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The Snail Kite of Kaliga

April 7, 2011

I had a car for 24 hours, as per the agreement entered into by me and so-and-so rental car agency* in the lobby of a dated Holiday Inn in the heart of the sprawlingest sprawl Orlando, Florida, has to offer.  The coming and going of families made it hard to hear the agent running through the boilerplate legalese required to hand me the keys to my stylin’ Chevy Impala.  In the field, I can hear Kinglets and Creepers fine, but mumbling receptionists in echoing halls which reverberate with the carefree screams of hordes drunk on Mickey or Shamu or Harry Potter are beyond the auditory capacities of even the keenest eared birder.  I’m pretty sure she said I wouldn’t need to pay tolls, but I could be wrong.  And I think she gave me an extra two-hour window in which to return the car too, though she may have just been making fun of me not that she wouldn’t have been entirely unjustified.  I stood there looking confused and nodding during the brief pauses while hauling all the accouterments of a day in the field, the bins, the big camera, the awkward scope.  In a room full of merry-makers I cut an odd figure.  But I needed a car, I needed to go birding, and the clock was ticking.

*Not meant to be a joke, I really can’t remember the name of the company.  Something that implies value… or something?

Paperwork addressed – so I assumed, at a certain point she stopped talking to me – and finally at the wheel I turned into the epic traffic of Orlando, the city that takes an hour and a half to get anywhere.  I had one bird on my mind, one of Florida’s great specialties and a bird intimately tied to the great seas of grass and the shallow marshy lakes that make the peninsula such a enchanting place, and The Birder’s Guide to Florida by Bill Pranty (the Florida birder’s bible) was telling be I had to go south into Osceola County to East Lake Tahapakaliga.  I found the site, Kaliga Park in St. Cloud, in my BirdsEye and turned the car south.  I was hunting Snail Kites.

Its scientific name is Rosthramus sociabilis, literally “Sociable Hook-bill”, and both names refer to unusual aspects of its behavior and physiology.  The bizarre hooked bill is a famous adaptation for predation of the Apple Snail, the terrestrial mollusk about the size of a child’s fist that makes up most of its diet.  And because snails don’t put up much of a fight, Snail Kites don’t need to defend large territories like other birds of prey.  They’ll nest communally, with several hastily built nests in loose association on islands of trees within a sea of grass that, while appearing to stretch to all horizons from any point within, is only associated with a relatively small, and shrinking, part of this peninsula.  As such, and despite a range that extends to marshy grasslands all the way into South America, this is a federally endangered species within the arbitrary geopolitical boundaries of the United States.  Orlando, and Kaliga Park, represents the northern edge of their very limited range and my best and likely only chance to see them this time out.

Mid-afternoon is hardly the best time to go looking for birds, and in the slow burn that is a Florida spring I wasn’t expecting much when I pulled out of the car to find a marina, a trail with sternly worded but apparently poorly followed signs instructing visitors to clean up after their dogs, a metric ton of Boat-tailed Grackles, and little else.  Worse, the marsh looked far too small and irregular to attract what I assumed would be one of the most discriminating raptors in North America.  It was then, out of the corner of my eye, I caught a broad-winged bird moving erratically over the grasses.

A Snail Kite, a molty, rough-looking, juvenile bird was working the far part of the marsh, swerving back and forth, ducking down and catching the wind up again, every bit a cheap department store delta kite manned by a distracted kid.  I’d seen Snail kite before when I was a teenager on a family vacation.  We drove down the world famous Tamiami Trail, stopped at Shark Valley and rode rented bikes down the loop until we found both a Snail Kite and Alligators large enough to meet our midwestern postcard expectations of what Florida is.

My family has a photo of that day, we’re sweaty and tired and I’m wearing an too-large shirt with an Egret on it, my cheap Bass Pro Shops binoculars slung over my shoulders like I knew what to do with them.  I remember vaguely the Snail Kite that day.  How it perched in a tree, how I ticked it, but I remember little else.  This bird, though, moved closer and closer.  It circled a patch of short grass peering into the water with those enormous snail spotters.  As effortless as some raptors, notably the other kites, seem in flight, this bird’s movements were ponderous, its wingbeats wristy, the ultimate extension of a species evolved to glean rather than stalk.  The master of the drop and flop rather than the high speed chase.

So I stood for several minutes and watched it as it turned circles over the small patch of less than ideal marsh, cursing my good luck, when the bird turned towards me.  I admit I panicked, and flung my camera to the sky to snap photos hap-hazardly in the hopes that something would come out.  It didn’t really, but there was a second or so when the bird was no more than 10 feet over my head.  I may have ruined the moment photographically, but rest assured I appreciated it at the time.

But even in that terrible photo I can see some things.  For instance, the bird’s crop is quite full.  So the patch of march wasn’t as bad as it appeared to me.  It’s also clearly banded, not a shock given the special concern given by state and federal wildlife interests.  It’s also molting more or less symmetrically, which is expected but sort of cool when you compare the missing secondary in the left wing here with the same missing secondary in the right wing in the first photo.  I would have hoped to see more, but this was the last shot I took.  Catching my breath form my close encounter I noticed a Green Heron just off the trail, the first I’d seen this year, and when my eyes rose to search out the Snail Kite, it had disappeared.  A wraith in the marsh that suddenly seemed a lot bigger.

Having picked up one of my major targets, I did a little more birding before heading back to the Impala to make the drive home, an hour and a half of course.  I only had 24 hours, and time was a commodity I couldn’t afford to take lightly.

  1. April 7, 2011 7:34 am

    Enjoyed reading your post. Glad to hear the target was found within the allotted 24 hours.

    I did not realize I had a bible on my bookshelf until now. Sadly, it remains in the same condition it did when I purchased it at the St. Marks NWR bookstore in 2007.

  2. April 7, 2011 7:55 am


    Thanks for sharing!

    Are you also a reviewer for South Carolina on Ebird? Any news about that “confirmed” bachman’s warbler?

    • BirdTrainerRobert permalink
      April 7, 2011 8:43 am

      I asked Dennis about the Bachman’s Warbler. The report was supposed to be for 1962, lol.

      Nice Snail Kite, btw.

  3. Nate permalink*
    April 12, 2011 11:14 am

    @Bob- It’s a tad out of date, but still very relevant. I have an older edition from the mid-90s too.

    @Laurent- I see Robert beat me to it. I’m not the reviewer for SC, though I was for about a week when they were transitioning to a new guy.

    @Robert- Thanks!

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