By Bryan Stevens
If you know many birders, you have likely heard them talk about “life birds.” These are any species that a birder has seen and identified in the wild for the very first time. It can be any bird species at all that the birder observes for the first time, whether it is a commonplace bird like a song sparrow or something slightly more exotic.
While taking part in the 77th consecutive Elizabethton Spring Count on Saturday, May 2, I saw something that, for our region, could be considered a little more exotic. The sighting certainly ranked as unexpected.
Unless one travels extensively, life birds can be hard to get once people have added to their lists most of the common birds around their homes. Finding a life bird during the ongoing pandemic brings its own challenges. I haven’t added a new life bird to my own list since a visit to South Carolina in June 0f 2016. During that visit to Huntington Beach State Park, I added a least bittern to my list of “life birds.”
My most recent “life bird” appeared closer to home and might qualify as my most unexpected life bird ever. The bird flew into view and onto my life list during the annual Spring Bird Count, which was conducted by members and friends of the Elizabethton Bird Club. Due to social distancing, many participants counted solo this year, myself included, although a few married couples birded together. I’ll always remember my pandemic spring count, especially for the 46th bird on my tally list for the day.
I found myself in the parking lot at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park in Elizabethton around 11 in the morning. I wanted to scan the evergreens in that vicinity for Cape May warblers, a migrant that finds the tall conifers to its liking. I didn’t find any warblers, but I did surprise a perched raptor into making a short flight.
The instant I saw the bird launch itself into flight, I knew I was watching something out of the ordinary. The bird flew with a combination of grace and power that reminded me of a falcon, but I also glimpsed a barred tail that reminded me of one of the accipiter hawks. Then it landed on a dead branch in a tall sycamore that must have permitted the raptor an unobstructed view of the entire park. Although I’d never until that moment seen a Mississippi kite, I have studied illustrations and photographs. I felt fairly certain of the bird’s identity even before I used my phone to call up some birding sites to confirm my identification.
That’s when the fact I was birding solo hit home. I wanted some additional witnesses to this very unexpected find. In lieu of other observers, I turned to my camera. The bird had turned its back to me, but I snapped some photos and then made my way to a position that I hoped would allow for better photographs.
Alas, the resident American crows at the park had different ideas. Detecting a raptor in their midst, about a half dozen crows gathered to harass the perched kite. Before I could snap a new round of photos, the kite took flight and flew into a stand of tall trees located between the park and Sycamore Shoals Hospital.
Only a few years ago, a Mississippi kite in Northeast Tennessee would have been unheard of. The hills and mountains of the region are simply not the expected habitat for these graceful raptors. Faith Reeves, a resident of Elizabethton, Tennessee, a Facebook friend and fellow birder, saw the first two Mississippi Kites ever found in Northeast Tennessee. She saw and photographed the birds in her own yard on May 20, 2014, and May 13, 2016.
In addition, Don Holt observed a Mississippi kite in Washington County, Tennessee, on April 16, 2017.
Rick Knight and several other birders also saw several Mississippi Kites for about a week in late August of 2016. Observers estimated that these sightings involved from two to five different kites.
“The August observations are our only fall records,” said Rick Knight, a long-time compiler of birds sightings in the region. He added that fall is the season when kites are likely to linger.
“All spring records are overshooting migrants and are one-day-wonders,” Knight explained.
Hearing his explanation, I felt even more privileged to have witnessed this “one-day wonder” in my home county.
The Mississippi kite is a beautiful raptor. Adults are grayish-white with the head often appearing pale gray or almost white. Although the Mississippi kite can attain a wingspan of three feet, these birds weigh only seven to thirteen ounces. They feed almost exclusively on insects, which they capture in flight. Some of the insects, such as cicadas and grasshoppers, are ones that damage crops, making the Mississippi kite a friend to farmers.
These kites breed and nest in the central and southern United States, but they have expanded their range north in recent years. They leave the United States in fall to spend the winter in southern South America.
Several years ago I got the thrill of adding a swallow-tailed kite to my life list in some agricultural fields in southwestern Washington County. I’ve also seen swallow-tailed kites in Florida. There is one other member of the kite family that I’d like to add to my list. The snail kite is a dark bird with a hooked beak designed for feeding on snails found in wetlands. This specialist resides in Florida, as well as the Caribbean and Central and South America.
Other kites found around the world include the double-toothed kite, plumbeous kite, whistling kite, square-tailed kite, red kite and black kite.
It’s been a spring filled with many amazing bird observations. I can’t speak for others, but thanks to that remarkable kite sighting and glimpses of some other fascinating birds, not even having to bird solo in a pandemic can bring me down. I’ll provide more details on this year’s Spring Bird Count for Northeast Tennessee in next week’s column.