2018 Spotlight Bird is the American Avocet
by Ella SorensenFestival Note: We are excited to again spotlight the American Avocet for the 20th Great Salt Lake Bird Festival. This is the same bird we spotlighted in our 1st Festival in 1999 and in the logo.
The American Avocet, a strikingly elegant shorebird, is a noisy bird whose sharp wheet call regularly pierces the air of a wetland already alive with sound. This bird seldom goes unnoticed.
The allure of avocets spans the world. The charm of the four species scattered about the planet often invites iconic status. In Australia, the red-necked avocet appeared on a postage stamp in 1966. In the British Isles, the pied avocet became the logo for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in 1947. In Utah the avocet seems to be the “shorebird of choice” for it far outnumbers all shorebirds combined when a single species image is chosen to appear on report covers, presentations and license plate choices. The non-migratory Andean avocet nesting high in the Andes Mountains of South America is lesser known.
Most of Utah's 43 species of shorebirds pass through the state, pausing only to feed and rest during their seasonal migration to and from wintering and breeding territories. The avocet is one of ten shorebirds that return each spring to the state to nest and raise young. Hardy enough to endure the chills of March, avocets appear early in the year on the marshes, ponds, and mudflats of northern Utah.
A long, thin upturned, scythe-like bill enables avocets to feed quite differently than other shorebirds. The head swings back and forth with the bill stirring up anything edible from the water and mud. Avocets will pick and probe as well as swim in deeper water to roil up food.
The dark swirling columns of mosquito-like midges so often present in healthy wetlands of Great Salt bodes well for avocets whose diet during the nesting season consist mainly of larvae of the midges (blood worms) found in the water, other invertebrates, and some vegetable matter.
Avocets nest semi-colonially on mudflats. The nest may be a simple depression in the ground or lined with mud flakes or vegetation. Four splotched eggs per nest is usual. Within hours of hatching, avocet chicks are off and running, capable of feeding themselves. These ungainly balls of downy fluff have short bills and legs that look too long for their tiny bodies. Parental care continues for about a month until the chicks can fly.
Later in the summer, avocets start moving from individual pairs or families into large feeding flocks. The orange head feathers of the adult drop off and float away in the water or air replaced by whitish-gray feathers that give the bird a much duller appearance.
Because of the huge biomass of insects on Great Salt Lake, avocets nesting to the north begin funneling to the Lake like grains in a giant hour glass to feed, swelling the numbers to hundreds of thousands. On a single day in August, 252,000 avocets were counted, a large percent off the world’s population. Sometimes flocks preparing for migration can cover miles of Lake bed, packed so tightly together they appear as large drifts of snow.
Once sufficient fat accumulates to sustain long migratory flights, avocets disperse once again to winter in the coastal lowlands from northern California and southern Texas to southern Mexico.
The survivors of the winter months will return and the cycle begin once again.