Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

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[Mystery bird] Swallow-tailed Kite, also known by a bunch of other common names, such as the Fork-tailed Hawk, Swallow-tailed Hawk, Snake Hawk and Fish Hawk, Elanoides forficatus, photographed at Double Bayou Park, Chambers County, Anahuac, Texas. [I will identify this bird for you in 48 hours]

Image: Joseph Kennedy, 26 June 2010 [larger view].

Nikon D200, Kowa 883 telescope with TSN-PZ camera eyepiece 1/400s f/8.0 at 1000.0mm iso400.

Please name at least one field mark that supports your identification.


Why is this species’ tail shaped in this distinctive way?

The tail shape provides this species with tremendous in-flight maneuverability. Swallow-tailed Kites are a soaring species, rarely flapping its wings in flight. This species almost continuously rotates its tail, even as much as 90 degrees, to hold a particular heading, to make a sharp turn, or to make tight circles. This species feeds on flying insects and insects and lizards it plucks from treetops, which it often eats while “on the wing.” Unlike with barn swallows, there is no difference in tail length between sexes.

Review all mystery birds to date.

Comments

  1. #1 carel
    July 12, 2010

    Nice to finally get something I can correctly identify.

  2. #2 Abhay Harsulkar
    July 12, 2010

    common tern

  3. #3 Murray
    July 12, 2010

    I’ve actually SEEN this bird, though in Florida not in Texas–know that they winter south of the border. Sorry, don’t know how they might use their long forked tail but they catch insects on the wing. Could that have something to do with tail shape?

  4. #4 Russell
    July 12, 2010

    Nice shot. I don’t know any other raptor with that tail!

  5. #5 psweet
    July 12, 2010

    Abhay — look closer at the bill. Terns also don’t show the distinctive contrast or the strong black tones on this bird. And I’m not sure how much the tail assists in flight maneuvers and how much it is a product of sexual selection. Barn Swallows have a tail like this, but most swallows manage just fine without, and it’s been shown that females prefer males with more symmetrical tails.

    Oh, and Russell, there is a species in Africa with a similar tail. There has even been some naming issues as a result, over the years.

  6. #6 James B
    July 12, 2010

    I had the privilege of watching several of these birds (and
    about 3 dozen Mississippi Kites) flying and feeding over a
    freshly cut hay field south of Athens GA. Large grasshoppers
    would emerge of out the scattered grass, and frequently they
    would be picked off by a diving swooping bird, sometimes
    within ten eover my head. Awesome aerialists, one of the
    most beautiful and skilled flyers. I could barely breath, or swallow, watching them. Stunning and effortless in the air.

  7. #7 bardiac
    July 12, 2010

    I’ve never seen one of these, but the pictures I’ve seen make me wish I had!

    When I was at the very beginning of my birding life, I used to see White Tailed Kits hovering over fields, and they were my favorites. (Still would be if I could see them where I am!).

    I think this is a swallow tailed Kite?

  8. #8 psweet
    July 13, 2010

    Good call, bardiac. One of my coolest memories from Ecuador was hiking up the road from Mindo and watching a flock of about 40 hanging over the valley.

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