Anatomy of a photo #72: The White-tailed Kite’s Tongue


This kite stuck its tongue out repeatedly while cleaning its bill

I captured this photograph (it is one of many) of a White-tailed Kite (Elanus leucurus) cleaning its beak, after I had watched it devour a mouse.

For eighteen minutes, I lay on the damp, almost marshy ground, unmoving while I cowered up against twenty inches of cloth fencing, as I watched the kite land and eat its prey. I thought the show was over, when it began to clean its beak for an additional four minutes and forty seconds. I had been laying in that same spot for an additional twenty five minutes before the kite landed, as I had observed that the roots of this fallen tree seemed to be one of their favorite butcher’s blocks (place where they would bring their prey to dismember and devour).

Was it worth it to lay there in an uncomfortable position with the cold, salty wet slowly seeping through my clothes and into my skin? Yes, decidedly yes, because I was able to see something that I had never seen before- a bird of prey sticking out its tongue as it cleaned its bill. I try to think back to when I was a kid, watching a parrot clean its large curved beak on it perch… Did it too stick out its tongue as it rubbed its beak along its perch? It may have, but it wasn’t the same…

This photograph was captured in the Giacomini Wetlands, while I was documenting the wetland restoration work being undertaken by the Point Reyes National Seashore (one of my favorite local parks). I was photographing the work being done to turn cow pastures that had once been the southern end of Tomales Bay back into the southern end of Tomales Bay. I was also recording, in pictures many of the different species present during this work so that there would be a visual history of the different spices before and after the project. (I am still heading into the wetlands three years later to photograph new species that are still arriving in the area.)

Kites are not present in as high of numbers (there are very few now) in the tidal areas of the wetlands, but you can see them yet in the grassy verges, as the marsh transitions into grassland. The Northern Harriers (also know as “Marsh Hawks”) on the other hand, while having dropped in numbers slightly are now a much stronger presence than the kites. The two raptors that seem to have benefited the most from the restoration are the Osprey, which now has a new area to fish, and the Peregrine Falcon, which now has a wide selection of shorebirds to feed upon in most seasons, as well as a plethora of ducks to hunt in the winter.

This image of the kite cleaning its beak was captured using a 420mm lens. I was shooting handheld at 1/1000th of a second to be sure to freeze all of the action and to eliminate camera shake. The aperture was set to f/8.0 so that the entire bird would be within the depth of focus. ISO was then set to 500 to compensate for all of the other settings.

Enjoy the photo,


For more animal tongues, you can have a look at these animals-

River Otter tongue
Gull’s tongue while swallowing a whole starfish
Tule Elk tongue
Song Sparrow tongue while singing
Sea Lion tongue

About Galen Leeds Photography

Nature and wildlife photographer, exploring the world on his feet and from his kayak. Among other genres, he is one of the leading kayak photographers in Northern California. To learn more about him, visit him on his website-
This entry was posted in Anatomy of a photo, My favorite Parks, photography, raptors, tongues, wildlife photography and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Anatomy of a photo #72: The White-tailed Kite’s Tongue

  1. Great shot! I love the story behind it as well, few people know what we go through to photograph nature.

    • Thanks Quiet. I think a few people guess, but even they don’t fully realize what it sometimes takes to get great shots, and how much time has to go into just being out there in nature… of course every now and then it can also be easier than they think.

  2. Victor Ho says:

    Great story. I’d never have had the patience to lie in such a position for so long. Your persistence really paid off.

    • Thanks Victor. I hadn’t really been planning on lying there like that for so long, it just sort of happened. At first, I was just thinking, “Okay, I’ll just lie here for one more minute.” And at the end of the first minute, I thought “Okay, just one more.” And so on for a little while. Then the kite landed, and it was too late to move, since I didn’t want to spook it away and have it loose its hard earned meal. I never realized it would take so long to eat an entire mouse. Sometimes patience just happens, whether we want it to or not.

  3. Meg says:

    Amazing photo and story. Though I have no photos to prove it, I spent quite a while one afternoon watching a coopers hawk kill and consume a gila woodpecker. The woodpecker put up a hard fight but in the end the hawk won and it began raining feathers as the hawk plucked the feathers from the woodpecker. Amazing to watch.

    • I’m happy you enjoyed it Meg. It’s interesting to watch the different raptors eat their prey. Some are pluckers, like your coop. Others aren’t as fastidious and will eat feather, fur, what have you. The kite removed a fair amount of fur from the mouse, I could see tufts of it blowing away as it gobbled it up

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