In the family Accipitridae, which includes eagles, buzzards, and harriers, kites are the mid-sized models. There are numerous species of kites, divided among three subfamilies, which live in warm (temperate as well as tropical) regions worldwide. Like other daylight raptors, kites generally rely on speed to dine. That said, some kites eat nothing but snails, so they must not all be relying on speed. One species of Australian kite eats rabbits, lizards, and emu eggs. Some live on insects, and are particularly happy when a brush fire leaves the ground littered with lightly charred grasshoppers. Many are primarily scavengers, though they’ll fill in with rodents and reptiles when there’s nothing to scavenge.
It seemed pretty clear to us, even without much expertise in ornithology, that the kites attracted to our camp in Kakadu were the kind that lived by scavenging. Either that, or they had been well trained by tourists like us. Whenever we cooked a meal during daylight hours, they were on hand, waiting for the leftovers.
Our guide, Henk, showed us a trick for photographing these speeding raptors as they dove in to pick up a snack. First, he placed a stick on the ground and told us to focus on the stick. He then tossed meat right next to the stick, with the instruction that we just fire off a shot when he said “now.” Of course, he had to say “now” just before the kites actually reached the meat, because even swift reflexes wouldn’t catch the grab if we waited until the birds were in our viewfinders. But with a couple of tries, we all came away with at least recognizable images of the lunchtime cleanup crew at work.