"The Windhover": "my heart in hiding / stirred for a bird." His poem describes the emotions he felt as he watched a Kestrel (the windhover) ride the wind. I had the honor of watching an equally stirring Swallow-tailed Kite.
It was just after a front had blown in yesterday afternoon. Though the wind was blowing fiercely, I had returned to the deck to catch any migrants that had been stopped by the front.
Watching for early warblers at the bath, I almost forgot to scan the skies. When I did, the large kite (they can have a wingspan of 50 inches) was veering north towards the river and trying to gain altitude. The afternoon sun, especially intense as it often is after rain clouds have broken up, illuminated the bird so that its dazzling white and black pattern gleamed. If you haven't seen at least a photograph of this bird with its wings and deeply forked tail spread out to ride the wind, look at the photo linked here from the Peregrine Fund. That's what it looked like, but more brightly spotlighted by the sun.
My two photos aren't perfect, but they record a great moment. Not as well as a poem can, but they evoke the image in my mind of the bird that soared so magnificently. See how the sun casts the wing's shadow on the white breast of the bird? See how it leans into the wind? In his poem Hopkins affirms "the achieve of; the mastery of the [bird]." This lovely bird that I was privileged to watch yesterday was a master of his (and my) world.
(If you want to experience Gerard Manley Hopkins' poem you can link to it by clicking its title in the quote at the top of this blog's sidebar.)
Swallow-tailed Kites are larger relatives of the White-tailed Kites (formerly called Black-shouldered) that are residents here in the Rio Grande Valley. Their striking colors are the same: snow white against deep black. I have watched a White-tailed Kite devour a rabbit on the fence post across the river, and we often see them hovering over the fields across the way. Although fairly common in our area, I never tire of seeing them. Another kite, the Red Kite that soared gracefully over a field near Inverness, was my favorite bird of a visit to the Scottish Highlands three years ago. I've also watched Mississippi Kites with my grandchildren as they kettled above their house in south central Texas during migration. (editing note: the kites were kettling, not my grandchildren! I should just change the sentence around, but it strikes me as too funny to change: sometimes the seven of them do seem to be kettling.)
The range of the Swallow-tailed Kites in the United States is mainly Florida but we do see them in south Texas in migration. Several years ago one was embedded in a kettle of hawks that soared above our house. That was exciting, a lifer for me, but the bird was so high that I could see it only with binoculars. This one was close, a surprisingly short distance for raptor migration, not far above the palm trees really, close enough that it is now truly a "yard bird."
I didn't see a group of kites, only one exquisitely beautiful one, but I've learned that one of its collective nouns is a string of kites. I like that. Kites, like those flown by my grandchildren and by my brother and sisters and I as children, are beloved and fascinating toys that were named after this bird. My father used to make paper kites and taught us to fly them. I was reminded of that when the Swallow-tailed Kite flew between me and the sun yesterday, a brief childhood memory of flying kites on sunny days. Last week we flew kites with our grandchildren. I wish we had seen the Swallow-tailed Kite then so that I could have shared the spectacular bird with them.