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2010 SOUTHEASTERN NATURALIST 9(4):721–730
An Aquatic Bal-Chatri for Trapping Snail Kites
Peter J. Mahoney1, Kenneth D. Meyer1,*, Gina M. Zimmerman1,
and Christopher E. Cattau2
Abstract -The endangered Rostrhamus sociabilis plumbeus (Florida Snail Kite) has
been the focus of several ecological studies emphasizing movements between and
within wetland fragments. These studies have required the ability to trap and radiotag
free-flying adults without significant risk of injury. We developed and tested a
safe alternative to previous methods for trapping Snail Kites as part of a comparative
study of VHF and satellite telemetry. The aquatic bal-chatri borrows from historical
trap designs with modifications for trapping aquatic birds at the surface of the water.
It consists of a square PVC frame with a series of parallel flourocarbon stringers and
a mesh basket to restrain the lure species. Nooses are attached to the stringers
and used to ensnare the toes of a predatory bird. The trap is held afloat by the PVC
frame, with the mesh basket, stringers, and nooses positioned just beneath the surface
of the water. After determining effective trap placement in relation to perched birds,
we captured 11 kites in 13 days with native Pomacea paludosa (Florida Apple Snail)
and exotic Pomacea insularum (Island Apple Snail) as lures. Our results indicated
that the aquatic bal-chatri can be used to target specific Snail Kites and recapture
previously trapped individuals. This trap design is a safe, efficient, and low-cost alternative
to methods previously used for capturing Snail Kites. Additionally, the
aquatic bal-chatri is relatively easy to use and appears to have minimal impact on
foraging behavior and breeding performance of Snail Kites.
Rostrhamus sociabilis Vieillot (Snail Kite) is a highly specialized raptor
found in Central and South America, Mexico, and Cuba with a distinct
nonmigratory US population in Florida (Beissinger 1988, Bennetts and
Kitchens 1997a, Sykes 1984). R. s. plumbeus (Florida Snail Kite) is listed
as endangered by both federal and state governments and is a prominent bioindicator
for designing and measuring the success of Everglades restoration
efforts (Martin et al. 2007, USFWS 1999). Snail Kites have been the focus of
a variety of ecological studies, from the foraging energetics and habitat use
of individual birds (Beissinger 1983, 1990; Bennetts and Kitchens 1997a,
1997b; Bennetts et al. 2006; Cattau et al. 2010), to the effects of fragmented
landscapes on movements among wetlands (Bennetts 1993; Bennetts and
Kitchens 1997a, 1997b, 2000; Martin et al. 2006; Valentine-Darby et al.
1998). A common objective has been to understand the movements, site
fidelity, and survival of marked individuals.
1Avian Research and Conservation Institute, 411 NE 7 Street, Gainesville, fl32601-
5545. 2Florida Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, University of Florida,
Gainesville, fl32611-0485. *Corresponding author - firstname.lastname@example.org.
722 Southeastern Naturalist Vol. 9, No. 4
Radio telemetry is often employed to study fine-scale movements and
to identify essential wetlands for the Snail Kite. Researchers have been
limited to radio-tagging nestlings (Bennetts and Kitchens 2000, Snyder et
al. 1989)—a costly approach due to high juvenile mortality—and the use
of a net gun for capturing fledged young and adults (Bennetts and Kitchens
1997a, 2000). The latter method has proved successful, but it requires
a highly skilled and experienced operator to reduce the substantial risk of
injury (Bennetts and Kitchens 1997a). In the past, the Florida Fish and
Wildlife Conservation Commission and the US Fish and Wildlife Service
withdrew a net-gun permit after two Snail Kites were injured (J. Rodgers,
FFWCC, Gainesville, fl, pers. comm.). Our goal was to develop and test
a safe alternative method for trapping Snail Kites as part of a comparative
study of VHF and satellite telemetry that required capture of 10 adults during
the non-breeding season. We describe the result, its advantages relative to
previously used methods, and ways to improve its effectiveness.
We tested trap designs and captured Snail Kites on Lake Tohopekaliga
and Lake Kissimmee in Osceola County, fl. These two lakes, part of the
Kissimmee Chain-of-Lakes region in central Florida, had the greatest
densities of Snail Kites during the trapping period, based on concurrent
monitoring surveys by the Florida Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research
In recent years, the net gun was used to trap free-flying Snail Kites
(Bennetts and Kitchens 1997a, 2000; Valentine-Darby et al. 1998). Under
appropriate conditions, a skilled operator can capture several Snail Kites in
a short period of time. However, the risk of injury or death is high (Bennetts
and Kitchens 1997a, Mechlin and Shaiffer 1979), and it requires a significant
amount of time for the operator to become proficient. This approach, furthermore,
usually focused on heavily used flight paths to and from nesting sites
(Bennetts and Kitchens 1997a), potentially impairing nesting performance.
Noose-carpets, a traditional falconry method that has proven versatile for
trapping many species (Bebe and Webster 2000, Snyder et al. 1989), can be
placed on perches, near carrion, or around live prey (i.e., noose harnesses)
to capture foraging individuals away from sensitive nest sites. Snyder et al.
(1989) captured eight adult Snail Kites in Florida using noose carpets placed
on active perches. However, Bennetts and Kitchens (1997a) determined that
various traps employing nooses were inefficient, had limited success, and,
when used on perches, may have induced sampling bias.
We elected to design a simple trap that would minimize risk of injury
and could be used year round to capture foraging Snail Kites with little or
2010 P.J. Mahoney, K.D. Meyer, G.M. Zimmerman, and C.E. Cattau 723
no impact on nesting activity. The bal-chatri is a prey-based trap often used
to catch foraging raptors (Bebe and Webster 2000, Berger and Mueller 1959,
Smith and Walsh 1981). The modern bal-chatri consists of a domed wiremesh
cage to which nooses are attached, extending perpendicularly from the
dome, with live prey placed inside as a lure. For a prey-choice experiment,
Beissinger et al. (1994) demonstrated that Snail Kites in Venezuela will capture
snails from trays placed beneath feeding perches. We combined these
themes by constructing 61-cm x 61-cm square frames from 1.9-cm (¾-in)
polyvinyl chloride (PVC) pipe joined at the corners by 90-degree PVC
unions. The PVC was painted with black and brown spray paint (Krylon®
Camouflage Spray Paint for Plastic) in order to camouflage the trap at the
surface of the water. We drilled sixteen 0.16-cm (1/16-inch) holes on each
of two parallel PVC sides and attached thirty-two 0.32-cm (1/8-in) screw-in,
stainless steel eyelets (16 per side) (Fig. 1). We connected opposing eye-
Figure 1. Bottom view of the aquatic bal-chatri frame showing the layout without
nooses. Cutaway without nylon basket on the right.
724 Southeastern Naturalist Vol. 9, No. 4
lets with 7.7-kg (17-lb) test fluorocarbon monofilament (Berkley Vanish®),
producing 16 parallel stringers. Nooses were made from 20-cm segments of
7.7-kg (17-lb) test fluorocarbon monofilament by tying overhand knots on
one end of each and feeding them individually through a small glass or plastic
bead with a hole small enough not to slip over the knot, but large enough
to allow two passes of the monofilament (i.e., slightly larger than ≈2x the
diameter of the monofilament). The unknotted end was fed back through
the bead forming a noose (Fig. 2). Sixteen nooses were then attached to
each stringer with a clinch or half-blood knot, totaling 256 nooses per trap.
We made a mesh basket from untreated, black nylon window screening and
fitted it to the PVC frame to allow for ≈7.6 cm (3 in) of depth at its center.
The mesh basket was attached to the frame by wrapping its edges around the
PVC and sewing it to itself with monofilament. The stringer eyelets were
positioned facing downward (i.e., toward the bottom of the basket) to prevent
metallic flash and to ensure that the fluorocarbon stringers and nooses
remained beneath the surface of the water (Fig. 2).
Trapping sites and conditions
Areas within each lake were chosen based on current densities of foraging
Snail Kites (S. Stocco, Florida Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research
Unit, Gainesville, fl, pers. comm.). We used canoes, kayaks, and airboats
to locate, observe, and trap kites. Before setting out traps in any given area,
we observed all the resident kites for a short period (usually 1 to 2 h) to determine
as well as possible whether they were nesting and to identify their
most frequently used perches. Perches were selected based on frequency of
use and suitability of trap placement.
Funnel traps were used to collect live snails (Darby et al. 2001) for use
as bait. The species composition of snails varied between the two lakes on
which we trapped Snail Kites. Our snail traps produced large samples of an
exotic, Pomacea insularum d'Orbigny (Island Apple Snail) (Rawlings et al.
2007), on Lake Tohopekaliga, where this dominant species inhabits thousands
of acres (P. Darby, University of West Florida, Pensacola, fl, pers.
comm.). On Lake Kissimmee, we trapped only small samples of the native
Pomacea paludosa Say (Florida Apple Snail) in the areas where Snail Kite
Figure 2. Side view of the completed trap with cutaway to show noose layout. Note
that the eyelets (·) and stringers (—) are positioned below the PVC frame. Inset
shows noose construction, including knotwork and function of the bead.
2010 P.J. Mahoney, K.D. Meyer, G.M. Zimmerman, and C.E. Cattau 725
trapping was conducted. Overall (i.e., natives and exotics combined), the
snails used in our traps ranged from about 1.7 to 4.5 cm in length (longest
axis; Youens and Burks 2008). Even though our snail traps consistently
produced homogeneous samples of the respective species, both species are
known to occur within each lake (P. Darby, pers. comm.). Although frozen
exotic snails were used initially as lures on both lakes, we eventually used
only live snails. However, we were very careful to ensure that exotic snails
were used only on Lake Tohopekaliga, and that all traps on Lake Kissimmee
were baited only with native snails.
We initially lured kites with a simple PVC-and-mesh tray (i.e., without
stringers and nooses) containing at least three Apple Snails, by placing it
beneath actively used perches. After a short period of trial-and-error, we
learned what would elicit a response from a perched kite and began setting
out complete traps, consisting of the baited tray (three to 12 snails) and an
array of stringers and nooses. The presence of the stringers and nooses did
not produce any obvious change in the birds’ behavior.
We set each trap in place beneath its respective perch while it was
vacant, then moved away to allow the Snail Kite to return. It was not necessary
to anchor the trap because adjacent vegetation provided enough
resistance to prevent drifting beyond 20 to 25 cm. Typical monitoring locations
were at least 50 m from the trap, in or against emergent vegetation or
a stand of shrubs with an unobstructed view of the trap. Where possible, we
parked our boat beneath another frequently used perch to encourage perching
near the trap. Initially, we set the traps at different distances from the
kites’ perches and in different positions relative to the wind direction. Trap
placement was gradually improved with each successive capture. We occasionally
set out two or three traps beneath one or more perches used by the
target bird. However, we did so only if all traps could be monitored simultaneously
without risk of an unobserved capture. When a bird was caught,
the remaining traps were left out only if three or more people were present
and one person could constantly watch the other traps. Otherwise, all traps
were pulled following a capture.
As soon as a kite was ensnared, we approached the trap quickly and carefully
to prevent injury to the bird. We loosened the nooses to remove the kite
before taking the trap from the water, then covered the bird’s head with a hood
while banding, measuring, and attaching the transmitter. All the marked Snail
Kites were released at the capture location within 50 min of capture.
We trapped 10 kites and recaptured one (11 total captures) in 13 days
(Table 1). Five kites were trapped on each of the lakes in the study. Of the
individuals trapped, five were suspected females (50%) and eight were suspected
adults (2+ yrs, 80%) based on plumage and eye coloration (Wheeler
2003). Four of the 11 captures were made using frozen snails (36%). Seven
captures (64%) were made on the kites' first attempt, which we defined as
726 Southeastern Naturalist Vol. 9, No. 4
a descent followed by extension of the legs and feet to within reach of the
suspended snails. Three kites were captured in two to five attempts (27%),
some of which resulted in the kite removing a snail from the trap without
becoming ensnared. One kite removed all 15 snails from a trap without getting
caught (we captured this bird the next morning with a restocked trap at
the same site during its first feeding attempt). Wind direction relative to a
line between the perch and the trap was the most important determinant of
whether or not a kite approached a trap. Kites quickly responded to motionless
traps upwind from their perches. When traps were placed downwind,
perched kites usually watched the trap for an extended period of time (10 to
30 min) before flying off to forage elsewhere. In some cases, a bird would fly
past the trap and then turn to approach it upwind, often abandoning the effort
to return to the perch. If the trap was moved from downwind to upwind of the
perch, the same individual often quickly responded by flying to the trap.
Wind also affected kite response, and thus trapping success, by moving
or rocking the trap. Even with an upwind trap placement, kite response was
much lower when winds exceeded 15 km/hr. Snail Kites that approached
traps on such days were more likely to abandon their feeding attempt before
reaching for a snail when the trap was placed in open water. Although
not required on calm days, placing the trap on submerged plants, such as
topped-out Hydrilla verticillata (L. f.) Royle (Hydrilla), or within surrounding
emergent vegetation (e.g., Panicum or Eleocharis spp.), dampened its
movement and resulted in more foraging responses from perched kites.
It was important to consider the distance of the trap in relation to the
height of the perch and the presence of potential hazards (e.g., barbed wire
attached to a fence-post perch). Perched kites were able to see snails at
greater distances and shallower angles than expected, and consistently at a
horizontal distance equal to the height of the perch. We usually set our traps
at roughly this distance, about 2 to 4 m, to allow the bird an easier (i.e., shallower)
approach to the trap. If a perched kite did not fly down to a trap, we
gradually moved the trap closer until it drew a response.
Table 1. Snail Kites trapped using the aquatic bal-chatri in February and March 2007. Sex and
age were estimated by plumage coloration. * indicates individual was recaptured to replace the
Bird ID Lake Sex Age (years) Vehicle species used as bait Attempt
701 Tohopekaliga Female 3+ Kayak Frozen P. insularum 1st
702 Tohopekaliga Female 3+ Kayak Frozen P. insularum 1st
703 Tohopekaliga Unknown 1+ Kayak Frozen P. insularum 16th
704 Tohopekaliga Female 3+ Airboat P. insularum 3rd
705 Tohopekaliga Male 5+ Airboat P. insularum 2nd
706 Kissimmee Male 2+ Airboat Frozen P. insularum 1st
707 Kissimmee Female 3+ Airboat P. paludosa 1st
708 Kissimmee Female 2+ Airboat P. paludosa 1st
709 Kissimmee Male 3+ Airboat P. paludosa 5th
703* Tohopekaliga Unknown 1+ Kayak P. insularum 1st
710 Kissimmee Unknown 1+ Foot P. paludosa 1st
2010 P.J. Mahoney, K.D. Meyer, G.M. Zimmerman, and C.E. Cattau 727
The predictable nature and continuous foraging habits of Snail Kites
make them an ideal target for traps employing live prey as lures. With relatively
little effort (one to two hours), we located Snail Kite foraging areas
with habitually used perches. The aquatic bal-chatri placed below actively
used perches yielded unexpectedly high capture success—about 0.25 to
1.00 capture per hour—with no logistical or safety complications. The most
important considerations when selecting a capture site and trap placement
were, in order of priority, 1) trap placement with respect to wind direction
(Beissinger 1983, Sykes 1987), 2) presence of surface vegetation, and 3)
the distance of the trap from the base of the perch relative to the height of
the perch above the surface of the water.
There are benefits to using the aquatic bal-chatri over previous Snail Kite
trapping methods. Snail Kites returned to the trap for additional attempts
even if they had become briefly ensnared in earlier attempts. Unlike most
trap designs, the aquatic bal-chatri was functional even after a bird took the
lure and escaped, as long as at least one snail remained. One female kite
illustrated a second advantage of the aquatic bal-chatri. After this female’s
transmitter went silent within a week (charging was precluded by residue
on the solar panels), we were able to recapture her and replace the radio,
suggesting that retrapping with the aquatic bal-chatri has a relatively high
probability of success. Finally, whereas net-gunning often requires a power
boat to get close enough for capture, four of our 11 captures employed a
kayak, and one capture was by wading from dry land (the other six were
from an airboat). Although powerboats can provide access to more birds
in a given time period and are often required with other trapping methods,
the aquatic bal-chatri can capture birds for projects with limited budgets or
where powerboats cannot be used.
The aquatic bal-chatri produced 11 captures (including one recapture)
in 13 days, despite delays caused by limited availability of both live snails
and transmitters that resulted in only 1 to 4 hours of trapping effort per day.
With a sufficient supply of live snails and transmitters, a single trapping crew
could average 2 to 3 captures per day, well above trapping rates we have
experienced with other methods and species of raptors. Our success rate was
comparable to that of the net gun (Bennetts and Kitchens 1997a, 2000) in
captures per hour (R. Bennetts, National Parks Service, Santa Fe, NM, pers.
comm.), although capture rates alone should not be used to legitimize the
increased risks of using a net-gun.
There are potential hazards to ensnared Snail Kites with this design, including
alligator and raptor predation, boat collisions, aspirating water, and
drowning. These risks accompany any trapping method targeting aquatic
birds, including the net gun. With careful consideration in trap placement
and constant vigilance, these dangers can be minimized or avoided. Trauma
from moving trap parts, which is a particular risk inherent in use of a net gun,
is not a concern with the aquatic bal-chatri. We believe the aquatic bal-chatri
728 Southeastern Naturalist Vol. 9, No. 4
is safe, effective, and efficient relative to methods previously considered or
used for trapping free-flying Snail Kites.
This trap could be readily adapted for other species of birds that capture
aquatic prey by replacing the mesh with material that would contain live fish,
using appropriately sized monofilament and nooses, and enlarging the trap
area as needed. For example, the trap could be baited with fish to capture
Pandion haliaetus L. (Osprey) (Palmer 1988) and Haliaeetus leucocephalus
L. (Bald Eagle) (Stalmaster 1987), or with crayfish (Procambarus spp.),
frogs, and turtles to capture Buteogallus anthracinus Deppe (Common
Black-Hawk) (Schnell et al. 1988), Strix varia Barton (Barred Owl) (Smith
et al. 1983), and Circus cyaneus L. (Northern Harrier) (MacWhirter and
Bildstein 1996). The aquatic bal-chatri also could be effective for capturing
Aramus guarauna L. ( Limpkin), given the prevalence of Apple Snails in
their diet (Bryan 2002).
The Florida Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit and US Geological
Survey personnel at the University of Florida provided logistical and equipment
support. Trapping and marking were conducted under Station Permit #21465-0 to
the Florida Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit. Primary funding was a
grant to K.D. Meyer from the US Fish and Wildlife Service, with additional support
from the St. Johns River Water Management District, South Florida Water
Management District, and the Felburn Foundation. We thank three anonymous
reviewers for helpful comments on previous drafts and Heather Mahoney for producing
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