Summerfolk – Mississippi Kites in August

One of the few good things about the very hot humid weather of late summer here is that sometimes it brings a gathering of Mississippi Kites. When it does, they seem to me a little like the Summerfolk in a children’s book by Doris Burn – a whimsical and airy cast of characters that appear on a dreamy summer afternoon in a swamp.

One afternoon last week, around 2:30, I drove out to an area in the country where Mississippi Kites had been reported. It was hot, dry and sunny with a hazy blue sky, white clouds and orange cloud castles on the horizon. As I got close, a slim dark shape appeared in the hazy air, one kite sailing above a field, then another and another came into view. When I pulled off along the side of the road, I could see at least two dozen Mississippi Kites circling, diving, swooping up and feeding on insects over an open area of farm fields divided by bands of tall trees and shrubs. It was almost impossible to count them because they were in constant motion, like a large loose swarm, but other observers had estimated seeing around 30 kites in this same spot in recent days, and that seems about right.

Sleek, slender raptors with long wings and a buoyant, graceful way of flying that’s a joy to watch, Mississippi Kites often appear dark from a distance, but at closer range you can see the smooth gray color of the upper wings and back, a paler gray underneath, with round, very pale-gray heads that appear to be white, small black patch around the eye, a dark tail, and white edges on the wings. They flew smooth and fast, turning and circling in a wide area, a few always drifting off in one direction or another but then drifting back.

It was captivating, almost intoxicating to watch – focusing on one here, another there, a swirl of acrobatic, amazing flight. Sometimes a few came very close to where I stood, plunging suddenly toward the ground and sweeping back up with an insect in the talons, maybe a June bug, holding it up and leaning the head down to eat as they flew. Some flew directly overhead, among them a few juveniles, whose brown-streaked plumage and banded tails are as striking in appearance as the gray adults. Mostly the whole spectacle was quiet, but as they flew over, a few kites whistled a high, clear, two-syllable call, PEE-ooo, PEE-ooo.

Mississippi Kites are not common or abundant here, so it’s always special to see them, and it’s a good way to make the best of a hot, humid, withering summer afternoon. And like the Summerfolk, they eventually drift away into the haze, leaving a vague, bemused feeling of unreality about it all.

(The Summerfolk, written and illustrated by Doris Burn, was published in 1968 by Coward-McCann, Inc., New York. A favorite of our sons when they were young, it’s now become a favorite of our grandchildren, too.)

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