Outdoors

Dandy of the Wetlands

For me, the American avocet is the king of the wading birds

I was driving past a wheat field the other day. In my peripheral vision rows of bright green sprouts riffled past the window like shuffled playing cards.

Ahead I could see a low spot in the field where snowmelt and spring rain collected, forming a shallow, ephemeral pond.

Wet places like that attract critters. Frogs and toads will gather to sing and breed around the shore, laying eggs the optimistic amphibians chance will mature before the pond dries. Mammals are attracted to these wet places as well, though one fully exposed in a grain field is unlikely to get much paw traffic from coyotes or other predators in the light of day.

The star attractions around these temporary wildlife accumulators are wading birds. And for me, the American avocet is the king of the waders. There’s no shorebird more handsome in that white tie ensemble it wears, crowned by subtly beautiful rust colored feathers that fade to white where the bird’s long neck meets its body.

Like many waders, avocets stand on improbably tall legs designed for walking about in shallow ponds. The bird’s long bill curves upward gracefully near the tip. I consider it one of the most whimsical decorations of any critter, furred or feathered. I admit the sight of it leaves me a little weak at the knees.

That graceful bill serves a practical purpose, however. As the avocet tips forward to feed, it waves its bill side to side in the water searching for food — aquatic invertebrates including beetles, midges and brine shrimp. This technique is called scything, and that upturned tip allows the bill to cut through the water at an angle nearly parallel with the pond’s surface, an angle that’s apparently more efficient. Feeding avocets walk as they scythe, their feet stirring up prey that, ideally, is then intercepted by that elegant bill slashing through the water.

As I approached the pond I was anticipating shorebirds. I wanted avocets, but any wader, a stilt or yellowlegs or even a killdeer would do. As I got closer I could see birds milling about in the little pond, though as I was keeping most of my attention on the empty highway I couldn’t make a quick ID.

The shuffled rows of wheat wizzed past. Then I was close enough to get a clear look. The wading birds were grackles.

Grackles!

This was possibly the worst roadside birding event of my life. These pond waders weren’t shorebirds at all. There wasn’t an avocet or stilt among them. Just grackles, which I’ve always thought were the awkward stepchild of the corvid family.

I hold most corvids in high regard. Crows and ravens are intelligent, resourceful birds. They have memory and hold grudges. They understand advanced concepts on the level of human children, and they use tools. Crows even seem to mourn their dead.

And no mountain camping trip is complete without an afternoon nap interrupted by squawking blue jays flying through the forest.

Corvids are great. But when I checked I learned grackles aren’t even uncool members of the corvid family. They’re not corvids at all, but instead members of the icterid family, which includes meadowlarks and orioles.

Grackles are noisy in an unflattering way, and seem to fill their time foraging the parking lots of big box chain stores.

What they were doing wading in my wetland I’ll never know, but it was surely something unsavory.

My avocet dreams were put on hold. I’ve yet to see one this spring, though I know they’re around. The birds are summer migrants in the Rocky Mountain region, where they breed. That migration pattern is why I had know idea that in winter, when avocets migrate to coastal waters of the southern U.S. and Mexico, that beautiful rust colored cap fades to gray.

But the upturned bill is forever.