Thursday, January 22, 2015

2015 northbound migration begins!

INTRODUCTION
For new followers, this blog is the first in an annual series in which we will describe the northbound migration of seven satellite-tracked Swallow-tailed Kites: Palmetto, Bluff, Gulf Hammock, Pace, Day, MIA, and PearlMS. All of these birds made it safely to their South American winter range last fall.  Now we will watch as they make their way back to their nesting areas in the southeastern U. S. 

This magnificent odyssey takes them across the Andes Mountains and several hundred miles of open ocean, where the late-winter weather can quickly turn perilous. The most dangerous leg is when they fly northward over the Gulf of Mexico. Rather than jump from the Yucatan Peninsula to western Cuba or the southern tip of Florida, the reverse of their southbound track, they generally head northward from the tip of the Yucatan Peninsula on the first good tailwind. If all goes well, they will reach land somewhere along the Gulf coast and turn toward the place where they nested last year. 

Because Swallow-tailed Kites cannot maintain continuous flapping flight, they are unable to make way against headwinds. Instead, they circle over the water waiting for the winds to change and carry them to land anywhere from southern Florida to the east coast of Mexico. We have learned from our telemetry research that many Swallow-tailed Kites die during their northbound migration because they cannot remain aloft for more than four days. In 2013, three of the 11 kites we were tracking by satellite perished while crossing the Gulf when unusually large high-pressure systems spawned strong northerly winds that persisted for over a week.


HEADING NORTH
From the expansive family-owned cattle ranches of the Brazilian Cerrado, two of our seven GPS/satellite-tagged Swallow-tailed Kites have started their 5,000-mile journey back to the southeastern U.S.
The Swallow-tailed Kite northbound migration begins. Tracking data from 1 Dec. 2014 to 20 Jan. 2015. 

As in the last two years, MIA has made the first move.  He wintered the farthest south of all of the tracked birds and started north from the state of Mato Grosso do Sul, Brazil, on 8 January.  He is already 200 miles past PearlMS, who wintered the farthest north in Rondonia, Brazil.

Day is also making her first moves towards the U.S., having departed her winter range on 16 January.  She shared the same roosts and foraging grounds with Palmetto and Pace, which are still within their 100 square mile winter range near Santa Rita do Pardo.

Palmetto’s mate, Bluff continued moving south during the winter months.  Don’t be fooled by the green track. This is a 600-mile southbound move he made in early December.  Currently, Bluff is 300 miles north of Palmetto.

Gulf Hammock still occupies the lush forests in the state of Santa Cruz, Bolivia.


Any guesses on which of the remaining Swallow-tailed Kites will start north next?

Monday, September 22, 2014

Riding the coastline, lifting on wind

Three of our satellite-tracked Swallow-tailed Kites made it to Brazil!  Their GPS data indicate that Day and Palmetto have almost caught up to MIA, who has been far ahead of the other migrants since leaving Florida on 30 July. Two more of our tagged kites, Gulf Hammock and Bluff, are in Peru. Pace is making his way through Panama and PearlMS has passed overland through eastern Mexico.

Tracks of seven tagged Swallow-tailed Kites on their southbound migration from 7 Jul - 9 Sept 2014
Raptors often follow coastlines and mountain ranges during migration, probably as an aid to navigation, but also to exploit the lift produced when winds are deflected upward by ridges. 

Satellite-tracking reveals how Swallow-tailed Kites use coastlines and mountain ranges as migrational aids.

These images show the tracks of six tagged Swallow-tailed Kites moving south along the coastal plain of southern Costa Rica and northern Panama. Note how close their tracks are as they parallel the nearby coast, and how the kites make use of the coastal mountain range to remain aloft using as little energy as possible.  

Can you imagine how many other migrating Swallow-tailed Kites and other species of birds are using these areas?  We hope our tracking information can be used by governments and conservation groups to help protect these valuable migration corridors and to keep them safe for the countless numbers of birds that rely on them each year.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

A snapshot at summer's end

A snapshot of the locations of seven satellite-tagged Swallow-tailed Kites on their southbound migration. 

PearlMS has lingered in the floodplain of Louisiana’s Atchafalaya River for 7 days.  He spent most of his pre-migration on the Pearl River.

Pace is stopping over in the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve of Quintana Roo, Mexico.

Bluff crossed from Nicaragua into Costa Rica, staying close to the Caribbean shoreline.

Gulf Hammock is 150 miles south of Bluff near the Caribbean coast of Panama.


Palmetto, Day and MIA have safely crossed the Andes and are making their way southeastward through the headwaters of the Amazon.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

PearlMS sets forth...heads west?

PearlMS begins his southbound migration heading west to circumvent the Gulf of Mexico. 
The last of our seven GPS-satellite tagged Swallow-tailed Kites has begun his southbound migration...heading west. Ten days later than last year, PearlMS left his summer range near the Pearl River in Mississippi on 27 August, and began flying westward around the Gulf of Mexico.  His first stop, 120 miles away, was the rich lowlands of Bayou Nezpique, near Jennings, Louisiana, where he remained as of 31 August. 

During either their spring or fall migrations, Swallow-tailed Kites like PearlMS from the western subpopulation (Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana) may fly south directly across the Gulf of Mexico, or they may head west and travel entirely overland, following the Gulf coastline through Louisiana, Texas, and Mexico. 

By comparison, Swallow-tailed Kites that nest in the eastern portion of the species’ U.S. range (South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida) cross the Gulf of Mexico during their spring and fall migrations, but their routes differ depending on the season. Migrating southward at the end of the nesting season, they fly from southwestern Florida to the northeastern Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico either directly or with brief stops on Cuba. When they return in the spring, they depart from the Yucatan Peninsula and make landfall somewhere along the northern Gulf coast, from Louisiana to Florida. 


Jennifer Coulson of Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries
Photo by Tom Coulson
If you have followed our blogs, you know that PearlMS is one of three kites tagged in Louisiana and Mississippi by our long-time colleague Jennifer Coulson.  Dr. Coulson has studied Swallow-tailed Kites in this region for many years.  

Learn more about her work here: http://www.jjaudubon.net/research


Monday, August 25, 2014

The Florida flurry subdues. One kite tarries in the Magnolia State.

Bluff, Gulf Hammock and Pace depart the U.S. PearlMS the last tagged bird to remain. 

Bluff and Gulf Hammock left their pre-migration areas on the same day, 12 August. Bluff had been cruising the Savannah River floodplain forest and adjacent farm fields for weeks, but recently hopped down to the Altamaha River near Jessup, Georgia, and headed to Florida two days later.  Moving quickly, he spent one night on the St. Marys River (the Florida/Georgia border), one night south of Gainesville, Florida, crossed southeast to Lower Wekiva River Preserve State Park, then made great time on 17 August flying all the way to Okaloacoochee Slough State Forest west of Lehigh Acres, Florida.  The next day, he was south of the Florida Keys by 1:00 pm on his way to western Cuba.  Flying through the night just off the northwestern shore, Bluff continued another 130 miles across the Yucatan Channel, reaching the shore of Cancun, Mexico, at 11 pm the night of 20 August.  We’ll see if he will linger on the Yucatan before continuing south, as most of the tracked kites have done.

Gulf Hammock has been right on Bluff’s tail.  On 12 August, she began edging southward along the Oconee River, Georgia, after her six-week stay in the region.  She spent one more night in Georgia, in the Okeefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, before passing just east of Gainseville, Florida as she picked up speed.  Gulf Hammock roosted north of Leesburg, Florida, on 15 August, in the Lake Wales Ridge State Forest of central Florida the next night, then spent her last night in Florida on the coastal fringe of Everglades National Park before flying out to sea by 10:00 am on 18 August.  Gulf Hammock passed 15 miles west of Key West, Florida, before coming ashore near Santa Lucia, western Cuba, in the early dark hours of 19 August.

Pace also began his migration last week.  After a 12-day pre-migration visit to Sumter County, Florida, where he feasted on flying insects over pastures and melon fields with many other Swallow-tailed Kites, he flew 145 miles south on 18 August to arrive near the Caloosahatchee River just east of LaBelle, Florida, for the night.  By the next night, Pace had reached the Florida Keys, where he roosted in Long Key State Park, putting himself in a prime position to cross the Straits of Florida the next day.

We are still watching PearlMS in Mississippi to track his southbound route to Central America, which most likely will be very different from the Florida and South Carolina birds.  In the last three years, PearlMS has circumnavigated the Gulf, remaining over land for his entire trip through Mexico.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Swallow-tailed Kite migration update on all birds

13 August 2014 update of seven satellite-tracked Swallow-tailed Kites.

Pace continues to stage in Sumter County, Florida (west-central peninsula), where he has been since 6 August. He makes foraging trips 13 to 28 miles north and east from his roost site.

PearlMS seems to be exploring a little farther and wider from his nesting area. He’s got a favorite foraging field 8 miles southeast, and also is making forays north on the Pearl River.

Bluff continues to use his roosting and foraging areas along the Savannah River between Sylvania, Georgia and Estill, South Carolina.

Gulf Hammock has been lingering along the Ocmulgee River south of Abbeville, Georgia for the last month, but her latest GPS location, on the night of 12 August, was 21 miles to the south. She could be our next Swallow-tailed Kite to leave the United States.

After arriving on to the Yucatan Peninsula 3 August, Palmetto exhibited true stopover behavior within Quintana Roo. She stayed in one area for seven days, no doubt resting and feeding after her 200 mile overwater flight from Florida via Cuba. On 11 August, Palmetto proceeded south, took a shortcut from Placencia, Belize, to Cuyamel, Honduras. She is now nearing the Nicaraguan border in the Reserva Biologica Tawahka, Honduras.

Day is moving along steadily in Central America. Once she made it to southern Nicaragua, she began hugging the Caribbean coastline, a good navigational aide and, with its coastal lowlands, probably a good source of food. Day is nearing Panama City, Panama.

MIA is 640 miles ahead of Day and recently crossed the Andes Mountains near Popayan, Colombia. He is almost to the State of Huila and moving steadily.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Pace: Not lost but found!

Pre-migration movements of Pace, a satellite-tagged Swallow-tailed Kite.  
Pace had been using a relatively small area around Doctors Lake in southern Jacksonville, Florida close to his nesting area. On 6 August, he made an abrupt move to northwest Sumter County, about 100 miles, where he spent the night. The next day, he set off to forage with 200 or so other kites over farm fields west of Oxford, in central Florida. This foraging aggregation has been giving birders and photographers a spectacular show for several weeks. 

One such photographer, Will Randall, captured an amazing photo of Pace amongst the hundreds of foraging kites. You can see the GPS satellite transmitter, which looks to be in excellent condition after over 2 years on the back of a Swallow-tailed Kite that has carried it on two round-trips to Brazil and while helping raise two broods of young in northern Florida. During this time, Pace has clocked over 25,000 miles! 

Pace photographed by Will Randall on 
7 August 2014 Sumter County, Florida. 
A real needle in a haystack! 
Pace is one of three of our tagged kites that have been photographed in foraging aggregations, which aid swallow-tails in locating large groups of insects on which to feed. You may recall that Palmetto, from South Carolina, was spotted in 2013 north of the Altamaha River in Georgia. In addition, Bluff, Palmetto’s mate, recently was seen over a foraging field near Allendale, South Carolina. These communal feeding sites are vital to Swallow-tailed Kites as they put on fat for their long-distance migration. Some individuals will return to the same areas year after year and remain a month or more before migrating southward. 

These locations provide a great opportunity for bird enthusiasts – or those so encouraged by such a sight – to watch impressive numbers of Swallow-tailed Kites in beautiful aerial displays as they repeatedly snatch and swallow insects, often just above the ground.  The photographer of Pace's photo, Mr. Randall, a sailplane and regular airplane pilot most of his life, described it in his email to us:

"I always marvel at the way god created the swallow-tailed kite. The bird has a high aspect ratio wing, a small low drag head and beak, a nearly retractable landing gear, low drag body, and scissor tail. This is everything a high performance sailplane has today. The bird came several hundred thousand years before the sailplane!"

Some of these flocks will number in the hundreds, another striking example of how the Swallow-tailed Kite’s highly evolved social behaviors have helped this species persist.

You can be a guardian of Pace and the other six Swallow-tailed Kites by pledging to be a monthly sustainer in our Keep on Trackin' program. Your gift will keep their streams of information beaming to satellites, granting ARCI the precious opportunity to learn more about their lives in order to develop techniques to protect them in a world that threatens to change faster than they can adapt.

Learn more about your opportunity to "Keep on Trackin'"
http://arcinst.org/keep-on-trackin