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Rare bird of prey not seen here in more than a century

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This file photo shows a swallow-tailed kite in flight.

JOE NICHOLSON, BUGWOOD.ORG Enlarge Image

This file photo shows a swallow-tailed kite in flight.

Manitoba birders are atwitter over a sighting of a bird of prey unseen in this province for 122 years.

On Thursday evening, a group of 13-year-old flag-football players, their coaches and several adult spectators watched a large black-and-white bird circle over Fraser's Grove Park in East Kildonan for almost an hour.

"It looked like a huge swallow, because it had a huge, forked tail. And then someone else said it looked like someone was flying a kite," said Kyle Kushnier, one of the spectators.

"He was doing these fairly tight circles. He was very, very nimble," added Donovan Toews, who briefly stopped the flag-football practice he was coaching in order to watch the bird. "It looked like he was hunting."

Later that evening, Kushnier consulted birding books and websites before concluding the creature in question was a swallow-tailed kite, a bird that breeds in South America and is a frequent visitor to the southeastern United States.

The species had not been seen in Manitoba since 1892.

"There's nothing else that looks remotely like it, never mind behaves like it," Kushnier said.

Rudolf Koes, one of Manitoba's most respected birders, said there are no other birds of prey that resemble the swallow-tailed kite, which has a wingspan of up to 1.4 metres to go with its distinctive colouration and noticeable fork in its tail.

"There's really not much you can mistake it for," said Koes. "Even though these fellows (who spotted the kite) are not birders, they obviously observed well. I have no doubt they are correct."

The last confirmed sighting of a swallow-tailed kite in Manitoba dates back 122 years to an account of a hunter taking one at Winnipeg, according to records kept by Ernest Thompson Seton, the provincial naturalist and renowned author.

Swallow-tailed kites were spotted as far northwest as Minnesota on a routine basis until the early 1900s, but their U.S. numbers declined throughout the 20th century as a result of persecution, deforestation and land drainage, according to The Birds of Manitoba, the provincial birders' bible.

A handful of recent Minnesota sightings led to the possibility the kite would visit Manitoba again soon, the tome's authors wrote in 2003.

That prediction proved accurate, but Koes cautioned against reading anything into the return of the swallow-tailed kite.

"It's just a bird that's gotten off course," he said, surmising the kite could wind up even farther northwest. "What often happens with these birds that are way out of range is they just keep going."

Ironically, Koes lives 100 metres away from the park where the kite was spotted, but did not see it. He has seen the species in the United States.

"I'm very envious, because I live very close," he said. "It's a pretty special sighting."

bartley.kives@freepress.mb.ca

Given the first Manitoba sighting of a swallow-tailed kite in 122 years, what long-gone animal would you love to see back in this province? Join the conversation in the comments below.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 28, 2014 A4

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