The Longest Legs

The Longest Legs

A lot of wading birds have long legs, and we are going to look at one in today's adventure. But, before we go any further, let's do a bit of bird anatomy. 

Take a look at the following diagram. Bird knees do not bend backwards. I know, it looks that way, but that is really their heel that you think is the knee.

Comparative illustration of human legs and bird legs - drawing by Mark David of www.mdavid.com.au

Comparative illustration of human legs and bird legs - drawing by Mark David of www.mdavid.com.au

Birds walk around on their long toes, the heel is prominent, and the knee is up close to the body or even hidden by the belly.  Same bones as we have, but just different proportions. You eat chicken, don't you? Well, most of you do. The drumstick is much bigger than the thigh. Bird thighs are really, really short.

Long and tall Black-necked Stilt Sony A77II with Sony 70-400 G2 f/5.6 1/1250 sec ISO 800

Long and tall Black-necked Stilt

Sony A77II with Sony 70-400 G2 f/5.6 1/1250 sec ISO 800

Most of the wading birds I like to photograph have long legs, and they have substantial bodies to go with them. Black-necked Stilts have very long, thin bright red legs holding up a tiny, delicate body with a slim, needle-like bill. 

They feed on crustaceans and aquatic insects that live on or near the surface of the water. They usually pick things off the surface or dip into the water for snails or really small fish. 

Some Black-necked Stilts are found on the Texas Gulf Coast year round, but others migrate to the US Great Plains to breed. 

These birds nest on the ground. They find small islands, or clumps of vegetation to use for nesting sites; both male and female share in constructing the nest which is usually just a scrape in the dirt. Sometimes it is lined with dry grass. Nothing really elaborate.

Black-necked Stilt at Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge taken May 6th Sony A77II with Sony 70-400 G2 f/6.3 1/800 sec ISO 500

Black-necked Stilt at Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge taken May 6th

Sony A77II with Sony 70-400 G2 f/6.3 1/800 sec ISO 500

I don't know for sure if this is a nest or if the bird is just resting. It could very well be a nesting site. They don't nest in large colonies, so it isn't always obvious. Pairs might have nests within 10-20 feet of each other, but fairly close to water.

Look how far back the legs are set enabling her to fold those long legs underneath the body. What you see here is just the foot; long toes and the heel. Photographing stilts is a real challenge. One, the black and white pattern makes exposure a bit difficult to get feather detail in both and two, it is preferable to get a low light on the eye so the red shows up, otherwise the eyes aren't very obvious.

We are always on the lookout for baby chicks, but no matter how hard you hunt, seeing and photographing them is mostly a matter of luck. And, boy did I get lucky. 

Bill Maroldo and I were at Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge on May 29th, just days after our infamous Memorial Day floods. The water was not near as high as we expected; none of the roads were covered. We had gotten out of the truck to photograph an Eastern Kingbird and its nest when two Black-necked Stilts started making a terrible ruckus. They were moving away from us, and in between on the gravel road was a tiny dark spot wobbling around. 

Baby Black-necked Stilt taking its first steps Sony A77II with Sony 70-400 G2 f/5.6 1/1250 sec ISO 800

Baby Black-necked Stilt taking its first steps

Sony A77II with Sony 70-400 G2 f/5.6 1/1250 sec ISO 800

We hurried back and... OMG! Isn't your head just exploding from the cuteness? The incubation period for these chicks is 21-26 days. May 29 - May 6 = 23 days which is just about right from the perhaps-it-is-nesting-and-not-resting photo I showed you above. 

Baby Black-necked Stilt checking out his legs Sony A77II with Sony 70-400 G2 f/5.6 1/1250 sec ISO 800

Baby Black-necked Stilt checking out his legs

Sony A77II with Sony 70-400 G2 f/5.6 1/1250 sec ISO 800

This little guy was so new he was unsteady on his feet. Once, he even fell back on his little butt. We were a good deal away, and using maximum zoom on him. And I guess it is inborn for them to be difficult to track; he would make several running steps, stop for a split second and then lurch off in a slightly different direction. Which means I got a LOT of out of focus shots. 

Tiny Black-necked Stilt chick at the edge of the road Sony A77II with Sony 70-400 G2 f/5.6 1/1250 sec ISO 800

Tiny Black-necked Stilt chick at the edge of the road

Sony A77II with Sony 70-400 G2 f/5.6 1/1250 sec ISO 800

All the while we a frantically trying to focus on this baby, the parents were yapping and calling and making short flights around us. Occasionally, one adult would run down the road trying to lead us away. The chick hid in the roadside weeds a couple of times, but would come back out when we sat still. After about 15 minutes we moved on not wanting to stress the parents any longer. 

Black-necked Stilts lay one to five eggs, we wondered if this was the only chick the parents were caring for, or if there were other eggs still to be hatched near by. Or if this was the only survivor from our recent rains and floods. The chicks are almost immediately alert and able to leave the nest within about two hours of hatching.

Black-necked Stilt showing off his long wings Sony A77II with Sony 70-400 G2  f/5.6 1/2000 sec ISO 1000

Black-necked Stilt showing off his long wings

Sony A77II with Sony 70-400 G2  f/5.6 1/2000 sec ISO 1000

Later that same day were were near Surfside, Texas. This Black-necked Stilt was raising his wings and making a LOT of racket. The behavior made me wonder if there was a nest near by. We were on the road and nothing looked high and dry enough in this area for a nest. Stilts will exhibit similar behavior as the Killdeer's to mimic a broken wing and lead predators away from nest sites. 

Birds that nest on the ground have chicks that are precocial as they have to be self-sufficient very quickly. These chicks are born with their eyes open, covered with down and will follow their parents but find their own food. Last week's Clapper Rail chicks also leave the nest quickly, but they are brought food by the parents until they grow old enough to hunt for themselves. 

Aren't these baby birds more interesting than those nekkid baby cardinals and bluebirds that have to stay in the nest for days waiting to be fed and to grow up enough to leave? What do you think? Let me know in the comments.

Air-conditioned Nature Photography

Air-conditioned Nature Photography

Checking on the Clapper Rails

Checking on the Clapper Rails