons are sharp!!!
And that beak is equally sharp as one of Reinier’s fingers found out.
After the moss was removed, the feathers had to be dried. While the kites do dip in the water for a drink and they do get wet, the do not get their wings in the water. The wing tips may touch the water, but the majority of the flight feathers stay dry. Wet feathers weigh the birds down and make flying more difficult.
After the kite was toweled off, Kayla handed the kite to Heather for the release. Mike, Heather and Olivia posed for a moment for a quick photo before releasing the kite.
She flapped her wings a few times to gain altitude and began circling the river with the rest of her kettle.
The entire event, from the time the kite hit the water until she was released was just 15 minutes. But it was one of the most exciting 15 minutes I can remember in a while.
Although I only played the part of photographer during the rescue, it was quite rewarding to be a part of saving this bird from certain doom. Far too often photographers are blamed for harming the birds as part of their photography. Here is a case where a group of photographers and Audubon volunteers worked together for a positive outcome on the birds. I am so thankful that I was able to be a part of this.
I think I’ll have to incorporate this story into my wildlife presentation for the Roads Scholar program next winter.