2020 – Cary McDonald Photographing Swallow-tailed kites

This past weekend (July 18,19) I went up to Colleton County, South Carolina, from Charleston. Swallow-tailed kites are amazing birds that breed here in SC and then fly back to South America every year. They eat on the wing, ripping the heads off large June Bugs and dropping the heads. They are amazing flyers that are able to capture the bugs right out of the air which are incredibly agile.

Most of the time when photographing Swallow-tailed kites, you get lucky and see one or two souring over the area looking for some delicious bugs and in a few minutes they are gone. Getting some pics can be challenging as they can be very fast and they are chasing a bug most often that is trying to evade being eaten… so the flight paths can be erratic to say the least. Finding a large group of them usually means finding a large food source for them. In South Carolina, that means spending a lot of time driving around the state on hot sunny days looking for a farm of some sort.


Adult Swallow-tailed¬†Kites eat¬†mostly flying insects, they feed their young with many types of small vertebrates – including tree frogs, lizards, nestling birds, and snakes. They snatch these animals from trees and other plants while in flight, and carry them in their feet. Below is a kite with a baby dove in the kites claws taking it back to it’s young taken at Trophy Lakes captured while taking photos of a water ski tournament at the beginning of July.

Swallow-tail kite with a baby dove captured to feed it’s young at Trophy Lakes on John’s Island.

When looking for a string of kites, Cattle fields are somewhat popular spots and you can get them diving down towards and into the grass grabbing a bug. Near Allendale, SC there are some fields that usually have some kites from 9:00 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. that are fun to photograph. However, finding the location of a group of watermelon fields, that happens to also be close to a swamp where they have their nests and roost is a glorious find. The kites will gather in the area sometimes by the 100’s flying back and forth from field to field eating the bugs as they go making it much easier to capture some close up shots of these amazing birds. Watching the wind patters and the walls of trees at the ends of the fields can be very helpful.

Swallow-tailed kites’ unique tail and makes them graceful aggressive flyers and a pleasure to watch as they dive and capture juicy bugs. Their color scheme make them a challenge to photograph.

After a few years of going on “kite hunts” across the state, some regular spots can be found and help to limit the time hunting. And then if you are lucky you can happen across a real find. After the birds spend all morning eating some yummy bugs, they need to wash their feet, and maybe get a small drink from a local pond. They wash and drink on the wing, just like they eat. Spiraling over the water and slowly descending down until they get to 20-30 feet above the water and then the fun start, They are skimming the water at varying speeds but fast enough to swoop up and fly away after they have washed their feet or gotten a drink of water.

At some point we had as many as six birds diving, washing and drinking at the same time. And for a photographer, they are either in heaven, or they are overwhelmed and the don’t know where to point the camera. Since the birds are going every which direction, getting one to come across your view or straight at you is pure luck. But I highly suggest if you are one of the I don’t know where to point the camera, get in the shade, set the camera down and watch. Try to learn their habits and look for patterns to where they are drinking. Not sure if they would be consistent on a windy day yet, but we did not notice any patterns to the directions and angles they would drink in two days watching.

In the time spent in the heat by the pond, we were lucky to be sitting in the shade during this really warm time of year. Over 95 degrees from 9:30 in the morning until close to 2:30 in the afternoon. One of the funny distractions was when an Eastern King bird would go after any kite that came towards one end of the pond. I thought that the kites were amazing flyers, until I saw how the King bird practically sat on the kites back in an amazing aerial display high over the pond.


All in all, it was an incredible weekend spent photographing amazing birds with some great friends. Thanks to Jim Killian and Jim Miller for providing the laughs while waiting on the birds to get thirsty.

Please leave a reply and let me know what you think.

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