For the Birds Radio Program: Swallow-tailed Kite!

Original Air Date: May 27, 1999

Laura just added an exceptionally cool bird to her state list.

Audio missing


On May 15, a woman named Cindy Krienke was fishing with her husband on Lower Sakatah Lake near Faribault, Minnesota. In several hours she had caught just one small fish, and by late afternoon was paying more attention to swallows than she was to her fishing lines when what to her wondering eyes should appear but a bird that looked like the Andre the Giant of swallows. Despite its huge size, it flew with quick, delicate movements, like a swallow or tern. It was black and white with a long, forked tail and long pointed wings. Cindy tore through the field guide she keeps at hand. One drawing was a perfect match-the Swallow-tailed Kite. She started the boat engine and raced to the nearest phone to send out the alert.

Swallow-tailed Kites nested in Minnesota long, long ago. A stuffed one is displayed at the Bell Museum, but only a handful of live ones have been spotted in the state since they were wiped out in the late 1800s. The most recent sightings were back in 1976 near Itasca State Park.

Virtually all of the ones in the US nest in Florida, and seldom make it north of Georgia and Louisiana. Thanks to the internet and telephone hotlines, scores of birders rushed to the scene. And now every day birders make the pilgrimage to see this most beautiful of lost raptors. I’ve been overwhelmed with work the past few months, but I needed to see it so I took a day off May 25, and joined forces with my good friends John Heid and Mary Anderson to make the journey.

Due to several last minute emergencies, we didn’t get on the road until 11:30 Tuesday, and didn’t make it to Faribault until 3:30. Cindy Krienke was there to greet us. This extraordinary woman has become the official greeter and kite spotter, showing the bird to as many visitors as possible. The kite had put on a show all morning but by the time we arrived was nowhere to be seen . The wind was gusting over 40 mph, and it had apparently taken shelter in an inaccessible place. We scanned the skies and the tree for the next three hours, without luck.

We were feeling discouraged and sad when suddenly Mary came up with a contingency plan. She has a brother living in Minneapolis, and suggested we camp out at his place and try again in the morning. We all had things we were supposed to be doing, but this wasn’t just any bird-it was a Swallow-tailed Kite-so the decision was an easy one.

We made it back to the spot at about 8:30 the next morning. We didn’t see the bird at first, and soon were joined by a couple of other birders. They walked down the road and suddenly noticed the bird on a snag hidden by trees from our vantage point. It was at the far end of a wide field, but we all had great looks through our scopes. Suddenly it took off, darted gracefully across the road and disappeared into some trees. We tried the walking down the road technique again, and there it was, on a snag much closer to us. We watched it preen and regurgitate a goopy pellet as it sat for more than a half hour. Cindy joined us, and suddenly it took off, circling directly above our heads and over the plowed fields that lined the road, very low to start with. We saw it extend its talons and catch insects, and then pull its head down and eat them in mid-air. It swooped and soared and glided and tumbled through the air, so close that we could see it blink. We studied it for over two hours before we finally faced up to our responsibilities and headed on home. This had been such a beautiful bird, and we’d had such extraordinary good looks at it, that a feeling of elation filled the car. We’d had 27 hours of wonderful companionship and conversation and now had a fantastic bird to celebrate, on a day none of us will ever forget.