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Black-winged kite in a tree

Black-winged kite: a ghost at dusk

By José Antonio Sánchez Iglesias

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A few weeks ago I had a lucky encounter in the Aznalcazar Marshes, a beautiful specimen of this bird, one of my three favorite ones, posed for us at close range, which allowed me to take a good collection of photographs. Back at home I enjoyed seeing them so much on the computer that I knew I had to share so much beauty with you, and no better time than these days we are in to do it. Let me introduce you to the black-winged kite, an elegant and beautiful little bird of pray, the size of a common kestrel, with ruby like eyes, white head, bluish gray plumage and yellow legs. It has broad pointed wings like a peregrine, but it hovers like a kestrel during the hunt and glides with raised wings like a harrier, sharing with it the colors of its plumage, mainly gray, white and black, although they rarely land on the ground unlike them.

Half eagle, half owl

Elanus is composed of four species having similar plumage patterns and sizes, so similar that they have been consider until recently a cosmopolitan super-species with geographically-replacing forms. It is a quite silent bird whose voice we can barely hear during courtship. Sound recording of male an female while mating. Populations in intertropical zones behave ecologically like nomadic owls in boreal zones: they can move over long distances and reproduce when there are demographic explosions of the prey the feed on. They are crepuscular or nocturnal. It also presents a series of morphological characteristics, which could well be the result of evolutionary convergence, which also resembles owls: flight feathers with velvety barbules that enable a silent flight, zygodactyly (two forward-pointing and two backward-pointing toes) , large and frontal eyes that offer binocular vision, long perioral bristles and thick and short tarsi. Also like owls, elanus has a large mouth with which it is able to swallow whole preys. Recent studies seem to place them among the oldest of the Accipitridae family and mistakenly related to the kites.

Black-winged kite perches on a post

An immigrant who made Iberian nature more beautiful

Arrived in the Iberian Peninsula from the African savannas in the second half of the 20th century, the black-winged kite found in our open forests and associated agricultural areas the ideal habitat to settle and thrive. The clearing of forest areas and the implementation of modern agricultural and livestock systems caused a change in land use, particularly in Extremadura, where large oak forests were cleared and traditional pastures turned into cereal fields. This favored the establishment of individuals from Portugal and the creation of large breeding colonies in the pastures of Extremadura. Since 1970, when the first reproduction record occurred in Spain, the subspecies elanus caeruleus caeruleus arrived from Africa has increased its distribution area in the south western quadrant of the Peninsula, reaching to settle beyond the Pyrenees at Landes French department. It is considered one of the most abundant raptors worldwide, its distribution range cover large areas in sub-Saharan Africa, tropical Asia and now Europe, where it is expanding.

The perfect raptor

It is undoubtedly a generalist bird capable of adapting to a wide variety of open ecosystems with low density of trees similar to their areas of origin in Africa and that has been able to adapt and take advantage of the impact of human activity on the environment. The species is distributed throughout the Western Palearctic, Asia (Arabia and from Pakistan to the Philippines and Indonesia) and Sub-Saharan Africa. See distribution map. They can live from sea level to colonize areas of up to 3,000 meters of altitude.

 

As you can see, the black-winged kite is the perfect raptor, able to feed on a wide variety of preys such as small mammals, birds, reptiles and insects. It hovers over a possible target and when the prey is located, it descends slowly with its wings slightly raised until, a few meters from the ground, it folds them upwards, falling suddenly on the prey, as kestrels do. It is especially active during the twilight, being therefore the near sunset and sunrise the best times of the day to locate it. Its pale plumage helps them to camouflage, especially on gray and cloudy days; shy and little given to be noticed, covered by its white sheet I am deeply impressed by the beauty of its red gaze, it is the ghost of the dehesa.

 

Outstanding reproductive instinct

They often nest in low-lying solitary tree that dominates over a wide open hunting territory of about 5 square kilometers of grasslands or agricultural areas. Both sexes, looking alike, participate in the construction of a little elaborate nest of dry branches, as well as in the incubation of the eggs and feeding of the 3 or 4 chicks that they normally raise. The breeding females usually leave the nest when the young can already fly, being the male the one who continues with them sometimes even for several more months. Juvenile show rusty tinged crown and breast; dark greyish backs with scapulars decorated with pale edges; dark area on the upper wing is browner than in adults; tail feathers with grey tips; flight feathers, greater and primary coverts with white tips. In abundance of food they can have more than one brood a year. In winter they usually abandon their breeding areas and occupy other territories where food is plentiful, sometimes several hundred kilometers away.

In Doñana the species is in clear expansion, occupying agricultural areas and dehesas near the National Park, although scarce in it. The pastures in the surroundings of Cortijo de los Mimbrales, the marshes edges near Matasgordas Cork Oak Forest, the transformed marshes of Aznalcazar in winter, the Dehesa de Pilas and nearby agricultural areas and especially the new open forests created along the Green Corridor of the Guadiamar River have recently attracted an increasing number of black-winged kites.

 

Black-winged kite collection of media

About José Antonio Sánchez Iglesias

José Antonio Sánchez se licenció en Biología por la Universidad de Sevilla en 1985. Más tarde, durante varios años, se dedicó a organizar y guiar rutas de senderismo y naturaleza ...

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