Stilt Walker

Your legs are longer than airport security lines.

~Anonymous

I have seen these long-legged shorebirds on several occasions, but was delighted when driving down a beach road recently to spot their distinctive silhouettes right next to a pullout along the road.

Black-necked Stilts

Two Black-necked Stilts in a flooded field (click photos to enlarge)

Black-necked Stilts are a medium-sized shorebird with anything but medium-sized legs. In fact, they supposedly have the second longest legs in proportion to body size of any bird, with only Flamingos beating them out. And to make sure you notice those lovely limbs, they come in bright pink, a nice contrast to the bold black and white of their bodies.

Black-necked Stilts 1

Adults have darker plumage than juvenile birds

I think this pair included an adult (black plumage) and an immature bird (duskier gray plumage). References also state that the females have slightly less black plumage than the males, so I suppose the lighter one could also be an adult female.

Black-necked Stilt

Some say Black-necked Stilts walk like a model on a runway

To compliment their legginess, they also have a stiletto black bill. They use that sharp bill to feed on a variety of aquatic invertebrates, small fish, tadpoles, and other small animals, with an occasional seed thrown in.

Black-necked Stilt feeding 1

Black-necked Stilt feeding

I watched this pair probing in the shallow waters of a flooded roadside field. More typical habitats include mud flats and marshes. I have seen them mainly in coastal areas, but in some parts of their range they do occur in inland habitats, although rarely in North Carolina.

Black-necked Stilt feeding 3

Feeding behavior included an occasional lunge into the water

Black-necked Stilt feeding 2

Stilt head dunk

Most of the time I watched, they seemed to be picking small items off the water surface. But, they occasionally plunged their head into the water for what I assumed was bigger prey. The one large item I saw one catch looked like a large beetle, or perhaps an aquatic snail (it was black and appeared shiny).

Black-necked Stilt preening

Preening

One bird paused in its quest for a snack and started to preen.

Black-necked Stilt preening 1

Scratching an itch

After watching this bird scratching I couldn’t decide whether it was an advantage or not to have such long limbs. I tried to imagine reaching an itch on my head with tennis rackets strapped to my wrist – precise control is probably a necessity.

Black-necked Stilt and reflection 1

Black-necked Stilt and reflection

My time with the birds was brief, perhaps fifteen minutes, but I can think of no better way to spend that time than with one of our most distinctive, and beautiful, shorebirds.

Delaware Delights

Eastern Cottontail young (click to enlarge)

Eastern Cottontail young (click to enlarge)

Another post about my trip last week to NJ, DE, and VA refuges….

After getting off the ferry from Cape May to Lewes, the first stop was Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge. The first critter seen, and one that would be seen over and over again in Delaware, was a bunny. So many rabbits along the refuge roadsides – where all all the predators? Surprisingly, in a week’s worth of refuge visits, I did not see the one mammal I would expect – White-tailed Deer. The mammal fauna, other than rabbits, muskrats, and a couple of Chincoteague species, remained hidden for the week. There was a clue though as to why warm-blooded critters might be hiding – deer flies and no-see-ums were out in force. So, after a quick walk around some refuge trails, it was on to Slaughter Beach to check on the Horseshoe Crabs, one of the main reasons I had made this trip at this time of year.

Horseshoe Crabs on Slaughter Beach 2

Horseshoe Crabs on Slaughter Beach (click to enlarge)

The tide was coming in and the moon close to full in May, perfect timing to see the annual spectacle of Horseshoe Crabs coming ashore to mate in Delaware Bay. I made a lucky stop at the DuPont Nature Center in Mispillion Harbor where I met some birders getting ready for a shorebird program. A couple gave me a tip on a local beach access where the crabs were mating in large numbers. A short drive and there they were, Horseshoe Crabs by the thousands lining the beach. There is so much to share I will do a separate post on this incredible phenomenon later this week.

View from observation tower at Bombay Hook NWR

The next day I spent a cloudy morning with the Horseshoe Crabs and shorebirds at Slaughter Beach and then headed to Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge about 40 minutes north. The sun came out (eventually), the wind picked up, so life was good. Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge protects one of the largest remaining expanses of tidal salt marsh in the mid-Atlantic region. The refuge’s 16,000 acres are mostly marsh, but also include freshwater impoundments and a variety of upland habitats that are managed for other wildlife. Most visitor opportunities are located along the 12-mile Wildlife Drive so that was the main part of the visit.

Snapping Turtle at Bombay Hook NWR

Snapping Turtle (click to enlarge)

Instead of the cute bunnies seen at Prime Hook, the greeting committee at this refuge was a bit more formidable – a huge Snapping Turtle near the Visitor Center, the first of several to be seen along the roadsides here.

Baby Mud Turtle underside 1

Baby Mud Turtle (click to enlarge)

Not all the turtles on the roads were quite as large as that snapper – this tiny baby Mud Turtle was crossing at a culvert between swampy areas. One of the ever-present deer flies stopped in for the pic as well.

American Redstart

American Redstart (click to enlarge)

I picked up a copy of the Delaware Birding trail map and guide (see also http://www.delawarebirdingtrail.org/). The description for the Boardwalk Trail at Bombay Hook reads – “the woods at the beginning of the boardwalk trail can be particularly good for migrant songbirds. The boardwalk trail itself is a great place to see breeding Marsh Wrens…” Talk about truth in advertising! Right after getting out of the car there were birds everywhere – Orchard Orioles, a Yellow Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, House Wren, Northern Flicker, male American Redstart, Tree Swallows, and the ubiquitous Gray Catbird.

Marsh Wren male singing head-on view 2

Marsh Wren male singing (click to enlarge)

A walk out the short trail led to some shorebirds and the first Black-necked Stilt of the day. But it was the songs of the Marsh Wrens that caught your attention. A photographer coming off the boardwalk told me he had seen tons of “baby Carolina Wrens, and they had let him get close for photos”. Turns out the boardwalk over the marsh was instead full of the warbles and displays of male Marsh Wrens. Territorial males have an interesting behavior that makes them quite visible – they vigorously sing from one side of their marshy territory for a few minutes and then fly over to to the other side and sing there for awhile. Once in awhile they perform a so-called song flight display, where they fly up a few feet above the grasses, and then flutter down and straddle some plant stalks giving their song all the while. If you just stand within the territory boundaries, you will be serenaded and displayed to at close range.

Marsh Wren nest

Marsh Wren nest (click to enlarge)

Male Marsh Wrens construct several partially completed nests within their territory (much like our Carolina Wrens back home) in the hopes of seducing a female (or two – male Marsh Wrens are polygamous). The nests are readily visible as balls of grasses and reed woven together (about the size of a softball) a few feet off the ground with an entrance hole in one side. If a female finds one to her liking she will finish it off with soft liner materials. If not, she will make her own within a male’s territory. I could have definitely spent more time watching and listening to these energetic songsters (and hoping for some sunshine for photos), but there was still a lot of ground to cover.

Black-necked Stilt 5

Black-necked Stilt (click to enlarge)

Along one of the impoundments I saw the bold black and white of a Black-necked Stilt feeding in the marsh. This is one of my favorite shorebirds although I have seen them only a few times. They are just so boldly patterned and they look like they shouldn’t function quite right with those long skinny reddish-pink legs. They supposedly have the second-longest legs in proportion to their bodies of any bird (flamingos are the winner in the proportional long-legged bird department). A couple of nests could be seen on the marsh flats and watching a stilt fold its legs up to sit on the eggs is entertaining. One pair aggressively approached a Great Egret that walked too close to their nest until the much larger bird shied away. I wish I could go back in a week and see the tiny speckled tan fluff balls on sticks that are the young birds.

Common Yellowthroat male

Common Yellowthroat male (click to enlarge)

Eastern Kingbird

Eastern Kingbird (click to enlarge)

The marshes and impoundments along Wildlife Drive produced great views of a number of other species including Common Yellowthroat, Eastern Kingbird, Black-bellied Plover, Semipalmated Sandpiper, Great Egret, Great Blue Heron, Osprey, and, of course, hundreds of Red-winged Blackbirds.

Eastern Wood Peewee

Eastern Wood-peewee (click to enlarge)

The woodland and forest edge portions of the drive were also productive – Eastern Wood-peewee, Great Crested Flycatcher, Wood Thrush, Ovenbird, and a Northern Waterthrush.

Tree Swallow in nest box

Tree Swallow in nest box (click to enlarge)

The road through the open fields produced more Common Yellowthroat, Indigo Bunting, American Goldfinch, Blue Grosbeak, Northern Bobwhite, a Grasshopper Sparrow, Eastern Bluebird, and Tree Swallows at almost every nest box.

Great Blue Heron in marsh

Great Blue Heron in marsh along Wildlife Drive (click to enlarge)

Bombay Hook NWR is, indeed, a delight, and a place I look forward to revisiting.