Local NPR for the Cape, Coast & Islands 90.1 91.1 94.3
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Swallow-tailed kites are getting comfortable on Cape Cod

Peter Flood
Swallow-tailed Kite - Truro, MA - April 18, 2015

Mid-June is kind of like the slack tide in the Cape ornithological calendar. Songbird and shorebird migration are over, with most birds now busy breeding across the Northern Hemisphere. Birders have to figure out how to occupy themselves during this annual lull in bird movement. You could just enjoy our breeding birds to the fullest, reveling in the bounty of chicks in backyards and on beaches right now. You can make the trek out to Race Point in Provincetown, somehow, in hopes of catching a vagrant seabird, like the Franklin’s Gull and Royal Tern photographed there by some lucky birders this week. Or, you can figure out what the hell is going on with Swallow-tailed Kites on the Upper Cape. I hope someone chooses the latter and fills me in, because I sure don’t know.

On Monday, long-time Mashpee birder Mary Keleher looked out her office window to see a birder’s workday daydream come to life – two actual Swallow-tailed Kites gliding over the treetops off Meetinghouse Road. She immediately got word out over the rare bird communication technology du jour, the GroupMe texting app, and people were immediately out looking. Yesterday at least one was still there, spotted by three different people from three vantage points.

Somehow, here on Cape Cod, Swallow-tailed Kites have become a relatively “common rarity,” to use a favorite oxymoron. From as early as March and through June, varying numbers of these lovely hawks make their way here, against all odds. They don’t breed much north of South Carolina, and the vast majority of them live permanently in South America. But strong south winds bring them to this archipelago, Thoreau’s “bared and bended arm” ever beckoning birds caught over the Atlantic. It has been this way for years, but sightings were sporadic, not even annual – we might get a few over the course of a five-year period.

Something changed around spring 2021, and these unlikely wash-ashores were getting downright cozy here. Instead of one every two or three years, we’re now getting several a year. And instead of fleeting reports of single birds, they seemed to be popping up repeatedly in certain areas, some staying into July and August. Things got really wacky in late July of 2022, when someone in South Sandwich casually reported that one had been hanging around her yard and divebombing her husband, culminating in her getting remarkable photos of a pair of copulating Swallow-tailed Kites in her back tree, a first north of the Carolinas, and something akin in general likelihood to getting photos of a Bigfoot family reunion.

Since then, the kites have been downright regular in an area I call the “Swallow-tailed Kite Triangle”: it’s east of Mashpee Pond and west of Marstons Mills, from South Sandwich south to about Rt. 28 in Cotuit and Mashpee. The area around Holly Ridge Golf Course has been a hotspot this year. Late morning through mid-afternoon is the best time to spot them circling or hawking insects above the canopy of forested areas, looking like a huge open pair of black-and-white scissors.

As unlikely as it is, I’m really hoping someone comes across a nest, which would be at the top of a tall tree, probably adjacent to an open area. It would be the northernmost modern breeding record by a lot. I suppose these birds could just be more empty-nesters hanging around and casually looking at real estate while they think about retirement. But just maybe, bucking real estate trends, they could really be young birds looking to settle down and raise a family here, depending on what the fed does with interest rates, of course.

Mark Faherty writes the Weekly Bird Report.