Last weekend I got to visit a Swallow-tailed Kite roost. I’d seen photos of these fun birds in previous years, but their roost site requires a boat to access. I was a little land-locked until my good friend Michael decided to play captain! We took my dad, Jim, and Kathy along, and we had a great morning.
Kites are aptly named. With their wings and tails spread, they really do look like kites! I had the song “Let’s Go Fly a Kite!” stuck in my head for days after our trip. :)
Swallow-tailed Kites are summer residents of Florida. They visit the state to nest and raise their babies. By this point in the summer, the juveniles are grown, and the birds are getting ready to migrate down to South America for the winter. They congregate in large groups as they band together and fatten up for the trip. It’s simply amazing to putter down the river in a boat and see hundreds of these birds sleeping in the trees above you. A picture just doesn’t do the scene justice.
The kites stay in the trees till well after sunrise. I took a few shots, but a panorama would have really been the way to capture the sheer number of birds. Then I put my wide-angle on my camera to photograph the still river and the trees. You can’t see the birds well in the picture, but each of those trees is covered in birds.
As the wind picks up, one bird will fly down to the river below to get a drink. Then another bird follows, then another. Then the tree will come alive with dozens of birds all flying around. They start to “kettle”, or fly in circles as they catch the thermals. Of course, we photographers started going crazy with our long lenses, trying to capture birds in flight. But I realized that a single image couldn’t tell the story of this magical place. So I pulled out my iPhone and took a little video.
The really challenging part of the photography that morning was capturing the kites as they swooped down to drink from the river. It’s tough to focus on fast-moving birds against a busy background of trees! Nor do the birds exactly give you a three-second warning. I probably deleted half my images because they were totally out of focus. But then I’d gasp when I got to a good one…
I love how the bird’s mouth is still open and water is coming out of her mouth as she comes out of her dive.
As the birds circled overhead, it was easy to look up and gawk. But as Kathy often reminded us, these birds had just woken up, and they had more than breakfast on their minds. They also needed to poop, and they didn’t mind doing so very close to our boat! The motto of the day became “Don’t Poop on Me!” as Kathy donned her poop-protector. Then Michael offered me up as gator bait and my very own father agreed to the plan! We had such fun laughing as the birds flew around us.
All too soon, the birds had left the trees and the waters were fairly empty. The birds fly off to open fields, swooping down to eat grasshoppers and other bugs. They are building their strength in order to fly south to Brazil for the winter. First they cross the Gulf of Mexico and land in the Yucatan Peninsula, then they follow Central America and cross through South America on their way to the middle of Brazil. I find myself fascinated with the long distances that birds cross every year in their migratory patterns. I’m not the only one, either. I found a great blog about Swallow-tailed Kite Migration that documents the flight patterns of kites that have been radio-tagged for research. Check it out!
Want to learn more about nature photography at Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge?
Check out my Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge page with more information about the location, map, website, photography tips, etc. It is archived by date so you can see my images from previous visits. Maybe you'll be inspired for your own trip!
Planning a trip to Florida? Don't miss my Central Florida Bird Photography Locations reference guide!