Be Your Own Birder

Bird of the Week: American Avocet

This week’s featured bird holds a great deal of nostalgia for me, as I remember so clearly where and when I’ve seen it. Of course, that’s not hard to do with such a distinctive bird, and the American avocet has some very unique features that are noticeable to birders and non-birders alike.

American Avocet

American Avocet – Photo by Robb Hannawacker

Name: American Avocet
Scientific Name: Recurvirostra americana
Scientific Family: Recurvirostridae (Avocets and Stilts)

Habitat: A wide variety of wetlands, flooded fields and even coastlines, lake shores and similar habitats. Found in both freshwater and saltwater regions, including the brackish waters in between. Waters are typically shallow and these birds tend to stay where they can wade comfortably rather than need to swim.

Range: Year-round in suitable habitats in central California and the San Francisco Bay area, as well as central Mexico and along the Gulf coast of Texas. Summer breeding range extends throughout the western great plains in North America as far north as southern Alberta and Saskatchewan and west to eastern Washington and Oregon. Absent from the driest southwestern regions in summer. In winter, non-breeding birds migrate to the Atlantic coast, Florida peninsula and the Gulf coast. The winter range is also much more extensive throughout Mexico, including the Baja peninsula.

American avocets are beautiful birds year-round, though their size can be a confusing middle ground between large shorebirds and small wading birds. In their spring and summer breeding plumage, they have rich tan heads and necks and a white eye ring, with bold black and white plumage on their backs and wings. Their underparts are white, and their legs are a soft gray-blue. In winter, they lose much of their color, becoming a black-and-white-and-gray version of themselves, though the head and neck color is generally less extensive than it is in summer, and their legs lose some of the blue tinting and are closer to just gray. Both males and females look alike.

The most striking feature of these birds is their long, delicate bill with its distinctly upward curving tip. They use these bills to scoop, flutter and swish along the water’s surface, skimming out insects of all types. They will often walk in flocks, almost formation-like, as they feed communally, and are comfortable in mixed flocks with stilts, plovers and other shorebirds.

For me, American avocets will always be intimately connected with the years I lived in Utah. Because of its distinctiveness, this was one of the first birds I was able to identify when I began birding out west, and each year I looked forward to their spring return to their breeding grounds around the Great Salt Lake. In fact, during the many times I traveled in and out of Salt Lake International Airport, it was seeing an avocet in the wetlands surrounding the runways as the plane descended that would let me know I was finally home.

While I no longer live in Utah, I’m thrilled that American avocets will still appear in my binoculars in Florida. I will more likely see them in their pied winter plumage, though in early spring I should also spot some birds that have already molted into their nuptial plumage. I look forward to those sightings just as much as I always craned my neck toward tiny airplane windows in Utah, and each time I see an avocet I’ll remember that we all fly to different places.

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