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.

Snowy Flurries

For some, changing colors on trees or shrubs provide a first hint of the coming fall. Here on the upper Texas coast, autumn arrives differently, flying in on the wings of migrating birds.

Teal arrive first, followed closely by peripatetic mallards. Last week, the calls of returning osprey began echoing across Galveston Bay. Yesterday I realized the swallows had flown away, but their space soon will be filled by an assortment of geese, raptors, and cranes.

A snowy egret (Egretta thula) shows off its ‘golden slippers’ as it prepares to land

While snowy egrets stay with us throughout the year, their numbers increase in the fall as birds return to their favored coastal marshes, inland mudflats, agricultural land, and drainage ditches.

Like the proverbial birds of a feather, they roost and nest together; last weekend I found a large flock hidden away along a canal in the Brazoria Wildlife Refuge.

Touching down

Sometimes referred to as ‘Golden Slippers’ because of their yellow feet, egrets also have yellow lores (the area between their bill and their eyes), which change to a deeper salmon or pinkish-orange during the breeding season.

Showing off, perhaps?

In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, their plumes sold for nearly twice the cost of gold, and were used to decorate women’s hats. Inevitably, they were hunted nearly to extinction, but after the passage of laws meant to protect them, their numbers increased. Today, they’re a common sight: their golden slippers worth as much as any gold, and their developing plumes a hint of courtships to come.

 

Comments always are welcome. Click any image for a larger, more detailed view.