Tuesday, January 1, 2008

White-Tailed Kite--Elanus leucurus

White-tailed Kite hovering over the field by the parking lot at Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve.

Birding in Orange County is almost always exciting. I was about to leave Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve when a man came up to me at my car. "Have you seen the kites?" he asked.

"No," I answered.

"Well, don't leave yet. If you stand over there, you will probably see them in a few minutes. They keep coming back."

So tired as I was, I went to the indicated spot and waited. And waited. The man was so sure that I just stayed there for almost 10 minutes standing at the edge of the parking lot. Sure enough, two White-tailed Kites began to hover over the lot. I snapped and snapped. I took video. It was wonderful. I never saw the man again. I want to thank him. He was kind enough to take the risk and tell a stranger about an unusual bird, and I reaped the reward. What a great birder/photography guy! A real Birding Angel. Thank you, whoever you are!

White-tailed Kite hovering, looking for food.

White-tailed Kites were originally considered one species with Black-Shouldered Kites, but were separated out as distinctly different enough to be a separate species.

Kites are fast-moving birds that hover as they look for prey. They need large areas of grasslands or marshland to hunt rodents like mice, rats, and gophers. Oddly, they also can be found at some cemeteries--which is logical when you think about it. Knowing their diet is a key to identifying at times, since you will never see a White-tailed Kite hover over a body of water looking for fish. They do not eat fish. Feel blessed if you see this medium-sized raptor. They are not as common as they used to be in Orange County.

White-tailed Kite

The White-tailed Kite is a medium-sized hawk. It is about 15 inches in length and has a wingspan of 39 inches. (The Sibley Guide to Birds by David Allen Sibley). Sibley also mentions that the plumage is very "tern-like." This is something to keep in mind since terns can appear in the same habitat as White-tailed Kites. Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve, Upper Newport Bay, and San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary are some habitats that you might find both.

You Tube Video of a White-tailed Kite

There are a few species that you might confuse if you don't look closely. The Osprey can be seen in similar habitats if there is water there, but there are significant differences. The American Kestrel can be seen in similar habitats, but again, there are significant differences. See below for details.

Similar Species

The Osprey--Black-and-White Bird of Prey/Hovering Bird

Although the Osprey hovers on occasion over the water before diving, it is much larger size in size than the White-tailed Kite. It also has much more black on the wings and on the tail. Compare the bills. The Osprey has a large, black hooked bill. The White-tailed Kite's is a small black bill. Hovering is one of its hunting techniques and is done almost always over the water. In fact because their diet is almost exclusively fish, you will see Osprey by the water. Where both fish and large fields or marshland habitat are found, you may see both species. For example, both are seen at Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve, San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary, and Seal Beach National Wildlife Refuge.

Immature Osprey up a tree.

Osprey in flight--Courtesy US Fish and Wildlife Service

Notice that the Osprey has lots of black on the wings when viewed from underneath. Much different than the White-tailed Kite. The Osprey is also much larger. According to "All About Birds," the Osprey is about 21-23 inches long, and its wingspan is 59-71 inches.

American Kestrel--Hovering Bird of Prey

Male American Kestrel

Female American Kestrel hovering over the Mesa at Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve

The American Kestrel is a smaller hawk that sometimes hovers. It hovers over fields like the White-tailed Kite, but is smaller than the White-tailed Kite. The colors are also different. American Kestrel females are brown and the male, is more brightly colored with slate blue on the wings. The tail is barred--contrasted with the pure white tail of the White-tailed Kite. The American Kestrel is a cute, little bird. According to "All About Birds," the American Kestrel is between 9-12 inches. Its wing span is 20-24 inches. The White-tailed Kite is 15 inches in length and has a wingspan of 39 inches. It seems like a small difference in length, but when you see it overhead hovering, the difference is clear that this is a bigger bird.

Northern Harrier--Hovering Bird

Female Northern Harrier. Note the owl-like face. Like owls, it depends on sound as well as sight to locate prey.

The Northern Harrier is most often seen flying low over wetlands looking for prey. The female is brown and the male is gray. The two most prominent filed marks are its owl-like face and its white rump. It does hover over the marsh, and its name used to be "Marsh Hawk." But it is larger than a White-tailed Kite and tends to fly low over the ground with its white rump showing. It will perch on a mound of earth as well as in trees. The Northern Harrier female is brown, and the male is gray. Both have the white rump. Length is 17-23 inches and Wingspan is 38-48 inches. This is a larger raptor than the White-tailed Kite.

Forster's Tern--Hovers

Forster's Tern--note the orange webbed feet, black cap and long, orange bill.

Terns eat fish. They also hover, but you will see them hovering over water just before they dive for fish on occasion. So, this tern has different feet, diet, bill, and behavior. If you see a large, pointed orange bill, you are looking at a tern of some kind. The feet are webbed, not talons like the White-tailed Kite, and the wings are more pointed. Length is 14.5 inches and Wingspan is 31 inches. It is slightly smaller than the White-tailed Kite.

Least Tern--Hovering behavior

Least Tern--note the long, pointy yellow bill, the yellow feet.

This bird eats fish like the Forster's Tern. It has a large, pointed yellowish bill. The feet are webbed and don't resemble the talons at all. The wings are more pointed than the White-tailed Kite. Length is 9 inches and Wingspan is 20 inches. It is significantly smaller than the White-tailed Kite.

White-Tailed Kite from OC Birder Girl on Vimeo.

First I focused on a White-tailed Kite who was far away, then suddenly one appeared almost overhead. Listen to the other cameras clicking away. This pair drew quite a crowd. Since my camera is set to make no sound, none of those clicks are mine.

Conservation Status

According to California Fish and Game the White-tailed Kite is "Fully Protected" in the State of California, but has no federal status. See the Great Backyard Count of White-tailed Kites in California this year (2008) by clicking here. See totals for the whole United States here.

If you see a White-tailed Kite while you are out birding in Orange County, please make sure you notify Sea and Sage Audubon. Check out their White tailed Kite Study page.

OC Birder Girl Links

Osprey--Pandion haliaetus

A bird you may see in Orange County in many places including Orange County parks.

Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve

A great place to go birding in Orange County.

San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary

Terrific place to go birding in Orange County.

External Links and Resources

All About Birds: White-tailed Kite

Detailed article includes Cool Facts, Description, Similar Species, Sound, Range, Habitat, Reproduction, Conservation Status, and Other Names.

Audubon Species Monitoring: White-tailed Kite

Species monitoring in Santa Barbara, California.

Bird Cinema: Immature White-tailed Kite

Immature White-tailed Kite. And a mature kite hovering.

BirdWeb: White-tailed Kite

Detailed article includes general description, pictures, habitat, behavior, diet, nesting, migration status, conservation status, and maps.

Conservation Science Institute: White-tailed Kites

Status of White-tailed Kites in California--especially San Diego. Very interesting.

More Mesa Preservation Coalition: White-tailed Kite

More Mesa is an organization in California that strives to preserve mesa areas. This is their section on the White-tailed Kite. It has an introduction and several links to such things as Distribution, Description, Hunting, Habitat, Nesting, Hatching, Fledgling, Roosting, Territory, Status, and References.

Landscape characteristics surrounding White-tailed Kite nest sites in southwestern California--A Thesis by Chris Anne Niemela

If you are up for it, read the 64 page thesis on Orange County White-tailed Kites nest sites in California. Lots of data.

The Peregrine Fund: White-tailed Kite

Detailed article from the Peregrine Fund.

Sea and Sage Audubon: White-tailed Kite Study

You can sign up to help observe White-tailed kites in your area. Do you see White-tailed Kites in your area? Read this page and see what you can do to help. Also read the related article posted on Sea and Sage from LA Audubon about White-tailed Kites in Southern California: The Trouble with Kites....

USGS: White-tailed Kite

Short Article.

The White-tailed Kite by Gail Pickwell

An interesting, though dated, article from a 1930 issue of the Condor that examines condor habits from habitat to nesting and speculates on what is causing the decrease in population. Nice description of Santa Clara nesting sites. Good picture given of White-tailed Kites at the time. Although this is a narrower population than what we call the "White-tailed Kite," the article still has some interesting things to say about the current problems this bird faces.

White-tailed Kite Suffers Due to Unintentional Poisoning

Read about a young White-tailed Kite poisoned unintentionally by poison used at a San Diego Cemetery to kill rodents such as rats, gophers, and mice.

Internet Bird Collection: White-Tailed Kite

Videos from the Internet Bird Collection of the White-tailed Kite. Many taken by Don DesJardin from Ventura County, California. He takes very good photos and videos. There is one taken at Bolsa Chica about a month before I took my pictures.


The arguments that helped restore species status to the White-tailed Kite.

Do you have a question about birding, feeding wild birds, or birds in Orange County? Go to Ask the OC Birder Girl and ask your question.

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