Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

November 26, 2010

Bill Up, Bill Down, Bill Over

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 1:15 pm

In my recent travels about the Las Vegas landscape, again looking for the wild life far away from the strip, I quite literally stumbled upon Wetlands Park. Although a large green spot on the Clark Co., Nevada map it was hard to find. Let’s just say I found it by “accident” even though I was looking for it. Anyway, my point here is not to tell you about me but to simply deliver you to a unique local place where wetlands are being restored in a desert environment. However, my point isn’t to tell you about this park (because I don’t really know anything about it) but instead to introduce you to three of the park’s avian patrons. My point, actually, is to point out their array of pointed parts – aka beaks.

I met my pointy friends early one morning just as the sun was peeking over the far ridges of the Sunrise Mountains and tumbling down into the valley. The early light illuminated a flowing cat-tail lined waterway loaded with migratory water birds of all make and model.  The dark chunky forms of coot mixed with the more streamlined forms of pintails & a few grebes. And, although I couldn’t see them, the distinctive “wee-wee-geon” calls of Baldpate ducks indicated their presence in the flock as well.  My immediate attention was drawn to the peculiar outlines of a trio of sickle-billed White-faced Ibis feeding in the shallows just beyond my protective veil of cat-tails.  These odd-looking birds grunted like hoarse mallards as they probed the bottom.

This being the only common ibis in the southwest I could be pretty sure they were not Glossy Ibis. Believe it or not, I had actually seen one of these before back in Michigan. That bird was way lost in a strange land, but these were in their native turf (or should I say surf). In full spring color they would have had a distinct white border lining the bare skin patch located between their eye and bill -which is why they are called “white-faced.” Attired in drab winter garb, all three birds displayed bronzy green body feathers and finely speckled heads and necks. Those plumage details are really un-necessary given those long drooping ibis bills which look as though they held them too close to the heat of a fire at one time. They used them to probe the water for invertebrates via a sweeping action of the neck (see here). Long legs, long neck and long down curved bill combine to make for a goofy looking, but efficient, wading bird.

A bit further on, the unfamiliar form of a Snowy Egret presented itself (see above). The bird was standing on the muddy shore and giving me the stink eye and proceeded to suspiciously wade into the water upon my approach. Proportionally, it looked like a typical egret. A few of his fellow Snowys , however, were feeding out in the water next to a Great Egret and they all looked like midgets next to that towering fellow (see here). They were half the larger bird’s size and about the size of the ibis’s (or would that be Ibisii?  I still am not sure how to address the topic of multiple ibis birds. I do wish there was only one present). There were three or four of these mini-egrets (multiple egrets, now that’s easy) and all appeared to be immature birds whose legs were not totally black yet, but they had the black bill and slight crest of their species (see below).

As a member of the heron clan, Snowy Egrets have straight pointed bills for plucking fish, frogs, and larger invertebrates out of the water.  Again, like the ibises(?), these are water birds with long legs and long necks but instead with straight pointed bills.

About the time I was thinking that all I needed to complete the water bird bill trifecta that seemed to be unfolding before me was to see a fowl with an up-turned bill, I indeed saw one. Actually, I saw two examples in the shape of a pair of American Avocets. Having never seen this species before, I have to say they are both beautiful and odd. Their beauty stemmed from their graceful form, manner, and delicate black and white plumage. Long blue legs added a touch of color to the overall look. Being in winter feather, these birds lacked the rusty orange which normally covers the neck and back of the head. Their oddness comes from their unusual upturned beaks.

The beaks were very slender and, frankly, rather undersized and fragile looking (like a blade of black grass inserted into graceful snowbird). To add further to this peculiar trait, the females of the species have shorter and more extremely curved bills than those of the males. Male bills are gently upswept – a mirror image to that of the idbississ (?). The two birds before me on this morning were apparently females with radically up-turned beaks. The bend on these appendages looked un-natural, as if they ran into a wall or something.  The curve is sudden, rather than gradual.

I watched as they swept their unconventional bills back and forth in the water as they waded along in the ankle deep water. One nabbed a small silvery fish and downed it with one gulp. Later the pair took to preening. You’ll note in the above photo that the birds drop their wing and bring the leg over in order to scratch. After a brief session of itch relief and feather arrangement, they both settled into a nap. With their odd bills tucked back between their scapulars and bodies balanced upon one leg, they were again visions of symmetric beauty.

So, there you have it: Three birds with three differently oriented bills and all unified by their mutual presence on a desert marsh.

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