BIRDING BY HINDSIGHT: A Second Look at Mississippi Kite

The Mississippi Kite holds a unique place on the checklist of Minnesota’s 427 species of birds. It seems there is still no recognizable photograph (or specimen) of this bird taken in the state, and it’s the only Casual Minnesota species holding this dubious distinction.

Yes, there are several Accidental birds on our checklist yet to be represented with a photo or specimen: e.g., Violet-green Swallow, Painted Redstart, and others. But by definition, Casual species occur at least a few times each decade in the state — often enough, it would seem, for pictures to be taken of all of them at some point. But not the Mississippi Kite. While there were photos taken of individuals seen in flight on two occasions in recent years, the records committee (MOURC) considered the images too small to be recognizable as Mississippi Kites.

Now, perhaps this point of ornithological trivia might strike you as just, well, trivial. After all, does it matter if a camera-shy vagrant like a Mississippi Kite is classified as a Casual or Accidental species? Maybe not. But note that some records committees exclude species from a state’s official checklist unless accompanied by the tangible evidence of a photograph or specimen. And at the rate it’s showing up in Minnesota, don’t be surprised if this kite is promoted to Regular status within a few years. It would then be an annually occurring species considered by some ornithologists to be “nonexistent” in Minnesota.

[Author's Note, September 2010 – There are now identifiable photos of this species taken in Minnesota.]

The Mississippi Kite has been steadily spreading its breeding range north during the past several years, and a few now apparently nest in Iowa on a regular basis. There are now several acceptable sight records in Minnesota between April and September, and it can show up almost anywhere in the state. Unfortunately, there have been just as many reports of this species with little or no documentation which MOURC has been unable to accept. Even more unfortunate is that most of these birds were probably correctly identified.

Indeed, a Mississippi Kite is a lot easier to identify than it is to document. Once you’ve seen them catching dragonflies in flight or rising as a migrant flock into a thermal, you’ll find the combination of their flight style and overall shape to be unique and diagnostic. But how do you describe all this in words adequately enough to preclude other raptors from consideration? Frankly, I’m not entirely sure I can. Perhaps the best I can do here is to offer some other thoughts to keep in mind the next time this kite flies your way.

• Other Insectivorous Raptors — Remember that Merlins and American Kestrels also catch and eat dragonflies and other large insects on the wing. (So does the falcon-shaped Common Nighthawk, for that matter.) Though the flight of these two falcons differs from a kite as they hunt, the Mississippi Kite is falcon-like in its profile, and the potential for confusion clearly exists.

• Other Kiting Raptors — If you see a raptor kiting, it has to be a kite, right? Hardly. Remember that kiting basically just means the same thing as hovering, that almost any species of raptor can hover, and that some raptors like Red-tailed and Rough-legged hawks and American Kestrels do it all the time.

• Size — A Mississippi Kite is not the same size as a Swainson’s Hawk or Northern Harrier or Peregrine Falcon, as has been described in some documentations. It is smaller than many birders think, with its wing span and overall length roughly halfway between that of a Peregrine and Merlin.

• Wing Shape — While a Mississippi Kite’s distinctive wing profile results partly from the relatively short length of its outermost primary, this oft-mentioned field mark is overrated. Yes, this primary is short, but look at photos of almost any flying accipiter, buteo, or harrier -- all of them show an outer primary that’s clearly shorter than the one next to it.

• Tail Shape — Some birders are under the mistaken impression that the tip of a Mississippi Kite’s tail should look notched. A perched kite will probably show this, but a flying kite probably will not. (By the way, on a perched kite also note how the wing tips extend beyond the tail tip.) More likely, in flight the tail will look squared-off or slightly rounded. A better feature to look for is how wide the tip of the tail looks relative to its narrow base, even when the tail is folded in. Indeed, the sides of a Mississippi Kite’s tail often look slightly concave, with the sides curving out a bit towards the tail tip.

• White Head — The head of an adult or subadult (i.e., second-year) Mississippi Kite will typically appear whiter than the rest of its plumage, although this feature may not be as noticeable on females. Also note this is not something to look for at all on juveniles (i.e., first-year birds), which will probably look white only on the supercilium.

While looking at a Mississippi Kite’s whitish head, be sure to also notice how large, dark, and contrasting the eye looks. This distinctive appearance results from the dark ruby red iris combined with a small blackish area next to the eye.

• White Secondaries — White is also something to look for on the secondaries of an adult Mississippi Kite, but remember this feature is not present on subadults and juveniles. Keep in mind as well this diagnostic white patch is only visible on the upper surface of the secondaries, but from below a good mark on an adult is the narrow and contrasting white trailing edge on the dark secondaries. (And while we’re on the subject of an adult’s wing color, there may be some dull rusty pigment on the middle primaries, but this is usually hard to see.)

• Under Wing — As a Mississippi Kite passes overhead, you could see any number of things on the under side of the flight feathers. Some will have blackish primaries and outer secondaries fading to dark gray on the inner secondaries. Others will have a more complex pattern of blackish outer primaries, light gray inner primaries and inner secondaries, and darker gray outer secondaries. Many kites will show a small whitish area on the base of the outer primaries or on the inner primaries. And some (juveniles or subadults) can have a large whitish area along the base of the primaries, reminiscent of a Ferruginous Hawk.

The under wing coverts, though, should be more uniform and predictable. Depending on age, this part of the wing will appear uniformly brownish or grayish and look paler than the blackish or darker gray areas on the flight feathers.

• Tail Pattern — Adults have an overall blackish tail above and below, generally solid black on males, with females showing some gray on the basal half. Juveniles have a tail with narrow white bands, very similar to the tail pattern of a Merlin. And subadults can have either an adult- or juvenile-like tail pattern.

• Birding by Foresight — The power of suggestion is indeed a powerful thing. It is simply human nature to see what we expect to see, whether or not we really did. As a result, unfortunately, there are times when this involves sightings of real or imagined rarities. Witness last fall’s reports of Brant and Yellow-billed Loon. The Brant was actually an immature blue-morph Snow Goose, and the correctly identified loon was apparently present for a day only. Yet, expecting and hoping to see these rarities, some subsequent observers were fooled by that same Snow Goose, and others were misled by a paler-than-normal Common Loon after the Yellow-billed was gone.

To an extent, this same thing may be going on with some Mississippi Kites. As discussed above, this is a species with few diagnostic plumage features, with some misunderstood field marks, and with its ID depending largely on such intangible characters as flight and shape. So someone reports one, and we concur with its identification and practically have it on our list before we actually go out to see it.

In 1998, for example, the talk of the town was all about the half dozen Mississippi Kites being seen around the Twin Cities. Perhaps they were there, perhaps they weren’t, and we’ll probably never know. Of those six reports, one was identified without optics as the observer was driving at 70 m.p.h., three were insufficiently documented with brief and sketchy details, and two were never described at all.

And just last spring a similar surge in Mississippi Kite reports came in, mostly from the Twin Cities. Although MOURC has yet to evaluate these documentations, it is encouraging that the outcome will probably be better than four years ago. Of the seven descriptions, most of them appear at first glance to be at least reasonably convincing and credible.

Two of the descriptions, though, leave a lot to the imagination. One description consists entirely of the following: “small dark raptor. . .the bird was very dark, had pointed wings and a long tail. . .no streaking was visible.” The other documentation only includes that the bird was seen in flight without binoculars, that it had pointed wings and did not fly like an accipiter, and when seen with binoculars after it perched “it had a lighter head with a small bill and a dark body.”