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You know you’re having a heat wave when South American birds try to breed on the Cape

Swallow-tailed Kite
Peter R. Flood
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Swallow-tailed Kite

Like so many things these days, it began on Facebook. In a group devoted to birds on the Cape, buried in a comment thread, someone from the Upper Cape – I’ll call her “Jo Anne” because, well, that’s her name - casually mentioned she had been seeing a certain big, improbably rare bird hanging out in her yard. This got my bird report senses tingling, so I asked her to email me. Over the next few days I learned through her reports and photos that this bird was not only perching in her yard, but that it once divebombed her husband, and that “it” was in fact “them.” Within a few days of our initial correspondence, Jo Anne ended up documenting the first breeding activity this side of North Carolina for the world’s most graceful bird of prey, the Swallow-tailed Kite.

This species comes up a lot in the weekly bird report, so I’m often struggling to find new ways to describe them besides the trite “elegant” and “unmistakable.” Roget don’t fail me now. Swallow-tailed Kites are lithe, agile, high-contrast hawks, who hunt the treetops for unsuspecting small vertebrates, like snakes, lizards, birds, and small mammals. Perched, they seem dove-headed and unthreatening for a hawk. Though apparently monochrome from a distance, a close view shows darker black shoulders against slate-gray wings, and faint brownish flecks on younger birds.

We see one or two Swallow-tailed Kites most years here on the Cape, usually in spring, when these wayward individuals presumably got up a head of steam in northbound migration and overshot the breeding grounds. But many years we see none. There’s a reason we don’t see them much, and it’s that they shouldn’t be anywhere near here, ever — this is a primarily tropical species. South America is where most Swallow-tailed Kites breed or spend the winter. Most of the small U.S. population breeds in Florida, in nests draped with Spanish moss. Even in steamy Florida, they head south again around mid-August, spending most of the year in South America.

You know you’re having a heat wave when South American birds start trying to breed on the Cape. So how was it that these two birds found each other so far from the normal breeding range? I suspect they were both young birds, crazy kids finding love on a summer road trip. We’re still not sure if they ever had a nest, though there’s a good chance they threw a few sticks in a pine somewhere. Young raptors often make what we call “play nests” in their first year in the breeding grounds — they have a mate and a flimsy nest, often built late in the season, but don’t actually lay eggs — we Cape and Islanders see this here most commonly with Ospreys.

To get some answers, I checked with my old friend and Swallow-tailed Kite expert Gina Kent, a biologist I know from my South Florida days. Based on her years of studying them and satellite tracking their movements, she thought that these were indeed young birds practicing breeding behaviors during the pre-migratory staging period. She says they often wander far outside the normal range after breeding season, which is April and May. So I feel like she pretty well confirmed my highly scientific “crazy kids finding love on a summer road trip” theory. That means this is not a real breeding record, having occurred months outside the normal nesting season. But, that we should be looking really hard next season for amorous kites. After all, these carefree kids need to settle down one of these days and make some kids of their own.

Mark Faherty writes the Weekly Bird Report.