“Swallow-tailed kite” was the subject of the email, alerting me to a rare bird in our area.
Fellow birder Donna Mateski was letting several local birders know she had spotted this species near Glasgow, with precise directions on how to find it.
The next morning, Michael and I set off to see if the kite was still around. Sure enough, Mike Boatwright was already standing by the side of the road with his camera and giant lens, making this an easy find.
The swallow-tailed kite was sitting atop some dead branches, preening the beautiful white feathers on its chest, its black wings and black forked tail.
A pair of green herons kept harassing this elegant, 22-inch long bird in their territory, but the kite ignored them.
Finally, despite the late-morning fog, the kite flapped off with pointed wings and tail, in search of some breakfast. As it banked, its tail fanned out like a rudder for quick turns.
Minutes later the kite headed back our way with something in its talons, but began dropping it in pieces. Kites eat dragonflies, other insects and small lizards and frogs.
The swallow-tailed kite is normally a resident of Florida and the Gulf Coast, but occasionally individuals stray out of their normal ranges. These vagrants, or accidentals, can stray for a variety of reasons.
According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, some species wander more regularly than others. Many winter finches, such as crossbills and pine grosbeaks, may arrive en masse in response to scarce food in their northern homes.
Snowy owls may also wander south in search of food, especially after successful breeding years when the population has increased. These migrations are called irruptions.
Migrating birds may be blown off course by strong winds. Some may even hitchhike on ships and end up far from home.
Some birds, often juveniles, disperse northward after the breeding season. This is especially common with herons and ibises.
Occasionally birds appear in new areas by migrating in a direction opposite to that expected, known as reverse migration. One theory is that their internal navigational system is malfunctioning.
Individuals of some species, particularly western hummingbirds, wander east/southeast during the fall, and this seems to be happening more often in recent decades.
Unfortunately, some caged “pet” birds, often tropical, are also released into the wild in places they don’t belong.
Ranges do change over time, though usually quite slowly. Tufted titmice and northern cardinals, for instance, live much farther north than they did 100 years ago. Climate change may mean that ranges will shift more rapidly.
Whatever the reasons, birders are always excited by the prospect of seeing unusual birds. For me, the swallow-tailed kite was a new life bird.
Other vagrants that have appeared in our area in the past year or so include the roseate spoonbill, the snowy owl, Say’s phoebe and a black scoter.
To learn more about rare sightings, you can join the Lynchburg Bird Club or sign up for rare bird alerts from ebird.org.
Shannon Brennan is a Central Virginia Master Naturalist, a Lynchburg Tree Steward and a volunteer for the Natural Bridge Appalachian Trail Club and the James River Association. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.