Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Watching kites fly a joy for bird lovers

Small raptors never seen here before

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All eyes are on the skies over Wellington Crescent for a sighting of a pair of birds that don't belong here.

Two Mississippi kites -- small, grey raptors -- have been spotted thousands of kilometres from home, thrilling Manitoba birdwatchers who've been flocking to the posh neighbourhood along the Assiniboine River for a glimpse of them.

"It's the first time it's ever been seen in Manitoba, so it's pretty exciting from a provincial perspective," said Peter Taylor, editor in chief of The Birds of Manitoba. He saw the two raptors Monday on Wellington at Montrose Street.

On Wednesday, a crowd of about a dozen birdwatchers, some armed with jumbo camera lenses, gathered at the corner on the lookout for the southern couple.

One captured an image of a Mississippi kite catching a dragonfly.

"That seems to be a specialty of theirs -- catching large insects in the air," said Taylor. "It's a very graceful bird. The silhouette is a little bit like a peregrine falcon, but it doesn't have the powerful high-speed flight of a falcon. It's much more soaring and sailing and swooping after insects. It's got a slower motion of flight than a peregrine, but it's very, very graceful," said Taylor.

"It's not spectacular in terms of colour -- it's various shades of grey -- but it's beautiful in its movements."

He couldn't say why a Mississippi kite -- whose main range is the southern half of the United States and north to around Missouri -- would be so far from home.

"Sometimes, rare birds show up as a result of navigation errors or are blown here by storms." The pair spotted in Winnipeg might just be explorers who went beyond the edge of their range, Taylor said.

"There are scattered records of them showing up right across the northeast and north-central states. They do seem to be gradually extending their range north," he said. In 1985 and 1992, Mississippi kites were spotted in Regina around the legislative building, said Taylor.

"To have them appear to leapfrog as far north as Winnipeg is exceptional," he said.

"It may be partly climate change, it may be partly habitat change."

The planting of shelterbelts in the Great Plains and southern U.S. has resulted in new habitat for the birds and their population growth, said Taylor.

It's not the first surprising bird to show up in Manitoba lately.

"There has been a flurry of unusual sightings," Taylor said.

In May, another kite was spotted -- the swallow-tailed kite, whose population declined in the early 20th century. It was the first recorded sighting of one in Manitoba in more than a century, said Taylor.

The Mississippi kites in Winnipeg are well beyond their range but have found their comfort zone and may be starting a family.

"They like nesting in shelterbelts and where there is river-bottom forest," said Taylor. "It's an ideal situation, with a combination of urban forest and river-bottom forest along Wellington Crescent," he said. He couldn't confirm from the look of the two Mississippi kites if they are mates.

"The male and female are very similar," he said. Judging from their behaviour -- staying around Wellington Crescent and Montrose where they've been spotted for nearly two weeks -- it appears they could be nesting and setting down northern roots, he said.

"We certainly hope to see them return and maybe get established, with time."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 31, 2014 B1


Updated on Thursday, July 31, 2014 at 6:39 AM CDT: Corrects photo cutline

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