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It’s Southern Week on Cape Cod

Swallow-tailed Kite
Andy Morffew
flickr / CC BY 2.0
Swallow-tailed Kite

The end of May brought so many unexpected birds that some of the rarest and most spectacular of them drew barely a mention in last week’s edition. Luckily for us, some of them stuck around, which gives me a chance to focus on the invasion of the kites, and the overall southern flavor of the birds on the Upper Cape this week.

From Sandwich to Eastham, I’ve been getting and seeing a lot of reports of one of the most impressive of the vagrant birds we see here – the Swallow-tailed Kite. At least one seemed to hang around East Falmouth for a week, but I suspect a few are about. They are one of the “unmistakables” – that’s a word you see in field guides a lot, but in my experience, nothing is truly that. Swallow-tailed Kites come close.

These are big, slender, graceful, strikingly black-and-white hawks. They have a huge forked tail and an essentially flapless flight style – they often appear motionless in the air except for that tail twisting up to 90 degrees to maintain their heading. From underneath, the head, entire underparts, and wing linings are pure white, the flight feathers, which include the wings and tail, are glossy black.

The vast majority of Swallow-tailed Kites are permanent residents of South America. The “northern” subspecies breeds in Florida but abruptly heads back to South America after breeding season, starting in July, lest they catch cold. These are not hardy hawks.

They rarely perch during the day – when you can fly like they can, why stop? They use these powers of flight to pluck all sorts of insects and other small, unsuspecting creatures from trees. Arboreal creatures safe from bulky, relatively clumsy Red-tailed Hawks would not be so from these agile aerialists, these beautiful killers. Tree frogs are a favorite snack in Florida, elsewhere it’s mainly insects. Birds aren’t safe either - in Central America they are known to pluck an entire nest from a tree like a ripe peach, then snack on the nestlings in flight. Hey - hawks have to eat too. Other have been seen to bring entire wasp nests back to their own nests, dumping out the larvae like a bag of candy for their chicks.

Besides at least one Swallow-tailed Kite, a Mississippi Kite was also around East Falmouth a few days this week. Like a Jan to their Marsha, these kites don’t get the attention of their more beautiful sister species, despite being graceful aerialists in their own right. They also appear more often, having even established breeding sites at least three places in New Hampshire, but none here – quite a slap in the face to Cape Cod birders who find more of these kites than anyone.

Beside the kites, several other species gave a southern feel to the Upper Cape this week – an Acadian Flycatcher, more at home in southern bottomland forests, took up in Mashpee, and an even more southern Yellow-throated Warbler was recorded singing lustily in Bourne. And for several years now, the vast, shrubby fields of Crane Wildlife Management Area host the only consistently breeding Blue Grosbeaks in the state – a lovely songbird that is, you guessed it, southern.

So make yourself a mint julep, set yourself down beneath that moss-draped live oak, and dust off that old Faulkner novel you never read, because it’s southern week here on the Cape. That Swallow-tailed Kite should circle lazily overhead any second now. Sweltering day, isn’t it?

Mark Faherty writes the Weekly Bird Report.