By: Jim Spencer
Here’s the Central Texas bird forecast for the month, courtesy of Travis Audubon. Learn more about Central Texas birds and bird-related events for all ages at travisaudubon.org or by calling 512-300-BIRD. Follow us at www.facebook.com/travisaudubon
August is a great month to marvel at the diversity of shorebirds that pass through central Texas from their breeding grounds which are often further north. Western, Least, Pectoral, Stilt, Baird’s, Buff-breasted, Semipalmated, Upland and Spotted Sandpipers are some of the shorebird species that are possible now, but you are going to have to get outside your comfort zone (i.e., air-conditioning) to find them. Depending on the species, shorebirds in the interior U.S. can be found in short grass meadows, flooded fields, shallow wetlands, and mudflats of lakes and rivers and at the edges of ponds and reservoirs. The Hornsby Bend ponds at Austin’s biosolids treatment plant are the best places to look for them.
While many shorebirds are challenging to identify, there are a few that are pretty straightforward. The Black-necked Stilt and the American Avocet are two long-legged waders that are striking examples.
The Black-necked Stilt is a shorebird with long, spindly, pink legs, a long pointed bill, glossy black back and head, and white underparts. (The female and juvenile birds have browner backs.) The stilt stands about 14 inches high, and it gives the impression of being all legs, second only to the flamingo. It can be very noisy, sounding like a small dog yipping, which has earned it the nickname “Marsh Puppy.”
Black-necked Stilts breed in Travis County when conditions are right, but much of the population summers in the Texas Panhandle and further north and west, into southern Canada. Some are permanent residents along the Gulf Coast. Stilts like to forage in shallow water, searching for a wide variety of prey, including aquatic invertebrates, tadpoles, snails and mosquito larvae. They are ground nesters, creating a depression which they line with materials close by, like grasses and pebbles. Both parents help raise the young which are precocial, able to walk within a couple of hours of hatching.
The American Avocet is closely related to the Black-necked Stilt, but perhaps a little more elegant. Compared to the stilt the avocet is a little taller, and it has a longer bill which is upturned rather than straight. While the stilt has a black back, the avocet has black and white wings. During the breeding season, the avocet has a striking rusty head and neck, while in the non-breeding season its neck and head are a grayish white.
The avocet’s most distinctive behavior is its graceful sweeping motion of the bill, back and forth through the water, to catch invertebrates that are stirred up. Just like the stilt, the American Avocet can be found in the Panhandle up through the western states where it frequents similar shallow ponds, marshes and lakeshores. A few are year-round on the coastal prairies. If you want to see lots of these birds head to the Bolivar Peninsula east of Galveston in the winter, where it is not unusual to see a flock of two or three thousand.
Learn more about American Avocet, Black-necked Stilt and other shorebirds at Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s website All About Birds. Attend the August Hornsby Bend monthly field trip to try to add them to your life list.