Sabine, Pearl, and Pascagoula Rivers
One of the most graceful of the world’s soaring raptors and the largest of the kite family, the swallow-tailed kite looks like a star as it flies, with a deeply-forked tail spread out behind its long, narrow, angular wings in almost a 2-to-1 ratio (wingspan about 4 ft to body length about 2 ft). Black tips and trailing edges on their wings and their black tail contrast sharply with their white heads and underbodies, giving them a striking and distinctive appearance.
Or so the books said. It’s a different story flying 400 feet above the treetops in fog and mist looking for these elusive angels! Even with powerful zoom lenses and fast shutter speeds, it was a challenge to see and count them while maintaining enough altitude and flying quietly enough to ensure that we did not disturb them. Until we actually saw some swallow-tailed kites from the air, and our eyes and brains adapted to the small features we sought among the canopy of trees, it was pretty discouraging. The less experienced among us (myself included) began by eagerly calling out lichen, or egrets, once even a field of watermelon. But that just added to the thrill when we finally started finding the real thing. Check out the following pairs of photos: The photos on the left are what we saw with our eyes, those on the right are what the camera zoom lens showed us later. (The first two pairs of photos are swallow-tailed kites on the Pascagoula and Pearl Rivers, the third pair is a colony of egrets along the Pearl River.)
Most of the swallow-tailed kites (STKIs) that still exist on this planet make their homes in the wetlands and wooded bottomlands along rivers of the Gulf Coast states. They are officially listed as “threatened” and are considered by many to be overdue for greater protection under the Endangered Species Act. In fact, the global population of swallow-tailed kites is thought to be less than 150,000. The primary cause of their decline is neither predation nor disease; it is the fact that their natural habitat -- wetlands and bottomland forests -- are being destroyed, polluted, and generally overtaken by humans for recreation, agriculture, or industry. While researching their populations and nesting areas is very important to protect these birds, it is most critical that we preserve the quality of the bottomland forests and swamps along the few remaining natural river systems of the southeast US.
In late July of this year, we joined with Orleans Audubon’s premier kite researcher, Ms. Jennifer Coulson, to help her document STKI populations along the Sabine, Pearl, and Pascagoula Rivers. Besides having sharp eyes and flying quietly above the trees at an altitude close enough to see them but far enough not to disturb them, it was critical on these flights that we be there at sunrise. This is when the kites seek out large dead trees or high tree tops in order to dry out their wings in unobstructed sunlight and good airflow. Later in the morning, they disperse to fly in search of food, and then it is difficult to see them and impossible to get reliable population counts.
Although challenging, this would all be easy enough -- until you add the morning fog and lingering storm systems that mark the Gulf Coast during July and August! More often than not we found ourselves being squeezed between clouds above and trees below, and we had to turn back from our planned survey routes. But we were persistent, and when weather stopped us in one direction, we surveyed in another direction. By the end of the week, we had made two successful flights covering each of the southern 75 miles of the Pascagoula and Sabine Rivers and three flights along the southern 100 miles of the Pearl River.
Surprisingly little is known for certain about swallow-tailed kites, except that their numbers have been dwindling. They form breeding pairs and roost in large groups, breeding in spring here and migrating together to South America for the winters. Since these are gliding birds who look for thermals to carry them effortlessly, they fly along the coast in their “circum-Gulf” migration rather than straight across the Gulf of Mexico -- unlike the small but intrepid “trans-Gulf” travelers such as warblers, vireos, and tanagers! (Aren’t birds just amazing?) Thanks to swallow-tailed kites who carry transmitters as “backpacks”, researchers have documented their migrations southward along Florida’s Gulf coast, southwest to Cuba and then the Yucatan Peninsula, on to central America, then following land southeastward to South America. There are some treacherous over-water crossings and mountainous areas on these routes! (See maps of these and find much more information at sites such as arcinst.org.)
We observed first-hand some of the following characteristics that are generally known about swallow-tailed kites: They tended to roost in groups, and in proximity to water, perhaps for the ready availability of insects, although we know that they also hunt small vertebrates. Viewed from above, we noticed a bluish tone to their black upper parts when the sun hit them at certain angles. Those we saw flying never seemed to be flapping their wings, but we could see their tails rotating as they maneuvered between trees and just above the water. Being amateur glider pilots ourselves, we thought “What a dream glider set-up, to have those wings plus that tail!”
Many of the same observations held for the smaller, brown Mississippi kites we saw along the Pearl and Pascagoula Rivers. We were also treated to the sight of a fair number of ibises, herons, egrets and egret rookeries, and even a bald eagle. Enroute back to New Orleans from the Sabine River, we spotted first a couple of groups of lovely roseate spoonbills, followed by a large colony of woodstorks! The spoonbills are good-sized birds, with about 4-ft wingspans and a bit longer than the kites, but the woodstorks are downright enormous! They were soaring gracefully in formation, their wingspans about 5 ft across and their bodies a good 3 ft long.
Here are a few of our favorite photos, plus a video of the mirror-smooth Lake Pontchartrain just before sunrise on July 29, the day of our third Pearl River survey. Many more photos from all of the flights are in the galleries below. Last but not least, maps of our flights and our transcribed flight logs are at the bottom of this article. Enjoy!
Here are favorites from the Pearl River:
Here are some from the Pascagoula River:
Here are some from the Sabine River:
Here are some stills and a video from the ethereal-looking mirror-smooth Lake Pontchartrain just before sunrise on July 29, when the sun lit up the thunderheads to our west like fire:
Here are some galleries of more photos from each of the rivers.
The Pearl River (flown on July 22, July 25, and July 29):
The Pascagoula River (flown on July 24 and July 27):
The Sabine River (flown on July 23 and July 28):
Here are maps showing our flight tracks for each of the flights, followed by our detailed flight logs.
Pearl River Flight #1, July 22:
Pearl River Flight #2, July 25:
Pearl River Flight #3, July 29:
Pascagoula River Flight #1, July 24:
Pascagoula River Flight #2, July 27:
Sabine River Flights #1 and #2, July 23 and July 28:
******* FLIGHT LOGS of STKI Flights July 22-29, 2013 *******
1. Pearl River: Flights 1, 2, and 3 (20130722,0725, 0729)
|20130722 - Pearl River1 - STKI - Reference Waypoints - BLS1|
|PEA01-R||30.38||-89.74||Pearl River #1 - Ref Pt (Start) - West Pearl River & I-59|
|PEA02-R||30.57||-89.83||Pearl River #2 - Ref Pt. - Mouth of Bogue Chitto at West Pearl River & Wilson Slough|
|PEA03-R||30.63||-89.9||Pearl River #3 - Ref Pt: Bogue Chitto & Hwy 21- (end Bogue Chitto survey, return to Wilson Slough)|
|PEA04-R||30.57||-89.81||Pearl River #4 - Ref Pt. Pearl River, East Pearl River, and Wilson Slough (just above Walkiah Bluff)|
|PEA05||30.6||-89.82||Pearl River #5 - 2013 Roosts near Nick's Point, on Pearl River|
|PEA06||30.61||-89.82||Pearl River #6 - 2013 Roosts on Pearl River|
|PEA07||30.62||-89.82||Pearl River #7 - Roost N of big power lines|
|PEA08||30.64||-89.82||Pearl River #8 - Pearl River near mouth of Middle Creek|
|PEA09||30.65||-89.83||Pearl River #9 - Pearl River near mouth of Old River|
|PEA10||30.74||-89.82||Pearl River #10 - 2013 Roosts on Pearl near Bogalusa|
|PEA11||30.75||-89.82||Pearl River #11 - 2013 Roost on Pearl River near Bogalusa|
|PEA12-x||30.71||-89.8||Pearl River #12x - 2012 Roost on Old River WMA (interior)|
|PEA13-x||30.72||-89.8||Pearl River #13x - 2012 Roost on Old River WMA (interior)|
|PEA14-x||30.77||-89.81||Pearl River #14x - 2012 Roost on Old River WMA (interior)|
|PEA15-R||30.79||-89.82||Pearl River #15R - Ref Pt - Bridge over Pearl River at Bogalusa|
|PEA16-R||30.84||-89.79||Pearl River #16R - Ref Pt - White pipeline crossing Pearl River|
|PEA17-x||30.85||-89.78||Pearl River #17x - Old Jail Lake roost area|
|PEA18||30.85||-89.8||Pearl River #18 - 2013 Roost of 13 (LA side, trees along sough in logged area|
|PEA19||30.92||-89.76||Pearl River #19 - “Garbage Dump Roost"|
|PEA20||30.96||-89.74||Pearl River #20 - 2013 John Henry Lake roost. (Also check at river's edge)|
|PEA21||31||-89.74||Pearl River #21 - LA-MS State Line, 2013 Roost|
20130725 - Pearl River 2 - On Wings Of Care Flight with Orleans Audubon for Swallow-tailed Kites
|Flight route followed plan below, departing and returning to KNEW via KGPT (where all crew was picked up), flying from the south end.
|Weather: Visibility okay but quite windy (NW)|
|Crew: BLS (pilot), Jennifer Coulson, Wesley Smith,Terese Collins
|Flight time: 4.7 hours
|OBSERVATIONS: Total: 42 STKI, all flying (none perched)|
|761||30.59||-88.61||2013-07-24T12:18:55Z||1 red-shouldered hawk, juvenile|
|762||30.65||-88.64||2013-07-24T12:28:31Z||2 STKI, flying|
|763||30.65||-88.64||2013-07-24T12:30:23Z||3 STKI, flying (+ 1 wood stork to our west)|
|765||30.77||-88.68||2013-07-24T12:48:56Z||3+1 = 4 STKI, flying|
|766||30.77||-88.68||2013-07-24T12:51:32Z||1 flying (and drinking at water!), & 1 MS kite flying.|
|771||30.91||-88.75||2013-07-24T13:13:38Z||(1 MS kite, flying)|
|781||31.07||-88.64||2013-07-24T13:43:32Z||(Turkey vulture, flying)|
|785||31.07||-88.57||2013-07-24T13:51:11Z||2 + 1, flying = 3 (& 1 MS kite)|
|786||31.09||-88.56||2013-07-24T13:53:22Z||(4-5 herons + 1 MS kite)|
|787||31.09||-88.56||2013-07-24T13:54:30Z||1 (+2 MS kites)|
|20130724 - Pasacgoula River1 - STKI - Reference Waypoints - BLS1:|
|KNEW to PAS01-R: 81 nm. Flight ~ 65 nm. PAS32-R-KNEW ~ 100nm.
2.3 hrs for track. ETA KNEW ~1000. Tot Flt Hrs: ~ 4.0 hrs.
To arrive PAS32-R ~ 0915, depart PAS01-R ~0700, so KNEW ~ 0615.
|PAS01-R||30.46||-88.56||Pascagoula River #1 - Ref Pt. Start survey at S end of tree line on Pascagoula River (E side of basin near Trent Lott airport)|
|PAS02-R||30.52||-88.6||Pascagoula River #2 - Ref Pt. Here Pascagoula splits into the West Pascagoula and the Pascagoula River. The west fork is the Pascagoula River.|
|PAS03-R||30.47||-88.6||Pascagoula River #3 - Ref Pt. From Poticaw landing, quickly fly south to this point; Then survey the West Pascgoula River north to the split (PAS02-R).|
|PAS04||30.49||-88.61||Pascagoula River #4 - Roost locations on West Pascagoula River|
|PAS05||30.51||-88.59||Pascagoula River #5 - Roost locations on West Pascagoula River. Upon returning to the split, follow the Pascagoula River to the North.|
|PAS06||30.53||-88.59||Pascagoula River #6 - Roost of 25 STKI - Pascagoula River below power line ROW|
|PAS07||30.58||-88.6||Pascagoula River #7 - Field W of river and N or power line - Roost of 38 STKI|
|PAS08||30.6||-88.63||Pascagoula River #8 - Roost of 12 STKI (?Field W of river and N of power line?)|
|PAS09-R||30.61||-88.64||Pascagoula River #9 - Ref Pt. Hwy 614 crosses the Pascagoula River here (Roy Combust Bridge)|
|PAS10-R||30.65||-88.64||Pascagoula River #10 - Ref Pt. Black Creek empties into the Pascagoula River here.|
|PAS11-x||30.68||-88.64||Pascagoula River #11-x -15 STKI roosting here in 2011. Oxbow Berlson Lake, W side.|
|PAS12||30.75||-88.67||Pascagoula River #12: 2013 roosts. Lingum Lake - Boneyard Lake area|
|PAS13||30.76||-88.66||Pascagoula River #13 - 2013 roosts.|
|PAS14||30.76||-88.66||Pascagoula River #14 - 2013 roosts.|
|PAS15-x||30.79||-88.71||Pascagoula River #15-x: 16 STKI roosting in 2011 Middle oxbow lake.|
|PAS16-x||30.8||-88.73||Pascagoula River #16-x: 2012 roost of 6 STKI.|
|PAS17-R||30.88||-88.77||Pascagoula River #17-R: Ref Pt. Hwy 26 crosses the Pascagoula River here.|
|PAS18-x||30.9||-88.77||Pascagoula River #18-x: Roosts in 2012, Oxbow Lake|
|PAS19||30.91||-88.76||Pascagoula River #19: Oxbow Lake|
|PAS20||30.91||-88.74||Pascagoula River #20:|
|PAS21-x||30.92||-88.75||Pascagoula River #21-x: Roost in 2011. W bank of Pascagoula River.|
|PAS22-x||30.94||-88.72||Pascagoula River #22-x: Roost in 2011, E bank of Pascagoula River, inland.|
|PAS23-R||30.98||-88.73||Pascagoula River #23-R: Ref Pt. Confluence of the Pascagoula River: the Leaf River comes in from the West and the Chickasawhay River comes in from the East. (West of the town of Merrill, MS. (A bridge and a railroad bridge cross the Pascagoula River south of the confluence.)|
|PAS24-R||31.02||-88.71||Pascagoula River #24-R. Ref Pt: Hwy 98 crosses the Chickasawhay River|
|PAS25||31.05||-88.62||Pascagoula River #25 - Roost on Chickasawhay River|
|PAS26||31.06||-88.64||Pascagoula River #26: Roost on Chickasawhay River|
|PAS27-R||31.06||-88.64||Pascagoula River #27-R: Ref Pt: Where Big Creek empties into the Chickasawhay River|
|PAS28||31.07||-88.59||Pascagoula River #28: Roost on Chickasawhay River|
|PAS29||31.07||-88.59||Pascagoula River #29: Roost on Chickasawhay River|
|PAS30||31.15||-88.52||Pascagoula River #30: Roost on Chickasawhay River|
|PAS31||31.15||-88.55||Pascagoula River #31: Roost on Chickasawhay River|
Pascagoula River #32-R. Ref Pt: END on the Chickasawhay River at Leakesville. This is where two bridges cross the Chickasawhay RIver (Hwys. 57 & 63).
20130728 - Pascagoula River 2 - On Wings Of Care Flight with Orleans Audubon for Swallow-tailed Kites
|Flight route: followed plan below, departing and returning to KNEW, flying from the north end.|
|Weather: Severe thunderstorms were just north and northwest of the north end at the start and followed us as we flew
southward. We had to delay return to KNEW for about 30 minutes, so spent extra time at the south end.
|Crew: BLS (pilot), Jennifer Coulson, Wesley Smith, Brandy Smith|
|Flight time: 4.8 hours|
|OBSERVATIONS: Total number of STKIs observed: 93|
WPT LAT LON TIME (Z) DESCRIPTION
|795||31.12||-88.54||2013-07-27T11:59:00Z||Tri-colored herson; 2 STKI, perched|
|798||30.78||-88.7||2013-07-27T13:07:02Z||22 in three trees|
|800||30.74||-88.65||2013-07-27T13:19:06Z||Large egret rookery!|
|802||30.67||-88.64||2013-07-27T13:29:25Z||1. Also a red-shouldered hawk|
|810||30.59||-88.58||2013-07-27T13:51:51Z||5 ibis -- and ibis rookery!|
|811||30.49||-88.61||2013-07-27T14:04:05Z||7 + 2 = 9|
20130727 - Pasacgoula River2 - STKI - Reference Waypoints - BLS1:
(Same as Pascagoula River 1 except started at north end)
3. Sabine River: Flights 1 & 2 (20130723,0728)
20130723 - Sabine River 1 - On Wings Of Care Flight with Orleans Audubon for Swallow-tailed Kites
WPT LAT LON TIME (Z) DESCRIPTION
REFERENCE POINTS for Sabine River #1 STKI Flight - BLS1
Flt Planning Info: KNEW to SAB01: 195 nm; flight ~50 nm (but slow w/ circling). SAB20R-KNEW~196 nm. Maybe refuel @ KDRI - Beauregard Rgnl prior to return to KNEW.
To arrive SAB20R ~0915, depart SAB01 ~ 0700, so KNEW~0500. 2.3-hr for track. ETA KNEW 1200. Tot Flt Hrs: ~6.0 hr.
20130728 - Sabine River 2 - On Wings Of Care Flight with Orleans Audubon for Swallow-tailed Kites