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Well-traveled winged guests

Many visitors come through the southern Georgia and western South Carolina region in search of tasty cuisine found primarily in this part of the nation. There is homemade biscuits, flavorful barbecue, and even fresh-caught catfish.
However, for one grouping of visitors who fly in from southern Brazil the delicacy is June bugs and dragonflies. While that may not seem like primetime vittles for most, for unusual types of birds known as swallow-tailed kites those winged insects bring the birds back each year in the spring and summer months to the area.
While the swallow-tailed kites have been seen in Screven County at places like the Tuckahoe Wildlife Management Area where signs are posted about the birds, the Lower Savannah River Alliance hosted a July 22 kite-sighting outing in Allendale County.   
“So much information comes from these birds,” Jim Elliott, executive director and founder of the Avian Conservation Center in Awendaw, S.C, told those who just earlier in the day saw the kites fly and feed over Allendale County fields. The group filled the room at the alliance’s education center inside the former South Carolina state welcome center on U.S. Highway 301.
“We have 20 years of data. We are seeing differences in the climates,” Elliott said. “Climate change is real.”
Much can be gained by the migration habits of the adult birds that have been tracked with monitors flying great distances across large bodies of water. Elliott’s center has found that within the tissue of the birds has contained flame retardant chemicals, pesticides, pharmacuticals, and even evidence of Viagra.
As dozens of swallow-tailed kites and Mississippi kites glided through the air as the winds kept them up above like the stringed version of a kite, those on the alliance’s outing and other bird watchers peered through camera viewfinders, binoculars and telescopes at the birds above fenced-in fields off Augusta Highway/South Carolina 125.
“A Mississippi kite is absolutely humbling to see,” said Elliott, who brought a kite from his center for the group to view up close. Elliott said the kite he showed was brought to the center to become a permanent resident after it lost its imprint to be a bird on its own when humans handled it at an early age.
Mississippi kites are mostly gray with a shallow fork in the tail. They do not show nearly as much contrast as the white-and-black swallow-tailed kite.
The kites, listed by South Carolina Department of Natural Resources as an endangered species, hover around and then swoop in to pluck the bugs out of the air. While they remain in flight, the birds can make the transfer of the bug in the feet to the mouth. It eats, drinks and bathes on the wing.
The birds also have the ability to bring their wings in tight to their bodies and rapidly accelerate straight down like a bullet to claim their quarry. A smiling Elliott said the bird’s “phenominal acceleration is something Boeing would love to have.”
Although the birds have become a more common sight for locals during this time of the year, the kites’ appearance in the past raised quite a few questions wondering what the feathered fowl were.
“Everybody had a name for them,” said Elliott, who back in 1998 went to Florida to watch a bird “scooping up a dragonfly.”
The birds, who prefer large tracts of forested wetlands, have long forked tails; slim two-foot bodies; long pointed wings; a white head with a dark, small sharply hooked bill; and black feathers on wings and tail. This bird will travel more than 10,000 miles from southern Brazil to locate just the right place in South Carolina to breed, nest and raise their young.
While the birds do have a liking to flying insects, they also will find small reptiles, mammals or nesting birds. Among the foods of choice are green lizards known as anoles; treefrogs; and small snakes.
The kites spend most of their days on the wing, seldom flapping as they consistently search for food. They nest in tall loblolly pines with other kites, but they may also nest in cypress, water tupelo, sweet gums and willow oaks.
During their time in the region with its yearly seasonal near triple-digit temperatures and high douse of humidity, the mating pairs build a nest in the branches of treetops as they use Spanish moss for nesting to lay one or two eggs.
Reportedly, an estimated 120 to 170 breeding pairs nest in South Carolina each year.
In years past in the United States, swallow-tailed kites nested in 16 states on the east coast and along the Mississippi River north to Minnesota. However, now just seven states along the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean have nesting sites. Fewer than 200 breeding pairs continue the migration to Allendale’s Central Savannah River area in addition to Waccamaw River sites in the Palmetto State.