It’s fitting and somehow satisfying that the words rapt and raptor both come from the same Latin word for seize violently and carry away. Raptors are birds of prey; they get their living by seizing other creatures and carrying them off to devour. Depending on the species of raptor, the unfortunate seizee may be a rodent, bird, fish, reptile, amphibian, or other small animal.
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Raptors are magnificent birds, and rapt (seized, carried off by emotion) is the way I feel observing one. When my husband and I were asked in the early 1980s to name the road our property abuts, we chose White Hawk Road in honor of a pair of white-tailed kites then living in our area. I worked at the California Department of Fish and Game at the time and knew “white hawk” was once a colloquial term for the white-tailed kite, Elanus leucurus.
The kite is the lithe, graceful dancer of the raptor world. Whereas the red-tailed hawk, another raptor common to our area, is brawny, the kite is delicate, with a smaller body and long, slender, pointed wings. It’s mostly white, with soft gray on its back and distinctive black swaths across its shoulders. In flight, the kite is light and buoyant; this, combined with its coloration, makes it easy to mistake it for a gull at first glance.
But then the kite performs its signature move, “flying in place” as it searches for food. A hover-hunter, the kite rarely perches as it seeks game, as other raptors do. Facing into the wind, it hovers 15 to 75 feet off the ground, hanging there for a few seconds to a minute or longer if the wind conditions are right.
As it hovers, you realize it’s definitely not a gull, both from the maneuver and from its rounded facial profile — an identifying feature of raptors, whose curved beaks are designed to tear flesh. Spying its dinner, the kite raises its wings into a V, sails straight down to the ground and, with luck, seizes its prey — a field mouse, most likely…or a vole, pocket gopher, ground squirrel, or shrew.
Whenever “our” two kites were around, I’d drop whatever I was doing to gaze at them, rapt, as long as they were visible, marveling at their airy flight and willing one of them to hover. As the years went by, however, we saw them less and less often, until a sighting became a rare event. Red-tails, by contrast, continued to be as plentiful as ever, along with the less elegant but even more numerous turkey vulture.
Threatened with extinction in the early 1900s, white-tailed kites then recovered and extended their range in the western U.S. Habitat loss beginning in the early 1980s again threatened them, and the bird is now on California’s fully protected list. Wildlife biologists say our state, actually, is a stronghold for the kite in North America, with populations found year-round in the Central Valley, other lowland valleys, and along the coast.
For its hover-hunting style, the kite prefers open areas — low-elevation grasslands, farmed areas and wetlands. When I ran across this particular bit of biology while researching this column, I had an “aha” moment. Maybe that’s why the kites turned up near us in the first place, and why they eventually left — the terrain.
Living in far western El Dorado County as we do — in Latrobe, actually — I like to say we’re in the “toehills” of the Sierra Nevada…not quite up into the foot of the foothills. That means we’re close to the valley areas the kite loves. At the time we built our home in 1979 and ’80, our land had recently been bulldozed clear of its native brush — manzanita, toyon, buckbrush and yerba santa.
Opened up that way, our acres must have seemed appealing to that pair of kites, which perhaps wandered up from the nearby lowlands and decided to stay a while. Then, as our native brush grew back in — to the extent, a decade later, that you’d never know it had been removed in the first place —perhaps our acres began to seem less like “home,” prompting the kites to move on.
It makes me wistful. It also makes me marvel at how sensitive native species can be to changes in their environment. I’d heard that was true, but had never experienced it firsthand.
I’ll continue to keep my eyes peeled for kites, however. That won’t be hard, as I’m constantly looking for all birds of prey. They enthrall me.
And, whenever I do see one…I’m rapt.
(If you’d like to read more about birds of prey, check out eraptors.org. For information about birds in and around El Dorado County, go to eldoradobirds.com.)
Jennifer Forsberg Meyer is a biweekly columnist for the MounainDemocrat. Reach here at firstname.lastname@example.org.