The charisma of wading birds is often overlooked or underestimated when it comes to the wide swath of singing birds, raptors and other engaging species. But those long-legged birds that mill about in marshes, mudflats and mangroves have so much to offer in diversity and sheer beauty.
Indeed, that beauty has led to the near-extinction of several species. Take for example the snowy egret, pictured above. This wading bird is well-loved for it's signature yellow feet and feeding antics that range from elegant and poised to comically manic as it lunges for fish or chases off meal-time competitors. It also is well-loved for its brilliantly white plumage, including frilly display feathers.
During the height of the plume trade, which flourished during an era in fashion where bird feathers — or even whole stuffed birds — on ladies' hats was in vogue. According to Smithsonian Magazine:
"The main drivers of the plume trade were millinery centers in New York and London. [Director of the New York Zoological Society William] Hornaday, who described London as 'the Mecca of the feather killers of the world,' calculated that in a single nine-month period the London market had consumed feathers from nearly 130,000 egrets. And egrets were not the only species under threat. In 1886, it was estimated, 50 North American species were being slaughtered for their feathers."
It wasn't until Harriet Hemenway and Minna Hall, two Boston socialites, created what was to become the Audubon Society and pushed for the end of the plume trade. Snowy egrets and several other species were spared in the nick of time.
These aren't the only wading birds worth watching. From tiny turnstones to flamingos standing several feet tall, we explore some of the amazing species of birds found at the water's edge.
The American avocet looks like a typical shorebird at first glance. However, this bird has several stand-out features.
During much of the year, the avocet has nondescript white, black and pale gray plumage. But during breeding season, the birds gain gorgeous apricot or peach-colored feathers on their head and neck. This, contrasted against the clean black and white of the rest of their body, gives them an elegantly colorful appearance.
Another interesting feature of the American avocet is the upturned end of their long, delicate bill. It swings this bill back and forth in shallow water, almost like swinging a scythe back and forth, catching invertebrates as it walks.
One wading bird that can one-up most others in unique bill and bright plumage is the roseate spoonbill.
Like the American avocet and many other wading birds, the roseate spoonbill forages by swinging its bill side to side in the water, snagging snacks as it walks. The wide bill allows the bird to filter more water as it goes along, with the bill snapping shut when it comes into contact with food such as small fish and invertebrates.
Because of its vivid pink and red plumage — the only spoonbill species with such vibrant coloration — it is often confused for a flamingo. But one look at the bill will set the record straight.
This species was once common in the Southeast, but by the 1860s, they were all but eliminated from the United States by plume hunters. They began to make a comeback in Texas and Florida in the early 1900s, but their status is still tentative and they're considered uncommon in the states, though they can be frequently spotted in parts of Florida, Louisiana and Texas.
There is nothing ordinary about the black-necked stilt, and how it got its name is no surprise. If you've ever watched one walk through a pond or along the shoreline of a bay at low tide, you've probably been mesmerized by the endlessly long legs. According to Cornell Lab of Ornithology, "They have the second-longest legs in proportion to their bodies of any bird, exceeded only by flamingos."
As if their impossible length weren't enough, the legs of the black-necked stilt are also a beautiful pink color, which contrasts with the striking black and white coloration of the bird's body. And they also have deep red eyes, to ensure they're color-coordinated of course.
This species is found in the Western United States and in Central and South America.
While black-necked stilts sport impressively long legs, the long-billed curlew sports an impressively lengthy bill. This species is the largest nesting sandpiper species in North America, and its bill rivals only the larger Far Eastern curlew as the longest bill of any shorebird.
Breeding during the summer months in the grasslands of the Great Plains and Great Basin, the long-billed curlew can be found on the coasts during migration and the winter seasons.
The long-billed curlew uses it's enormous bill to snag beetles, caterpillars, spiders and other prey while living on the grasslands, and to catch crabs, mollusks and other large invertebrates while feeding along the coasts.
Other names for the long-billed curlew are the sicklebird or the candlestick bird.
There are several species of oystercatcher, and while they vary slightly in coloration or location, they are all easily identified by their carrot-on-a-snowman orange bill.
This signature bill is used for pulling earthworms from the ground or probing around shorelines for mussels and other mollusks. Interestingly, oysters do not make up a significant part of most oystercatchers' diets. But it is one of the few birds capable of opening an oyster at all, so the moniker is still fitting.
Because of its seaside range, oystercatchers are a good indicator species of the quality of coastal habitat. eBird notes:
According to a study published in 2011, the American Oystercatcher is a key bird that helps us understand the integrity of coastal ecosystems because it depends directly on eating marine invertebrates and their responses to anthropogenic and natural pressures are well known. The study concludes that Oystercatchers are the birds most affected by acidification of the ocean, sea level increase, overfishing, human disturbances, presence of invasive species, changes in freshwater flow, and alterations or loss of coastal areas.
Watching how well oystercatcher populations are doing indicates how well coastal ecosystems in general are doing.
This adorable species is on the smaller side of wading birds, measuring an average of just 8 inches in length and weighing a mere 2 ounces. Unlike many wading birds, it spends a large part of the year out at sea, coming to land only during breeding season.
Arkive notes, "For most of the year whilst out in open ocean, the red phalarope feeds on plankton and small fish found at the surface. When foraging for small food items in deep water, the red phalarope swims rapidly in a circle to create a whirlpool that drags prey from the depths to the surface."
There is another interesting aspect to the red phalarope species that sets it apart from wading birds, or really, most birds. According to Audubon, "Phalaropes reverse the usual sex roles in birds: Females are larger and more colorful than males; females take the lead in courtship, and males are left to incubate the eggs and care for the young."
There aren't many wading birds with as impressive of a courtship display as the male ruff. During breeding season, the males flash large collars of ornamental neck feathers — the origin of their name — and try to attract the attention of females.
Gathering in a lek, the males flash their feathers, flutter their wings, jump and otherwise perform for the ladies. But interestingly, there are three types of males that compete at leks and each have a different type of plumage.
Territorial males represent about 84 percent of the male population, and they sport dark feathers. They're faithful to their lekking grounds and can be seen there year after year. About 15 percent of the male population is made up of satellite males, which sport white or light ruffs. They don't have a territory, but arrive at the leks of territorial males.
And about 1 percent of the population is made of of males that mimic the appearance females. They are distinguishable from females in that they're bigger than the average female and have testes that are 2.5 times the volume of other males.
These rare males, called faeders, may look just like females to us, but analysis of lekking behavior suggests that both male and female ruffs aren't fooled. Without the ruffed plumage to parade around, faeders wait for a chance to mate with females when other males are distracted.
According to Earth Touch News Network, "The mysteries of how and why this unusual sexual mimicry system is maintained are still being worked out...[Dr. David] Lank and collaborators discovered that the faeder type is carried by an autosomal-dominant allele, meaning females as well as males can inherit it. If inherited by females, Lank explains, it results in 'mini females' much smaller than the norm."
Faeders are the first permanent female mimic reported among birds, though it was also recently discovered to occur among marsh harriers as well.
From impressive courtship plumage to female mimicry, ruffs are a stand-out among waders.
This species may look a little drab at first glance, but catch them in the right light and their feathers are aglow with iridescent green, deep maroon and purple hues. Their name comes from the strip of white that occurs between the bill and the rest of the face of adult birds.
Once threatened by DDT and loss of the marshy habitat it needs for breeding and feeding, the white-faced ibis has made a come-back. However, Audubon notes that it is threatened by shifts in climate which affects the wintering range of the species. "Audubon's climate model projects a 95 percent loss of current winter range by 2080, showing a strong northeastern shift."
Another incredible ibis species is the scarlet ibis, found in tropical South America and some islands in the Caribbean. Looking something like a miniature lawn flamingo, the scarlet ibis is an easily identified bird — especially since it likes to live and socialize in large flocks of 30 or more birds.
According to the San Diego Zoo, "The scarlet ibis is one of the most striking of all the ibis species. It gets its pink, orange and reddish color from the rich source of pigments in the algae and small crustaceans it eats. Its legs and feet are also pink, and adult scarlet ibis have dark blue tips on four of their outer primary feathers."
Rather than standing out like the scarlet ibis, the coloration of the ruddy turnstone is intended to help this little wading bird blend in. The tortoiseshell coloring, pictured here, is the breeding plumage of the bird, a combination of a bold pattern that helps it blend into the grassy areas where they nest, but also provides quite a display of contrasting color.
This wading bird is a little different from others in that it is a highly opportunistic eater. Rather than sticking to a few choice items for a meal, this species will seek out everything from insect larvae and spiders to worms and crustaceans to berries and plants, and they will even scavenge on carrion or raid nests of other birds for the eggs.
Though it ranges from the Arctic north during breeding season to South America during winter migration, the species is never found far from the sea. It is always within about a mile from the ocean's edge.
My, what big eyes you have! There are nine species of stone-curlew, including the Indian stone-curlew pictured here, and none are actually related to curlews at all. They're called this because of their call, which sounds very similar to true curlews. The stone-curlew species are also known as thick-knee curlews because of their somewhat stocky legs, but their stand-out feature really is their large eyes.
These birds are mostly nocturnal, and the larger eyes help them to see better in dim light when they hunt for insects, lizards or even small mammals.
Though they are wading birds, they are found in a wide array of habitats, including arid or semi-arid scrubland, forests, grassy plains and riverbeds.
The great egret is a much larger cousin of the snowy egret, standing about 3.3 feet tall with an impressive wingspan averaging 52 to 67 inches. It is certainly easily noticed when a birdwatcher scans calm pools, tidal flats and marshes.
Like the snowy egret, this species was hunted to near extinction for the plume trade. The delicate feathers it displays during courtship were in high demand for hats. Audubon notes, "Nearly wiped out in the United States in the late 1800s, when its plumes were sought for use in fashion, the Great Egret made a comeback after early conservationists put a stop to the slaughter and protected its colonies; as a result, this bird became the symbol of the National Audubon Society."
This species is one of several that prove what concerted conservation efforts can achieve.
And finally, we can't complete a list of noteworthy wading birds without mentioning the famous flamingos.
These iconic tropical birds are known by everyone — thanks in part to a tacky yet beloved plastic lawn ornament — for their vivid pink plumage and bold black bills. Standing tall on their stilt-like legs, flamingos forage in large alkaline or saline lakes or estuarine lagoons, filter-feeding on brine shrimp and blue-green algae. Their pink coloration comes from the carotenoids in their diet. The more carotenoids they consume, the more brilliantly colored their feathers. Coloration depends in part on the species, as well as the diet.
You can see some of the six species of flamingos in the wild when visiting tropical locations, including the Caribbean, South America, Africa, Southern Europe and Southwest Asia.