High above in a clear blue sky a formation of three travels silently. The group is so far away it looks like jets with spread wings going by. A closer look, though, can determine the split tails. It’s a formation of swallow-tailed kites.
The birds that have up to a four-foot wingspan glide on wind currents and are rarely seen flapping wings. Most if the swallow-tailed kites in the United States are in Florida, but sometimes their breeding and feeding grounds reach westward to East Texas.
The Audubon Society’s website refers to swallow-tailed kites as “our most beautiful bird of prey.”
This year, sightings of the distinctive birds have been reported across Orange County around Northway Park, Shangri La Gardens, Little Cypress, Bridge City and Orangefield.
The adult birds weigh from 13 to 21.2 pounds on a body length of 19.7 inches to 25.2 inches. The birds are white and black with white on the belly and underneath the wings, which are edged in black. They almost appear to be wearing a tuxedo.
“Kite” is a common name for a family of birds of prey. The swallow-tailed name derives from the V-shaped tail like a swallow.
The raptors usually glide alone or in pairs as they search for food. The late science teacher Michael Hokerd said when the kites are low by the tree tops, they are looking for small birds or the baby birds to eat.
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology at Cornell University has a website called “All About Birds.” The website says swallowed-tail kites like swamps and rivers, particularly in Florida. However, they do go westward along the Gulf of Mexico to Southeast Texas.
The Audubon Society’s website said the birds began disappearing in the early 20th Century and most of them concentrate in Florida during the spring and summer. They migrate to South America for the winter.
The birds are unusual here. The Texas Department of Parks and Wildlife had a study of swallow-tailed kites in 1998. A total of 277 were spotted that year with 180 in Orange County. Two nests in Orange County were confirmed, with one in a pine tree on the Little Cypress-Mauriceville High School property.
The volunteer spotter who discovered the next received a $500 reward from Temple Inland. More than 200 spotters across Southeast Texas participated in the study.
The study showed the earliest sightings were on March 4, 14,and 18. The sightings stopped in late August into late September.
Of the sightings 93 percent were made of the birds in flight gliding. Two birds at a time were involved in 19 percent of the sightings and only 8 percent had three birds.
After the hurricanes of the 2000s, the birds were seen less frequently in Orange County. This year they apparently are back at their summer homes.
-Margaret Toal, KOGT-