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Air Show In Our Skies

Every year swallow-tailed kites grace us with their aerobatics

A pair of swallow-tailed kites come in together for a drink an hour after dawn. The one on the left is likely a juvenile.

A pair of swallow-tailed kites come in together for a drink an hour after dawn. The one on the left is likely a juvenile.

As an enthusiastic participant in bird surveys around the region, I can attest to how quiet the summer gets when flocks of our migratory birds head north. The birds that stay are usually busy either finishing up or breeding a second time, and they tend to shrink their home range to stay within quick reach of their nest. The relatively short glimpses we get of these cagey breeding birds reminds us that our residents are pretty special, too. However, there is one migratory bird that is still here energizing the summer season and single-handedly providing spectacular viewing — the swallow-tailed kite.

I cannot forget the first time I saw the pointed wings, forked tail and fighter-jet flight of this resplendent kite. I was working on a boat on Lake Istokpoga northwest of Lake Okeechobee. There were two of them and a co-worker and I were treated to an air show. During our lunch break, I got out my fried egg sandwich and sat back in the boat marveling as the birds chased each other in pre-nuptial flight in the denim blue sky.

Many years later, driving north on I-95 I was roughly 100 miles out from Vero Beach in the middle of afternoon storms. My mind was far from the usual summer doldrums as I was heading to one of the most magnificent wildlife spectacles in Florida — maybe even the hemisphere. After months of planning, my anticipation was reaching its peak, and as soon as we exited the crowded highway, I literally traded cars and civilization for birds and the wilds. I knew that the swallow-tailed kite formed large pre-migration roosts before they headed to South America, and now I was going to see one firsthand. 

Described as “elegant,” “beautiful,” “graceful,” “aerobatic,” “athletic,” “awesome,” “unforgettable” and understandably “swallow-like,” there is seemingly no end to the dramatic adjectives for this agile hawk. To merely see a swallow-tailed kite’s buoyant flight skimming the treetops in our hometown is thrilling. To witness one of its migration roosts is to celebrate one of the most beautiful birds the world has to share.