Photographed in Anahuac NWR
The waterborne American Coot is one good reminder that not everything that floats is a duck. A close look at a coot—that small head, those scrawny legs—reveals a different kind of bird entirely. Their dark bodies and white faces are common sights in nearly any open water across the continent, and they often mix with ducks. But they’re closer relatives of the gangly Sandhill Crane and the nearly invisible rails than of Mallards or teal.
Although it swims like a duck, the American Coot does not have webbed feet like a duck. Instead, each one of the coot’s long toes has broad lobes of skin that help it kick through the water. The broad lobes fold back each time the bird lifts its foot, so it doesn’t impede walking on dry land, though it supports the bird’s weight on mucky ground.
American Coots in the winter can be found in rafts of mixed waterfowl and in groups numbering up to several thousand individuals.
The ecological impact of common animals, like this ubiquitous waterbird, can be impressive when you add it all up. One estimate from Back Bay, Virginia, suggested that the local coot population ate 216 tons (in dry weight) of vegetation per winter.
The last sandpiper is the least sandpiper! Photographed on Bolivar Flats, one of its breeding areas. Lying flat on the sand with a 200-500mm lens you get a bird's eye view of this small sandpiper.
Least Sandpipers are the smallest of the small sandpipers known as “peeps”—not much bigger than a sparrow. They have distinctive yellow-green legs and a high-pitched creep call. Look for them on edges of mudflats or marshes, where they walk with a hunched posture and probe for little crustaceans, insects, and other invertebrates. This common but declining shorebird migrates thousands of miles between its arctic breeding grounds and wintering grounds as far south as Chile and Brazil.
The Least Sandpiper is the smallest shorebird in the world, weighing in at about 1 ounce and measuring 5-6 inches long. Males are slightly smaller than females.
Eastern populations probably fly nonstop over the ocean from the Gulf of St. Lawrence and New England to wintering grounds in northeastern South America, a distance of about 1,800 to 2,500 miles.
Researchers studying Least Sandpipers discovered a new feeding mechanism. While probing damp mud with their bills, the sandpipers use the surface tension of the water to transport prey quickly from their bill tips to their mouths.
Least Sandpipers hunt for food on slightly drier, higher ground compared to other small sandpipers. Although numerous worldwide, they usually flock in smaller numbers—dozens rather than hundreds or thousands—than some other shorebirds.
Piercing calls and distinctive wing markings make the otherwise subdued Willet one of our most conspicuous large shorebirds. Whether in mottled brown breeding plumage or gray winter colors, Willets in flight reveal a bold white and black stripe running the length of each wing. These long-legged, straight-billed shorebirds feed along beaches, mudflats, and rocky shores. Willets are common on most of our coastline—learn to recognize them and they’ll make a useful stepping-stone to identifying other shorebirds.
Although both parents incubate the eggs, only the male Willet spends the night on the nest.
Like Killdeer, Willets will pretend to be disabled by a broken wing in order to draw attention to themselves and lure predators away from their eggs or chicks.
Because they find prey using the sensitive tips of their bills, and not just eyesight, Willets can feed both during the day and at night.
Willets breeding in the interior of the West differ from the Atlantic Coastal form in ecology, shape, and subtly in calls. Western Willets breed in freshwater habitats, and are slightly larger and paler gray. Eastern Willets have stouter bills and more barring on their chest and back. The difference in pitch between the calls of the two subspecies is very difficult for a person to detect, but the birds can hear the difference and respond more strongly to recorded calls of their own type.
Willets and other shorebirds were once a popular food. In his famous Birds of America accounts, John James Audubon wrote that Willet eggs were tasty and the young “grow rapidly, become fat and juicy, and by the time they are able to fly, afford excellent food.” By the early 1900s, Willets had almost vanished north of Virginia. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 banned market hunting and marked the start of the Willet’s comeback.