Home, Sweet Nest

Nesting black-necked stilt (Himantopus mexicanus) ~ Brazoria Wildlife Refuge

Whether calling in flight, searching for food, or patrolling their territory on long, improbable legs, black-necked stilts always bring a smile. Their delicate, even fragile appearance is belied by their preferred habitats: fresh and saline marshes, mudflats, flooded agricultural fields, ponds, and drainage ditches.

During their mating season, which lasts from April through August, they construct ground nests near water, adding sticks, mud, grass, or shells to simple scrapes in the ground.

Both parents incubate three or four tan-colored eggs for 22-26 days; females often incubate by night, while both sexes take turns by day. Because even birds have to cope with the heat, on very hot days the parents will go to the water to wet their belly feathers before returning to the nest to cool the eggs.

After hatching, chicks run, walk, and swim as soon as their down has dried: usually within twenty-four hours. Their parents remove any tell-tale eggshells from the nest, and the chicks begin hiding in the water at night; both actions help to prevent predation by disguising their scent.

Nesting Pied-billed grebe (Podilymbus podiceps) ~ Brazoria Wildlife Refuge

Like the stilt, pied-billed grebes forgo trees for nesting purposes, but they prefer water instead of land. Shallow water will do, but depths greater than nine inches are best, since they allow the bird to approach or escape the nest underwater.

Usually found singly or in pairs around ponds and saltwater marshes, pied-billed grebes tend to dive at the slightest provocation, but they also possess the ability to squeeze air from their feathers and sink beneath the water’s surface without leaving so much as a ripple. Once underwater, they can stay submerged for some time,  swimming great distances to the safety of the reeds, or they can remain just below the surface, with only their eyes or nostrils visible.

Their tremendous swimming skills have a downside, of course. Barely able to walk on land, the grebes prefer to dive and swim when they sense danger, instead of flying to escape.

The water that protects them also facilitates construction of their nest platform: a dense mass of plant material that either floats or is anchored to standing vegetation, like the stems of bulrushes and water lilies. Both male and female participate in selecting the site and building the platform and nest, a bowl-like structure four to five inches in diameter and about an inch deep.

Eventually, both also join in incubating four to seven eggs for about twenty-three days, covering the eggs with nest material when they leave to feed. The young are able to swim almost immediately upon hatching, although I was surprised to learn that they sometimes ride on their parents’ backs like loons; adult pied-billed grebes have been known to swim underwater with their chicks on their backs. 

Ground-nesting birds are quite common, of course, but the black-necked stilt and pied-billed grebe are remarkably public about their nesting process. The next time I glimpse a nice, round clump of floating vegetation, or see a stilt just sitting around, I’ll take a closer look. There might be a new family waiting beneath the wings.


Comments always are welcome.

43 thoughts on “Home, Sweet Nest

    1. I don’t think you’ll be surprised to know that ‘waiting in the wings’ was the phrase that first occurred to me. Then, I realized it wasn’t quite right, and changed ‘in’ to ‘beneath.’ Of course, the idiom still was flitting around the edges of the post, and you caught it. That doesn’t surprise me.

    1. I do enjoy both of these bird species, and I was happy to add these photos to my collection. I didn’t know at first what was happening with either of them, but eventually I figured it out, and it was fun to learn more about their processes.

  1. Excellent photographs of these nesting birds, Linda. Pied-billed Grebe breeds here but Black-necked Stilt is a very occasional vagrant. Right now, in fact, there is an American Avocet on a local wetland, an unusual bird so far north. It has no idea what a celebrity it has become!

    1. Thanks, David. I did have a photo of the grebe’s nest without the bird, but I suspect I confused it with a pile of marsh grass and deleted it. It was only a few days later that I returned to the same spot, found this bird at home, and had my little “Ah, ha!” moment.

      I read that the black-necked stilts and American avocets tend to hang out together. I’ve seen and photographed an occasional avocet at this same place, but I haven’t yet seen one this year. As things dry out and less water’s available, they may begin to show up at their more usual haunts.

    1. I would love to see that some day. A friend who goes to Minnesota every year often sees loons with babies on their backs, but so far we’ve missed seeing the same phenomenon with the grebes. Their babies certainly are cute; I’d be happy just to see a clutch of them, on mama’s back, or not.

    1. Your description of your turf as “the square end” made me laugh. I wonder how many non-Texans would get that? You may not get these cute little guys, but you see lots of migrating and resident birds I’d willingly trek to see, like the sandhill cranes. To paraphrase the old saying, “A place for every species, and every species in its place.”

    1. It would be nice if we could fly to these different places, wouldn’t it? I’m constantly surprised by how relatively few miles it takes to enter a new environment. Even on Galveston Island, there are notable differences between the bay side and the beach side; that’s part of what makes poking around so enjoyable.

  2. April through August is a long mating season, Linda. I love the way different birds take care of their young. I thought of loons immediately when you talked about the ability of grebes to travel long distances under water. I once spent a delightful hour on a small Alaska lake enjoying the midnight sun and following along behind a loon in a kayak. Well, sort of. It would dive and I would try to guess where it would come up and paddle over to the place, Often as not, I got it wrong. I think that the loon was toying with me. –Curt

    1. I can’t tell you how much time I’ve spent trying to photograph those grebes. They seem to have a built-in sense that tells them the camera’s been raised and it’s time to dive. The car does pretty well as a bird blind for most species, but those grebes seem to be especially sensitive to movement. As with your loons, the trick is to estimate where they’re going to pop up, and nab the photo before they dive again. I’m not very good at it.

      1. Cormorants are another great diving bird that can seem to travel on forever, too, Linda. I was privileged once to sit on a bank on the American River and watch several babies fishing under water just a few feet away. That was a real treat! –Curt

  3. That one looks like the pinto ponies of the water world.
    Turtles and gators must be a grebe’s parent’s nightmare. Whew. When the kids finally do leave and go off on their own, no doubt the parents are finally able to relax – back to school pales by comparison?.
    (Couldn’t figure out why the bluejays were so angry and loud early this morning…until spotted the large hawk on the neighbor’s chimney.)

    1. I looked up the list of things that prey on grebe babies, and it included a few I hadn’t thought of, including snakes, hawks, gulls, and raccoons. It’s rough out there! My bluejays were squawking the last couple of days, too. They’d disappeared for a while and stopped coming for peanuts, but they’re back. There may be a second brood in the works.

      I’m so oblivous to horses, I didn’t realize there are black and white pintos. I always assumed they were brown and white. I just looked at some photos, and you’re exactly right: the horses are beautiful, and the correspondence is real.

  4. Must be nice to be able to navigate diving, flying and shared parenting. Glad the males take egg sitting seriously as well. Nature at its best. Still, the young have to hide from predators, and that must be nerve wrecking.

    1. The black-necked stilts maintain their pair bond throughout the nesting process and the raising of the chicks. Their courtship rituals are the sweetest I’ve seen in the bird world; I have some photos that I’ll get up eventually. It really is amazing.

      I read, too, that the grebes are feisty little things, and will take on intruders with enthusiasm. Both of these species are doing well, so their ability to evade predators must be well developed. Another interesting thing about the stilts is that they adapt well to human-created ponds, ditches, and so on; the loss of habitat, worrisome as it is, doesn’t affect them as negatively as it does some birds.

    1. I need to expand my range a bit, Yvonne. Once school’s in session and the weather’s better, I want to spend some time on the Bolivar Peninsula and in the Anahuac Wildlife Refuge. It’s not any farther in terms of distance, but having to wait in the line for the Bolivar ferry can slow things down considerably.

      Here’s a fun fact for you: the only bird whose legs are longer in proportion to its body is the flamingo. It’s easy to see how the bird got the name “stilt”!

      1. Hmm that is interesting to know; Each time I see a photo of a flamingo I see images in my mind of a nursery in Austin that had a lawn “planted” with dozens of flamingos. I have no idea if they are still there or not. Last time I saw them was about 10 years ago.

        1. Here’s something even better. A flamingo that escaped from a Kansas zoo in 2005 and came to Texas was spotted along the coast again this spring, obviously doing quite well. Birders all along the coast were chasing that thing once it reappeared. I heard it had taken up with the whooping cranes for a while, but I don’t know if that’s true. It’s sighted every now and then, and has been here for all of those fourteen years.

          1. Oh my goodness now that is one for the books. I envision wild-eyed birders going gaga over one poor escaped flamingo. It is heartening to know that it has managed to survive for so many years. I hope it lives for many more. Every time I think of flamingos I think of the those artificial ones planted on the lawn in Austin. I have no idea why those ugly artificial ones made such an impression in my little brain. I suppose it is because I detest any replica of wildlife made out of plastic.

            1. I used to see those plastic ones in yards from time to time, but it’s been a while. The last clutch of them I saw showed up on the lawn of a local yacht club. I think that must have been a joke, or planned, because another one showed up each day. They do catch the eye!

  5. Great tutorial on these birds. I always cringe when I read about or see ground nesters, they just seem so vulnerable. But they all have remarkable adaptations and tricks to hide and/or get away from what they need to get away from.

    1. I know. Sometimes I have to remind myself that those birds have a good bit of experience in being birds, and generations of instinct bred into them. They certainly know how to take care of themselves better than I ever could!

      I had an interesting experience with a willet pair at the edge of a shallow lake at the refuge. When I showed up, one went into the vegetation, but the other stood just at the edge, watching me. I finally decided they were a nesting pair, and one — probably the male — was standing guard. Sure enough, when I got into the car and turned away from him, he vanished into the grass in a flash. I didn’t even see where he’d gone in — which probably was the point.

    1. I thought of our beavers and river otters when I read about grebes’ ability to enter or leave a nest underwater. The adaptations of creatures really are amazing. It’s interesting to me that such a small and apparently shy bird actually can be quite feisty, willing to take on any intruder that comes its way.

  6. I do hope you get some photos of the little ones, one day. These Home, Sweet Nests, had me thinking about people who have made their homes, and raised their young, in similar environments: eg Lake Titicaca’s floating islands; the floating gardens in Mexico City; the floating gardens of Inle Lake, Myanmar; and doubtless there are more. Unlike humans, though, your birds probably live more in harmony with their immediate environment.

    1. I do have one series of photos of the youngsters, in rather trying conditions. I’d like to think that one of those young ones grew up and is sitting on a nest now.

      Your mention of those human communities brought to mind Galveston after the 1900 storm. As they went through the process of raising the entire island, all of the buildings were lifted up so that slurry could be pumped underneath them, and people went about their business by walking on newly-constructed ‘boardwalks’ fifteen feet or so in the air. It may not have been a natural harmony with the environment, but it surely did demonstrate human adaptability.

    1. The stilts are among my favorites. I used to not be able to tell male from female, but now I mostly can: the females also are dark, but they have some noticeable brown in their feathers. I have photos of a courting sequence that I’ll post one of these days, once I find the best and get them processed. It was one of the sweetest I’ve witnessed in the bird world.

  7. This is a nice natural history post, Linda.

    Ground nesters amaze me. One would think predation would render the young nestlings so vulnerable, which they are, that none would survive, which they do. The parents do a great job of protecting but eventually the babies are wandering around on their own. Your description of the varying ways they hide their presence tells the story of evolved survival.

    1. I’ve learned that many of these water bird babies — including the stilts and grebes — are what the biologists call ‘precocial’ — the young are relatively mature and mobile from the time they hatch. They leave the nest almost immediately, often within twenty-four hours, and are ready to take on the world. The killdeer are another precocial species. Their young make me laugh every time I see them. They look like golf balls with legs, and they’re fast! I guess if you’re part of a ground nesting species, you’d better be able to run once you’ve pecked your way out of the egg.

      The opposite developmental strategy is called “altricial”, where the young birds are helpless when they hatch: think robins and such. So many new words to learn!

    1. I’ve never been able to figure out how those stilts, particularly, keep their white feathers so clean. Even in the middle of that patch of mud, the bird looks as neat and tidy as can be. Thanks for the good words on the photos. They’re perfect examples of “shoot first, figure out what you’ve seen later.”

  8. There are so many “exotic” – to me – birds down your way! I love stilts and avocets – herons and egrets too. Stilts get up here now and then and there’s one right now that birders are talking about. Not right around the corner though so I doubt I’ll see it. Pied-billed grebes we have! We saw them nesting once, from a boardwalk at a park. I love their crazy call, and we did get to see one carry a youngster on its back once, briefly. That location became too dry in subsequent years and we didn’t see nests after 2013.

    1. Funny, that my “exotics” are the common songbirds that live in Texas, and even in my area, but which I rarely see because they prefer a brushier, more wooded environment. A few will adapt to (and even nest in) palm trees, but I’ve far more water birds than song birds around.

      As for exotics, this gem probably qualifies more than any other bird in the state right now. A friend who lives down the coast is sure she saw it in July — what an experience that would be. It’s clearly happy here; it sometimes hangs out with the whooping cranes when they arrive here in the fall.

    1. Both are resident in Florida, although the black-necked stilt isn’t a year-round resident across the state, as is the grebe. If you’re ever in an area with nice shallows for wading, you might well see one or the other. If the stilts are around, they’re quite easy to see because of those distinctive markings.

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