Thursday, May 11, 2017

A Swallow-tailed Kite in Nova Scotia

The Encounter

I was driving home from work on Highway 103 on May 11, 2017 at about 4:50 pm, when an unmistakable shape caught my eye as it soared about 150 feet above the passing cars. I was looking up at a SWALLOW-TAILED KITE! I slammed on the breaks and maneuvered my car to the shoulder, the wheels leaving long tracks in the gravel. The car was shifted in park before it has stopped. I flung the door open, grabbed the camera and made my way out. Camera straps always have a habit of catching things, and this time was no exception. Once I got the strap untangled from the handbrake, I was out getting shots. At first the bird was flying directly away from me, but it then circled around and allowed me to get good underside photos. It flew effortlessly, without much flapping, towards the east and soon was out of sight.

Swallow-tailed Kite near Argyle Head, Yarmouth County, May 11, 2017. Photo by Alix d'Entremont.

I ran back to the car, picked up the mobile phone and clumsily called Paul Gould, Ronnie d'Entremont, Ervin Olsen, Mark Dennis, Laurel Amirault and Larry Neily - the birders that are typically nearby. I say clumsily because I was shaking with excitement at this point. It is always a thrill finding a rare bird, but the impact is stronger when the realization of what it is your looking at is this obvious and immediate. 

I posted about the find to the Nova Scotia Bird Society Facebook Page and the Nova Scotia Rare Bird Alert with my phone from the side of the highway. My fingers were still far from steady. I met Paul Gould as I turned the car around and headed north on the highway. We decided that he should go through Argyle Head from the south while I would be using the Argyle Head Road off Highway 103 to enter Argyle Head from the west. I drove through and stopped at a few places with good vantage points and then stopped at an open area near the Argyle River. Laurel Amirault and Larry Neily soon showed up and we discussed where a Swallow-tailed Hawk might choose to go. A read through Sibley and National Geographic revealed that it might be hanging around open woods, wetlands and forest edges. Larry shared that the ones he had heard about in Ontario followed lakeshores. Those types of habitats are quite common in the area, so that didn't narrow our search area.

Mark Dennis, Sandra Dennis and Mike MacDonald drove past a few of us still standing around wondering where to go next - almost like they knew where they were going. Soon enough, Sandra called to say that Mark had re-found the bird from the Crowelltown Road. We all convened at the end of the road and everyone got to see the kite as it circled far to the north. The unique shape of the bird was apparent at this distance and the two-toned black and white was visible when the bird showed us its underside. The views were not great by any means, but at least the group saw it.

While we were admiring this vagrant, Mark reminded me that I had now spotted four rare raptors from a moving car in Nova Scotia: Crested Caracara, Gyrfalcon, Swainson's Hawk and now a Swallow-tailed Kite.

Swallow-tailed Kite near Argyle Head, Yarmouth County, May 11, 2017. Photo by Alix d'Entremont.

Previous Nova Scotia Records
The first record of Swallow-tailed Kite in Nova Scotia was one found barely alive that soon died at the family home of Adelbert Wilson in August 1905 in Lower East Pubnico, Yarmouth County, only about 25 kilometres away from my recent sighting. The first photographically confirmed record was of one in Freeport, Digby County, on 9 June 2007 by Jeff Teed. 

Listed below are the reports of this species in the province sourced from Nova Scotia Birds, the quarterly magazine published by the Nova Scotia Bird Society. There appear to be 10 previous reports with some form of validation, namely a body, written details or a photograph. Those validated reports are highlighted with an asterisk. My most recent find would be the 11th validated record for the province. 

*August 1905
Lower East Pubnico, Yarmouth County
Adelbert Wilson
Dead bird

*22 April 1997
Highway 22, halfway between Sydney and Louisbourg, Cape Breton.
Shelia Fudge

*7 July 1999
Bicentennial Drive, between Kearney Lake Road and business park exits, Halifax County
Tony Lock

*19 September 1999
Canso, Guysborough
Randy F. Lauff

*25 March 2001
Glace Bay, Cape Breton
Cathy Murrant, Susann Myers

20 April 2001
Near Bridgetown, Annapolis
Fred Grieg
No details. Originally reported as a Mississippi Kite, but might have been a Swallow-tailed.

8 August 2001
Cape Sable Island, Shelburne
fide Murray Newell, unsure of observer
No details

*9 June 2007
Freeport, Digby
Jeff Teed
First photographically confirmed report.

10 June 2007
Halifax, Halifax County
Fred Greig
No details

30 June 2007
Petite Riviere, Lunenburg County
Don Sedgwick
No details

*10 April 2009 (NS Birds: 8th provincial record?)
Truro, Colchester
Kimberley Forster

*5 July 2010
Lawrencetown, Annapolis County
Diana and William Ackroyd

2 July 2011
Brooklyn, Queens County
Allan Smith
No details.

5-6 July 2011
Martin's River, Lunenburg County
Donna and Alan Rowlands
No details.

*2 July 2011
Brooklyn, Queens County
Andrew Hebda
Finder said the bird matched the Google images for the species.

Species Range and Vagrancy
Swallow-tailed Kites are native to the southeast U.S. (Florida, South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas), Central America and South America. The entire U.S. population is migratory and birds arrive and depart early. (Myer 1995)

Eggs are present in nests in the United States from mid-March to mid-June dependant on location, incubation lasts about 30 days and the young depart from the nest after about 40 to 50 days (Myer 1995). The earliest breeding birds would still be caring for their young by this time in May, so we can assume that this bird is a non-breeder. 

I suppose if a nonmigratory species like a Crested Caracara can reach Nova Scotia, then a bird that is used to flying long distances of at least up to 6,500 km like a kite can easiyl reach us as a non-breeding wanderer.

Validated reports for Nova Scotia have occurred in spring (3 reports), summer (4 reports) and fall (2 reports). The eBird records on the eastern U.S. are more numerous during spring migration, so the timing of the occurrence of this bird fits the regional and local trends. A few birds are seen along the east coast of North America almost every spring and fall (Crossley 2013).

Spring 2017 has been good to us in southwest Nova Scotia so far. What's next to come?

Crossley, R., J. Liguori, and B. Sullivan. 2013. The Crossley ID Guide: Raptors. Princeton University Press, 41 William Street, Princeton, NJ

Meyer, Kenneth D.. 1995. Swallow-tailed Kite (Elanoides forficatus), The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from the Birds of North America:
DOI: 10.2173/bna.138


  1. Hi Alix, even in Florida (Tampa By area) they are not that common. One day I sat in line at the gate (quietly cursing) at Honeymoon Island State Park to go birding, when 5 of them flew over the lined up cars. Same as you, a number of birders jumped out of their cars with binoculars or whatever they had with them. And the birds made a U-turn and flew over again. Yeah, we blocked the traffic and were honked at. So what? Totally identify with you seeing it! Congratulations!!!

  2. that should read 'Tampa Bay area"

  3. Just saw one yesterday flying over the Louisbourg highway in cape breton, close to Sydney. I was very surprised by the scissor tail and looked it up as soon as I got home.