Swallow-tailed Kite – Elanoides forficatus

Reference species – Page sponsored by Ecorancho Sur
Family Accipitridae (eagles, hawks, vultures…) – Naucler à queue fourchue en français
First publication : 12 August 2021 – Last update : 12 August 2021

This very elegant raptor nests in spring and summer in the southeastern United States of America and from southern Mexico to Panama. In South America, the local population is sedentary (but reinforced in winter by migrants from North and Central America) and widespread from the Caribbean coast to northern Argentina and Uruguay.

It lives in lowlands and, in lower densities, in the mountains up to around 2000 meters. It needs trees for nesting and an open area, especially meadows and marshes, for hunting. It avoids arid landscapes, but is found in a variety of habitats, including tree plantations, pine forests, floodplains, mangroves, etc.

A dream bird that was not in the program!

When a European birdwatcher opens a book on North American birds to plan his first trip to this region, his attention is certainly drawn to the Swallow-tailed Kite. This was the case for me in 1993, when I left for Canada: this bird was one of the raptors that I dreamed to see “at any cost” one day (and not in Canada where it is absent). I easily saw it several times in the years that followed, in Costa Rica, Panama, Peru, Bolivia but always in flight. When I started taking photos, I got some shots in Brazil and Colombia, still always in flight. Thus, I knew that to make a page as this one, it was necessary that I find perched birds, most probably in their nesting grounds. However, it is a very local breeder in Mexico. The US population migrates through the country and I saw migrants in Yucatán state in May. However, I didn’t hope to get great pics in Mexico, where population is so restricted to the far south. But there you go… Ecorancho Sur is in the extreme south of Mexico and on the morning of August 9, after a little “hunt” for Black-throated Bobwhite, I saw three kites perched on a dead tree, in the open but far from me.

Swallow-tailed Kite, Ecorancho Sur, Miguel Hidalgo, Bacalar (Quintana Roo), Mexico, August 2021
Three birds together do not necessarily mean non-breeding situation, on the contrary. Indeed, pairs often accept that other individuals live daily in their territory. These are not helpers; sometimes they bring food to the female when she’s sitting in the nest, but she refuses!

I passed a fence and continued across the meadow on my mountain bike, got as close as I could and took series of shots in perfect morning light.

Swallow-tailed Kite, Ecorancho Sur, Miguel Hidalgo, Bacalar (Quintana Roo), Mexico, August 2021
Underparts are all white, except the tail which is blackish. We can see here the tip of the wings between the two branches of the tail.

They flew off after half an hour showing well and rested in a tree on the edge of the forest (the one that covers the Ecorancho Sur property).

Swallow-tailed Kite, Ecorancho Sur, Miguel Hidalgo, Bacalar (Quintana Roo), Mexico, August 2021
The flight is slow, smooth and very light. The birds took all their time to settle on a new perch.

I left my bike, got closer, hidden by the trees, but I couldn’t find an angle to take pictures. I waited an hour and they finally flew away, allowing me full-frame photos with my Sony RX 10 iv, which produces much better photos than the cameras I was using in Brazil and Colombia.

Swallow-tailed Kite, Ecorancho Sur, Miguel Hidalgo, Bacalar (Quintana Roo), Mexico, August 2021
As it took off from the second perch, this individual circled at low altitude, allowing close-up photos.

This page is therefore fully illustrated with the photos of August 9 in Mexico. Few raptors have allowed me to make a page so easily: in all, three hours in the field only!

Valery Schollaert

The elegance of this bird has not only aesthetic purposes. It flies slowly with dexterity, very low above vegetation, ground or water, and it captures its preys softly, without chase or fight. These are mainly insects but also various small vertebrates, terrestrial and (more rarely) aquatic. Most of the preys are eaten in flight. The youngest alight to eat, and the adults sometimes have to alight too to swallow the larger prey (which is still quite small compared to the size of the bird).

Very aerial, these birds drink in flight (like swallows and swifts), skimming the water. To build their nests, they also tear off small branches or epiphytes plants, with the feet, flying. Before the bird reaches the nesting area with its small load, the material is transferred to the beak. The nest is a small platform built high in a tree; it is a weak construction and destruction by strong wind is a significant cause of mortality of the chicks, at least in North America.

The maximum clutch is made of three eggs and incubation by both parents lasts about a month. The cases of siblicides are exceptional, but the survival of three juveniles is almost as rare. Usually, there is only one youngster fledging (which occurs at 5 or 6 weeks). Both inside and outside the nest, the young are fed mainly on small vertebrates by both parents.

Taxonomy and subspecies

Breeding birds from the United States are said to be somewhat larger with more purplish tinge on the upperparts (rather than greenish elsewhere); for this reason, they are classified in a distinct subspecies (the nominal) from all the others (E. f. yetapa). However, this is so insignificant that a monotypic status is probably more realistic.

This species is unique in its kind, and the only one in the genus Elanoides.

Swallow-tailed Kite, Ecorancho Sur, Miguel Hidalgo, Bacalar (Quintana Roo), Mexico, August 2021
This tail shape is unique among the raptors but can remind that of some swallows. In addition, its way of twirling in the air is reminiscent of a huge swallow.

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Other pages sponsored by Ecorancho Sur : Blue-black Grassquit, Yellow-bellied Elaenia, Northern Potoo

[Species #1318 of the Holistic Encyclopedia of Birds project]

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List of other species pages: taxonomical – day per day

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All photos, tab and text are © Valéry Schollaert & Marinella Mejia 2021

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