Until the late-19th century, swallow-tailed kites were relatively widespread raptors, nesting in the forested wetland regions of 16 U.S. states. Today, the species is only found in seven, arriving to breed in early spring, before departing for South American wintering grounds in early fall. To learn more about the migration patterns of these fork-tailed birds of prey, please keep reading.
Around 4,500 swallow-tailed kites breed in the U.S. each year, with up to 65 percent of these nesting in Florida, where marshlands and swamps offer a perfect habitat for raising young. Once nesting is complete, all swallow-tailed kites head back to subtropical South American forests for the winter.
Migration routes from swallow-tailed kites’ nesting grounds across the southeastern U.S. are believed to cross the Gulf of Mexico and Central America, as well as passage via the Caribbean and then south to coastal Venezuela and Columbia.
No swallow-tailed kites routinely spend winters north of South America, but migrations tend to take place early in the season, with arrival on breeding grounds recorded from as early as February.
If you’re interested in learning more about migration timings, routes and destinations of swallow-tailed kites in winter, you’re in the right place, so please read on.
Swallow-tailed Kites are a highly migratory species
Once relatively common across the southeastern United States, breeding populations of swallow-tailed kites are now limited to much of peninsula Florida, with isolated breeding grounds in coastal areas of South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas.
None of these locations supports year-round populations, and all swallow-tailed kites that breed in the U.S. migrate to spend winters in South America.
Both spring and fall migration of swallow-tailed kites takes place relatively early. Birds arrive in Florida between February and March at the outset of the breeding season.
By late July to mid-September, once they have raised their young, swallow-tailed kites are already starting to embark on their migration to their South American wintering grounds.
By mid-September, all swallow-tailed kites, with the exception of rare sightings or accidental stragglers, will have left the United States until the following spring.
Close up of a perched Swallow-tailed Kite
Swallow-tailed kites thrive in humid environments, with tropical and semitropical swamplands, marshes, and lowland forested wetlands offering perfect conditions for raising young.
Once the breeding season ends, heading to South America guarantees an abundance of suitable landscapes to hunt for prey.
Swallow-tailed kites are termed long-distance migrants, with tracking data recording round-trip distances of 16,000 km (10,000 mi) between breeding and wintering grounds.
Not all swallow-tailed kites undertake such migratory marathons, with some populations in South America remaining in the same territories all year round.
Swallow-tailed Kite soaring through the sky, Naples, Florida
Distances of up to 8,000 km (5,000 mi) between breeding and wintering grounds are not uncommon, with swallow-tailed kites setting out from as far north as South Carolina in July, heading for southern Brazil.
Not all migrations are such mammoth missions, with some journeys ending further north, in Colombia or Venezuela.
Migration destinations for swallow-tailed kites are found across northern South America, from Colombia and Venezuela, as far south as southern Brazil, eastern Peru and northern Argentina.
One common and well documented migration route takes swallow-tailed kites that breed in Florida across the Gulf of Mexico to the Yucatán Peninsula, where large numbers gather before continuing with their onward migration deep into South America.
Two further, but less well-documented migration routes are believed to exist across the Caribbean, from Florida to the Venezuelan and Colombian coasts via Great Antilles, and via the lesser Antilles and Trinidad to the northeastern coast of Venezuela.
Perched Swallow-tailed kite preening its tail feathers
Migrating swallow-tailed kites incorporate some lengthy stopovers into their long-distance migration flights, often to prepare for or recover from extended periods flying over the waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
Studies of tracking data from migrating birds indicate that breaks of 10 or 12 days are not uncommon.
Tracking data shows swallow-tailed kites leaving wintering grounds in the south of Brazil at the end of January, and reaching their breeding grounds in Florida almost two months later.
Swallow-tailed kites’ migration journeys may take them across large expanses of open water, but stopovers and large communal gatherings at staging grounds are factored in to break these journeys.
Swallow-tailed hawks can survive for up to five days over water without food or rest, but this is not ideal, and tracking data shows that, on average, they spend a maximum of 3 days flying over open water before making landfall, and being able to take a much-needed rest.
Migration across the Gulf of Mexico is both treacherous and exhausting, with storms blowing birds off course. Migrating swallow-tailed hawks take advantage of tailwinds to carry them across long stretches of their journeys, but such vast distances do take their toll, and not all migrations are successful.
Swallow-tailed kites can spend up to 3 days straight flying across open water, before landing again
Swallow-tailed kites are sociable birds, and may be found roosting communally and nesting colonially. By the time migration begins, it’s common for relatively large flocks to have gathered to prepare for migration together.
The entire population of swallow-tailed kites in the United States are believed to be migratory, with no birds of the species spending winters north of northern South America.
It is highly unusual for sightings to be recorded in Mexico or Central America, although some rare casual visitors have been observed.
Only around 3 percent of the world’s population of swallow-tailed kites breed in the United States. A far larger number are resident in northern South America all year round, and do not migrate in either spring or fall, remaining in their home territories all year round.
A large flock of Swallow-tailed kites during migration
In winter months, all swallow-tailed kites that breed in the U.S. migrate to South America, settling as far south as southern Brazil and parts of the extreme north of Argentina, to eastern Peru in the west.
Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Suriname, Guyana, Bolivia and Paraguay all support sizable year-round populations of swallow-tailed kites, which are joined between September and February by the North American migrants.
In early spring, large numbers of migratory swallow-tailed kites head to Florida to breed in swamplands and brackish marshes, favoring landscapes with tall trees surrounded with marshlands and coastal wetlands. Breeding also takes place in similar habitats in other southeastern U.S. states.
Close up of a perched Swallow-tailed kite
When flying across open water, such as the Gulf of Mexico or the Caribbean Sea, swallow-tailed kites have no option but to fly nonstop day and night until they are safely over land again.
Once they have the security of a safe land-based overnight roosting spot, they are more likely to break their journeys and rest, and head off again once they have restored their energy levels.
It’s more usual for the species to migrate during daylight hours if they can, as they are diurnal birds and tend not to be active at night.
As a highly sociable species, swallow-tailed kites frequently gather in large numbers either before or during migration at staging points along migration routes. Pairs often form during migration, and swallow-tailed kites may arrive at their spring breeding grounds with a mate in tow.
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