Waders & waterfowl highlights of 2016, part 1—waders and shorebirds

Last week, I completed my favourite/best photos collection of perching birds (and a few that roost or climb) from 2016.

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“Greetings, Sir Ralph. It is we, your humble servants, Henry and Hermione Hoodie of the Merganser genus…”

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As promised, I’m going to provide separate posts for raptors and water birds, as well as the few mammals that caught the attention of my eye and camera last year. So let’s begin with the waders, which for me means “birds that commonly occur in [and around] reedy areas, shallow waters, ponds and such” (Wikipedia) and, up here in the Interior, this includes mainly two subcategories, herons and shorebirds. Compared to the waders’ catalogues of our most avid birders, mine is considerably smaller. At The Coast, there’s a much greater diversity, especially of shorebirds, and a community that’s deeply committed to it. On the other hand, up here, while  there are fewer species (though more than I’ve searched out), some of them are indigenous to our ecosystems and unlikely to appear in coastal conditions; I’m very pleased to be located right where we are. No doubt, I’ll add to my list in years to come….

Among the wader/floaters unique to the Interior, the American Avocet particularly stands out! In fact, the map above shows that while this mostly western species breeds in states that touch the 49th parallel, none breed in BC at all. My photos show the contrary. Click photos to enlarge….

Some interesting facts about American Avocets from Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology:

  • american-avocet
    American Avocet wading at Robert Lake….

    With its elegant profile and striking coloration, the American Avocet is unique among North American birds. In summer it can be found in temporary and unpredictable wetlands across western North America where it swings its long upturned bill through the shallow water to catch small invertebrates.

  • In response to predators, the American Avocet sometimes issues a series of call notes that gradually changes pitch, simulating the Doppler effect and thus making its approach seem faster than it actually is.
  • Nesting American Avocets aggressively attack predators, sometimes physically striking Northern Harriers or Common Ravens. 
  • A female American Avocet may lay one to four eggs in the nest of another female, who then incubates the eggs. American Avocets may parasitize other species’ nests too; single American Avocet eggs have been found in the nests of Mew Gulls. Other species may also parasitize avocet nests. Avocets have incubated mixed clutches of their own eggs and those of Common Terns or Black-necked Stilts. The avocets reared the stilt hatchlings as if they were their own
  • American Avocet chicks leave the nest within 24 hours after hatching. Day-old avocets can walk, swim, and even dive to escape predators. 
  • The oldest recorded American Avocet was over 15 years old, when it was found in California, where it had been banded a decade and a half earlier.”
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Avocets love the salty environment of Robert Lake near Kelowna.

In our community, Avocets are found at Robert Lake, a saltwater marsh with very limited access for birders (a looooonnnngggg story that I won’t be going into here!) and, oddly, just to the north, in ponds now incorporated into the Kelowna Landfill, including one still referred to locally as Alki Lake — “Alki” because its so alkaline, and “lake” because that may have been true in the past. Although the landfill is a state-of-the-art operation, any landfill is, after all, a complex built with garbage and not a great place to spend the day no matter how many eagles and ravens and hawks and ducks and even avocets and stilts it supports….

Efforts to encourage AMAVs & Black-necked Stilts to relocate have been largely unsuccessful….

Speaking of BNSTs, here’s the best proof that this species is doing well here, too, in the same environment as the Avocets (click to open enlarged image in a new tab):

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Juvenile and adult Black-necked Stilts in salty Robert Lake.

The stilts and avocets occupy quite different territories most of the year as the comparison of their ranges (below) shows. We’re very fortunate in Kelowna to be able to enjoy both species in the same locale!

Other shorebirds (that I have photos of) that grace our Okanagan community:

I’m inclined to believe that the Killdeer above, from Thomson Marsh, is a male. On my walks in spring, while his mate was sitting on eggs, he would pop out of the brush between the path and Thomson Brook and lead me along, regardless of which  way I was travelling, away from her. Of course, to me, it felt like I was walking with a Killdeer; his perspective was likely a little different, but as I’m not fluent in Killdeer, I couldn’t always grasp what he was trying to tell me…. To enlarge graphic and photos, just click them!

Robert Lake is a great place to see a wide variety of shorebirds, including Killdeers, but it’s especially great for sandpipers that really prefer salt marshes, such as the Least, Solitary, and occasionally, outside its usual range, Pectoral Sandpiper.

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At Robert Lake, in 2015, Least Sandpipers in the company of a Killdeer….

I found Solitary Sandpipers in several locations in 2016, including this one in a pond near Upper Mission Creek where it was foraging on a carpet of algae. It took a little work to get a suitable vantage point for the shot, but I think it was worth it….

From Cornell: “The Solitary Sandpiper is commonly seen in migration along the banks of ponds and creeks. While not truly solitary, it does not migrate in large flocks the way other shorebirds do…. The Solitary Sandpiper lays its eggs in [abandoned] tree nests of several different song birds, particularly those of the American Robin, Rusty Blackbird, Eastern Kingbird, Gray Jay, and Cedar Waxwing….Of the world’s 85 sandpiper species, only the Solitary Sandpiper and the Green Sandpiper of Eurasia routinely lay eggs in tree nests instead of on the ground. ….In migration and winter [SOSAs are] found along freshwater ponds, stream edges, temporary pools, flooded ditches and fields, more commonly in wooded regions, less frequently on mudflats and open marshes.”

Pectoral Sandpipers are being found in BC more often these days although Cornell’s range map for them indicates otherwise. We’re likely to see them, if at all, only during migration. I was lucky to be alerted to this one’s presence and to get this lifetime shot!

As rare as Pectorals are, the Lesser Yellowlegs below (and its close relative the Greater Yellowlegs) are regular visitors to Robert Lake and other Okanagan wetlands.

Most fascinating bird in the marsh

The final entry in this part on waders/shorebirds is actually, like the AMAVs we began with, a floater/swimmer as well as a wader. The Wilson’s Phalarope is one of the most fascinating birds we see in the salt marsh. Unlike most birds we see in Canada, the females are not only more colourful than males; females “court and defend male mates—several per season—while males do most of the work of raising the young.”  Imagine that, all you MCP- couch potatoes! Nature does work in mysterious ways…. Besides the unusual gender appearances and roles, WIPHs also utter peculiar sounds—like dogs barking in the distance. Moreover, “Phalaropes are the only shorebirds that regularly swim in deep water. They bob on the surface, often spinning in circles to bring small food items within reach of their slender bills.” (Cornell)

Part 2 of this series will focus on Great Blue Herons and a few gulls….
Part 3 will cover ducks, grebes, and coots….

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