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Swallow-Tailed Kites

Monitoring Helps Define Habitat of Rare Raptor

By Jessica Johnson
The Post and Courier
Thursday, July 3, 2008

This spot at Caw Caw Interpretive Center outside Ravenel is a good one to look for a swallow-tailed kite. The kites are most often seen soaring above cypress treetops on the outskirts of former rice fields.

Mosquitoes whine past the ears of bird-watchers making their way through the bottomland hardwood forest.

It's just a few more steps through the sticky air to a walkway overlooking swampy fields.

From the deck, at the right time of day, the most patient of them might be lucky enough to see a bird of prey soaring over the cypress treetops on the edge of former rice fields at the Caw Caw Interpretive Center outside Ravenel.

Sightings of the swallow-tailed kite are rare, but once you see one, you know.

The black-and-white bird with long, forked tail feathers is unmistakable.

The swallow-tailed kite is one of the most easily recognized birds, said Maria Whitehead, co-chair of the Swallow-tailed Kite Conservation Alliance, during a recent seminar at the Sewee Visitor and Environmental Education Center in Awendaw.

"It's such a striking bird that people remember when and where they saw it," she said.

It's one of the reasons that this distinctive and endangered bird, which spends its spring and summer in South Carolina, is the flagship species for a citizen-science monitoring program, as well as habitat conservation, Whitehead said.

The bird is considered endangered in the state because its territory has become restricted over the past 100 years.

Kites' range used to extend upriver as far west as Columbia and into Florence.

Today, the swallow-tailed kite's range extends only just beyond the state's coastal counties.

"We've seen a pretty severe range restriction," Whitehead said.

As the population declined, the species located to the most prime habitat within its range.

The restriction in South Carolina mirrors the birds' national range. Kites used to be seen all the way up the Mississippi Alluvial Valley, Whitehead said, and recently have been spotted in Alabama.

That information comes from citizen-science programs and represents the best data scientists have on bird populations.

Whitehead said the Web and a growing interest in birds have converged.

"Scientists now think it makes sense to ask the public for information," she said.

Area groups have led citizen-science programs in the past, but a new counting effort launched in 2007 allows people to enter their swallow-tailed kite sightings online.

The form's checklist includes a Google mapping locator, allowing users to pinpoint where the sighting occurred and what the kite was doing at the time.

Citizen sightings of the bird a decade ago helped form the boundaries of the Waccamaw National Wildlife Refuge near Georgetown.

The 18,000 acres of managed refuge is one of the state's most productive swallow-tailed kite nesting sites in the state.

Future sightings could be used to identify which parcels of the refuge's 54,000-acre acquisition area to preserve next.

Craig Sasser, refuge manager, said they are using current sightings to help design a road through the refuge, hoping to keep it from affecting nest sites.

Those citizen reports make up for the staff Sasser doesn't have.

Sasser said the birds are hard to locate and often disappear once they see signs of man.

Whitehead said scientists would have to spend hours upon hours and thousands of dollars compiling the information that citizens have.

Locating the nests, made from Spanish moss in treetops, can take a helicopter flight unless someone has seen the birds from the ground first.

Tera Baird, a College of Charleston student studying swallow-tailed kites for a Master of Science degree in environmental studies, uses the citizen database to find places where kites feed, hoping to gather data that one day will tell people how to best manage the land for kite conservation.

Without the database, Baird said, she wouldn't know where to begin.

Reports also have offered new information to those who study them.

One tells of a kite snatching a bat from a tree and eating it.

"That's ... information new to science," Whitehead said, "that swallow-tailed kites feed on mammals."

Reach Jessica Johnson at 937-5921

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