Nature Conservancy Magazine: A Safe Place to Land

   April 01, 2016    

Article by: NATURE CONSERVANCY MAGAZINE | By Ginger Strand | Photos by: MAC STONE

Swallow-tailed kites roost en masse before migrating—and the large majority of them, Meyer estimates, do so in Florida. It’s a crucial time for them as they load up on calories for an exhausting 5,000-mile flight across the Gulf of Mexico and down to the tropical forests of southern Brazil. But here in Florida, their favored habitat is threatened—in this case, by development.

Meyer’s aerial map is studded with red dots showing swallowtailed kite roost sites. At the largest cluster, the trees are dotted with so many white birds, it looks as though snow has fallen.The pilot circles high enough to avoid disturbing the birds while Meyer, leaning out the plane window, shoots photographs. The next day, Gina Kent, a research ecologist for the Avian Research and Conservation Institute, will use the photos to count the birds, getting a rough estimate of population.

This is the next phase of kite conservation. Armed with their understanding of the species’ habitat needs, Kent and Meyer are now working to reshape the birds’ behaviors. They place decoy birds in trees on protected land to encourage kites to roost there. They build swallow-tailed kite nests—using plastic chicken wire, zip ties, Spanish moss and a woolly lichen called old man’s beard—and Kent ascends the tall trees to place them on wildlife preserves to attract nesting kites.

But encouraging the birds onto protected land requires that there be protected land in the first place. Alliance members are developing management guidelines to help timber companies provide better kite habitat on their lands. And, like Whitehead and Sasser in South Carolina, they hope their data can help identify new areas for preservation, whether through purchase or conservation easements. It’s all part of the larger effort to protect these rare birds, not only now but in the future as well.

“We can learn everything about the birds,” Meyer says, “but if we don’t translate that into protected land, it’s no good.”

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