This is the time of year when Tehachapi people will sometimes notice a large, brilliant white bird hovering in the sky and wonder: "What is a seagull doing so far from the ocean?" While seagulls do occasionally pass through the area, local residents are more likely to be seeing one of the most beautiful raptors in all of North America: the White-tailed Kite.
These elegant, medium-sized hawks primarily forage over grasslands, looking for small rodents on which to dine. White-tailed Kites (Elanus leucurus) are startlingly attractive, possessing snowy white feathers coupled with gray and black highlights, a sharply hooked little bill and piercing red eyes.
I have written about them before, and happily sightings of them seem to be increasing in the Tehachapi Mountains in recent years. In 2015, two different Tehachapi News readers, Jeff Pfau and Paul Askins, spotted and photographed up to four White-tailed Kites at Phil Marx Central Park in Tehachapi.
In years past my friend Toshimi Kristof in Bear Valley has photographed Kites hunting in grasslands on the valley floor, when she and her husband, Les, encounter them during hikes. Last week Toshimi again spotted a pair of Kites successfully hunting in the meadows of Bear Valley, and she took the photos on this page.
Though mostly white, these Kites do have dark patches on the bend of their wings and for a time were known as “Black-shouldered Kites.” You can sometimes see one of these graceful, fairy-like birds as it hovers over an open field, waiting for a rodent to appear. White-tailed Kites often face into the wind and hang suspended, 20 to 80 feet off the ground, either flapping their wings or just letting the wind pass under them, like an actual kite tethered at the end of an invisible string.
These beautiful birds were decimated in California during the 1930s and '40s due to shooting, egg collectors and habitat loss, but with legal protection they have recovered and expanded their range in some areas, though their overall population has declined from what it was in the 1970s.
White-tailed Kites eat primarily small mammals, and somehow songbirds are aware of this and show little fear of Kites, even when the Kites are hunting above them.
When it comes to accipiters, however, like Sharp-shinned Hawks and Cooper’s Hawks, which eat mostly other birds, the resident songbirds view them with total alarm, and will hide in dense shrubs, refusing to move until the Sharpie or Cooper’s vacates the premises.
I still remember when I saw a Kite for the first time, when I was about 13 years old. It was autumn and my Uncle Hank and I were picking dry field corn by hand and I saw a bright white bird hovering over a fallow grain field. "What is that?" I asked him, "It looks like a seagull!" He was a farmer and not a birder, but he spent a lifetime outdoors and he knew most of our local birds well. "No, it's a kite," he answered. "That can't be," I thought to myself, thinking at first he meant a paper kite, like a kid's toy, but he said "That's what they call those birds."
I was enchanted by the sight of that gorgeous white bird with pointed wingtips, hovering in place in search of incautious rodents, and later I looked them up in a bird book — of course there was no Internet in those days. Before the era of Google, it was hard to even find photos of White-tailed Kites — the only bird book I had was an old Peterson Field Guide to Western Birds illustrated with paintings, and so I had to content myself with my own Kite sightings over the years.
Now there are hundreds of online photos of beautiful White-tailed Kites, but I hope you get to see one in the wild, they're really unforgettable. A pair has successfully nested in Bear Valley before and Toshimi photographed the fledglings, so of course we're all hoping that they nest here again.
Have a good week.
Jon Hammond has written for Tehachapi News for more than 30 years. Send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.