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Kite-Spotting in Clifty

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September 11, 2011 by wcobserver

By Joseph C. Neal

Stephen Marquardt from West Fork called me August 22 about a Swallow-tailed Kite, a black-and-white hawk with a forked tail. He was on highway 12 a few miles east of Clifty in northern Madison County. I was incredulous. Northwestern Arkansas has one record in a half-century, and that by birding expert Mike Mlodinow, at Lake Fayetteville on July 28, 2009.

The following day, August 23, Stephen and his helper Jake Sellers are parked at Keith’s Saddle and Tack near Clifty and later in front of chicken houses down highway 12. His voice is full of excitement. “There it is! It’s right over us!”

You know that saying about trying for those radically inexpensive deals on Black Friday? “You snooze, you lose.” So, after Marquardt’s heads-up calls, I make the one-hour drive to Clifty and the parking lot at Keith’s Saddle and Tack. I too have kites! Not 1, not 2, but 3 kites soaring above a dreamy landscape of gorgeous Ozark mountaintop pastures. These are beautiful, sharp-winged, long-tailed, sleek, but not black-and-white, not swallow-tailed. These are Mississippi Kites, an entirely different species, and not so rare in Arkansas. I was disappointed not to see the Swallow-tailed Kite.

So this brings me to August 24. Bright and early, Joan Reynolds of Rogers, David Oakley of Springdale, and I are headed for Clifty. Her kids are in school, and Joan, a great spotter, has part of the day for chasing a rare bird. David has given up golf for the chance to photograph the kite.

Maybe when I was at Clifty in the afternoon the day before the kites had drifted off. Today we are present by 9 a.m. By golly, almost immediately, we have 1 Mississippi … 2 Mississippi … 3 Mississippi … then 1 SWALLOW-TAILED KITE! David’s image shows a dragonfly, much-favored kite fare, right by the bird’s wing.

Job done, we retire to Keith’s Saddle and Tack. Grasshoppers explode as we walk. Inside we meet Darrell Frazier, who says he has been seeing this big kite for two weeks. One time it swooped right through a gap in small trees by the shop, brushing leaves, scaring into flight a shower of grasshoppers. Experts term this gleaning – getting lunch by raking leaves, scaring up insects. No one exceeds kites in such behavior.

Local news has been making this summer’s abundant grasshopper crop into the Biblical plague of locusts. So just in case you haven’t been keeping up with your daily Bible readings, it’s in Exodus, and it is God’s way of punishing the Egyptians for idolatry. Times change.

What was plague now feeds kites headed for South America. And on the way, in these Ozark hills, at Clifty, they pause to fatten on the bounty. Marquardt’s Swallow-tailed Kite now goes into our local natural history books. A great addition it is.

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