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Square-tailed Kite – a Rare Encounter

Bird Photography with marysejansenart

Uncommon canopy dweller not often seen up close

Square-tailed Kite by Maryse Jansen
Square-tailed Kite

Identifying the Square-tailed Kite

I’m talking to another walker on the track as he suddenly says: “Look behind you!” A bird of prey is gliding through the trees, not much higher then eye level! It lands on a branch not far from us so we get a great opportunity to have a good look at it. The smaller birds in the area are not impressed with this visitor in their territory and they make a lot of noise. The bird of prey is definitely a Kite, but I’m not sure which one. Normally I see and hear Whistling Kites in this area, but this one is different. It turns out to be a Square-tailed Kite!

Because the bird is quite happy with its current perch, it stays put for a little while and that gives me the opportunity to get a couple of photos. These help me at home to identify it. Australia counts six species of Kites. Two smaller, hovering Kites: the Letter-winged Kite and the Black-shouldered Kite. And four larger Kites: the Black Kite, the Square-tailed Kite, the Brahminy Kite and the Whistling Kite.

When I check out the larger species I notice it can be difficult to tell them apart, especially when dealing with juveniles. Luckily. I am dealing with an adult bird here and its pale eyes and white face give away its identity! And of course the shape of its tail is also a specific characteristic for this particular species. The bird is heavily streaked on its crown and breast. The underparts are rufous coloured, the upper parts grey-brown to black. The tail is long but the wings are even longer, so in this perched position I can see the wing feathers sticking out beyond the square-shaped tail. It has a wingspan of 130-145cm!

A rare encounter

I’m excited because it is a pretty rare sight! Square-tailed Kites are uncommon. They can be seen widespread throughout Australia, but their density is low. They live a mostly solitary life and can only be seen with a partner and offspring during their breeding season. Their habitat can be anything from forests and woodlands to scrub and heathlands and even savannah or more urbanised areas such as parks and golf courses. As long as there are enough trees. They don’t like to spend time on the ground but prefer to dwell in the canopy.

When on the hunt, the Square-tailed Kites fly through or just above the canopy. They may sometimes be seen skimming over grass. The birds prey on a range of bird species, typically nestlings or juveniles and they will also take the eggs. They are particularly fond of honeyeaters. Small mammals, reptiles, insects and snails are included on the menu.

Knowing all of this about their behaviour it appears the sighting today is even more exceptional as the bird is sitting on such a low branch in this forest. What a treat to see it so close up!

Square-tailed Kite portrait by Maryse Jansen
Square-tailed Kite Portrait

Breeding – a long term project

As opposed to the quick turn around time of breeding in small birds such as the Red-browed Finch, producing offspring is a long term project for the Square-tailed Kite. The birds perform spectacular aerial displays in order to choose a partner. Then, they will choose a tall tree in a forested area to build their nest in. The construction of the nest takes about three weeks.

During the incubation period, the female bird spends most of her time on the nest. The male will hunt and bring her food and at night he roosts in a tree nearby. Occasionally, males can be seen incubating the eggs. It takes around 40 days for the one or two eggs to hatch. Both adult birds take care of the chicks, which stay in the nest for eight weeks. After that period, they are still dependent on their parents for another two months.

So, when we do the math we can see that the whole process easily takes six months! Obviously they only do one attempt per year. Breeding takes place in summer in the south-west, south-east and east of Australia. During winter, the birds migrate up north.

Join me on my walk to see some footage of this amazing bird in the latest episode of ‘Come for a walk in the Australian Bush’:

If you are interested in purchasing a print of ‘Square-tailed Kite’ or would like to see what the image looks like on the various merchandise products, please head to my shop.

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