Birds of a Feather
Which birds might I see today? Shorebirds, also known as Waders
You might think that a valley with a large lake like ours would host a horde of breeding shorebirds. In fact most shorebirds breed further north than the Okanagan, and touch down here only briefly during spring or fall migration. Two species, however, both easily identified, are known to breed here; Killdeer and American Avocet.
Killdeer are the first shorebird to return in spring. This year the first Killdeer were seen in Kelowna in mid-February and as I write in early March many more have arrived. Killdeer are 10.5”/~27cm in size, have two broad black bands across their upper chest, a brownish back, a rusty orange rump and tail, long pointed wings and a large dark eye rimmed in red, which looks big for the size of the bird’s head. They are members of the plover family, so they move like all plovers with a few short steps, then a pause, a few short steps, then a pause. Their name comes from the high-pitched calls often heard when they fly.
Killdeer nest on the ground in fields, meadows, or ballparks, on mud flats or pebbly ground. The eggs are laid right in the open often with little soft vegetation but usually with camouflaging stones or gravel around them. Killdeer often pretend to have a broken wing to lure a potential predator away from the vulnerable eggs. The chicks can forage for themselves as soon as they are hatched. Killdeer eat mainly insects and very few weed seeds. They are abundant across Canada from coast to coast and winter in the lower US states.
American Avocets, by contrast, are rare in British Columbia, and breed mostly in the extreme southern parts of the Canadian prairies and southwards in the mid-western United States. They are undoubtedly our most beautiful shorebird.
Tall at 18”/~46cm, with long pale blue legs, their long curved necks are washed during breeding season with a pale apricot hue, the back has distinctive broad black and white stripes and their long bills are very thin and upcurved. The beaks of females are in general more pronouncedly upcurved than those of the males, and they use their beaks to scythe through shallow water in search of food, mostly crustaceans and insects.
Their requirements for breeding habitat are specific: shallow alkaline lakes or ponds, preferably with islets to help protect them from coyotes and other land-based predators. In our area they breed at the Kelowna landfill (formerly known as Alki Lake), and occasionally at Robert Lake in north Glenmore. They nest among tufts of vegetation on gravel or sand near the water. Like the Killdeer chicks, avocet chicks can forage for themselves as soon as hatched. Watch for the first American Avocet to return here in early April. Make the most of their elegance and beauty while you can; by August they’ll be on their way south again.
Pam Laing, Okanagan birder