For the first time ever, Mississippi Kites have been found breeding in Wisconsin, with confirmation of a pair raising one chick at a nest near Janesville, Rock County. This represents one of the northernmost breeding records in the species’ range and perhaps the most exciting find of Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas II (WBBA II) so far! Although WBBA II has confirmed nesting in 11 species not recorded as breeders during WBBA I (1995–2000), this is the first instance of a new state breeding record during the project.
The story actually begins a year ago in 2015 when a juvenile Mississippi Kite was found grounded in the same general area and brought to a local rehabilitator for care. The bird was clearly quite young but its feathers were nearly fully-grown and it was unclear how flight-capable it was. With Janesville not far from the state line, a known pair of kites nesting for 7+ years about 30 miles south in Rockford, Illinois, and the species known for its northward post-breeding dispersal patterns, Atlas staff played it safe by not confirming it as a local breeder and hoped the species’ nest-site fidelity would shed greater light on the situation in 2016.
Alas, Rock County atlasers scoured the area in May and June of this year to no avail. But then in late July a local resident spotted an adult kite and reported it to Dianne Moller of Hoo’s Woods Raptor Center in Milton, who kindly relayed the information to Atlas staff. Subsequent field investigation by dedicated local atlas volunteers quickly yielded two adult birds, and shortly thereafter the discovery of Wisconsin’s first Mississippi Kite nest, complete with one growing chick.
Generally a raptor of the southern United States, Mississippi Kites are a rare visitor to Wisconsin with only a couple dozen known observations, mostly from May to early September. It’s safe to say most Wisconsin birders — and there are lots of them — have never seen one here.
But the species has been expanding northward in the past decade or two, including a few pairs in Iowa, and increasing in numbers across southern Illinois, the nearest part of its contiguous breeding range. In 2008 a pair appeared way up north in Rockford, and to the surprise of many, were discovered nesting. In the same year a pair even nested in New Hampshire. Kites have returned to both locations most years since. No record is more bizarre, however, than the pair that in 2014 raised a chick in Winnepeg, Manitoba, where the species had never even been seen previously!
Although the birds nested near a major city, disturbance by a concentration of observers remained a concern because reports from our atlasers indicated the birds’ behavior was being influenced by human presence even at moderate distances from the nest. As such, and given this is the only known pair of Mississippi Kites in the state, the Atlas was obligated not to jeopardize their nesting success by divulging their specific location. While we recognize how exciting it would have been for birders to get to see a new and rare species in the state, we should all agree that the welfare of the birds and their young in this instance took priority over the chance to view the birds. For this reason, we have waited to post this article until the birds left the nest site. With luck, and if this pair is allowed to achieve a few more successful nests in the coming years, Mississippi Kite sightings may be increasingly common in southern Wisconsin.
Many thanks to Dianne Moller of Hoo’s Woods Raptor Center and our ace Rock County atlasers for their important contributions to this exciting benchmark in Wisconsin ornithology!