Photographing the swallow-tailed kites of Allendale, SC
Sweat seeps through T-shirts. Fidgety spectators fiddle idly with their cameras and spotting scopes, then check their phones for the time.
The star performers are late to the stage — grassy farm fields in Allendale that become veritable air strips from July through mid-August. Almost always, the birds arrive by 10 a.m.
It's 10:11. What's going on?
Just then, someone spots a swallow-tailed kite swooping down in the far corner of the field. A squawking juvenile is spotted perched in a tree, begging for one of the june bugs its mother snatched from the grass.
Soon, another swallow-tailed kite joins in, then another and another. A few of their smaller, less swashbuckling cousins, the Mississippi kites, join in the breakfast feast.
For at least the past 40 years — and probably longer — post-breeding kites gorge on insects here for about six weeks before moving along to their wintering grounds. The display attracts birdwatchers from all over the Southeast, who simply pull over on the road shoulder on hot summer mornings and wait for the airshow to begin.
Both species of kites are fast-moving and eat on the wing, sucking the juice out of their prey before discarding the exoskeleton. Occasionally they will carry their quarry into the treeline surrounding the fields, where juveniles beg for a meal.
It's the swallow-tailed kites the folks are really here to see, though. They are graceful and daring flyers. They seldom flap their wings and use their streaming, scissored tails as a rudder.
Their grace make them a favorite of photographers. But they're also a challenge. As Don Wuori of the Carolinas' Nature Photographers Association told me for a story last summer, "They'removing. They don't slow down so you can take a picture."