What a cruel and wondrous world this is, and never more so than when you’re watching a bird of prey at work: powerful, focused, and engineered to perfection. The white-tailed kite (Elanis leucurus) is a case in point. A pair of them can be seen most mornings at Martinez Regional Shoreline Park, often in the dead-looking trees where the park begins and the old concrete warehouses end.
At first glance you might think the large white blob in a distant tree is a plastic bag, or maybe that other kind of kite (which gets its name from these birds). Or if you realize it’s a bird you might think it’s just a gull, and get along. It does have the same coloring, with a gray back, snowy white underparts, and black shoulders. But a closer look will tell you this is a bird of prey. The curved beak is unmistakable, and its eyes are a very scary shade of red.
If you see a kite hunting, you will be able to identify it without these details. Kites hover over their prey—meadow voles are a favorite—and then drop straight down to clutch them in their inescapable talons. When they hover, they look like visions. When they descend, they look like athletes. The kite's legs hang until it gets within a few feet of the ground. Then it moves in for the kill, bending forward to speed up the dive, raising its tail and tucking in its legs, still with wings upright. Once it has its catch, the bird can climb immediately back into the air, all the while making rasping sounds that can be heard about a block away.
Kites hover about eighty feet above the ground. The other bird you might see hovering is the American kestrel (marsh hawk). Both face into the wind to accomplish this, but kestrels flap their wings. I think it is the ability to stay still in midair with very little flapping that makes a kite look like it just appeared out of thin air or beamed down from another planet.
In courtship, like some other raptors, kites circle each other noisily, high in the sky, the male sometimes moving his wings in stiff, exaggerated flaps—a phenomenon called “butterfly-flight.” He may hand off his catch to the female in midair. She may flip upside-down to grab it from him. They may lock talons and tumble down through the air looking like they’re grappling with each other, and then let go just in time to not crash.
I have not seen this, but I hope to. They engage in courtship displays at all times of year "to reinforce the pair bond," so the odds are good. I am grateful for the abundance of parkland, and in this case voles, that make it possible for me to witness such wonders.
The National Audubon Society is hoping that the just-released movie The Big Year, which stars Steve Martin, Owen Wilson, and Jack Black, will inspire people to get in touch with their inner birders. To help with this and simultaneously boost their membership, they have begun a national ad campaign called “Birding the Net.” It’s clever and fun, and you could learn something, and you could also win a birding trip to the Galapagos Islands (and other things). For more information: www.audubon.org.
Thanks once again to Ethan Winning for graciously sharing these stunning photos taken at our very own waterfront.