A Kite Moves In

By David Spector Gazette Contributing Writer

Kites are a diverse group of lightweight, medium-sized hawks that includes carrion eaters, mousers, aerial insect catchers, and a few that feed primarily on snails. Their way of flying gave rise to the name of the child’s toy. Most kites live and breed south of us, but recently one species appears to be spreading northward.

The Mississippi Kite, as the name suggests, breeds primarily in the southeastern United States. For many years, people watching hawk migrations saw occasional Mississippi Kites in Massachusetts and other northern states, far from the species’ normal range. These were assumed to be “overshoots” that had missed their migration targets, but last summer it turned out there’s much more to the story: Mississippi Kites were discovered breeding in New England, with at least two nests in Newmarket, N.H., and one near Great Pond State Forest in Simsbury, Conn.

I’ve had the good fortune to visit both of these breeding sites. At one of the New Hampshire sites on a suburban street, I could see the kites as they moved in and out of the nest tree and perched on the bare branches of a tree across the street, providing me with stunning views of this exceptionally graceful bird of prey. At Great Pond, I sat on the edge of the pond and watched the kites deftly hunting insects over the surrounding woods. (A bit southwest of Bradley International Airport, this site is only about an hour’s drive from Northampton.)

Feeding on insects and small vertebrates, the bird has recovered much of the geographical range that it lost in the early to mid-20th century and has even expanded its breeding into new areas. As with other raptors, the Mississippi Kite has benefited from a sharp decline in shooting and probably from the banning of the insecticide DDT. Breeding—especially in the newer parts of the range such as New England—often takes place in trees in suburban or urban settings, including yards, golf courses and the sides of residential streets.

Now that their nests are known in Connecticut and New Hampshire, the gap between our neighboring states is just waiting to be filled in. Perhaps the kites will find homes here in western Massachusetts, maybe even near you.

So how will you know if you have Mississippi Kites in your neighborhood? If you see a roughly crow-sized hawk with pointed wings and a narrow tail that flares slightly at the end, acrobatically catching dragonflies in mid-air, it may well be this species. A good look will show a largely gray bird with a pale gray head. You can find details in a field guide, or go to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mississippi_Kite to see some more photographs. If you find a nest, don’t approach the nest tree and do keep a sharp eye out above you; these birds occasionally defend their nests by diving on potential predators that approach too closely.

The expansion of the Mississippi Kite’s breeding range reminds us that ecological systems continually change. Such changes can arise, often unexpectedly—from fully natural causes, from human actions or from both.

David Spector is a former board president of the Hitchcock Center for the Environment and teaches biology at Central Connecticut State University.

Earth Matters, written by staff and associates of the Hitchcock Center for the Environment at 845 West Street, Amherst, appears every other week. For more information, call 413-256-6006, or write to us.

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