Welcome to the third edition of Marsh Musings. With this column, we hope to introduce you to a lot of new critters that you may have never seen or know little about. We will write about relevant animals for each time of the year, hopefully allowing you to be able to drive through Cheyenne Bottoms and know at least a little bit more about the animals you are seeing. The good news is, with over 400 different species of animals at the Bottoms, we have plenty to write about and share with you!
In this edition, we will be talking about one of the most interesting and unique birds at Cheyenne Bottoms. If someone were to bring up the word stilts, most people would instantly think back to their childhood and the circus. I do not know about you, but I loved the circus. Where else can you go see amazing animals and the tallest darn people you have ever seen? People on stilts intrigued me as a boy and here I am, many years later still being intrigued by stilts. Now the word stilt brings a different image to mind.
The stilts I am referring to are black-necked stilts, a common, beautiful bird found this time of year at the Bottoms. Black-necked stilts are an abundant shorebird that inhabits a great deal of American wetlands and coastlines. Now you may be wondering what a shorebird is? Shorebirds are the small birds that run along edges of the water and eat small invertebrates out of the mud or exposed soil. They have a wide array of bill lengths to obtain food from different levels in the soil, thereby reducing direct competition.
Black-necked stilts look much like their name implies. Sexes look almost identical and are most known for their bright pink legs. In fact, black-necked stilts have the second-longest legs in proportion to their body size of any bird, only beaten out by flamingos. They gracefully meander through the mud flats and shallow water, probing their long black bill into the mud in hopes of obtaining a delicious treat. Their legs are so long that they are dangerously close to looking goofy, but somehow maintain a dignified manner as they stroll around. I know without a doubt that I would never be able to walk, let along gracefully, if my legs were like theirs. Then again, I think my parents somehow skipped giving me any gracefulness at all. The stilts also have a white tail, but are mostly black, extending from their back to their head. They also have beautiful red eyes and a characteristic white spot above their eye.
Perhaps Dr. Witt and my most memorable times with the stilts have come of recent ventures into the Bottoms. During this time of year, black-necked stilts are raising their young. Reproduction occurs late April through August, and stilts are great parents. We have watched many stilts make nests in the reeds at Cheyenne Bottoms over the last few months.
Black-necked stilts are actually very smart when creating their nests. They make them in the reeds so they are close to their food sources and therefore do not have to wander far for food. They make nests as close as seven feet from other stilts and work cooperatively with their neighbors to defend all of the nests in the area. Both sexes take turns incubating the eggs, and breeding seemed to be relatively successful this year based on the numbers of fledglings we were able to observe. Most of the nests had around three to five fledglings, and they have been a hoot to watch.
Shortly after hatching, all you can see among the reeds where the parents nested are fuzz balls stumbling around. The downy young have a slight olive brown color with black speckles on the top of them and dull white everywhere else. The young are precocial, meaning that they are relatively mature and mobile shortly after being born. They can run on land and swim just a few hours after hatching. The parents are very protective of their young and will be until the fledglings will be able to fly at around a month old. The baby stilts are truly a must see at Cheyenne Bottoms this time of year.
So make sure you pack up your family and drive out to Cheyenne Bottoms to experience some of their special "family" moments. The families can be seen all throughout the Bottoms along the mud flats and should remain so for a couple more weeks. Happy Birding until next time!
Eric Giesing is an educator/wildlife biologist at the KWEC and Dr. Dan Witt is a retired local doctor and wildlife photographer.