Wednesday, December 3, 2014

White-tailed Kite Preening and Kiting

I spent Thanksgiving weekend in Orange County, California with some of my wife's family. My wife and her sister wanted to do some Christmas and clothes shopping on Black Friday and Saturday, but my sister in law felt bad about leaving me at the house while they went shopping. My wife told her sister there was no need to worry about Jeff. "He has his camera and will spend as much time as we give him exploring the sites and birds of Orange County."  It was a win-win situation from my perspective. And my wife agreed. She would enjoy shopping with someone who can genuinely ooh and ah over clothing and I'd be free to discover and capture images of the birds of Orange County.

I had amazing experiences over the weekend and wasn't sure which one to share first on the blog. I had extremely close observations of Pelicans repeatedly plunge diving into shallow water to scoop up fish in their large pouches, discovered two life birds (Nuttal's Woodpecker and Ridgway's Rail), watched a gull prepare and swallow an octopus whole, photographed Red-shouldered Hawks, and spent about an hour watching a White-tailed Kite preen, call, and kite over a small wetland area. I'll start by sharing the White-tailed Kite encounter.

Prior to Saturday I'd seen two White-tailed Kites. One was a vagrant juvenile that showed up temporarily near St George, Utah. The other was a brief encounter with an adult bird near Santa Cruz, California. These birds range along the California coast where coastal prairies exist, parts of Mexico, and the southern parts of Texas and Florida. They prefer open grassy areas with scattered bushes and shrubs. When they are not conspicuously perched on a snag or bush, they kite (hover) over the open spaces and then drop from the sky to catch prey, which generally includes small rodents. These kites are striking and appropriately named raptors as you'll see in the images and video clips I'll share. Adults are mostly white on the underside, white-tailed, and pale gray on the upper side with black shoulder patches. Their eyes are blood red. The skin on the legs and cere are yellow.

Seeing a White-tailed Kite was on my wish list for the Orange County weekend so I got a little excited when I drove past what looked to me like great kite habitat. I decided to check out the area briefly, but I came up empty handed. I returned to the area later in the day and was delighted to find an adult perched on a snag just above a small wetland area.

Adult White-tailed Kite Near Huntington Beach, CA
The kite was perched on private property so I remained on the right side of the fence to capture some images as the bird preened and occasionally took flight to do some kiting. It stretched its wings several times before taking flight.

Adult White-tailed Kite Near Huntington Beach, CA
Adult White-tailed Kite Near Huntington Beach, CA
I captured short video clips as the bird demonstrated exactly why it is called a White-tailed Kite. The video clip below shows some kiting behavior and short flights where the black shoulder patches are seen briefly. I wasn't expecting to do video so I did not have a tripod. I had to handhold the camera with the lens fully zoomed to 400mm so there is some camera shake, but it was fun and the video turned out okay. I like how the bird dangles its legs at times while it kites and how it lifts its head to check its surroundings when it isn't searching the wetland below for prey. A bird in flight always impresses me.

The video should be viewed in 1080p HD for the best resolution. Otherwise the resolution may be low.

I've put a few segments together in the next video to include the bird calling, show various stages of preening (stretching, plucking, scratching, and fluffing), and allow some calls and whinnying of Soras to be heard in the reeds below the kite. Those sounds help illustrate the habitat for these kites. A Great Egret was foraging in a small marsh below the kite and can be heard croaking at one point. What other birds do you recognize calling in the video?

People often ask me what is my favorite bird. My typical response is, "The one I just observed or photographed." A White-tailed Kite is definitely at the top of my list for awesome birds.


  1. Great capture of "kiting". I can now see why the bird got its name. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Thanks, Rachel. Watching this kite was really fun. I am amazed on the diversity of birds in terms of plumage, habitat, behavior, and more. This kite was a fascinating treat.