The white-tailed kite, a spectacular rarity from Ohio in Harrison County
Nothing excites a bird watcher more than a rarity. And, while you should probably take to the heights and see all rare birds equally, that’s not always the case. Many people will be more turned on by a sensational raptor than, say, an unusual sparrow.
Today’s rarity in Ohio is a white-tailed kite. It’s a superb bird of prey in every way, and the appearance of this species in rural Harrison County is a buzzword in the birding community. Well there is a rival but I will write about this species in another column.
Ohio’s current white-tailed kite is not the state’s first record. This is the second. Although they may be the same bird.
On May 23 of last year, Ian Ruppenthal was observing Woodbury Wildlife Sanctuary in Coshocton County when he spotted a White-tailed Kite perched on a snag. He obtained diagnostic photos, and the first record of this species from western and southern Ohio was in the books. Alas, the bird stole the chicken coop and could not be moved.
On May 31 of this year, Mary Gray and Larry Helgerman observed the grassy lands of reclaimed surface mines in Harrison County, six miles south of Cadiz. The location is 50 miles east of the 2020 Ruppenthal kite sighting. And voila, they spotted a white-tailed kite. My feeling is that the same bird counts for these two records. Wandering birds sometimes return to the same region every year, as far away as that may be from their usual haunts.
The White-tailed Kite is normally found in coastal states of the Pacific, southern Mexico and Central America, and large swathes of South America. There is a small population in South Florida. Records of vagrants in the Midwest are scarce, making the Harrison County “huntable” kite of great interest.
This time the bird got stuck, and within days hundreds of people probably made the trip. With Dr Bernard Master, I made the trip on June 4th. When we arrived it took us a few minutes to spot the bird. White-tailed kites aren’t shrinking violets, and he was sitting on top of a low snag in an otherwise open meadow.
Finally, the kite took off and offered us its legendary aerial prowess. It patrolled the vast prairies, floating gracefully in search of potential prey. Sometimes it would stop and hover like a helicopter, as if tied to a string.
A white tail kite has a wingspan of almost 3.5 feet, measures about 16 inches in length, but weighs only 12 ounces, the same as a can of soup. The ratio between the low weight and the large wings and tail makes the animal a superb flying machine and woe to the prey which is pierced by the ruby red eyes of the kite.
While other kite species often feed on large insects such as cicadas and dragonflies, the white-tailed kite primarily attaches itself to meat. Small mammals such as mice and voles normally make up the bulk of the diet.
At one point the kite flew almost above me, as if it was curious about me. This not only allowed me to get the accompanying photo, but to admire its sleek features from a front row seat. White-tailed kites are predominantly pearl gray and white, with prominent black shoulders, the latter being particularly noticeable on perched birds.
The kite made a dashing figure, even more so than Harrison County’s most famous son, Clark Gable. Gable was born in the county town of Cadiz in 1901. For the time being, at least locally, the kite likely overshadows Rhett Butler of “Gone with the Wind” as Harrison County’s biggest celebrity.
It will be interesting to see how long the kite stays (it is there as of this writing, June 9) and if a white tail kite rematerializes in that area in 2022.
Naturalist Jim McCormac writes a column for The Dispatch on the first, third and fifth Sundays of the month. He also writes about nature at www.jimmccormac.blogspot.com.