If you’re driving through Prairie Village and you see dozens of men, women and children looking skyward with cameras and binoculars, you might want to stop. They may know something you don’t.
No, they’re not looking for E.T. And no, they’re not watching for Armageddon.
They are scanning the sky for what might be a once-in-a-lifetime spotting of the swallow-tailed kite, a type of hawk that bird-watchers say has only been seen in Kansas four or five times since the 1880s.
It can be distinguished by its sharply-forked tail, white breast, pointed wings and more than 2-foot wingspan.
Word about the raptor has been circulating in Kansas bird-watching circles for a several weeks, with sightings reported in the general area of Corinth Square on Mission Road in northeast Johnson County.
The bird was reportedly first seen by a guy playing tennis.
Crowds have been building at the shopping center in recent days to get a glimpse of the bird, part of a species that usually makes its home in the southeastern United States and South America.
At one point Monday, 30 to 40 people, including some from Topeka and Wichita, gathered at Corinth Square with pricey binoculars and telephoto lenses as they anticipated a flyover.
“It’s a big and beautiful bird. It’s exotic and sexy at the same time,” said Tim Barksdale, a wildlife cinematographer who was part of Monday’s crowd at Corinth Square, 83rd Street and Mission Road.
“It’s like a precious diamond. It’s that kind of rarity.”
The bird had developed a reputation of making an appearance, sometimes from the south or the west, between 9 and 11 in the morning when insect activity picks up.
A couple of times Monday morning, a false alarm spread through the crowd as it scanned the deep blue sky.
“There we go, right overhead,” one bird observer excitedly shouted.
Not so much.
“I just looked at it with my naked eye and saw the white,” said another in explaining the mistaken identity.
David Seibel, a biology teacher at Johnson County Community College and co-author of the comprehensive “Birds of Kansas,” said this is a first.
“I’ve been birding in Kansas for 48 years and I had never seen this bird, never even had a close call.”
Now he’s seen it and has it on film.
“It cooperated real well one morning and flew right over me,” Seibel said.
On Monday, Seibel set up his camera on a tripod at the old Mission Valley Middle School before giving up and going to nearby Corinth Square, where dozens of others had already gathered.
After watching birds most of his life, this bird sighting is special for Seibel.
“This is huge,” he said.
Seibel has been trying to get out word about the swallow-tailed kite in hopes that someone else might see the bird and alert other observers.
“I would like to know what it’s doing when it’s not flying over Corinth Square,” he said. “Somebody is probably seeing this in their backyard every day.”
Kevin Groeneweg left Wichita about 6 Monday morning to join the bird-watchers in Prairie Village. He heard about the sighting last week but couldn’t get away. After hearing the bird was still around, he made the trip to Johnson County.
“Sometimes with these rare birds, you’ve got to drop everything and run,” Groeneweg said. “It gets pretty difficult to see a new bird anymore, so when something like this shows up, it’s worth running after. It’s a pretty unusual bird. It’s unusual for one to hang around like this.”
Seibel said he hoped something might be read into the fact that the bird has lingered in the area for a while.
“If they were single flyovers, I wouldn’t even consider the thought that they might choose to stay here,” he said.
But if the bird did well here, Seibel held out the long-shot hope that it might return here in the future.
“When it comes back to find a breeding spot, it could possibly come back here and bring a mate with it. To me, it’s real exciting just the possibility they could end up recolonizing Kansas on their own.”
To reach Brad Cooper, call 816-234-7724 or send email to email@example.com.