The Square-tailed Kite (Lophoictinia isura) is listed as a threatened species in Victoria, so to see one is a very special experience... to see a pair is 7.2 times more special. I'm not sure how the maths really works on that one but trust me, that is almost a FACT!
Over three of the past four years we have seen a Square-tailed Kite fairly regularly around the third weekend in September; I'm not sure what happened for the year it didn't appear - maybe it had a cheap last minute weekend up around Bendigo. Due to the changing economy* because of Brexit probably, the date for "BLOODY HELL, LOOK IT'S A SQUARE-TAILED KITE" weekend was brought forward a few weeks much to our immeasurable pleasure. *Or it might be the early Spring. Anyway, they are a fairly distinctive bird of prey with a pale face, occipital crest and a long, rangey wingspan which is prominently barred across the 'fingers' of the primary feathers. They also have noticeable black carpal crescents on the underwing, and a dark terminal band on their square tail. They generally tend to soar around above the canopy of open woodland looking down at mere mortals and trying to impress upon any spectators just how utterly bad-arse they are. They do this without much visible effort and rather convincingly.
We were working on the ongoing building of our cabin when we first saw a largish bird of prey come cruising over the block, we both rushed to grab our binoculars and were pretty happy to ID it as a Square-tailed Kite (STK) and it circled for about five minutes before it disappeared over the tree-line. I managed to fire off a few quick frames as I like to get even fairly shitty record shots as even a pretty poor photo can sometimes yield some interesting information. The bird had a couple of very helpful ID marks with a secondary feather missing in its right wing and also a small patch of white feathers just off-centre on its breast (interestingly when reviewing previous years photos, we believe this is the same bird from 2014). We carried on with what we were doing and it wasn't long before I heard Louise shout out that it was back - excellent! I ran to get my binos and we realised this was actually a different bird, and sure enough the original bird then came in behind it before they both settled in to soar in laps around the block, occasionally dipping out of sight and offering tantalising glimpses through the eucalypts.
It would be an understatement to say that we were absolutely rapt to be watching this pair of elegant raptors and the afternoon was punctuated by their appearances where we would literally drop everything to watch them, both with massive grins on our faces. I didn't know the day was going to get even better.
Being a bird photographer is a funny old hobby; you can have days where you tromp around for hours and hours, only to get home with a pissed off expression on your face and a few frames of some blurry bird's vent in your camera... and then you have days like Sunday 4 September! I would say that I am primarily a birder who carries a camera around rather than a photographer whose subject is birds; I make this distinction because sometimes I feel that is important - if my camera was broken I would still be out birding and I get immense pleasure from watching birds and trying to gain an understanding of them. However, there is also an exquisite pleasure and satisfaction (that is an added layer to birding) that you feel when getting some great shots of the birds you have been watching; in the past couple of years having a camera with me helped speed up my fieldcraft and sharpened my observations of bird behaviour in order to try and predict how/where I might get the shot I wanted without intruding on the bird(s). I have taken this self-indulgent digression because I want to give the impression of some level of premeditation and structure for the close shots rather than sheer bloody luck ;)
I was up a ladder with a Bosch impact driver in hand when Louise shouted to me again they were back, so gracefully and with great athletic majesty, I dismounted the ladder, grabbed my camera and sprinted off into the block following the STKs. I started to get really excited when I saw one of them had actually landed in a Yellow Gum, I got even more excited when I was getting stealthily closer and it was remaining in a relatively open position and allowed me more shots. That is the general tactic I use when photographing a bird... shoot, move nearer, shoot and move nearer, repeat...
One of the really striking things about them when they are perched is the length of the wings past the tail. I have left the photos below uncropped so you can get an impression of the environment, etc. These were from the first time it/they settled in the trees.
I ran back to the car to grab my tripod, I virtually always handhold my camera when birding but I wanted to try and get some video - by the time I got back to the other side of the gully both birds were settled in within a couple of metres from each other. I only managed a bit of shaky handheld footage before a Magpie-lark with nunchucks and steel-toed boots on chased off the bird in the photos above, leaving me to get some video of the very distinctively marked bird below.
After the bird had flown, leaving me rocking backwards and forwards over my camera ecstatically whispering "yesssss" like some demented avian-loving Gollum, I started to head back to the cabin but stopped in my tracks when I realised Bird #2 was back... let's call it Twoey. Twoey had decided as most birds do, to sit quite high up with a glarey sky behind it. I tried to surreptitiously circumnavigate the trees and gain a trajectory that would not only afford me the sun behind my back but better views of the bird. To do this I decided to use the cover of a very large, V-shaped Yellow Gum to block my approach. With great delicacy I would take a couple of steps and peer round the tree to see how I was going and as I was close to the trunk I caught out of the corner of my eye, Twoey fly down and towards the tree - I had seen them both hit the ground earlier and I assumed it had taken some small prey again so you can imagine my surprise as I reached the gap in the V shaped trunk and there it was on a small horizontal branch about 5m away and only a foot above my eyeline!
Luckily, I mean with great forethought and skill I had not dropped the camera away from nose level so I was able to slowly raise it and fire off a raft of shots, ease the screen low enough to check settings, and then raise it again and fire off a load more. I also just stood watching - no need for binoculars due to the ridiculous proximity - and drank in the sheer, outstanding beauty in front of me as it scanned the ground looking for a morsel to pounce on and eat. When this ended, I raced back to speak to Louise and in her words, she didn't know if I was "going to have a heart attack, cry or wet yourself" and I must admit all three seemed simultaneously likely as I hyperventilated trying to explain what a phenomenal encounter I just had. I actually think 879 photos was pretty light.
Needless to say, we have been buzzing with joy at this experience and are hoping they are actually seeking a nesting spot but thanks, Twoey and Oney - what a beautiful day you gave us!