Spring Kites in Cape May

swallowtailed kite
Photo by Pat and Clay Sutton

Posted May 14, 2009
by Clay and Pat Sutton

As a number of people happily watched, three kites were flying over the Cape May beach.

Now is a great time at Cape May for flying kites. The gentle to moderate sea breezes at the Cape tend to create great conditions for kite flying; the wind coupled with the warmth create excellent situations for graceful and fluid kites.

While the conditions are terrific for the kites with bright patterns that every kid loves, we’re talking about the other kind of flying kites, the feathered variety.

Cape May Kites

The three kites over the beach were bold and dramatic Swallow-tailed Kites. The month of May and early June are the prime time to see Swallow-tailed Kites and Mississippi Kites cavorting over the Cape.

Kites are a type of hawk. The kites we see at Cape May (Mississippi Kite and Swallow-tailed Kite) resemble falcons, with long, pointed wings and long tails. They hunt a variety of prey and primarily feed while on the wing.

Swallow-tailed and Mississippi Kites are southern species, usually only seen here at Cape May in late spring and summer.

They are not abundant in the classic sense, but we have seen seven Mississippi Kites together in the sky, and usually see just one or two Swallow-tailed Kites a season.

Lots of Kites This Year

This year, however, a number of Swallow-tailed Kites have been present, with continuous sightings since mid-April, including three seen together in mid-May. Cape May is certainly the best and most reliable place to see kites north of South Carolina’s Low Country.

Other birds, and even other hawks, may be more colorful (kites are mostly lovely shades of blue-gray, black, and white), but few if any would argue that kites are the most graceful of any flying bird.

Swallow-tailed Kites

Swallow-tailed Kites may fly high or low, but exhibit a graceful mix of soaring and gliding that virtually no other bird can match.

We once watched a Swallow-tailed Kite hunt for over an hour, and never saw it flap once. Its buoyant turns, banks, swoops, and dives were all accomplished by constantly adjusting the wings and tail.

The Swallow-tailed Kite at times seems to be flying in slow motion as it hangs almost motionless above the treetops, scanning for a tasty dragonfly or locust. Indeed, the Swallow-tail’s long and deeply-forked tail, when spread, is said to actually act as an airfoil (or much like the flaps of an aircraft) giving the bird increased lift and the ability for slow, gliding flight.

Kites act much like sailplanes or gliders, and it is no wonder they are named after the graceful variety invented in Asia long before the first ornithologist discovered and named the feathered kind. Like fabric kites, at times they seem to float on the air.

The Swallowtails are thought to be “overshoots,” wanderers (or bold pioneers) from the northernmost nesting populations in South Carolina and southern North Carolina.

Mississippi Kites

The Carolina Low Country is the stronghold for Mississippi Kites too, but the Mississippi Kite is rapidly expanding its range north.

Just last year they were found nesting in suburban Washington, DC, in Connecticut, and even in New Hampshire. Mississippi Kites no doubt nest sparingly in New Jersey too, yet the first nest remains to be found.

The Mississippi Kite’s rapid range expansion may be one excellent example of climate change and its effects on bird distribution. Both these kite species, being primarily insect eaters, are highly migratory and retire to South America for the winter.

Each year seems to get better and better for kites at Cape May, with the birds appearing earlier and staying later.

Mostly wanderers (probably non-breeders and one-year-old birds), they are concentrated by Cape May’s peninsular geography, but attracted by the rich and varied habitats that produce their favored dragonfly prey.

Where to See Kites

Kites spend most of their day aloft. To find “flying kites” pick warm and sunny days. Kites like a light to moderate breeze to assist their extended flying.

Watching kites is like most hawk watching; scan above the treetops and in the skies over places such as Cape May Point State Park, the Cape May Migratory Bird Refuge, Higbee Beach WMA and Hidden Valley.

The Rea Farm (“The Beanery”) and Villas WMA are both classic places to spot kites.

  • Pick a good vantage point from which to scan in all directions, and simply remember to “look up” and check all flying birds.
  • Morning is best: kites are easiest to spot when they first “get up” in the sky, as morning thermals develop. Later in the day kites fly much higher and have dispersed as they hunt.
  • Days of northwest winds are best. Being such masterful flyers, kites cover a lot of territory, but northwest winds usually bring them back down to Cape May from places as far away as Belleplain State Forest or even farther.

So now is the time for flying kites. The poetic flight of kites is raptor watching at its very, very best, and their refined and delicate shapes bring magic to spring morning skies.

Clay and Pat Sutton are noted Cape May birders and the authors of Birds and Birding at Cape May.


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