Monday, December 6, 2021

Comings and Goings

Stepping Stones
Birds on The Move

Photos by Bob McConville
| A Swallow-tailed Kite flies over the mangrove trees along the Marco River in early April. You can find them in the area through July.


It was quite a pleasant surprise last week when I looked to the sky and saw a flock of birds coasting in the wind currents on the north end of Tigertail beach. As they completed their circle, some shades of black and white appeared on the wings of about 50 birds. I raised my binoculars to confirm that it was, indeed, a flock of White Pelicans and they were heading north.

Friends of mine at Wild Florida Everglades boat tours said that they had not seen any in the western Everglades area for a few days. Maybe I was lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the last few preparing for their magnificent journey to our northernmost states and maybe into Canada.

A Least Tern guards her eggs from the hot, summer sun. You can see how the eggs blend in so well with the sand. Good idea to protect the nesting areas!

I love to watch these graceful flyers. So smooth in their gliding patterns and boasting the second largest wingspan of any North American bird, second only to the California Condor. I saw them fly into our area last fall, enjoy our foraging paradise, and watched them leave for their fulltime homes.

But, as they leave, other migratory birds are arriving. The sands of the very north tip of Tigertail Beach are now dotted with signs alerting the public that several species will be nesting there soon. 

As the seasons change and the Earth tilts, it becomes warmer in the northern hemisphere, which means a cooler climate is coming south of the Equator. This being so, birds that enjoy warmer weather are leaving South America and heading our way!

Since the first week of April, I have seen several Swallow-tailed Kites in the area. This raptor is white with black accents and a forked tail. They are insect eaters but will grab an occasional frog or small snake as well. They catch their insects “on the fly”, or while they are in flight, swooping from side to side in order to grab that flying prey in the air or on the treetops. They are here to nest and raise their young before heading south in late July.

Satellite tagging of these birds has helped scientists understand the Kites’ amazing journey. Starting in south central Brazil they will travel through Central America, the Yucatan Peninsula and Cuba before settling in the United States. An estimated 15,000 will make their home primarily in Florida with a few traveling just a bit further north to include Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama, and Louisiana.

Birds enjoying Tigertail Beach this summer will be a few species of Plovers, Black Skimmers and, coming all the way from Venezuela, Least Terns. Least Terns are the smallest of the tern family and they also arrive here to nest and raise their young.

White Pelicans are leaving our area, heading north, making way for our winter migratory birds such as Swallow-tailed Kites and Least Terns.

Least Terns will scrape a small area on the ground and nest right in the sand. This is one of the reasons an area of the beach is sectioned for closure. The eggs, and even the young, blend in so well with the sand that they could easily be stepped on. Fully grown they are only eight to nine inches in length and only weigh a few ounces.

Their courting ritual is quite simple, and sometimes comical. A male will catch a fish and offer it to a prospective mate. If she accepts, the courtship is complete. If a female rejects the offer the male will move on to another female, then another, until the acceptance is finalized.

All of our migratory, as well as local birds are special and serve a purpose in the area. Please obey all rules regarding distancing and safety. This way, everyone can enjoy seeing these visitors and locals doing what nature intended them to do! Have fun out there!

Bob is the lead Naturalist on board the dolphin survey vessel Dolphin Explorer, which monitors the activity and abundance of the local bottlenose dolphin population. He is also an owner of Wild Florida Ecotours at Port of the Islands, offering fishing charters and eco-tours in the western Everglades. He is an author of two books and an award-winning columnist for Coastal Breeze News. Bob loves his wife very much!



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