No, the upturned bill on the graceful and sleek American avocet is not a deformity. This striking tall-legged shorebird uses this unique bill in a variety of ways to feed. One is by “sweeping” its head from side to side with the tip of its upturned bill just barely below the water’s surface, finding food by touch. It also locates food by sight, thrusting its head into water or mud, or picking at the water’s surface.
How to spot one: Avocets are very easy to identify! No other long-legged bird near water sports an upturned bill. In spring and early summer, its breeding plumage includes cinnamon or rufous on its head and neck, the rest of the year these areas are grayish-white. At rest or in flight, their body pattern shows a striking black-and-white pattern. Often noisy, they call with loud, excitable cries that take some practice to distinguish from the black-necked stilt, the other long-legged shorebird in our region.
When and where to look: Avocets are birds of interior prairie potholes, marshes, and alkaline lakes in the warm months. After breeding, they migrate south to winter along coastal mudflats or bays mostly in the southern tier of states and south along both coasts of Mexico. Near Yakima, appropriate habitats are in short supply.
Two favored spots are near Sunnyside: the farm pond by the Yakima Valley Highway a few miles south of Granger. The other site is ponds in the Sunnyside Wildlife Area, south of headquarters on dikes around the “rice” fields. It is more numerous in some “saline” ponds in the Columbia Basin and vastly more abundant in similar habitats in the Great Basin and prairie wetlands east of the Rocky Mountains.
Certain alkaline lakes in southern Oregon, such as Summer Lake and Lake Abert, host many thousands of these beautiful birds in late summer, where they congregate after breeding to feast on abundant brine shrimp, a veritable “crustacean soup,” and aerial brine flies.
Chow time: Small insects and crustaceans. Around saline wetlands, common in the Great Basin, they are attracted to those with brine shrimp and brine flies.
Home life: Avocets typically nest in loose colonies by the water. The nest, such as it is, is “built” by both sexes, and usually just a pebble-lined bare area. The usual clutch of four eggs are incubated by both parents, the female at night, both sexes taking turns during the day for 22-24 days.
The downy young leave the nest very soon after hatching and set about finding food on their own, though carefully guarded by their parents. If danger approaches, both adults perform a noisy display to distract the intruder by running about with their wings open, often in crouched posture.
In alkaline and saline wetlands elsewhere around the globe, quite closely related species of avocets occur in Europe, Asia, Africa, and Australia.
• Wildlife Moment, focusing on native wildlife, typically runs in Outdoors on the first Thursday of the month, with the cooperation of the Yakima Valley Aububon Society.