National Wildlife Refuge System
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Yellow-crowned night herons
The rare swallow-tailed kite is considered one of the most threatened land birds currently without federal protection.
Credit: Howard Costa, Hilton Head Audubon

Birds with Backpacks

In the blackwater swamps of South Carolina, scientists at Waccamaw National Wildlife Refuge are awaiting results from the first phase of a synchronized six–state aerial census of the rare and beautiful swallow–tailed kite. The refuge was established to protect nesting habitat for this bird. When completed, in two more years, the survey will provide important data concerning its populations.

In early morning flights this summer, airborne researchers in South Carolina, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Louisiana and Mississippi followed signals transmitted from radio backpacks placed on some 15 kite nestlings to find pre–migratory roosts that kites form at the end of the breeding season.

The population survey is a top priority of a newly formed group of researchers, scientists, land managers and conservationists called the Swallow–tailed Kite Conservation Alliance. Alliance member and Waccamaw Refuge manager Craig Sasser received a $27,000 federal Challenge Cost Share grant this spring to help fund the radio telemetry work and the kite roost survey. The bulk of the survey work was done by the Avian Research Conservation Institute.

The species is considered one of the most threatened land birds currently without federal protection. The estimated population of between 7,500 and 10,000 adult birds is less than that for wood storks, red–cockaded woodpeckers and several other endangered species, according to The Nature Conservancy, a project partner. But a more accurate count is needed. Researchers are also concerned that an estimated 60 percent of hatchlings fail to return from their Brazil wintering grounds to nest each year.

"One of our big concerns is that pesticide use in South America may be affecting the birds," says Sasser. "According to Ken Meyer, ARCI president, mortality on the wintering grounds appears higher than expected. We want to do everything in our power to protect kites while here on the breeding grounds in order to mitigate for loss."

Toward this end, the next phase of the project will identify where the refuge should direct its efforts to protect nesting and foraging habitat. Today, the refuge protects 22,500 acres of primarily bottomland hardwood forest.

Placing transmitters on nestlings is no easy business. After trudging through the knee–deep swamp to the site of a kite nest, researchers secure a rope to the tree, climb the 80–foot cypress, then lower the nestlings in a pillow–case sack. Once scientists have placed the transmitters, they hoist the birds back into the nest.

Ordinary citizens can also help scientists build kite data by reporting sightings of the birds. To report a sighting, go to

For more information: or 843–527–8069.

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