Monday, February 11, 2019

White-tailed Kite and King Rail in Dearborn: Hypothetical

NOTE: In anticipation of publishing a new Dearborn bird checklist, I am posting information on some of the city's more interesting sightings. 

There are a couple of hypothetical species on the Dearborn checklist, significant records that should really require further documentation to include in the list.

One is for White-tailed Kite (Elanus leucurus), seen on the University of Michigan-Dearborn campus on 15 May 1999 by a reliable observer.  His report is below:
On May 15, 1999 at approximately 12:30PM I observed a falcon shaped bird soaring and with intermittent flapping as it proceeded to climb starting at approximately 200 feet when first seen.  The first thing I noticed on this bird was the extremely light underparts with the secondaries lighter than the primaries and dark wrist marks and the tail length which set this bird apart from a gull.  The falcon shaped wings left no doubt that this was not a buteo.  Size of this bird was about that of a broad-winged hawk but appeared wider from wing tip to wing tip.  No distinguishing marks on underside of tail, appeared pure white.  Wings just slightly uplifted while soaring and banking.  After observing for approximately 5 minutes I dropped my glasses to see how high the bird had climbed.  By this time it was a mere dot in the sky, having moved up and north.  Prior to this I had noticed the bird banking and alternately flapping in a nighthawk like flight as if feeding on the wing.  In my recollection of white-tailed kites from seeing them in CA I don’t recall seeing this form of feeding.  Wingbeats were buoyant yet strong and coming high up as a nighthawk.  Viewing was optimal as the sun shown through the wings.
There are no records in Michigan for White-tailed Kite. Since the mid-1990s there have been increasing numbers of sightings in the eastern U.S., but the majority of the northernmost reports have been in the past 5 or so years and many are west of Michigan. This is a distinctive bird and a good description, but the single-observer report at a time when not many of these birds were noted in the region has prompted me to consider it hypothetical.

White-tailed Kite in California. Photo by Lee Jaffe under a
Creative Commons license.

The other hypothetical species is King Rail (Rallus elegans). The only mention I have of this species for Dearborn is from various reports from around 1911-1914 regarding the efforts of Henry Ford to create bird habitat on his land. At the time, he owned around 2,000 acres. In the location where he would build his Fair Lane estate beginning in 1914 he went whole-hog with feeding stations, fruit tree plantings, winter shelters, bird houses, and even a heated bird bath. Jefferson Butler, then president of Michigan Audubon, performed a number of bird surveys on the property at the time, and Ford's efforts were promoted by Butler (and no doubt Ford himself). A dam was constructed across the Rouge River at the site of Fair Lane in order to provide electricity; the adjacent powerhouse was on of the first structures on the site. Several reports in the popular press noted that areas upstream from the dam flooded, and about a mile upstream King Rails were mentioned as present.

King Rails are considered endangered in Michigan, but was much more common during that period. However, there are no details, dates, or formal reports on this species on the Ford estate so I leave it at hypothetical.

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