In a Lowcountry sky full of breathtaking creatures, the swallow-tailed kite is one of the most mysterious.
The raptor glides for miles without flicking a wing, and can glide to a stop in midair. It's so keenly adapted to flight it almost never touches the ground. It's so mobile that after years of sighting reports, researchers still don't know enough about how many there are to know whether it's an endangered species.
But what they do know is the bird's future depends on bugs. And that's helping drive a new approach to protecting wetland bottom hardwoods -- making better use of the fields around them.
A recent study by two College of Charleston grad students working with the Nature Conservancy has confirmed that the insect-eating birds, which nest in the bottoms, not only depend on the fields for the bugs they eat, but will go for miles from field to field looking for mass hatches of particular bugs, what are called insect eruptions.
That's more important than you might think.
"The swallow-tailed kites are an important 'umbrella species.' If you have good habitat for swallow-tailed kites, you have pretty healthy habitat (for other species)," said Jim Elliott, director of the International Center for Birds of Prey in Awendaw. Elliott co-chairs a study group on the kites.
In other words, keeping alive the hardwood bottoms, the heart of the Lowcountry, depends on how and when the open fields around them are turned and planted.
It's a balancing act so fine that the birds can be thrown off by whether a particular field is left fallow or planted with corn or hay.
The study by Tera Baird and Chris Simmons will help conservationists make recommendations to those landowners, said Maria Whitehead of the Nature Conservancy, an adjunct professor at the college who worked with Baird and Simmons.
Up until now, foraging habitat largely has been left out of protection efforts like the Black River Swamp. Now, the conservancy, among other groups, is including them.
Cordray Farms in Ravenel, a beef cattle operation, was one of the fields studied by Baird and Simmons after Jeff Cordray, 23, began reporting sightings of the kites. Cordray, a lifelong duck hunter, is one of those people who will pull the truck to the roadside to watch when he spots an unusual bird. The swallow-tailed aren't hard to find. When they mow hay at the farm, the kites start swooping.
Just the other day, he said, two or three of them were hunting a pasture along with some 20 or 30 Mississippi kites, their more urban cousins.
"The swallow-tailed are just cool birds -- to see a bird that big foraging that high, dropping down and picking them right out of the air," Cordray said. The Cordrays has started considering the kites in planting decisions -- as much for the crop as the birds.
"Conservation is just the best way to go," said Michael Cordray, Kenneth's father.
The kite is a type of hawk distinguished by a long, forked tail and its white and black, almost gull-like appearance. It's here for the summer, breeding in nests in the wetlands across the coastal Southeast. By late June, the birds and their young will start gathering in evening roosts, getting ready to migrate en masse in August to their winter roosts in South America.
They are listed as an endangered species in South Carolina but not nationally because there's so little documentation so far nobody can make the federal case. Conservationists do know that their habitat -- the hardwood bottoms and forage fields -- is gradually being lost to development. In South America, pesticides outlawed here are still used to wipe out the insect the birds feed on.
Elliott's group has been working for years to put together population numbers and distribution trends to see if there's a case to be made for a federal endangered species designation, something that would foster habitat conservation.
Just one of the problems is that the bird roosts essentially stage their migrations. Roosts in lower Florida will migrate first, and birds farther north will trade roosts on their way down as staging areas for their own migration -- each in turn taking over an abandoned roost until all the birds are gone. Until now, that meant state groups working independently might well have been counting the same birds again and again.
The working group now coordinates specific count days among those states.
"We have realized how dynamic they are, how opportunistic," Elliot said.