Birds

Swallow-tailed kites.
Swallow-tailed kites.

Elegant summer visitor, a birder's dream

Story by E. Vernon Laux - July 20, 2006

It is a bird that is rarely seen in New England, and when it does occur it invariably has been in April, May and early June; it is more often seen in the dreams of birders than actually observed in the field. But there it was, soaring westward on Sunday afternoon, July 15, in West Tisbury, a little bit north of Tisbury Great Pond - a swallow-tailed kite.

If you're not familiar this bird, find a field guide and look it up - they are amazing. Like giant elegant black-and-white swallows, they capture all their food on the wing, snatching lizards, insects, and other prey from tree branches, as well as "hawking" aerial insects in tropical climes.

A swallow-tailed kite had never been seen before during the month of July, not only on the Vineyard but anywhere in Massachusetts. So, given the extensive ornithological history of Massachusetts this is an exciting record. There always has to be a first time and this was it. The lone bird was seen soaring, gliding - swooping-kiting, if you will - heading west at 5:30 pm on July 15 by Sally Anderson and Jerry Allen, both of West Tisbury.

They were fortunate to look up and realize they were seeing something most unusual. Ms. Anderson, binoculars always close at hand, grabbed same and was amazed at the sight of this soaring bird with a long forked tail. Despite wanting to obtain photographs of this rare visitor, the distance, the speed of flight and the light (the bird was heading away into the bright sun in the west), it was not possible to get its picture.

The swallow-tailed kite is an unmistakable bird, arguably the most distinctive, graceful, and elegant raptor in North America. They are great looking birds and among the most sought after birds for birders both old and new. This sighting is the second one for the Vineyard this year; a lone bird was seen flying west along Moshup Trail in Aquinnah in late April.

Most birders in North America have first contact with these lovely birds in Everglades National Park or Corkscrew Swamp in south Florida. The kites winter in South America, and then head north and arrive in Florida generally in mid-March. In North America they range from Florida, southern Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana to as far north as North Carolina. They are a vagrant north to New England, recently the Maritime Provinces and the Great Lakes. Sightings have continued to increase in the recent past as more people take up the hobby/sport/pastime of looking at birds.

As soon as the kite drifted away from view, knowing how rare and exciting this bird was, Ms. Anderson went to the phone and called Sue Whiting and Flip Harrington who live on the Chilmark side of the Great Pond, almost on a line to the west of from where the bird was first spotted. She told them what she and Mr. Allen had seen and said, "get outside and scan. It was heading at you, and you might see it." Alas, while a good-sized bird, there is lots of sky and the bird skirted the pond to the north and, as of this writing, has not been seen again, though not for lack of effort. This is exciting stuff for the Vineyard in mid-July.

In the fields, woods, and thickets, life in the bird world has down-shifted from breeding to getting ready for fall and winter. Adult and young birds are eating prodigious quantities of food, growing new feathers and preparing to migrate or spend the winter. Already, yellow warblers and northern waterthrushes, two wetland-loving warblers that breed in the far north, have begun to head south.

Both these species were heard and briefly seen on the morning of July 15. They are the first warblers to head south after breeding and they are already engaged in migrating. Orioles, great crested flycatchers, Eastern kingbirds and yellow-billed cuckoos all seem to be flying across fields, Island roadways, along the borders of the State Forest; they are generally being encountered all over the place. Blackbirds are forming large mixed flocks and are going to roost together now that the territorial conflicts and defense of breeding areas has fallen by the wayside for another year.

It is a time of change in the natural world and nowhere more so than on tidal flats and beaches where southbound sandpipers and plovers are increasing in number. The sky is a highway with no lanes for these intrepid globetrotters. Whenever the weather gets ugly - with rain, thunderstorms, or strong east winds - the flats are the place to check. These birds that were planning to over-fly the Island will drop in to avoid the nasty weather. But as soon as the weather clears, most of them clear out as well.

At any rate, terns and gulls are fledging chicks, Eastern willets, American oystercatchers and piping plovers are fledging young on Island beaches and a great variety of plovers and sandpipers are appearing on flats, particularly Norton's Point in Edgartown, the hands-down best place to bird among the beaches and tidal flats during the current heat wave.

Until next week - keep your eyes to the sky!

To contribute news about birding activities or sightings, call The Times Birdline, 508-693-6100, extension 33, or e-mail birds@mvtimes.com.