Birds of North Carolina:
their Distribution and Abundance
Swallow-tailed Kite - Elanoides forficatus
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General Comments Arguably the most spectacular bird of prey in the world, especially when seen in flight, the Swallow-tailed Kite has tantalized North Carolina birders for years, trying to determine if the birds actually breed in the state. Kites have nested for decades as far north as the Santee River, South Carolina, and have been seen in small numbers annually near the coast in spring, almost certainly as over-shooting breeders. Since 2003, several birds have spent the spring and summer along the Cape Fear River in Bladen/Pender, strongly suggestive of local breeding. Finally, in 2013, a nest was found at that site in the state, during an aerial survey; a second nest, along the Black River, was discovered in 2018, and a third in 2019. The species forages mostly in the air by swooping down onto animal prey, often reptiles and amphibians, snatching them from vegetation. However, most kites seen in North Carolina are simply in flight over a variety of coastal habitats, from barrier islands, to maritime forests. The species is seldom seen perched in North Carolina. In the past few years, there has been a considerable post-breeding push of birds in the late summer and fall into the western Piedmont and mountains, including flocks of six or more birds. Why this push tends to avoid the eastern half of the Piedmont is a mystery.
Breeding Status Breeder
NC BRC List Definitive
State Status SR
U.S. Status
State Rank S1B
Global Rank G5
Coastal Plain Annual visitor, mainly in spring along and near the coast, and breeder at a few sites in the southern counties; records increasing since 2005. Rare though somewhat regular along the southern half of the coast, north to Buxton, from mid-Mar to late May; very rare farther north, and more than a few miles from the coast. Very rare in the latter part of Feb, and as late as late Sep; apparently no records from Oct to mid-Feb, with the exception of one lingering in the Buxton area from 29 Sep - 21 Oct 2023. Since 2003, up to 10-17 birds have been seen along the Cape Fear River near NC 11 and Lock and Dam #1; an adult was seen on a nest on 7 May 2013 near this river in Bladen [Chat 77:74-78 link]. Another nest with two nearly fledged juveniles was photographed on 17 Jun 2018 along the Black River (Pender) [Chat 82:113 link]. A pair was seen building a nest in Onslow on 29 Apr 2019, but the outcome was not reported. A few recent summer records from swamps in Columbus, such as the Waccamaw River, might suggest possible breeding there. In summer 2023, repeated sightings of two birds near Jamesville (Martin) possibly suggested a nearby nest at a site well north of the known breeding range. Peak counts: a remarkable 77 seen in flight over fields in northwestern Pender on 4 Jul 2022; 20+, along Governors Road near Winnabow (Brunswick), 23 May 2022; 17 near the Cape Fear Lock and Dam #1 on both 8 Jun (near Zara) and 16 Jul 2016 (around the dam); 14, near Cape Fear Lock and Dam #1, 12 Jun 2011. A group of 9 seen near Makatoka (Brunswick) on 27 May 2018 suggests possible nesting in the Green Swamp area. Also, a count of 8 near Maxton (Robeson) on 18 Jul 2016 was a good count away from the Cape Fear River.
Piedmont Very rare to rare, but increasing, visitor in the warmer months, surprisingly mostly to the western/foothill counties. At least 55 records, from late Apr to mid-Sep. Hardly any records for the northern tier of counties. Peak counts: up to 9, along Old NC 60 in eastern Wilkes, 16-26 Aug 2016; 8 in McDowell, 17-24 Aug 2012; 8, over fields near Clingman (Wilkes), 23 Aug 2022; 6, over Harmon Field (Polk), 13-15 Aug 2020; 6, in southeastern Union, 18 Jul 2022.
Mountains Very rare, but increasing, visitor in the warmer months; about 26 records, with five coming in fall 2016 and three each in fall 2019 and late summer 2022. Mid-May to mid-Oct, with the record of one at High Hampton (Jackson) on 17 Oct 1953, being the latest fall record for the state. One seen just south of Newland (Avery), at 3800 feet elevation, on 12 Aug 2018, was most unusual and a possible first for the northern mountains. Peak counts: 13, Mills River area (Henderson), 27 Aug 2021; up to 6, where NC 191 crosses the French Broad River (Henderson), 8-20 Aug 2016; 5, Marble (Cherokee), 14 Aug 2016; 5, over Island Ford Landing (Transylvania), 8 Aug 2022.
Finding Tips Birders can usually spot one to several birds, along with some Mississippi Kites, either close to the NC 11 bridge over the Cape Fear River, or at the Lock and Dam #1 site somewhat up-river. The best times are May to mid-Jul.
Attribution LeGrand[2024-02-10], LeGrand[2023-10-20], LeGrand[2023-08-10]
NC Map
Map depicts all counties with a report (transient or resident) for the species.
Click on county for list of all known species.
NC Breeding Season Map
Map depicts assumed breeding season abundance for the species.