RIEGELWOOD — Biologists with the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission discovered the first swallow-tailed kite nest in North Carolina May 7 while conducting aerial surveys in Bladen County.
They located the nest in the top of a bald cypress along the Cape Fear River, north of Lock and Dam 1 and east of N.C. 87, outside of Riegelwood. The discovery is welcome news to biologists because it is definitive proof that this N.C. Wildlife Action Plan priority species is breeding in the state.
“There have been many sightings of the swallow-tailed kite in this same vicinity for several years in the spring and summer so we strongly suspected that they were nesting, but we continued to consider them a ‘probable breeder’ because we lacked evidence of successful breeding,” said John Carpenter, a wildlife diversity biologist with the Commission. “Because swallow-tailed kites nest in remote swamps, it was difficult to find nests during previous surveys.”
David Allen, Wildlife Diversity Program supervisor for the Coastal region and Maria Whitehead from The Nature Conservancy, conducted the last swallow-tailed kite survey in June 2008 along the same stretch of the Cape Fear River where the nest from earlier this month was found. While they saw birds defending a territory at the time, they didn’t see any signs of nesting activity — a fact that Allen attributed to the time of year.
“June is late in the season for nesting birds, so finding nests is difficult because the adults are not incubating,” Allen said.
Swallow-tailed kites, one of nine hawk species found in North Carolina, are striking black-and-white birds with a deeply forked tail. They are skillful fliers, hunting from the air and swooping down on unsuspecting prey, which they then eat in mid-air.
According to National Audubon Society, the historic range of breeding swallow-tailed kites once spanned as far north as Minnesota and west through Texas. However, due to habitat loss, they now are found only in fragmented populations in bottomland forests along rivers from North Carolina down to Florida and west to the Louisiana/Texas border. Because they nest almost exclusively in large river swamps, in the tops of trees, biologists typically search for them using helicopters or other fixed-wing aircraft.
In North Carolina, swallow-tailed kites are found mainly along the Cape Fear River during the breeding season, although sightings of the birds have been recorded as far north as Buxton during migration or after the breeding season.
While the bird is not federally listed as endangered or threatened, it is listed as a priority species in North Carolina’s Wildlife Action Plan, which means it is a species that the Wildlife Commission has targeted for conservation actions that biologists hope would preclude the need for federal listing.
Now that a nesting pair has been confirmed, Carpenter and Allen have conducted aerial surveys on other larger river systems in southeastern North Carolina. On May 10, they surveyed the Waccamaw River and part of the Black River by fixed-wing aircraft but did not find additional nests or see any other swallow-tailed kites.
According to Allen, these larger river systems will yield the best chance of finding additional birds.
“The swallow-tailed kite is often referred to as a bird that requires one of the largest home ranges,” Allen said. “In fact, they are not generally found in areas of less than 10,000 acres of bottomland forest. We hope to be able to continue surveying in years to come to locate additional nests and monitor their range expansion.”
For more information, see ncwildlife.org/Conserving.aspx.