Western U.S. Travel Diary -
7 May 2004
My idea of a great morning: in a cozy bird blind, surrounded by birds, with camera and of course thermos of coffee at hand. Today I'm enjoying such a morning in the Lower Klamath basin, spread across southern Oregon and northern California. Most of the wetlands in the basin have been drained to grow horseradish and such, but several natural parcels still remain as national wildlife refuges. Refuge personnel have set up permanent blinds for birders and photographers. I'm in Tule Lake Blind #1, placed at the edge of a sheltered cove.
Many American Coots are hanging around, while other water birds paddle in and out of view: Buffleheads, Cinnamon Teal, Mallards, Ruddy Ducks, Gadwalls, American White Pelicans, and lots of Eared Grebes, complete with glowing red eyes. Grebes, like coots, are fairly tame because their fishy diet makes them distasteful and of no interest to hunters.
Another common bird is American Avocet, which along with Black-necked Stilts patrols every shallow pool in these parts. The males' straighter bills are the best way to tell them from females - they're used to sweep the bottom of the pool to stir up insects and crustaceans. Like many shorebirds, avocets do the "broken wing" act to decoy intruders away from their nest. Ornithologist W.L. Dawson described in 1909 what followed if the broken wing routine failed: "Decoying was useless, that was plain; so they stood with upraised wings, quivering and moaning in tenderest supplication. It was too much even for conscious rectitude, and we withdrew abashed" [A.C. Bent, Life History of North American Shorebirds].
The mud flats and cattails around the blind host more birds: Virginia Rail, Spotted Sandpiper, Song Sparrow, Red-winged Blackbird, Killdeer, even a European Starling. Two Killdeer chicks spend much time puttering about, but later become disturbed by their mother's alarm calls. Unlike rails, shorebirds such as Killdeer do not seek shelter in the reeds when alarmed. So what's a baby to to do? The safest place seems to be under Mama's wing, where they hide their heads until the danger has passed. Since Mama is out there in plain sight, I'm not sure just how safe they are, but it must work. I've seen the same response among Southern Lapwings in Brazil, who occupy a comparable niche to Killdeers in the neotropics, and whose overall behavior is very similar.