Ian’s Bird of the Week – Black-winged Stilt ~ by Ian Montgomery
Newsletter ~ 3/30/14
A few weeks ago, I included a photo of the Black Stilt of New Zealand in a piece on Black-fronted Tern, so I was surprised to find out that no other stilt has ever featured as bird of the week. That’s a serious omission given the spectacular appearance of all the members of this family, the Avocets and Stilts, Recurvirostridae, so here are three variants of the almost global Black-winged Stilt, starting with the one we get in Australasia, often called the White-headed Stilt.
There is disagreement over whether the various version of the Black-winged Stilt are species or merely sub-species. Some taxonomists, none naturally from New Zealand, have even dared to suggest that the Black Stilt is a mere subspecies too, as it sometimes hybridises with the White-headed which colonised New Zealand in the 19th century. The tendency now is to settle on four closely related species, the Black Stilt (Himantopus novaezelandiae) the nominate Eurasian and African Black-winged (H. himantopus), the Australasian White-headed (H. leucocephalus) the American (North and South) Black-necked (H. mexicanus). As we’ll see shortly, the English names are almost as confusing as the taxonomy as they all have black wings, two have white faces and two have black necks.
As a teenager in Ireland in the 1960s, browsing my Peterson Field Guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe – which I have in front of me at the moment – birds like Avocets and Stilts seemed unbelievably exotic. The iconic Pied Avocet was, and still is, the poster child of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds following its successful reestablishment as a breeding species in Britain. I saw Pied Avocets in the RSPB Reserve at Minsmere in Suffolk in 1965 and American Avocets in Wyoming in 1970, but it wasn’t until I arrived in Sydney in 1971 that I saw my first Stilt and was amazed to find how widespread and abundant the White-headed is. Almost too much, as these are noisy birds and almost as much of a nuisance as Common Redshanks are in Ireland when you’re trying to stalk shy waders.
I eventually encountered the nominate Black-winged in Zimbabwe in 1992 and again in Portugal in 2007. The female (very little black on the head) one in the third photo is being very vocal and making it quite clear that I am very unwelcome. This time at least she had very good reason for being aggressive as it had four newly-hatched chicks close by, wandering around looking rather bewildered, fourth photo (the fourth chick was farther to the left). Male nominate race birds have more but varying degrees of black on the head and neck, adding to the general confusion.
Finally, fifth photo, here is the American version, the Black-necked. It has a black cap joined fore and aft by a curved band through the eye leaving a white spot above the eye, creating a bullseye effect. It’s showing us why stilts have such long legs and that needle-sharp bill is perfect for delicately snatching small items of prey from the surface of the water.
There are photos of all the Stilts and Avocet, except the poorly known Andean Avocet, here: http://www.birdway.com.au/recurvirostridae/index.htm.
This is a slightly hurried bird of the week, as I’m leaving for Cairns later today. We’ve had a late end to the wet season after a dry false alarm earlier in the month and I want to take more location photos for the book Where to find Birds in Northeast Queensland now that the weather has improved.
Ian Montgomery, Birdway Pty Ltd,
454 Forestry Road, Bluewater, Qld 4818
Tel 0411 602 737 firstname.lastname@example.org
Bird Photos http://www.birdway.com.au/
Recorder Society http://www.nqrs.org.au
And God said, Let the waters bring forth abundantly and swarm with living creatures, and let birds fly over the earth in the open expanse of the heavens. (Genesis 1:20 AMP)
All three of these “black-winged” Stilts are very pretty. I like the clean lines on them. Thanks, Ian, for sharing these with us.
Our American Black-necked Stilt, which I have had the privilege of seeing several times, has a neat white eye-brow. You can tell they all belong to the same family – the Recurvirostridae – Stilts, Avocets. This family has 10 in it and Ian has 8 species photographed on his site.
I am still amazed at the variety of birds the Lord has created.
Ian’s Recurvirostridae – Stilts, Avocets Family
Recurvirostridae – Wikipedia (They show only 9, but the White-backed Stilt is now a species)