Monday, August 15, 2011

The kindness of birders

Thanks to the kindness of birders, I was lucky enough to be able to see a family of nesting Mississippi Kites within easy driving distance of my home in southeast Ohio this weekend. Birders, in case you haven't already heard, tend to have a reputation for being extremely nice, and helpful, and will do just about anything to help you see a bird. There is a very gracious couple of birders who lives in a small gated community nestled near the Hocking Hills area, and their graciousness was extended out through this community when they opened their gates to approximately 100 outsiders this past Sunday. They opened their arms and welcomed us to see this fantastic spectacle of nature.

Juvenile Mississippi Kite from behind. You'll get a better view in a minute.

The thing that makes this bird species special is that this is currently the only known breeding location in the state of Ohio. Luckily, the birders in this community had a hunch at what they were looking at when a pair of Mississippi Kites raised a family there last year, and word got around in the Ohio birding community. Some other kind birders handled the logistics and arranged a special day to view the kite family last year, and then again this year. I am so grateful for this kindness.

From this angle it may look like jr. kite is eating something, but it's actually just preening.

To give you an idea of how spectacular it is to see this bird breeding in Ohio, I checked the first Breeding Bird Atlas done in the state back in 1982-1987, and it was not even on our radar at that time. Now, that's not definitive proof that it wasn't breeding in Ohio at that time, but in blocks where birders were surveying, they were not even observed. What has changed and brought them to Ohio since then? I don't know. Is it by luck that for two years now these kites have decided to nest in a woody area populated by people who would notice it? Maybe.

This is a reminder that conservation starts right in your own yard. These kites took up residence in a community that, from what I observed, seems to believe in disturbing the land as little as possible, so there is a lot of wonderful, suitable habitat for them to use. Great habitat = great biodiversity. And great biodiversity means you never know what might show up! (And with that in mind, it means you've got to keep your eyes open all the time, just in case something unexpected drops in to stay for a while. Well, I feel that's MY duty, anyway...)

Parental unit coming in with a juicy morsel for the youngster. Look how poised and ready that juvenile is to receive its meal!

The Mississippi Kite's diet is mainly comprised of insects like cicadas and dragonflies. They leave the exoskeleton (or outer shell) behind, only picking out the meat from within. I was amazed to watch bits of cicada wing flutter to the ground as the young one picked its way to the meat of its meal.

Getting ready for the hand-off. As soon as the juvenile kite demonstrates that it's able to feed itself, the family will begin their migration south toward their wintering grounds in central South America.

Birding and blogging friends Susan Gets Native (sitting) and KatDoc (with camera snapping) enjoying the view. This was a life bird for all 3 of us!

The adult takes off after dropping off a bite to eat. It's hard to get an idea of size in these photos, but the average wing span of this raptor is 3 feet (smaller than a Red-tailed Hawk, but larger than a Kestrel, for those keeping track). Notice the rufous, or rust-colored, primary feathers (the "finger tips") that are so nicely back lit by the sun here.

Here the juvenile is begging for food, calling to an adult in the vicinity. One theory being tossed around was that the youngster didn't actually start vocalizing until it had one of the parents within visual range. Speaking of begging behavior, when I was there watching the bird, I noticed it wasn't exhibiting the type of begging behavior I'm used to seeing in songbirds. Songbird youngsters, once out of the nest, will sit on a branch or a wire and peep almost continuously, with their wings puffed out and rapidly fluttering. This is an obvious visual cue to the parents, most likely to gain an upper hand over a nearby sibling who is also exhibiting similar behavior.

"I hear ya, kid. Just hold your horses, dinner's comin'!

Once I started looking at my pictures, though, I realized that while the begging is not as prolonged as a juvenile songbird's, the concept is still the same, as seen here: "I must make myself as large as possible so you know that you are supposed to feed ME!!" There was only one mouth to feed this year (last year's brood consisted of two young), but the instinct remains despite that fact.

This was one of the longer feeding sessions that we got to observe, and it made for great photo opportunities, thus giving me a chance to study field marks in-depth after I got home. Here you can really see the differences in appearance between the adult on the left and immature on the right. Notice the clean white breast and underside of the wings on the adult. Compare this to a chest and underwing area that is very dappled on the juvenile. Also, notice that the tail of the adult is completely dark with no banding (again, we've got a little but of rufous coloring peeking through at the tail tip). By contrast, the immature's tail has very distinct banding.

Once again, my sincere thanks goes out to the kind folks who brought this kite family to the attention of the Ohio birding community, and to those who arranged this get-together for us. It was a very special treat that made my day.


Beyond My Garden said...

Heather, how very interesting. You have some nice photographs to study. I'm glad you realize how lucky you were to get to see this family. So cool.

Meg said...

Gorgeous! And what a nice story. yay.

Julie Zickefoose said...

Way to go OOS, way to go kind birders, and way to go, HOTH, for some really great action shots. I can almost hear the babe keening!
And thanks for making the Rain Crows scene on Saturday!

nina at Nature Remains. said...

Very cool!
And, as you suggest, a reminder to always keep eyes open for the unusual, especially when there's great habitat.
Hopefully these birds will return in future years.

Kathiesbirds said...

Heather, not only did you get a rare treat but you disseminated the information in a very interesting and easy to understand way. Kites aren't even on my birding radar screen since I live nowheres near them. So, when KatDoc and Susan mentioned on their facebook pages that they were going Kiting, I actually thought they meant flying paper kites! How fun it was to read this and see the results of that day.

Anonymous said...

I found what I thought was a baby owl under my car in the driveway, so I put it in the carport and called a local wildlife rehab place, Cypress Black Bayou, in Benton, Louisiana. They sent a volunteer to come get the bird, and it turns out it is a Mississippi Kite. I had been feeding it little pieces of raw chicken liver with tweezers and it has a voracious appetite. I also gave it water from a medicine dropper. This bird looked at me with so much trust and hope in its eyes! It appears to have a damaged wing, but the rehab place has a veterinarian, a lady named Dr. Morgan.
My friend Denise, who works at Starbucks is the one who recommended that I find a wildlife rehabilitation place, so I endearingly named the little bird "Starbucks."
Dr. Morgan sent a volunteer, Rae Osborn, who is from South Africa and is working on her Phd in Biology. Because of these good people and the irrepressible heart that they displayed, my emergency was resolved in just a matter of hours, and now I know down deep in my soul that Starbucks will fly again! Starbucks is somewhere between a chick and a juvenile, with a wingspan of 8-10 inches. I haven't flown a kite since I was a kid, but I know a kite who will fly again, and it's a little Mississippi Kite named Starbucks. Say a little prayer for this bird, that everything will work out. And be thankful that they have people like Cypress Black Bayou, Dr. Morgan, Rae, Denise, and yourselves who care enough to make a difference.

Heather said...

Thank you for sharing your story, popefred. Even if Starbucks can't be released into the wild again, I'm sure he (or she) will be well taken care of and will be used as a teaching tool to educate others about birds.