Uncommon birds are often seen during migration, when they may stray from their normal routes or get blown off course during a storm. Winter is also a prime time to see such birds, when hardy northern species vacate their Arctic ranges during an unusually harsh season.
However, this summer a bird of the far South and Great Plains has proven the exception to this rule. Not only has it been seen in an area of the country it normally never visits, but a pair of them are actually nesting and raising young – in New Hampshire.
Back in June three Mississippi kites, two adults and one female sub-adult, were observed near what appeared to be a nest site in a residential neighborhood of Newmarket.
Since then, several Maine birdwatchers have journeyed to see the birds, and have confirmed they are in fact nesting. Derek and Jeannette Lovitch, owners and operators of The Wild Bird Center in Yarmouth, got great views during their visit a few weeks ago.
“We arrived at 10:13 a.m., and one adult was rather conspicuous on the nest,” Derek reported for the Maine birding e-list. “The bird was shading the eggs, rather than incubating them in the day’s heat, so the majority of the bird was visible on the nest. Between 10:13 and 11:30, when we departed, the adult was seen rotating the eggs three times.”
The Mississippi kite is a medium-sized raptor, similar in size to a crow. It is two-toned grey in color, with black primary wing feathers and black rectrices (tail flight feathers). It preys upon insects (such as dragonflies), which are often caught on the wing, as well as small mammals, small reptiles, and amphibians. The latter two may be caught when the kite wades into shallow water after them.
Small songbirds and bats may also be included in its diet, to a lesser extent.
According to “The Birds of North America,” ornithologists have made many observations of one or two young from a previous year with breeding pairs, although it is not known if they are all genetically related. Unlike our normal resident raptors here in the Northeast, which are solitary, Mississippi kites often nest colonially, and yearlings may often assist adults with nest defense, incubation, and even brooding.
This beneficial relationship seems to extend to other bird species and even insects. Smaller birds, such as northern mockingbirds, have been observed to team up with kites to drive human intruders away from nest sites. At times these two species are also seen to perch near each other peacefully, even though kites will sometimes prey on other birds.
Wasps have also been noted to build their nests either on or just below kite nests, as author J.W. Parker noted in a 1981 issue of the Journal of Field Ornithology. Apparently the wasps did no harm to the birds, and Parker presumed the wasps protected the kite’s nest from climbing predators.
As far as the kite’s nest defense against perceived human threats, the BNA states, “kites often attack people that venture too close to their nests, mainly in urban areas, and this has created many public relations, management and educational challenges in at least five western U.S. states.” Included is a photo of a golfer about to tee off, completely oblivious to a dive-bombing kite headed straight for him.
Although the kite’s nest in New Hampshire is located in a residential neighborhood near someone’s driveway, to my knowledge there have been no reports of overzealous dive-bombing kites. Visiting birders, respectful of both the kites and the property owners, have only observed the kites going about the business of soaring, perching, turning eggs and catching insects.
What a wonderful and prolonged opportunity to see a bird that normally breeds in the far southeastern and southwestern United States and the Great Plains. The kite has proven itself to be a flexible species, adapting to human-caused changes in the environment with seeming ease.
Still, to have one nesting in the Northeast is an unusual event, as summed up by Peter Vickery, of the Center for Ecological Research in Richmond, Maine.
“Mississippi kite populations seem to be expanding in the South, but that doesn’t seem to explain this remarkable nesting.”