The bird-watching community in southern New Jersey is having a kite festival this spring, the kind where you can go spy a kite instead of fly one.

Mississippi kites, southern birds of prey that sail on the breeze and catch insects, are turning up around Cape May in relatively large numbers: three one day, then seven Thursday.

And their visits each spring have increased during the past two decades. In 1992, seeing two Mississippi kites in one day was a big deal, New Jersey Audubon records show. In 2004, more than a dozen were seen south of the Cape May canal in a day, the most so far.

The trend is enough to make birders wonder if these laughing-gull-sized raptors might try nesting in our region, which would be a first for the state.

Don Freiday, director of birding programs at the Cape May Bird Observatory, said Mississippi kites have bred as far north as New Hampshire, yet never in New Jersey or New York.

"The pair that nested in New Hampshire was probably a couple of adventurous individuals that met," Freiday said. "This is how birds colonize new areas. If they succeed, maybe their offspring return to nest nearby, and soon you have a population of them."

Virginia is as far north as the birds regularly breed now, he said.

If they start nesting in New Jersey, they will probably choose trees near wetlands or possibly even in neighborhoods, he said.

"In the midwestern part of their range, they get into riparian areas where there are not a lot of woods around. They're also used to quite suburban areas, and they're not necessarily shy of people," Freiday said.

Casual birders could see a falcon-shaped Mississippi kite and mistake it for the more common birds of prey, since most are juveniles with rusty, mottled breasts and gray wings. Adult kites have distinct pearly gray breasts, with pale gray heads and dark eye patches.

Behavior is the big tip-off: The birds are buoyant fliers that get their name from hanging in the wind in a steady position. This allows them to catch their favorite prey - dragonflies - with their feet as they pass.

If you're in the area of West Cape May to Cape May Point this month, look up and you might see one of these late spring visitors. They're among our avian tourists, and some might decide to get a home here.

Snake identified

Jim Groeber, who teaches biology at Oakcrest High School in Hamilton Township, has identified the snakes whose mating and preying scene was described in last week's column.

"The two snakes that were mating are northern water snakes (Nerodia sipedon sipedon)," Groeber wrote. "They are often darker in complexion but sometimes can be found with reddish bands."

The water snakes I've seen have all been dark with no significant color, so they fooled me. But then I'm easily fooled about highly variable snakes, so I'm grateful to Groeber for clearing it up.

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