If you are into birdwatching, a visiting raptor caused quite a stir at Allerton Park in recent weeks.
The rare sighting of a swallow-tailed kite – which some websites have called “the coolest bird on earth” – had birders traveling hundreds of miles to catch a glimpse of its aerial maneuvers and dive-bombing hunting tactics.
“People were coming from Chicago, southern Illinois, Peoria, Charleston, Olney. There would be a half-dozen cars parked (at the west side of the park) at a time,” said Alex Lourash, one of the natural areas managers of the park.
“It was a big deal for those wanting to see it,” he added.
Lourash was in the right place at the right time with the right equipment to get some stunning photos of the visiting bird that could just as well be featured in a nature guide.
He lives near the park’s Sunsinger statue, and just happens to have a Canon 70D camera with a 150 to 600 mm lens. That means he can zoom in.
A search of online birdwatch listings show the only other swallow-tailed kite sighting in Piatt County was in 1974. You are more likely to see one in southern Mexico and central America than above the Mason-Dixon line, although they are popular in Florida.
For that reason, fellow Allerton Natural Areas Manager Nate Beccue was unsure about the sighting at first.
“When Alex sent me a message that he thought he saw a swallow-tailed kite, I thought, ‘probably not.’”
But Beccue, more of a bird enthusiast than Lourash, quickly confirmed it.
It was first seen near the area of the Sunsinger on Aug. 24, and stuck around until early September. The “cool” designation comes from their seemingly effortless flying which features sudden twists and turns due to its forked tail.
Fishing with a friend when he first saw the bird, Lourash thought it could be an eagle due to its white head. But it was the unique aerial dynamics that told him it was something he had not spied before.
“The way it flew, I just knew it was something different,” said Lourash.
According to allaboutbirds.org, the swallow-tailed kite is so agile it sometimes rolls and dives backward to catch an insect behind it. “Adults swallow their food while flying, rarely perching during the day,” said the website.
That gives them a large range.
“They can get up in the air and can go 500 miles a day,” added Beccue.
They favor dragonflies, which is what might have led this swallow-tailed kite to central Illinois, but they also eat frogs, lizards, snakes and nestling. In Florida they even eat wasps and ants, as they have stomachs that can digest them.
By the winter, many swallow-tail kites end up in South America, but they are also common in Florida year-round. They typically measure about 20 to 25 inches long, weigh 13 to 21 ounces and have a wingspan of around 48 inches.
Beccue understands the visitor was a thrill to only a relative few.
“It’s one of those things that, if you know anything about birds, it’s exciting. If not, it’s just another bird in the air,” he commented.