American Avocets highlight of recent South Carolina trip

11:42 am | December 5, 2011

Photo by Bryan Stevens - American Avocets forage in shallow water along the causeway at Huntington Beach State Park in South Carolina.

A few days on Fripp Island in South Carolina this past October produced sightings of several shorebirds, including Black-bellied Plover, Semipalmated Plover, Willet, Sanderling, Killdeer, Piping Plover and Wilson’s Plover.

Photo by Bryan Stevens - A trio of American Avocets at Bear Island Wildlife Management Area in South Carolina tuck their heads and bills into their feathers for a nap.

I saw five Piping Plovers, which is the most individuals I have ever observed at one time for this endangered species. On past trips, particularly in fall and winter, I have found a couple of these small, pale shorebirds on the Fripp dunes.

The bird that stood out, however, was the single Wilson’s Plover that I found mingling with hundreds of Semipalmated Plovers and about a dozen Black-bellied Plovers.

I’ve observed Wilson’s Plover on Fripp Island in the past, but my last sighting of one took place several years ago. I have also observed this bird at one other location — at Douglas Lake in Cocke County back in the late 1990s.

Wilson’s Plover is a coastal shorebird that breeds on both coasts of the Americas from the equator northwards. Its range extends north to include much of the U.S. eastern seaboard as well as the Pacific coast of Mexico.

Most of the Wilson’s Plovers that spend the summer in the United States retreat each fall, although a few migrate only as far as Florida. The rest spend the winter as far south in Brazil. This plover nests on a bare scrape on sandy beaches or sandbars.

For a small shorebird, the Wilson’s Plover sports a thick, blunt and relatively large bill. In fact, this bill — that looks too big for its body — is a good way to identify this shorebird at a glance.

The Wilson’s Plover is larger than the related Semipalmated Plover and Piping Plover but considerably smaller than such relatives as Killdeer and Black-bellied Plover. This shorebird weighs only a couple of ounces, with a length of about eight inches and a wingspan of 19 inches. The Wilson’s Plover has a dark neck ring, grayish-brown upper parts, a white underside, and pinkish legs.

The Wilson’s Plover forages for food on beaches. It has a fondness for crabs, which may explain the size and shape of its bill, but this bird will also eat insects, marine worms and other small organisms.

This bird was named after the Scottish-American ornithologist Alexander Wilson. Wilson collected the type specimen during a trip in May of 1813 to Cape May, N.J. Other birds named for this pioneering bird expert include Wilson’s Warbler, Wilson’s Phalarope, Wilson’s Snipe and Wilson’s Storm Petrel.

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While I enjoyed seeing these shorebirds, there wasn’t a great deal of diversity on Fripp Island on this most recent trip. My luck changed when I met up with Brookie and Jean Potter to visit such coastal South Carolina locations as Huntington Beach State Park, Bear Island Wildlife Management Area and Donnelly Wildlife Management Area. David Thometz also came along on these birding excursions.

First at Huntington Beach and later at Bear Island, we were treated to quite a display of shorebirds, including hundreds of American Avocets. Previously, I counted myself fortunate to see nine or ten of these unusual shorebirds at one time. Seeing large flocks of these distinctive birds, and at quite close range, provided a memorable birding experience.

Among the other shorebirds we observed at our various stops at good birding locations in coastal South Carolina were Greater Yellowlegs, Lesser Yellowlegs, Willet, Ruddy Turnstone, Sanderling, Semipalmated Sandpiper, Least Sandpiper, Baird’s Sandpiper, Pectoral Sandpiper, Black-bellied Plover, Semipalmated Plover, Short-billed Dowitcher and Wilson’s Snipe.

The American Avocet has a body perched atop long, bluish-gray legs. An adult bird stands about 18 inches tall.

The plumage is black and white on the back with white on the underbelly. The neck and head are enhanced with a cinnamon coloration in the summer but turn drab gray in the winter.

The avocet’s long, thin bill is upturned at the end, which is reflected in its scientific name, Recurvirostra americana. As these birds forage for food in shallow water, they sweep their bills through the water in search of aquatic insects and small crustaceans.

The American Avocet is a distinct shorebird and would be impossible to mistake for any other native bird. This bird has long, thin, blue-gray legs, inspiring one of its common names, “blue shanks.” The plumage is black and white on the back with white on the underbelly. The neck and head acquire a bright cinnamon tinge during the summer breeding season but turns gray in the winter. An adult bird stands about 18 inches tall, making the American Avocet one of our tallest shorebirds.

Worldwide, there are only four species of avocet, including the American Avocet. The others are the Pied Avocet of Europe and Central Asia, the Red-necked Avocet of Australia and the Andean Avocet of South America.

The avocets are closely related to the stilts, another family of long-legged waders consisting of seven different species. The Black Stilt of New Zealand, where it is also known by its Maori name of “Kaki,” is considered the world’s rarest shorebird. In 1981, there were only 23 individuals of this species alive. Numbers have risen slightly, but a variety of factors, including threats to its habitat and accidentally introduced predators, have kept this bird dangerously close to extinction.

Shorebirds are a diverse avian group. About 49 species of shorebirds can be considered common in North America. Worldwide, there are about 210 species of shorebirds.

The shorebirds have also been billed as “wind birds” because of their ability to fly long distances to far-flung locations across the globe. Some members of this family of birds are champion migrants.

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The Lee and Lois Herndon Chapter of Tennessee Ornithological Society decorated a tree for the Winterfest Tree Display at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park. My fellow members and I were saddened to learn that this will be the last year for the tree display due to the upcoming renovation to the park’s Visitors Center. Please come out and enjoy these trees if you get the chance during the holiday season. Some other local groups and schools also decorated some dazzling trees.

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To share a sighting, make a comment or ask a question, call me at 297-9077 or send email to ahoodedwarbler@aol.com or bstevens@starhq.com. I’m also on Facebook.

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