Swallow-tailed kites differ from most raptors in that they eat during flight, using their talons to catch prey and pass it to their beaks in midair. The bird’s distinctive tail makes flight control possible during these complicated maneuvers. Photo © Mac Stone

Outtakes: Going to Great Heights for Swallow-tailed Kites

April/May 2016

Assigned to photograph researchers studying swallow-tailed kites, Mac Stone had to work creatively to capture compelling images of the rare birds without disturbing them. “That’s the fun part,” he says.

Stone teamed up with biologists to rig cameras 90 feet up 100-foot trees to get close-up shots of the birds, which have well-hidden nests at the tops of pine trees. He flew in a plane while photographing a researcher conducting aerial surveys of the birds. He even asked an arborist to teach him how to climb trees in a way that would disturb swallowtails as little as possible: “Methodically,” he says, “and quickly.”

He explains: “You take a crossbow—like a big slingshot—and you throw your line up” over a branch, he says. “You have to climb to the top of your line and then you have to free-climb to the top.”

Stone’s photographs show the work researchers are doing to better understand the enigmatic swallow-tailed kites. Recent scientific studies have found that climate change is eroding the bird’s freshwater wetland habitat, which is vul­nerable to changes in salinity caused by higher tides and sea-level rise.

We couldn’t include all of our favorite photos from the swallow-tailed kite shoot in the magazine. Here, we’ve rounded up some of the best outtakes. (See more photos and read the story from our April/May issue here).

The species’ nesting habits have always made the swallow-tailed kite difficult to study. To try to observe these aloof birds, ecolo¬gist Gina Kent climbs a loblolly pine in Florida’s Withlacoochee State Forest. Photo © Mac Stone
The species’ nesting habits have always made the swallow-tailed kite difficult to study. To try to observe these aloof birds, ecologist Gina Kent climbs a loblolly pine in Florida’s Withlacoochee State Forest. Photo © Mac Stone
Swallow-tailed kites gather to roost atop cypress trees at a ranch in Palmdale, Florida. The birds are built like gliders, with huge wings and small, streamlined bodies. They rarely flap their wings; instead, they soar effortlessly, changing course with minute adjustments of their distinctive forked tails. Photo © Mac Stone
Swallow-tailed kites gather to roost atop cypress trees at a ranch in Palmdale, Florida. The birds are built like gliders, with huge wings and small, streamlined bodies. They rarely flap their wings; instead, they soar effortlessly, changing course with minute adjustments of their distinctive forked tails. Photo © Mac Stone
The Conservancy’s Maria Whitehead looks for nesting swallow-tailed kites on Bull Creek in South Carolina. The birds, which once nested in 21 states, have undergone a historic population crash and are now listed as endangered in South Carolina. Photo © Mac Stone
The Conservancy’s Maria Whitehead looks for nesting swallow-tailed kites on Bull Creek in South Carolina, a state that lists the species as endangered. The birds, which once nested in 21 states, have undergone a historic population crash. By 1940, the kite’s range had shrunk to seven states. Photo © Mac Stone
Insects such as stinkbugs make up a large part of swallow-tailed kites' diet. Photo © Mac Stone
Insects such as stinkbugs make up a large part of swallow-tailed kites’ diet. Photo © Mac Stone
Clemson University scientist Jamie Duberstein is studying the effects of salinity change on coastal areas of South Carolina’s Winyah Bay. Photo © Mac Stone
Clemson University scientist Jamie Duberstein is studying the effects of salinity change on coastal areas of South Carolina’s Winyah Bay, which is home to a large population of kites. Photo © Mac Stone
Clemson University scientist William Connor records salinity levels along the Sampit River in Winyah Bay. Connor and Duberstein are also measuring tree growth rates and foliage densities to collect data on how sea level rise and climate change are affecting the habitat. Photo © Mac Stone
Clemson University scientist William Conner records salinity levels along the Sampit River in Winyah Bay. Conner and Duberstein are also measuring tree-growth rates and foliage densities to collect data on how sea-level rise and climate change are affecting the habitat. Photo © Mac Stone
A swallow-tailed kite chick sits atop a nest. A number of factors contribute to the vulnerability of swallow-tailed kites, including the fact that the birds do not reach breeding age for three to four years, and females do not breed every year. Past estimates have guessed that there might be only a few thousand breeding pairs left in the country, scat¬tered from South Carolina to Texas. Photo © Mac Stone
A swallow-tailed kite chick sits atop a nest. A number of factors contribute to the vulnerability of swallow-tailed kites, including the fact that the birds do not reach breeding age for three to four years, and females do not breed every year. Past estimates have guessed that there might be only a few thousand breeding pairs left in the country, scattered from South Carolina to Texas. Photo © Mac Stone

— NCM

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15 comments

  1. The website link in the article for reporting a sighting does not work, so I will report it here: August 30, 2015 a swallow-tailed kite was observed by a number of birders just north of the Round Lake road exit on U.S. 127 north in Michigan. This would be just east of St. Johns, MI. According to some birders at the site, this is the second year that a single kite was observed. Reported here by Karen Klomparens and Sherman Garnett.

  2. We greatly enjoyed the article, and would like to mention that within the past ten years we have observed as few as two kites, and as many as ten fly above out property, which consists of 28 acres of upland, and bottom land hardwoods, with an approximate three acre wetland contained within those woods.
    We have offered the Conservancy an outright gift, or easement on this property, and several years ago we were visited by two representatives of the organization, one of whom was Richard Hillsenbeck, a highly dedicated and respected member of the Conservancy.
    We were told our property was highly worthy to conserve, and that we would be contacted. After sometime had passed, I contacted Mr. Hillsenbeck, and was told the Conservancy was only pursuing large acquisitions due to budgetary constraints.
    As recently as February 2016, I contacted the Conservancy at their Virginia headquarters, and spoke with a Mr. John Singleton, and further discussed the desire to conserve our property, both in Florida, and in New York State. I was told the chapters in New York and Florida would be contacted.
    Within two days, the Adirondack chapter contacted us, and expressed interest in our property. We have yet to be contacted by the Florida chapter. Sadly, we feel the Florida chapter is for the most part, poorly managed, as we rarely receive any mailings from them, or contact by anyone involved with membership.
    The swallow tailed kite can only further decline, and the Nature Conservancy decision to totally disregard our property as a conservation site, will more than likely add to the decline of this magnificent bird.

    1. From The Nature Conservancy in Florida:

      Hi Jim & Ginger Visconti,
      Thank you for your steadfast support of The Nature Conservancy — since 1977. We are grateful for your commitment to conservation and for helping us advance our mission to conserve the lands and waters on which all life depends.
      We were sorry to learn you have some concerns and understand that a colleague from the Adirondack Chapter office has reached out to you to continue the dialogue in person. Thank you for taking the time for a personal call, and for your willingness to continue the conversation going forward with our staff.
      We’re glad you enjoyed the blog post about the swallow-tailed kite. Like you, we wholly agree that the swallow-tailed kite is a magnificent bird. And because of that, we would like to clarify our position on the protection of the swallow-tailed kite, which is a priority for us.
      The Nature Conservancy continues to work extremely hard, as we have over many decades, to ensure that the swallow-tailed kite does not further decline. The Florida Chapter has been directly involved in the conservation of hundreds of thousands of acres of nesting and foraging habitat for this species throughout Florida, including protecting ca. 60,000 acres in Glades County, Florida, that is the largest known roosting, congregation and feeding site for this species in North America prior to its annual summer migration to South America. We have worked diligently at the statewide level to locate, inventory, protect and connect the highest quality, largest, most strategically located properties with the best and most preferred habitat for the swallow-tailed kite and our direct land protection efforts for this species have far exceeded that of any other private conservation organization within Florida.
      We hope you are as proud of our accomplishments as we are appreciative of your long-term support.

  3. My wife and I live in eastern North Carolina, northern Onslow Co. We have seen swallow tailed kites in 2014 and 2015. Both times we noticed them flying over the open fields next to our house. Only saw them for a couple of days each year. We can’t agree but I’m certain we saw a pair last year. Not positive about 2014. This came to mind after reading the article in the Nature Conservancy April/May issue. Not certain about the dates each year but May seems right. We verified the identity by checking our
    Stokes Guide. We will keep a lookout this year and report any future sightings .

  4. I have sighted swallow-tailed kites in my neighborhood. Tried to report this at the website, but can’t seem to get connected. Please send me the link to report my sightings. I live in the Acreage in Royal Palm Beach, Florida.

  5. I live in Parrish Florida and we have 1-3 swallow-tailed kites that visit every year. I’ve already seen them 4 times just this week!! They are incredible creatures!!

  6. This is bird that I’ve tried to film for years. They fascinate me. Recently I have moved to Arcadia, Fl. I’m very excited to report that I find them flying through my area. I don’t know what it is they’re after someone once told me there’s a certain frog but I’m not certain. I’m just happy that I can see them they are very Majestic and I might yet have a chance to film one.

  7. If you really wanted to conserve and preserve the actions of these beautiful birds you would not post locations of roosting or nesting areas.
    Pretty irresponsible of The Nature Conservancy in my opinion.

  8. I see them in Jacksonville Florida now and then. Do I need to pass on time and location? Awesome birds. I stop in my tracks when I see them