WILD THINGS: GLIDING INTO THE UNEXPECTED
We saw the fake Southernmost Point marker in Satellite Beach, Florida, 437 miles from Cuba, 347 miles north of the real one. It was in front of a pizza place and was pretty much full-sized, possibly built out of the same type of concrete sewer main as the real one.
We were in Satellite Beach for a small detour at the beginning of a trip up north. We’d never really been to the beach towns of the Space Coast but had been watching a lot of TV shows about the Mercury and Apollo programs, and my wife was convinced we might see a young astronaut ripping around town in a Corvette or T-bird. (We did not.)
We stopped and took a photo with the faux Southernmost Point marker, posted something snarky on Facebook, then kept driving.
At my sister’s house on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, there was another faux Southernmost Point welcoming us, though this one was about 18 inches tall and looked suspiciously like an ice bucket with color Xeroxes taped to it. 1,206 miles to Cuba, 1,260 miles from home.
While all the reminders of home were nice, being out of Florida was really nice. It’d been almost two years since we’d been north of Fort Lauderdale, and everything was a wonderland. Look, hills! Farms! Jesus billboards! Different highways! New-to-us convenience stores! I was ready to attach an exclamation point to anything out of the normal. My kingdom for the minorly unfamiliar.
The last morning in Maryland, before heading to Jersey and points north, I went for a bike ride, if only to see if my legs still worked after so many miles in the car. I was down the road a bit, spinning along happily through a giant green field of some kind of salad making – kohlrabi? kale? – when I thought I saw a bird out of the corner of my eye, which I immediately dismissed, as it was no doubt some kind of synaptic misfire. I mean, I knew it was a bird, it just couldn’t be the type of bird I thought it was.
It was the swoop that got me, the smoothness of it, the elegance. But that bird was not supposed to be in that place. Meaning it was probably a turkey vulture in a weird light. Or a red-tailed hawk – those were common as dirt pretty much everywhere north of South Florida. Maybe it was a snowy egret acting like some sort of raptor. My brain was always trying to turn the humdrum into something special.
But then I saw it again and it was pretty much undeniable, the way the bird swooped, rocked, slid sideways into a bootlegger turn. It was mostly white and had a long forked tail. It was a swallow-tailed kite, one of the quintessential Florida birds in a place that was very much not Florida.
You could not easily confuse it with anything else; it just wasn’t supposed to be there.
As late as the early 1900s swallow-tailed kites ranged as far as north as Minnesota in the middle of the country, but never really went much above North Carolina on the east coast. Loss of the bottomland forest habitat they need for nesting — and people’s penchant for shooting them for no reason other than it was easy — crashed their population and shriveled their range.
Most of the modern, much-diminished, North American population of swallow-tailed kites (about 65%) live in Florida. Ten% or 15% of the population live in coastal South Carolina. The rest live in a smattering of small colonies in the Gulf states.
I wasn’t sure what to make of the bird being there. It was out of its range, but swallow-tailed kites are such good and effortless flyers, such astute diviners of air currents, that a couple hundred miles was nothing to them.
Oddly enough, this was also the first day of a new project taken on by the Florida Keys Hawkwatch, in which they’d started their season a month early specifically to track swallow-tailed kites as they traveled from the mainland to South America, to see if they could find a pattern in their migration routes. (I texted them later to ask if they’d seen any swallow-tails yet, and they said no, though in the coming weeks they would count more than 600.)
It can feel kind of sketchy to be an out-of-town birder reporting a rarity. It can often bring about scrutiny, and sometimes criticism, from the local birders. There’s the notion that an outlander couldn’t possibly know what they’re talking about. (Trust me, I do it all the time to birders visiting Key West.)
I texted a couple local birders I knew to see if this was a rare enough sighting to get excited about, and took a couple photos with my iPhone, which I was hoping would prove I saw the thing, then I spun farther down the road.
I thought of a keen insight, and made a voice-to-text note on my phone while I rode. When I looked at it later it read, “It’s all the noise in the kitchen across the sink and rang a bell Great Home smooth and slow shipping down over the feels obviously getting something.” Because voice-to-text is often just garbage.
When I rode back about an hour later, the kite was still there, still winging around, still swooping low over the fields, which was probably part of what I meant to describe.
My friend George Armistead had texted me back, “Damn good bird!” He asked me to send a pin for the location so he could spread the word. (It was the second swallow-tailed kite seen in the state over the summer, but the first in that area.)
The bird disappeared over a row of trees, and I thought, well, that’s it. But then it came back, and started working the fields again. It flew so low I thought it was going to get tangled in things, but then it rose up with something small in its talon, I’m guessing a grasshopper or the like. He leaned his head down and took a bite, then another, fueling up for his journey, wherever it was going to end.
Got a bird question you’re dying to ask, or even just mildly curious about? Email “Ask the Bird Geek” at moc.neddehkram@kram.
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