Ian’s Bird of the Week – Letter-winged Kite

Letter-winged Kite (Elanus scriptus) by Ian 1

Letter-winged Kite (Elanus scriptus) by Ian 1

Ian’s Bird of the Week – Letter-winged Kite ~ by Ian Montgomery

Newsletter ~ 4/18/13

For all you patient bird of the week recipients, here is I hope a bird worth waiting for, the Letter-winged Kite, star attraction on the recent trip along the Birdsville Track in Northwestern South Australia.

The Letter-winged Kite saga that had its resolution here started in the 1970s when I was living in Surry Hills in inner city Sydney. One evening, I was walking around to the local pub, the Cricketers Arms, on Fitzroy Street a block away from busy South Dowling Street when I found a pair of Letter-winged Kites, unfazed by the traffic, landing in a small tree on the pavement. The L-shaped markings under the wing were clearly visible, so there was no doubt about the identification – I was going to the pub, not tottering home afterwards – no matter how unlikely the location for this species, usually more at home in the semi-desert of Central Australia.

I supposed at the time that they were escaped birds. I found out only later that not only are these Kites nocturnal, but that they spread far and wide in search of food from their usual, arid, home following the population crash that follows plagues of their main prey, the Long-haired Rat. Come to think of it, the rather arid open spaces of Moore Park lie on the other side of South Dowling Street, and I’m sure there are plenty of ordinary rats in Surry Hills.

Letter-winged Kite (Elanus scriptus) by Ian 2

Letter-winged Kite (Elanus scriptus) by Ian 2

Ordinary people drive the 500km of dirt road that constitutes the legendary Birdsville Track from Birdsville in Southwestern Queensland to Marree in Northeastern South Australia (and the parallel Strzelecki Track) for the experience. Birders do it to search for elusive dry country birds, particularly the Letter-winged Kite and the Grey Falcon and both of these were top of my wanted list on this trip. Letter-winged Kites roost in trees by day, so I searched the few trees – nearly all in creek beds – along the Birdsville Track until, 252km south of Birdsville I spotted a couple of suspects, screeched to a halt in a cloud of dusk and approached them in the car. Birders have 4WD vehicles, such as my modest Suzuki SZ4, mainly so that they can use them as mobile bird hides as most birds are more tolerant of vehicles than pedestrians.

Letter-winged Kite (Elanus scriptus) by Ian 3

Letter-winged Kite (Elanus scriptus) by Ian 3

Letter-winged Kites indeed they were, but the tree was a tangle of branches and the sun was shining from behind the tree. The birds, however, seemed as unfazed by the traffic (relatively speaking) as the ones in Fitzroy Street, and let me approach to take the first photo (good lighting angle, bad branches), second photo (bad angle, good branches). Then they waited while I changed the lens from the 100-400mm to the 500mm and, eventually, looked on tolerantly while I got out of the car and did a relative close-up (third photo) and a portrait (fourth photo).

Letter-winged Kite (Elanus scriptus) by Ian 4

Letter-winged Kite (Elanus scriptus) by Ian 4

I then walked away to take a photo of the tree, the birds and a nest (I don’t know whether it was theirs) and turned around to find that they had silently vanished. If it hadn’t been for the photos definitely still on the SD card, the event might have all have been a fantasy. So I made do with a photo of the tree, the nest and the mobile bird hide, below.

 Letter-winged Kite (Elanus scriptus) by Ian 5

Letter-winged Kite (Elanus scriptus) by Ian 5

The Strzelecki Track is actually supposed to be better for Letter-winged Kites than the Birdsville, but, having found these birds, we decided to change our return travel plans from Plan B1 to Plan B2, skip the Strzelecki (similar landscape, worse road), spend a few days in the Flinders Ranges and drive home via Broken Hill, Bourke and Bowra (B2), instead of Birdsville, Bedourie and Boulia (B1).

Best wishes

Ian Montgomery, Birdway Pty Ltd,
454 Forestry Road, Bluewater, Qld 4818
Tel 0411 602 737 ian@birdway.com.au
Check the latest website updates:

Lee’s Addition:

And the glede, and the kite, and the vulture after his kind, (Deuteronomy 14:13 KJV)

What an awesome bird. They are beautiful. Thanks, Ian, for sharing another of your birdwatching adventures with us. His photography is fabulous also. I love that close-up in #4. Wow!

The Letter-winged Kite (Elanus scriptus) is a small, rare and irruptive Australian raptor with a core range in central Australia. The adult is a small and graceful, predominantly pale grey and white, raptor with black shoulders and red eyes. It is similar in appearance to the Black-shouldered Kite except for a very distinctive black underwing pattern of a shallow ‘M’ shape, seen when in flight. Roosting during the day in well-foliaged trees and hunting at night, it is the world’s only fully nocturnal raptor. Like all the elanid kites, it is a specialist predator of rodents, which it hunts by hovering in mid-air above grasslands and fields. (Wikipedia)

They belong to the Accipitridae Family . Check out all Ian’s Family Photos and then see the complete Accipitridae – Kites, Hawks and Eagles family list here.

See Also:

Ian’s Bird of the Week

White-tailed Kite ~ 1-7-11

Whistling Kite ~ 5-31-10

Birds of the Bible – Glede and Kites


4 thoughts on “Ian’s Bird of the Week – Letter-winged Kite

  1. There are other, admittedly subtle, differences between the Letter-winged and Black-shouldered Kites. The Letterwing has a larger black patch around the eye, and as alluded to by Ian, has softer, owl-like plumage, making possible almost silent flight. The rats they eat are herbivorous native rats, not repulsive, just another furry native.


  2. These are absolutely gorgeous! Although knowing their favorite food is rats makes them a little less lovely. On the other hand, they serve a very useful purpose for us every time they kill one and eat it. (I guess we all have our jobs to do.)


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