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Lanky shorebirds a delight to find anywhere

A lone black-necked stilt, right, is seen near an American avocet in this photo taken near Fargo in spring 2013. FORUM NEWS SERVICE/Keith Corliss

It was well over 20 years ago. I was driving east on Cass County Road 20 north of West Fargo on my way to Hector International Airport. At one point the road crosses a small bridge over what I know as the Harwood Slough.

As a person constantly on the lookout for critters and birds, I couldn’t help but pass a glance into the cattails. What I thought I saw in that brief moment surprised me, so much in fact that it necessitated a

U-turn and closer investigation. My supposition turned out to be true; a pair of black-necked stilts (himantopus mexicanus) was wading in the shallows.

Once seen, it is hard to mistake this particular long-legged shorebird for anything else. In short, it’s a striking study in black-and-white standing on bright red, thin legs. Its thin bill, back, hindneck and face are all black (it sort of resembles a cartoon bank robber with a black mask), while the underparts are a contrasting bright white. One could almost call this bird “formal,” given its resemblance to wearing a tuxedo — not unlike penguins in that regard.

Its legs are amazingly long. Among the world’s birds, it (and its four closely related stilt cousins) is second only to flamingos for longest legs in proportion to bodies.

A person could mistake our more common American avocets for black-necked stilts given the striking color contrasts and long legs, but more than a casual observation should clear any doubt. Interestingly, apparent hybrids between these two species have been documented.

What makes stilt sightings rather exciting locally is the fact that the species exhibits a scattered breeding range, largely restricted to oddly and widely dispersed areas of mostly the western United States, where it nests in shallow wetlands in suitable habitat. If someone were to point to the center of its summer range it would probably be the Great Basin in Nevada; western North Dakota might be considered to be in its extreme northeast part of its normal breeding area.

Which brings me to earlier this summer. I was in Carrington in early June to help out with the annual Potholes and Prairie Birding Festival. In the days leading up to the formal field trips, the guides typically drive around to scout the surrounding areas for birds. It was while doing this that I found two black-necked stilts along the Foster-Stutsman County line. After relaying what I had seen, a few others visited the location only to determine the stilts were actually nesting.

For nearly a month, nearby resident (and Birding Festival official) Ann Hoffert, kept tabs on the nest before noticing a single chick had hatched on July 12. On Monday, July 14, she wrote, “Last evening there were three tiny black-necked stilt babies close to the nest at the area on the Pipestem Creek south of Carrington. We watched as they all got back into the nest and the parent sat on it.”

I could almost see her smiling while typing those words.

The bird is considered to be a semi colonial breeding species and is known for its aggressive anti-predator displays while nesting. I never thought I’d see the day when a thin seemingly frail bird like a stilt would fly up and boldly confront a large aerial predator like a Northern Harrier but that is indeed what happened at the Pipestem Creek nest. Give this bird high marks for courage.

If a person finds himself in southern California, or the Phoenix area during certain times of the year, black-necked stilts can commonly be found in shallow water in many areas. At suitable sites, their numbers can be impressive. Seeing a couple hundred stilts slowly, gracefully, deliberately wading across a wetland is a memorable sight.

Since my first sighting so many years ago, I’ve seen a handful of black-necked stilts in Cass County but not many, maybe every third year or so. (A nest was also documented in the Alice area several years ago.)

Given the birds’ penchant for wandering, though, the species will surely be seen again, especially since it stands out so readily. It cuts an almost unmistakable pose, even at highway speeds from a moving vehicle.

(Corliss is a West Fargo resident, avid birder, and North Dakota Game and Fish volunteer instructor. He serves as a corporate pilot for Forum Communications.)