Raptors on the Move

Swallowed-tailed Kite

In the Fall of 2016, St. Petersburg Audubon Society  (SPAS) initiated a new program  -  Dr. Gabe Vargo Raptors on the Move.  The goal of this ground-breaking program  is to bring the world of raptor movements and migration directly into primary school classrooms. 

Raptors on the Move is a joint effort between SPAS, represented by board member Dr. Gabe Vargo, and the Avian Research and Conservation Institute (ARCI), headed by Executive Director, Dr. Ken Meyer - an avian migration and Swallow-tailed Kite migration expert -   and represented by Gina Kent, ARCI Research Ecologist & Coordinator.

Sawgrass, the Swallow-tailed Kite, got her name from the location in which she was first tagged - Sawgrass Lake Park in St. Pete.

She is wearing a backpack transmitter which sends out GPS locations when she comes close to a cell phone tower (essentially a text message).  Her backpack will store GPS locations and download them at the next cell tower with a strong signal. The bird's location data will be made available to teachers for classroom use. Applications include math, geography, earth sciences, ecology and biology

If you want to sign up to receive daily updates, please email 
ARCI logo
Gina Kent (
stating that you are a SPAS member and would like to follow Sawgrass. She will send you daily updates. 

To keep up with Sawgrass, you need to have installed Google Earth or Google Earth Pro on your computer.  Just click on the "kmz" file and choose Google Earth to open and it will download the data points to GE.  Click on the file name in your locations list and choose "properties" to set the color of the data points and the connecting line.

If you have any questions, drop me an email.


Dr. Gabe Vargo

Data is also being placed on the Movebank website (https://www.movebank.org/) 
  • Registration on Movebank is required (free)
  • Registration with ARCI also required (Gina Kent is project manager at ARCI) (free)

Gina Kent
Research Ecologist and Coordinator
Avian Research and Conservation Institute
Gainesville, FL, USA

Swallow-tailed Kite with Transmitter - Gabe Vargo

Photo credits: Sue Tavaglione 

SPAS will sponsor two GSM transmitters which have been attached to a Swallow-tailed Kite and a Short-tailed Hawk. Kites migrate to South America;  Short-tailed Hawk do not migrate. By tagging these two species, the program will provide data on a long distance migrator and a bird that stays in the area.

Mist NetOn June 12, two of ARCI’s staff, Gina Kent and Amanda Powell, set up a mist net baited with a live Great Horned Owl to draw in the Swallow-tailed Kites at Sawgrass Lake Park. They had no luck that day but the next day at the end of the trapping period, a flock of Swallow-tailed Kites appeared. One was caught in the net after diving at the owl. After a series of basic measurements were made the bird, a large female based on weight, was fitted with the GSM transmitter. The transmitter only weighs 16 grams (the bird was over 600 grams) and is solar and battery powered. It sends a signal with its location and time of day whenever it encounters a cell phone tower.  It can also store over 10,000 data points and download them all the next time a tower is encountered. 


Upon release, the Swallow-tailed Kite headed back to just east of Lake Seminole (see map) and has continued to stay in the same area for over a week. Since it is most likely a female, that suggests it may have been using Sawgrass as a training and feeding site for this year’s youngsters. Given that she has stayed in the area of Lake Seminole, it’s likely that this is her home area. She has not returned to Sawgrass Lake Park. Another trapping will be scheduled to attempt to catch a Short-tailed Hawk.

The program’s goal is to make the location data available to teachers for classroom use. The type of information can be used to amplify math skills, geography, and interactions with other information since weather data can be super-imposed on the movement tracks to show how such events like fronts effect migration movements.

We’ll keep SPAS up to date with data as it becomes available. The plan is to place all data on Movebank (https://www.movebank.org/) – a website that handles all types of animal tracking. Teachers and others can then register and see the data and maps.

In the map below, disregard the single track that runs by “Town N Country”. That was from the trip down from Gainesville as the transmitter was on.  The lines show the bird’s movement during the first 5 or so days after being fitted with the transmitter. Except for a one day excursion up to Dunedin, it has pretty much stayed in one area.

Route of Swallowed-tailed Kite

Swallow-tailed Kites On the Move: 
Introducing The Class of 2016 and the first southbound movements of the season

It’s been a great summer for Avian Research and Conservation Institute (ARCI) and the satellite-tagged birds we are following. We have so much to share, but we will take it one blog at a time so we can give you lots of details. The first news is that we successfully deployed three new GPS-equipped transmitters on Swallow-tailed Kites in Florida in June, bringing our total sample of tracked birds to seven, including Lacombe, the kite tagged in Louisiana by our long-time colleague and friend, Dr. Jennifer Coulson. First, we will tell you about the three newly-tagged kites.

Panther was tagged on 8 June at the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge in Collier County, Florida. Many thanks to The Friends of Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge and the Refuge staff for their monetary and logistical support, which made this possible. After completing his nesting duties, Panther made some incredible pre-migratory moves, which we will share in our next blog.

Sawgrass was tagged on 13 June at Sawgrass Lake Park in Pinellas County, Florida. We have great support and interest from the St. Petersburg Audubon Society, which has started a Raptors on the Move education program with which teachers and students can apply the movement data from Sawgrass to any lesson. We will have more details on Sawgrass’ movements soon.

Carlton was tagged on 14 June at the T. Mabry Carlton Jr. Memorial Reserve in Sarasota County, Florida. The fantastic staff, especially Debbie Blanco, and supporting biologists at the Reserve were instrumental not only in finding nesting Swallow-tailed Kites on the property, but also by helping us fundraise with the local citizen conservation organizations. We are grateful for the financial support of the Venice Area Audubon Society, Sarasota Audubon Society, Peace River Audubon Society, and The Friends of Sarasota County Parks. 

The four previously-tagged Swallow-tailed Kites we are tracking have completed the nesting season. All four attempted to nest, and all except Lacombe (in Louisiana) were successful, raising two chicks each. 
MIA and Bullfrog re-used their 2015 nests, while Palmetto, in South Carolina, had moved to a new area, 4.5 miles north, after her mate, the tagged male Bluff, and young were killed by a predator near their 2015 nest. 

Lacombe and MIA are still on their summer ranges. Palmetto has spent her pre-migration time in Georgia, first along the Savannah River and recently on the Altamaha River, as she has done in the past. 

Bullfrog, the real mover, already is on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula! She spent some pre-migration prep time in Glades, Hendry and Manatee Counties. On 25 July, she flew at noon from Marco Island and arrived just south of Cancun, Mexico, 30 hours later. 

03/2017 Update: Sadly, Bullfrog was unable to complete her migration. Follow her story, or that of the other tagged birds, here, at the ARCI website.