Cinnamon Heads

American Avocets (Recurvirostra americana)

When I park on Marina Boulevard, my habit is to aim the long lens toward the Schoolhouse Creek outfall to see what feathery creatures might be dwelling there, and to check that the camera is working. This time I saw some very unusual agitated activity on the water. Three birds very far away doing a strange and fast dance with their beaks. I had a suspicion what they might be, and as I walked closer and got within range, I was right. Three American Avocets, rarely seen here, were sweeping their bills in shallow water from side to side, a feeding technique called scything.

These birds had the cinnamon colored necks and heads of their breeding season; they are grey otherwise. But I could not positively identify a pair among them. Males and females wear the same feathers and differ mainly in the shape of their beaks. Both genders have beaks that curve upward, which gives them their Latin prefix, recurvirostra. But the males’ beaks tend to be straighter and a tad longer, while the females’ have a more pronounced curve and are a bit shorter. For the several minutes that I filmed this trio, there was not one frame in which all three birds had their heads in the air pointing sideways to clearly compare their beaks. There are frames where one and also two birds assume that position, but following the third bird was like the proverbial shell game, as the birds constantly switched positions. My best guess is that all three birds were males.

Avocets are known to breed in San Francisco Bay, but probably not nearby. They like the alkaline waters around salt ponds, and they want wetlands. Avocets are also migratory, moving to and from breeding grounds in northwestern interiors and in the “Prairie pothole” region. So, there’s no way to tell if these three are locals or travelers on a stopover.

The particular feeding technique seen here is called “multiple scything,” where the birds take a number of steps and sweep repeatedly in both directions before coming up for air. At other times they make one sweep with each step and then come up. They can also peck and jab and do other more usual movements with their beaks. I’ve not seen any other bird use the scything technique.

I last saw an avocet here just about a year ago, “Stirring,” Mar 3 2021. That one was a solo bird in winter plumage. Two years earlier, a small flock visited (“Avocets Visit,” Feb 26 2019); those also were in winter plumage. Seeing them in their cinnamony breeding plumage was a new experience.

American Avocets (Recurvirostra americana)

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