Seldom-seen Southern Birds
You may have noticed that we had a pretty good weather weekend. Warm air in late-May brings two things – hope to weary, cold Cape Codders, and Mississippi Kites. And also tourists – so make that three things. Of those things, I thought I’d focus on the kites. Each year at this time, Mass Audubon’s hawk watch at Pilgrim Heights in Truro, manned by stalwart hawk guy Don Manchester, corners the market on sightings of these rare hawks. But with several sightings sprinkled around the region, this year may be different.
Mississippi Kites are graceful hawks of the southeast and especially of the southern Great Plains, where numbers are densest. They are impressive migrants whose precise winter range remains elusive, which astounds me given the how much we know about most birds these days. Currently, it seems they mostly winter in Paraguay and northern Argentina, in a dry, sparsely populated area called the Chaco.
Seen up close, they are handsome birds – red eyes set deep in a white head that contrasts nicely with a slate-gray back and black wings. In flight theses wings show a striking white trailing edge of the inner flight feathers and, if you are close enough, red patches in the outer wing. Of course, the birds that end up here are almost invariably one or two years old, and thus a bit more ragged.
In a typical year, a few of these kites are seen at the hawk watch in Truro as well as over nearby Provincetown. These are presumably “southern overshoots”, overly exuberant migrants brought well north of their normal range by southerly winds. With many other southern overshoots turning up on the Cape and Islands this year, like Hooded Warblers and Blue Grosbeaks, it seemed like it might be a good kite year. With several Mississippi Kites reported from the South Coast to Plymouth and Martha’s Vineyard to Provincetown in the last week, it seems this is indeed an exceptional kite year, and we may just be getting started.
You should be on the lookout for a slender, graceful hawk appearing gull-like in a glide or soaring on narrow wings and long, narrow tail with black and white bands. Lovely though they be, Mississippi Kites have a better-looking cousin, an even less common visitor to these parts. The Swallow-tailed Kite is one of the world’s most beautiful birds; big, spectacular, and graceful to an absurd degree. If the Mississippi Kite is your above average looking friend, the Swallow-tailed Kite is Gisele Bundchen.
Last Tuesday, birder Ted Gilliland parked himself at the famous cliffs of Aquinnah and had such good luck that I don’t quite know where to begin. First, he photographed a Swallow-tailed Kite. But he didn’t stop there – over the next four days, he also documented three Mississippi Kites, and, rarest of all, a Loggerhead Shrike for good measure. With just a handful of modern spring records in New England, this was a jaw-dropping report, but well documented with photos.
From warblers to kites to shrikes, it seems like there’s no end in sight to the onslaught of seldom seen southern birds this spring. The way things have been going, you could find one just about anywhere. And with a 15 degree drop in the temperature since the weekend, where you may find them is huddling for warmth and wondering where spring went, just like the rest of us.