Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Wild Bird Wednesday - The Tale of the White Tailed Kite

Even though I only recently became "a birder", there is one local bird that has fascinated me ever since I moved into the area back in 1998 and first started seeing it.  Almost always when I was driving or stopped at a stop light, I'd see this white/silver bird of pretty decent size performing an unusual hovering behavior.
Now, when you live near the coast, anything white, silver or grey you tend to write off as something in the gull family.  But gulls don't hover like this.  They may appear briefly stationary if they are riding a good enough puff of wind, but they don't flap and hover in place...and when they are found away from the actual beach, they are usually at a dump or a parking lot looking for trash.  Not stalking lizards and rodents on hillsides.
Then, one day, I was at a local zoo and one of the keepers had an American Kestrel out on his wrist and was doing a bit of show and tell about it.  He claimed that Kestrels are the only North American bird besides hummingbirds that can truly hover.  So, I looked closely at the Kestrel (a male) and it clearly was not the bright white/silver bird I'd been seeing.  When I asked about it, the keeper attempted to convince me that the Kestrel's cream-colored chest and belly could appear white in the sun.  I walked away convinced that he was the expert and that I was, apparently, either blind or crazy.
I kept seeing my hovering bird and the more times I saw it, the more I was convinced that it couldn't possibly be a Kestrel, but I still couldn't figure out what it was.  Then, I got really into birding this year and shortly after I got my camera, one of my mystery birds did such a close fly by of my car that it nearly hit the windshield.  I thought, "FINALLY!  I am going to get to the bottom of this."  I parked quickly, got out and made a valiant attempt to get some photos so I could research the bird more thoroughly.
Sadly...this was my best shot that day.  This all happened in the process of picking my son up from school so once he was in the car, I told him what had happened.  A couple of weeks later when I showed up to pick him up, he excitedly told me that he'd seen the bird hanging out around the campus that day and did I want to go look for it before we left.
After walking around the soccer field for a while, we were rewarded with a brief fly by and an example of the hovering behavior.
I got a few more flight shots...better than the original, but not by much.

However, at least I now had what I thought was good enough to attempt an identification.  I'm sure you all have already figured out this is a White-tailed Kite.  Ryan still didn't think much of my pictures so he continued to report to me about his sightings during recess and lunch.  Finally, about a month later, he grabbed my arm as we were walking to the parking lot and said "Mom, get your camera out!  The Kite is RIGHT THERE IN THAT TREE!"  12-year-old eyes are SO much better than 50-year-old eyes!

Of course, by the time I'd fumbled the camera out of the case and got it turned on, the bird had moved farther away, but I still managed to get a few shots...enough to see that this particular bird is a juvenile based on the buffy streaks on its chest.
You can see the streaks a bit better in this shot.
Eventually the parent bird flew in for a bit.
It hopped around on the tree a bit and then took off again.

This time, the juvenile followed.  I'd finally solved my mystery and gotten my closer encounter with this gorgeous bird.  But, nature wasn't quite done with me yet.  About a month later, I happened to arrive early on campus to pick Ryan up and thought I'd spend the extra time wandering around with my camera.  I was actually pretty well hidden behind a post when a Kite flew into a tree directly in front of me with a fat rat in its talons! 
I did my best to stay hidden behind the pillar while trying to fire off as many shots as I could without disturbing the bird from its meal.

I know it's a little bit gory, but as many times as I have seen these birds hovering, I'd never actually seen one come away with any prey.

They really are beautiful birds...and you have to love those red eyes!

Despite my best attempts to hide, this one clearly knew I was there and turned around to keep an eye on me.

Didn't stop him from munching on his rat snack, though.

After one last shot, I slowly backed away around the corner of a building to leave him with his munchies.  I was left wondering if this was one of the birds I'd encountered earlier in the year or a different one.  Also, in processing the pictures, I think I can see a band on this bird's right leg just above that curved tree branch in this shot.  The band appears to be silver/grey so is very hard to see.  These birds are not endangered or threatened so I'd love to know who is banding them and what they are learning about them.  The photo isn't good enough to get identifying information from the band.
So, that's my "Tale" of the White-tailed Kite.  Finally solved my mystery and had a lucky and amazing close encounter with this beautiful bird!


mick said...

A very beautiful bird and I'm glad your persistence paid off with some great close photos. I got my first long lens camera for the same reason - my descriptions of the birds were not good enough for ID by bird experts!

Margaret Adamson said...

A wonderful bird to see. I thought it looked like the Black shouldered Kite that I saw in Australia and when I researched it, discovered that both names at one time where the same bird however now they discovered that they are not identical so have different names.

Marie C said...

This is such a thrilling post! Good for you getting to the bottom of things! I'm so happy you kept seeing them, both juvenile and adult and was able to get such amazing photos! I'd love to know more about them myself!

Christian WeiƟ said...

Wonderful observations and beautiful birds.

Mary Cromer said...

Absolutely beautiful birds. I saw my first Kite this past Summer, Mississippi Kites, and that was thrilling too~

Julie said...

This is a bird I miss living up here near Lake Tahoe. I grew up in So. Cal. and saw them quite often out in Lakeview not far from Hemet.If you are curious about the bands, I would contact F&G or the local University. We banded Kestrals for the University in Utah during our freshman year on a grant so it may have to do with a research project.

Stewart M said...

Wonderful shots, wonderful story and a wonderful bird. We have a very similar bird here called the Black Shouldered Kite - you often see them hunting near roads.

Cheers - Stewart M - Melbourne

PS: my slowness to comment and visit has been caused by a trip to an island in the Pacific!

Phil Slade said...

That was a lovely story. Your persistence paid off with those final close-ups. I too spotted the band. I think if you made some local inquiries you would be able to discover who is banding the kites. As a bander/ringer myself I'm sure that they would be more than willing to tell you all about what they do.