The magical mystery of Swallow-tailed Kite migration - Guest Blog

Image above © Cheri Hollis
This is a guest Blog post by Gina Kent, Senior Conservation Scientist at the Avian Research and Conservation Institute, in Gainesville, Florida.

The Avian Research and Conservation Institute (ARCI) has been tracking Swallow-tailed Kites since the late 1990’s! ARCI, a non-profit based in Gainesville Florida, conducts research on rare and imperiled birds that stimulates management action and conservation planning. (www.arcinst.org)


In the last few year ARCI has been using Cellular Tracking Technologies (CTT) ES 400 and ES 420 GSM-GPS units to follow Swallow-tailed Kites from breeding locations in the Southeastern United States, along their migration route, and to wintering areas in Southwestern Brazil.

We want to introduce you to two of these birds, tagged in the summer of 2021 on Sanibel Island, Lee County, Florida.

Meet Bailey’s Homestead (adult male) and Sanibel Botanical (adult female), Swallow-tailed Kites equipped with CTT GSM-GPS units. (Also see ARCI’s 2021 introduction blog.).

ARCI's Ken Meyer holding a swallow-tailed kite, that has just been fitted with a GPS transmitter, just before release. Photo courtesy of Gina Kent
ARCI's Ken Meyer holding a swallow-tailed kite, that has just been fitted with a GPS transmitter, just before release. Photo courtesy of Gina Kent

With the changes in cell-phone towers and network technologies, the internationally traveling kites don’t always have the “gear” necessary to upload data to the various local receiving networks. This has been the case particularly for these two Swallow-tailed Kites. Since August of 2021, the kites went “silent” and we had to trust the CTT ES 420 units to store the data and be VERY patient. 

During the return to the breeding grounds from wintering locations in South America, these birds were able to reconnect via suitable cell towers to “check in” and start uploading their extensive tracks. Such a surprise and a big relief!
Where had they been? Well…

Sanibel Botanical wintered at the SE border of the State of Mato Grosso, Brazil, and within northeastern Mato Grosso do Sul along the Cuiabá River. On 24 January, she started her northbound trek back to Florida. Holding a northwesterly heading, she stayed over land all the way to the Honduras coast. On 8 March 2022, she flew out over the Caribbean, reaching the shore of Belize in the middle of the night. With a good tailwind, she breezed up the Yucatan Peninsula and out over the open Gulf of Mexico. She made it safely back to shore in the early hours of 11 March, at Cayo Costa State Park, then swiftly covered the last 16 miles to her summer home on Sanibel.

Bailey’s Homestead had a very similar migration. He wintered 220 miles farther south in Mato Grosso do Sul, Brazil, then began northward on 3 February 2022 and took up the same track as Sanibel Botanical 14 days later. He reached the coast of Honduras on 15 March, then crossed the Bay to northern Belize. It took him 2 days to fly up the Yucatan Peninsula before heading offshore on 17 March for 2 days over the Gulf of Mexico before reaching the Florida Panhandle just east of Panama City Beach. Knowing exactly how to get “home”, he turned east and then south for two more days before reaching Sanibel Island, Florida on 20 March.

GPS tracks of two Swallow-tailed Kites between breeding in Florida and South Carolina, and wintering in South America
GPS tracks of two Swallow-tailed Kites between breeding in Florida and South Carolina, and wintering in South America. Image courtesy of ARCI

ARCI is collaborating with the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation (SCCF) and the City of Sanibel on an Island-wide effort to find and monitor Swallow-tailed Kite nests that include public properties like the J.N “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge and SCCF lands.

ARCI’s Swallow-tailed Kite project would have been impossible without this collaboration, the generosity of a private donor, and the state-of-the-art tracking equipment produced by CTT-Cellular Tracking Technologies.

To see more of ARCI's great work, check out their website:
https://www.arcinst.org/

To read more about their Swallow-tailed Kite work, specifically, check out this blog post:
https://www.arcinst.org/2021/07/14/swallow-tailed-kite-partnership-on-sanibel-island-florida-contributes-to-conservation-studies/