The brownish-black and white plumage typical of the juvenile birds was already there, but the young Pied Avocet, which was foraging on the water’s edge, was not able to fly yet. When it was still a very small chick covered with spotted down, it had disappeared like a flash to hide between the sparse vegetation as soon as danger was approaching, pressed itself to the ground to be almost invisible, the head also completely down and then, well camouflaged, waited motionless until the threat was gone. As the young bird became older it tried to quickly run from danger, while the parents attacked the would-be predator or attempted to distract it.

Flying underwater
The legs are not as long as those of adult Avocets yet, but the chick is already picking its way through the shallow water, putting its head into it to find something edible. Here, the young bird was successful, got the prey into position in its already upward curved bill and swallowed it.

Now the young Avocet dared to venture into the water, trying to escape from the perceived enemy by swimming. When this did not seem to work, the juvenile suddenly dived and, using its wings, swam close to the ground in the clear, about knee-deep water with considerable speed. It was as if the young Avocet were flying away underwater, a behaviour that is not known in many birds.

Pied Avocets are part of the order Charadriiformes. The plumage of adult birds is black and white. They grow to a height of almost 45 centimetres and weigh 350 grams. The legs are long but have no webs; the long bill is curved slightly upward. These birds live near shallow waters where they forage for small animals (insects, worms, crustaceans) in the mud, in the water or on the surface. In most areas of Namibia they are not found in large numbers, but they are a species that moves around very far and wide. In the middle of May this year (2018) unusually heavy rainfall lured a number of Pied Avocets to Lüderitzbucht, where they enjoy the pools and puddles, some of them huge and by now brackish, in the desert and close to the Atlantic Ocean.

A pair of Pied Avocets had raised a chick near the small lagoon in Lüderitzbucht. According to Dr Jessica Kemper, a researcher living in Lüderitz, the Avocet family had been exposed to attacks by pied crows and moved to a different pool. There the parents chased away Red-billed Teals from “their” pool, so that their offspring could go foraging undisturbed.

Avocets usually lay three to four eggs, but the clutch and the chicks face numerous dangers, e.g. birds of prey, ravens, jackals, mongooses and seagulls. It is not known how many chicks are raised to adulthood. The chick in Lüderitzbucht, however, seems to have made it and now makes the first attempts at flying while the watchful parents are in the vicinity.

Flying underwater
One of the parent birds attentively watches the surroundings while resting next to the pool with the chick.

During the annual wetland bird count in Sandwich Harbour 2551 Pied Avocets were recorded in January 2009, i.e. in summer. When the winter count was conducted in July, there were only 225 and the following year in February a total of 64 Pied Avocets. Five years later, 1585 were recorded in February and 151 in July. By contrast, only 56 Pied Avocets were counted in the Sandwich Harbour wetland in January 2016, but a total of 3001 in July 2016.

Some 50 km to the north, at the Walvis Bay lagoon, a Ramsar Site, large numbers of Pied Avocets were recorded during the summer and winter counts in recent years. This year the number was 4028 for the winter count at the beginning of August, while it had been 6647 for the summer count in February. By contrast, only 615 Pied Avocets were spotted in February last year, but in the previous years there had never been fewer than 1200. So far it is unknown where the birds move to.

Author: Dirk Heinrich

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