A Mississippi Kite zipped across Corrales Road as my friend Bonnie and I followed the caravan of Central New Mexico Audubon Thursday Birders to the location in Corrales where we have gone each August to enjoy watching the kites.
As soon as we turned onto Academy Road, cars were parked and birders were getting out gazing at a nearby tree.
“There’s one right up there,” Leah pointed. A heavily streaked juvenile was almost camouflaged in a cottonwood tree – and calling incessantly. Its two-note whistle had a pathetic quality to it.
Before long, an adult flew in and delivered food. It then perched on a nearby exposed branch to scan for the next meal for its recently-fledged offspring. Adults feed vocal fledglings for at least 15–20 days after they leave the nest, and both parents participate in this activity.
Their black eye masks give them an inquisitive appearance.
We continued up the road to an area adjacent to an acequia where the rest of the group were watching another couple of pairs.
“Why do they nest here?” a friend asked me.
We had been coming to this location for the past five or so years when trip leader, Joe Schelling, discovered them nesting when he went to see if the Western Screech Owl he had seen on the Christmas Bird Count was still in the area.
“We used to go to Los Lunas River Park to see them,” I told her.
I began to wonder when and why they had moved into this area. When I got home, I dug out my copy of Raptors of New Mexico, where I learned that they began moving into New Mexico in the mid-1950s, with only one breeding pair in Eddy County and the second nesting pair not documented for another 10 years. In New Mexico, their isolated nesting sites are primarily in open fields and near parks in Eastern New Mexico (I saw my first Mississippi Kite in a park in Roswell),
whereas along the Rio Grande, they are associated with semi urban areas, primarily near El Paso, Los Lunas and Corrales where they are more or less colony nesters. They have been reported in Corrales since 2002.
My first sighting each year is usually in May. I often see one or more hawking insects near the North Channel Diversion Outfall (formerly Tramway Wetlands) area. Large insects make up most of their diet and are often caught as they fly over an area that contains beetles, grasshoppers, dragonflies, cicadas, and other large flying insects. When they come within reach of a prey, they extend one or both feet forward to capture it, and then resume flying. If the insect is small enough to manage, it will tear off wings and legs while it continues to fly and then consume the rest – never missing a beat. If the insect, or other prey item is caught while the kite ‘hawks’, or flies out from a perch, it will take the insect back to the perch to eat.
Joe diligently searches out nests each year. Even though the pairs tend to congregate in an area, they don’t always use the same nest as the previous year.
“I didn’t find any nests this year,” he told our group as we gathered at the meeting location. “And the timing of their nesting seems quite variable,” he continued.
“Have you ever been dive-bombed by a kite?” I asked Joe later.
“Not really,” he replied. “I’ve had them zoom by overhead, but not actually harass me as I’ve heard Cooper’s might.”
According to Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Birds of North America, “Diving at humans near nests has become frequent, has caused alarmist public responses, and is a significant wildlife nuisance, education, and management issue in Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas.”
Our group, often numbering over 20 on this popular field trip, has never experienced harassment. Perhaps the nesting area’s proximity to an elementary school has made them more tolerant of humans in groups.
While we continued to watch them, a kite flew in and landed on a large branch, and then proceeded to spread its wings, much like a cormorant or vulture does.
Since it had already been out hunting, it was not drying its wings. According to Bird of North America, “May spread wings when in shaded roost sites, apparently cooling.”
While it has been a joy to host Mississippi Kites at a nearby location, they begin their migration back to South America in September. Like other raptors, hatch-year birds will retain their juvenile plumage during migration.
The presence of Mississippi Kites each summer is always a delight.