A practical guide to bird watching in Sonoma County, California

(Unless otherwise indicated, all phone numbers are in the 707 area code)


Present in the county year round, but numbers seem to fluctuate. Seriously depleted historically. Bolander and Parmeter quote Grinell who suggests that only about 50 pairs were thought to survive in all of California at one time. Numbers dwindled because of shooting and egg harvesting. Has since made a comeback, and sightings are no longer the rarity they once were. Today it’s not uncommon to see Kites hovering vigorously, looking for prey fairly close to human activity--over the Highway 12 median between Santa Rosa and Sebastopol, for example. Kites mostly feed on small rodents (especially voles) but may also eat large insects such as cicadas and dragonflies. Perches on bushes and trees rather than wires. Holds wings in a U-shaped dihedral when soaring or gliding. May roost communally, except during breeding season. Breeds in the county, using open wooded areas and pasture land mostly in southern low-lying areas. Prefers sites near water.

Perhaps our most striking diurnal raptor with its white body and tail, pale grey wings with black patches, and its black masked look. Dark amber-red eye is impressive at close quarters. Black in wings, conspicuous when perched, shows as large black panels at base of forewing from above, as large black spots from below. Darker grey toward wingtips. Sexes similar. Juveniles are streaked with rufous on the head and breast and with a narrow, dark band near the end of the tail, but lose these markings quickly. Superficially similar to male Northern Harrier (Circus cyaneus), but that bird, while greyish--sometimes quite pale and ashy looking and very pale below (almost white)--has an owl-like face without the black mask of the kite. Note also the contrasting dark wingtips (outer primaries) and darker trailing edge of wing in the male Harrier. The Harrier lacks the black wing patches of the kite (photo below).  

Has been called Black-shouldered Kite in the past and considered conspecific with the European/African Elanus Caerulus, which is now known as Black-winged Kite. White-tailed kite is today considered a distinct species. “Black-shouldered Kite” is at present attached to an Australian species Elanus axillaris.

Trivia: 1. The Latin species name leucurus means “white-tailed.” 2. Often described as being shaped like a falcon, colored like a gull. 3. The White-tailed Kite appears on the logo of the Redwood Region Ornithological Society because Sonoma County was one of the few places these birds could still be found at their lowest historical ebb.

For current raptor migration information, visit the Golden Gate Raptor Observatory website

Further reading:

Bolander and Parmeter, Birds of Sonoma County California, rev. ed., 2000, p. 38

Brinkley, National Wildlife Federation Field Guide to Birds of North America, 2007, p. 187

Burridge, ed., Sonoma County Breeding Bird Atlas, 1995, p. 46

Clark and Wheeler, Peterson Field Guide to Hawks of North America, 2nd ed., 2001, pp. 127-130 (Plate 4)

Dunn and Alderfer, eds., National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 5th ed., 2006, p. 128

Dunn and Alderfer, eds., National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 6th ed., 2011, p. 120

Dunne, Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion, 2006, pp. 150-151

Ehrlich, Dobkin, and Wheye, The Birder's Handbook, paperback edition, 1988, p. 222 (as Black-shouldered Kite)

Fix and Bezener, Birds of Northern California, 2000, p. 108

Floyd, Smithsonian Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 2008, p. 119

Kaufman, Field Guide to Birds of North America, 2000, p. 122

Kaufman, Field Guide to Advanced Birding, 2011, p. 190

Lukas, Bay Area Birds: From Sonoma County to Monterey Bay, 2012, pp. 68-69

Parmeter and Wight, Birds of Sonoma County California, Update (2000-2010), 2012, p. 21

Peterson, Birds of Eastern and Central North America, 5th ed., 2002, pp. 96, 119

Peterson, Field Guide to Birds of Western North America, 4th ed., 2010, pp. 100, 116, 117

Peterson, Western Birds, 3rd ed., 1990,  pp. 170, 194

Sibley, Field Guide to Birds of Western North America,1st ed., 2003, p. 99

Stokes, Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 1st ed., 2010, p. 147

Vuilleumier, American Museum of Natural History, Birds of North America: Western Region, 2011, p. 109

Voice: Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds--White-tailed Kite



© Colin Talcroft, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013

Unless noted, all photos by the author. If you would like to use one of my images, please ask for permission for non-commercial use with proper credit or commercial use with proper compensation.


White-tailed Kite, Tolay Lake Regional Park, December 28, 2012

Good view of the underwing surface. Note the conspicuous black spot.

White-tailed Kite, Tolay Lake Regional Park, December 28, 2012

For comparison: Male Northern Harrier

Las Gallinas Sewer Ponds (Marin County), January 8, 2013

Note owl-like face, black outer primaries, dark trailing edge to underwing, lack of black mask,

lack of black underwing spots

White-tailed Kite

Elanus leucurus

1990-2013 Sonoma County data. Graph provided by eBird (www.ebird.org), generated September 21, 2013

EBird reported occurrence in Sonoma County