Date: 5/5/17 7:40 pm From: Herschel Raney <herschel.raney...> Subject: Kites
The Golden-winged Warblers were finally calling this morning. And another Gray-cheeked Thrush. A few Chestnut-sided Warblers as usual including one with an anomalous call (fast and double length) that I think has been here for at least three days. Redstarts still skulking along with Magnolias.
Had to run to Little Rock after coffee-time birds this morning early. Into traffic. To a house I am forced to upgrade (long story). And I thought about it and decided to leave my binoculars at home. What could I see in suburbia?
And there were Cardinals as expected and a single Tennessee Warbler calling. House Finches. A surprising number of small groups of flyby Cedar Waxwings. Cowbirds. Blue Jays. Robins feeding on the ground where I was clearing brush.
By noon, we were still waiting for plumbers and air conditioning men to spend more of my money. I put two folding chairs on the small front porch in the shade. And we looked out on a busy west Little Rock street with a large section of blue sky. I saw a Robin nest in the tree across the street. And listened to cars and passing jets until I spotted a Mississippi Kite flying north. And then another. The wind was strong from the north-northeast. I began paying attention.
And there was essentially no time over the next 2 ½ hours that I was not watching 1 to 5 kites crossing my portion of this sky. Birds all working against the wind, like sailboats tacking north. Some so high they looked like swallows. But then there was that distinct profile: wings half cocked, pointed back, that trailing long wedge tail. Sometimes three at a time with one very high, one mid altitude and one down where I could see some feathering. They could effortlessly shift the wings and climb against the physics and energy of wind plowing south. This is not a hilltop area. There is no uplift in west Little Rock. But this was not a day to ride thermals. All the thermals were ripped apart like jet streams.
Birds coming hard down across west to east, shedding altitude for forward motion and then spiraling back. Some shot downward like tapered hammerheads. “In all plumages, can be mistaken for Peregrine Falcons” says Nat Geo. Certainly, the only flyer in the same class as Peregrines in Arkansas. And down low, I could see the motions of just the magical kite tail. Flattening, curving, shifting left and right – a dance on the wind that must be just reflex. I had never pondered the muscles controlling just the tail of this bird. They do not flap the wings this day. It is all tail and primaries against fast moving sky. The north wind lifts.
And mostly they do not interact. Everyone headed against the wind to somewhere. But several came down very low. And one pair was in contact. I don’t know if it was male-male or male-female but one began tracking the path of the other within fifteen feet at high speed. Curving back and up, like the forward bird was trying to shake the Red Baron. They burned together down toward the trees just to my north. The rear bird would work some wing trick and accelerate up to the leader. The leader would flip in a quick 180 roll and talon toward the chaser. They did this several times until they both climbed and then the chaser came up one more time and the pursued bird rolled again and gripped outward at the same time. They locked and became a falling whirling black-white-silver dervish down and down spinning. They fell in this wild four-winged wheel until I lost them in the trees. I think I held my breath until they both key-teered back out on either side at low altitude. Flapping back into the edges of the wind again. No one was dead. No one was skewered in the oaks.
Chimney Shifts and three species of Swallow were working north as well. I saw only a Sharp-shin and a Bald Eagle otherwise in the afternoon sitting. But I watched over 200 Kites moving north. Easily the most I have seen in one day. Even counting the great dragonfly feeding flocks over Red Slough or the Round Mountain Orchard in summer. It was a deep pleasure, some kind of honor really. All our kites winter in Argentina. I have no real open sky over my land. List this, in the future, with the benefits of suburbia.
And I have to say that watching Kites fly will make you line up to be a flying thing in your next life. One with feathers and a predatory attitude and speed. Sibley says “Falcon-like in shape, but flight more graceful.” If you are more graceful than a falcon, you are in the upper echelons of winged things. I look forward to it.
And I have never had more fun waiting for plumbers to finish their work.