Snail Kite fiesta

It had been a full week since Hurricane Irma slid up the gulf coast of Florida, reeking “Irmageddon” on the peninsula. Honestly though, we’d been lucky in my area. Cuba and other Caribbean Islands, the Florida Keys and even Naples had taken much harder hits, and the damage in my area was comparatively insignificant.

immature Snail Kite - V-lux (typ 114)

immature Snail Kite – V-lux (typ 114)

Trees and branches were down and water levels were well above normal with flooded roads and fields. My friend Brant and I decided to make lemonade from lemons, and explored inland to the far reaches of our county to investigate fields that can be excellent for shorebirds (waders to my European friends) during migration. We found loads of them, but as a raptor nut, it was the Snail Kites that stole the show for me.

The threatened Snail Kite gets its name from its unique prey. Feeding almost exclusively on Apple Snails, “Rostrhamus sociabilis” has a uniquely hooked bill specialized for extracting the flesh from these freshwater snails. Surprisingly, the bird seems to have benefited from introduction of an introduced non-native Apple Snail species that averages ~50% larger than the native species (undoubtedly to the detriment of the native Apple Snails though).

SNKI m digiscope

Adult male Snail Kites are slate gray overall with a dark red eye, orange gape & legs. This area has always been the only consistent spot for the enigmatic species in my county and the only locale where they have bred in the past, so we were not surprised to see a single juvenile bird bounding over the road as we approached “snail country” (the recently fledged juvenile seen at top), but as we continued down the road I was amazed at what we encountered.

SNKI ad 1

Soon there was an adult male then another and another and another…

As the latin species name suggests, “sociabilis” refers to the species’ gregarious nature. Snail Kites are localized, colonial breeders in Florida, but in past years this particular area had only supported a single nesting pair. This day was different though, and there were at least 13 indiduals present: 9 individual adult males, at least 2 individual adult females and a minimum of 2 separate juveniles.

SNKI ad m 1

The adult birds were actively courting and males conducted level flights with slow, exaggerated, deep wing beats much like the courtship flights conducted by Cooper’s Hawks.

SNKI m digiscope 1

Adult males landed in roadside bushes and broke off twigs to build nests in Sabal Palm trees nearby.

SNKI ad f 1

Other adults spiraled high above, reaching great heights before chasing each other in dramatic spiraling plunge dives from on high, returning back to the palms in the shallow, snail-rich waters.

SNKI ad 2

Adult & subadult males interacted aggressively, chasing each other from palm to palm making distinctive, guttural calls. When not chasing each other, the males engaged in short, impressive headfirst dives.

SNKI ad m 4

Sweeping upward then going into a full tuck, diving headlong toward the ground. After a single, short dive while calling, they would swing back up to a stall just above level. An amazing and beautiful display designed to impress the nearby females, undoubtedly!

As a self-proclaimed “raptor junkie” living in Florida for almost 20 years, this was by far the most impressive and active display of Snail Kites I’d ever seen. I wondered if the recent hurricane-force winds might have caused the existing Snail Kite nests to fail and these birds were all starting over at the same time, or if I’d just been lucky enough to catch these birds at the perfect time. Either way, it was a fantastic morning and the antics of these Snail Kites had provided a spectacular distraction from the madness of the recent hurricane and I’d enjoyed another great day being entertained by birds which have always captivated me!