Enough, Already!

When it’s hot and droughty on the Texas coast, freshwater ponds begin to dry, and wading birds that have nested along their edges sometimes find life complicated by the vicissitudes of nature.

This baby black-necked stilt (Himantopus mexicanus), one of three being led across a desolate mud flat by its mother, finally tired of the heat and exertion and just sat down — unwilling or unable to go on.

After only a minute or two, the mother realized one of her brood was missing, and came back to have a little talk with the tired one.

I couldn’t hear the conversation, but I suspect she sounded like any mother: “If you want some shade, some water, and something to eat, you’d better stick with us.”

Whatever she said, it was enough to get the baby on its feet again, ready to rejoin the family.

Despite the distance across the dried-up pond, they were fast walkers. One of the other chicks tended to dawdle and missed being included in this photo, but it wasn’t far behind. Even at the time, the well-camouflaged chicks were hard to pick out against the mud.

(Click to enlarge the image, for a better look at the chicks)

Soon, all three were tucked away in a safer location. As they disappeared into the small thicket of broken reeds and vegetation, I wondered which of us was more relieved.

In time, wings will grow and rain will come. They’ll begin enjoying life as the graceful beauties that they are, and I’ll be glad to enjoy them again.

Adult black-necked stilt foraging at the Brazoria Wildlife Refuge


Comments always are welcome.


57 thoughts on “Enough, Already!

  1. Thanks, Linda, for the pictures and the story. I’m glad things came to a good end that day, and I hope these chicks will make it to adulthood.
    Have a wonderful Sunday,

    1. It’s a rough world out there: no question about that. But some birds (like killdeer and these stilts) are what’s called precocial; they’re able to walk right after hatching. They’re speedy, too. If you put some of these stilt legs on a golf ball — well, that’s your basic killdeer chick. I’ve seen them zipping around, and it’s one of the funniest sights in the world.

      Once I learned how resilient these chicks are, I stopped worrying about them quite so much. A local birder said he’s seen them cover a couple of miles in a day.

          1. Our sidewalk was moist this morning, barely, but that was all. San Antonio is having a “nice thunderstorm” just now, but we are as dry as a bone. :(

  2. I wondered which meaning of stilt came first, ‘a kind of bird’ or ‘a long wooden object that provides support.’ At https://www.etymonline.com/word/stilt I found that while the sense ‘crutch’ goes back to the 1300s, the word as the name for a kind of bird dates back only to 1831.

    Your fifth picture makes good use of all that uninhabited space in the center.

    1. I enjoyed this reference from your link: “Application to “wooden poles for walking across marshy ground, etc.” is from mid-15c.” The stilt’s legs may not be wooden, but they serve precisely the same purpose: getting the bird across marshy ground.

      There was a lot of uninhabited space to work with that day. There wasn’t another bird in sight, probably because those with wings had flown off to wetter marshes. These really were beyond the limits of my lens, but I decided not to move closer and risk spooking them. I do like the way the space between the mother and the babies sets a tone that’s different than a lot of space around them.

  3. We who live in houses with full pantries and refrigerators and easy access to grocery stores and restaurants, we who have never stood in the field amid the shriveled remains of the crop that was supposed to feed us all next year, nor watched the drying up of our only source of water have forgotten why we are taught to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread.”

    1. Until this year, I’d never seen the ponds at the refuge dry and cracked. Part of the reason’s that I never went down there during the summer. There was too much heat, and too many mosquitoes. But this year, I wanted to see what happens during the months when no one’s around, and it’s been quite an education. The fresh water ponds dry up. Brackish areas begin to recede, and before long, only the salt water sloughs and ponds are holding water.

      On the other hand, it’s occurred to me that there may be some benefits. The grasses that have begun to cover the pond where I photographed the stilts might well be the grasses that this fall’s waterfowl will feed on. Perhaps they sometimes pray, too: “Give us this day our daily grass.”

    1. One thing that helps them out is their ability to walk almost immediately upon hatching, and then to begin running and swimming just as quickly. They’re like the killdeer in that respect, and if you’ve seen killdeer babies, you know what they’re capable of.

      It’s just occurred to me that the space the mother consistently kept between her and the chicks may be a survival strategy, too. Those babies were tough to see against that mud, while the mother was obvious as could be. If a predator decided to make a move, it certainly would see the adult before the babies.

  4. Awe, what a sweet capture! The chicks are remarkably camouflaged on the mud flat. It’s tough out there, no doubt, but glad that little family is safe and that you shared their adventure!

    1. I almost didn’t see them, because I didn’t expect there to be any birds on the flats. Then I saw that little lump in the middle of the mud that clearly wasn’t a crawdad chimney and thought — what in the world is that? When I took a better look, there was that poor chick, all by itself in the heat.

      I’ve finally learned to wait and see what happens when a baby bird seems abandoned, and sure enough, mama showed up to get him moving again. I was glad, because I wasn’t about to attempt a rescue: especially on a mud flat covered with alligator prints. That might have been too much of an adventure.

    1. On the other hand, when you combine those long legs with the ability to run straight out of the egg, you’ve got a survival strategy worth hanging on to. Still, you’re right about the humor inherent in their appearance. I grin every time I see them.

      1. I did see an element of humor, but I also think of caricature as sometimes being complimentary – the artist has to be able to identify a salient quality, and exaggerates it, so that the subject is instantly identifiable. I hadn’t seen the photographic evidence, and just had a drawing, I might think “Standouts” seems to really work well to describe these birds,

        1. sorry, mangled my comment, wanted to write, if we hadn’t seen the actual birds, or photo evidence, we might think an artist was exaggerating the length of their legs. But they’re very neat-looking, real standouts.

          1. You didn’t mangle it so badly I didn’t understand it. And you’re right about the caricatures, of course. I always think about Al Hirschfeld, who was one of the best. I suspect that part of the humor in a good caricature is that the artist is able to find and magnify the quirks or flaws that more polite people decline to mention.

            I happened to find this, too: the black-necked stilt has the second-longest legs in proportion to its body among the birds. Only the flamingo beats it.

    1. As long as you don’t lose Molly in one of those cracks, we’ll make it. Ready to make any bets on Tuesday? Here’s how I do it: add wind speeds, divide rain chances. If they say the wind’s going to be between 10-15, it will be 25. And we if have a 60% chance of rain, make that 30%. It works more often than you’d think. (But I’m hopeful.)

      I’m glad you like the mirror-image. Those birds are so elegant — I’m always delighted to see them.

  5. Glad to see the little guy made it across! Cute little fella!
    (What’s this about Austin to change its name because of the slave history? Don’t they know it won’t change the history?)

    1. He is cute, isn’t he? Sometimes we forget how well-adapted they are, and how well they deal with harsh conditions. Put us out on a mudflat and see how we do after a few weeks. (We’ll have to ask Curt about that — there’s a shortage of water in his world, too.)

      I hadn’t heard about Austin, so I went over and checked out the Austin American-Statesman. Those are interesting proposals, to say the least. Of course a city can change its name if it pleases, but I doubt it’s going to happen. If it does, I’m sure we’ll hear about it.

  6. I think this baby was just waiting to grow into his legs!! My, they’re brave creatures, stepping forth on those matchsticks! I rather like how fuzzy the wee ones are though, compared to their mama. Hope you told him you’d see him again when he gets a bit bigger!

    1. They are rather like puppies in that respect, aren’t they? Long legs or big paws, it takes a little time for the rest of the body to catch up. What I find interesting is that they hit the ground running, so to speak. Once they hatch, they don’t need to spend time in the nest before they can go out to meet the world. They’re already fluffy, and they’re ready to start using those legs in a very short time: just hours. I’ve never thought about it, but when your nest is on the ground and unprotected, you need to be able to evade predators.

      I certainly did bid them adieu, and offered some good wishes. It was a real pleasure to see them — the first stilt babies I’ve seen.

    1. I never could master walking on stilts, that’s for sure. That probably plays into my admiration for these long-legged birds.

      It probably doesn’t surprise you that I didn’t know a thing about the Messel fossils. But I found this fascinating article, and really enjoyed it. Not only that, now I can add the Eocene to my list of epochs, periods, and eras. The article showed some of those long-legged birds, too. That’s a treasure you have, for sure.

    1. I must confess my first response when I saw how he was sitting was to laugh, since I’d never considered the possibility that they could sit on their “knees.” Then I realized that we sometimes sit on our knees, too — but our legs are jointed to go behind us, not in front.

      As for plopping down, it surely is a cross-species behavior. I’ll bet your dog does it, too. Dixie Rose would do it occasionally when she was a kitten and liked to play, and I sometimes do it when I get home from work — especially in the summer. Things aren’t as rough here as they are out on the flats, though. That little bird is lucky to have such an attentive mama.

  7. Glad it all came good. A nature that is kind to survival is what we all approve. Often films about nature and animals show how the strong and bigger animal go out and kill the smaller and weaker. Helvi never watches animal documentaries. There is nothing worse than watching a tiger in full pursuit of an antelope.
    As a child I could never get enough of my mother’s sister reading us the story of a nasty fox chasing a poor little rabbit. The rabbit had been bitten by the nasty fox, and its blood leaving a bright red trail against the white snow. The end of the story showed the bloodied rabbit making a good escape into its burrow. It survived.
    I slept soundly after that.

    1. It certainly can be difficult to witness what Tennyson called “nature red in tooth and claw.” On the other hand, the food chain is all around us. Tattered butterflies, one-legged birds, and tail-less lizards are evidence of that. Like your rabbit, they escaped, but not by much.

      Every spring, it’s hard for me to endure the disappearance of multitudes of ducklings — plucked from the water by gulls and raptors, or pulled down from below by gar or gators. I don’t like to see it, but it’s part of the system. On the other hand, there’s a good bit of “wildlife programming” that I won’t watch. It’s not meant to educate, but to stir emotions better left unstirred.

      In this case, of course, just coping with some less than optimal conditions was the issue, and I was glad to see the family troop off together. My impulse always is to rescue, and there are times when that’s neither appropriate nor wise. I’m glad my role in this little drama was nothing more than to record it.

    1. At least that expedition ended well. Unfortunately their diet’s primarily acquatic invertabrates, tadpoles, and fish, and I suspect there weren’t any of those for quite some distance. Still, there may have been fresh mud or even water I couldn’t see from the road; perhaps that’s where they were headed. I prefer to think so!

  8. Good to hear that the little chick recovered enough to move on. It must be hard to stand by and watch the birds in the heat, but nature will take its course – for good or bad.

    Lovely photos Linda, especially the gorgeous couple of chicks.

    1. Even the fish are tired of the heat at this point. The ones that amuse me most are the alligator gar: a prehistoric-looking fish several feet long. They’ll show up in the marinas and position themselves in the shadow cast by a dock piling.As the sun moves, they’ll move, too — just to keep themselves in the shadow.

      The mallards will do the same thing, except they lay in the piling shadows on top of the docks. One rule of thumb is, “When the ducks start panting, it’s time to take a break.” Of course, the bird baths are more popular this time of year, too. I’ve not yet followed the practice of a friend who puts ice cubes in hers.

  9. Such a diligent mother. I wonder where papa was. Perhaps he does the night shift. The curlews who nest in my sister’s garden are precocial and it is astonishing to see them led away from the nest site within a few hours of their hatching. Apparently the curlews are nidifugous as well as precocial. (Two new words added to my vocab thanks to your post.) Actually there is a third which may apply to the stilts; nidicolous.

    1. Papa may have been out scouting for a new home. Both parents do care for the chicks, so I suspect he was somewhere around.

      Nidicolous applies to birds that remain in the nest for a time, being fed and cared for by parents while in the nest. The stilts are nidifugous — out of the nest and roaming around from the beginning. It’s a little confusing, but I found this helpful: “All nidifugous species are precocial – that is, born with open eyes and capable of independent locomotion. However, not all precocial birds leave the nest; some may stay at the nest, and are thus considered nidicolous rather than nidifugous. Many gulls and terns are precocial but nidicolous.”

      So there we have it. I hope our little precocial, nidifugous darlings found themselves some water, and a wonderful buffet.

  10. Nice series and narrative, Linda. Often we tend to humanize the interactions between animals but I think you got it right here. Sometimes a child just needs a little motherly inspiration and encouragement.

    1. There’s a difference between a sympathetic imagination and sentimentalizing, for sure. What’s absolutely certain is the wonder of being able to observe and share these interactions. Imperfect as the photos may be, they’re a good reminder that events like these are going on around us all the time, and it’s not just people like Attenborough or National Geographic photographers who get to see them.

  11. This is a bird I missed years ago when I had the bird blog. The chicks are so full of character. These images are well documented and are a good profile study.

    1. They’re one of my favorite birds. I’d never seen a chick before, so this was a special experience. It was one of those days when the refuge was nearly empty, so I could sit and watch without anyone coming along to frighten them off. As I recall, I saw only two other people. Sensible sorts were in the air conditioning somewhere.

  12. I’ve never seen these. Heard of these. WOW! I love the faces. They remind me of some sort of bird you wold see in a cartoon — long legs, big nose. Mama looks like she should be carrying a purse! I’m glad it had a good end for them. (And yes, that camo is pretty effective!

    1. I’ve learned that the leg/body proportion of a stilt is second only to a flamingo. They do have that cartoonish feeling to them, don’t they? And now that you mention a purse, I can see it. Maybe it’s partly the black and white costume — very Chanel-like.

      They’re quite active and vocal birds, which makes them great fun to watch.

  13. How beautiful! I’ve only seen stilts a few times, and I just love them. We’re way too far north, it’s wonderful to be able to see them live their lives this close-up. The photo with the young ‘uns on the mud really demonstrates the power of camouflage. And that first image is very funny!

    1. I still come back to that first image now and then, just to smile. When I first saw the chick, I was fearful that it wasn’t going to survive the heat out there on the flats, but then Mom showed up, and he got up, and they all trucked off. I’ll never know for sure how they fared, but I prefer to think things worked out just fine: especially after some birders said that, yes, they could travel pretty good distances on foot and probably would do well until they had wings and could fly to a better neighborhood.

      Every human I know is hoping for rain, but I suspect there are just as many creatures out there who’d like some, too.

    1. They do look like a child’s stick figures don’t they? Even the adults have those long, long legs — but they’re graceful flyers, and have wonderful calls. They’re quite social, form very strong pair bonds, and both parents raise the babies. Add in that classic beauty, and they’re hard to beat for favorite bird honors.

    1. You’re right that I’m prone to anthropomorphizing. By nature I’m more storyteller than scientist, although I do strive for accurate identifications, use scientific names, and share interesting details of the species I find. I’m the same with plants. I once had a lace cactus I named Godot, because it seemed as though I was going to have to wait forever for him to bloom. When he finally did bloom, it turned out to have been worth the wait.

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