Sue Newland, a Topeka Audubon Society board member, was first to spot the swallow-tailed kite flying Tuesday with a large group of its cousins — Mississippi kites — which she said are more common in Topeka, though she admittedly can’t remember seeing this many kites of any kind in Shawnee County in past years.
“There have only been 15 documented sightings of this bird in the entire state since 1968,” Newland said. “The only other time one was seen in Shawnee County was Sept. 6, 1972. So yes, this is a vary rare sighting of this particular species.”
Newland said she made the discovery after hearing a report from fellow birder Ralph Hoover of seeing 16 Mississippi kites at the entrance to the Kaw River State Park.
“This is a very high number to see in these parts,” Newland said. “So before heading for work that afternoon, I went down to see them. Pulled off the park road in a turn out and looked up. This bird with a very white head and swallow or forked tail was heading right for me. I couldn’t believe it.”
She said she quickly took a picture with her phone and sent it to her mentor, Carol Morgan, to verify her identification of the bird.
“She immediately came down with her camera and we started getting the word out to the birding community,” Newland said. “Later it was discovered that the viewing was easier from the parking lot by the governor’s mansion.
“It is a lot of fun to find a rare bird and pass that on to other birders. People come from all over to see it. We have a Kansas birders Facebook page where we share information and photos. The excitement was high.”
Since the initial spotting, birdwatchers from across the state have flocked to the Cedar Crest governor’s mansion and Kaw River State Park north of S.W. 6th Street and west of S.W. Fairlawn Road to view the migratory raptor, which was seen again by onlookers on Thursday.
“The kite was at times flying rather low, very close to the observers,” Newland said.
Scott Wilson, a wildlife photographer, visited the area and took captivating photos of the swallow-tailed kite flying above him, including a series of photos in which the kite catches a bug with its talons mid-flight and eats it.
“Getting a clean, crisp shot of this fast-moving bird is a real challenge for photographers,” Wilson said. “The kite gives us plenty of opportunity to try to get the shot. You can almost reach out and touch them as the young birds fly over with the cicada in hand.”
He said he saw a post about the bird, which he didn’t even know existed until this week, on the Topeka Audubon Society’s Facebook page. After he saw a blurry photo of it, he decided that his challenge would be to get a good shot of the bird.
“On my second visit — first visit I didn’t wait long enough — to the Cedar Crest mansion, I captured some better shots,” Wilson wrote Friday morning. “There were a few birders at the location and they helped to identify the rare bird for me.
“Yesterday’s rain kept the birds out of the sky. As soon as the sun came out, they didn’t waste any time filling up on insects (seems cicadas are preferred). Fellow photogs in the KC and Manhattan area showed up, and the social event kicked into gear.”
Matt Longabaugh, of Lawrence, was among the crowd of out-of-town birders who made their way to Topeka to photograph the swallow-tailed kite this week.
“For me, birdwatching is all about beating the odds and finding the unlikely species,” Longabaugh said. “More often than not, you come home empty-handed, but eventually someone is bound to find something good. Those odds are what’s racing through my head when I’m looking at a bird like the swallow-tailed kite. I was very fortunate to have witnessed that magnificent bird. It would float real low just over the heads of its observers, just to check them out — I’ll never forget it.”
Wilson said he met several Facebook friends in person for the first time because of the kite, and he even had to switch to a shorter lens because of how close the bird came to the group.
“We were all having a blast with the opportunity to capture this bird, who seemed to be putting on a show for us,” said Wilson, who added he spends most of his time at Lake Shawnee taking photos of eagles. “The close flyovers were amazing opportunities to get the shot. These kites flying overhead are just as exciting as seeing the eagles fly.”