Spring is a time of renewal when flowers bloom, trees sprout new greenery, butterflies abound and Rio Grande Valley birds show off their offspring.
I always enjoy seeing and photographing the children of spring. Whenever I see the latest batch of black-bellied whistling ducks, baby gallinules begging mom and dad for food, or day-old black-necked stilts trying to walk on those oversized gangly legs, for a moment it makes me think all is right with the world.
As we all know, however, it’s a jungle out there and the young and helpless are vulnerable, even under mom and dad’s watchful eyes. But nature usually has a way of making certain enough baby birds survive to ensure survival of the species. It doesn’t hurt, however, to have a little help along the way.
Several years ago I found a stilt nest on South Padre Island and observed it every chance I got. It was an outdoor classroom I’ll never forget.
The parents shared incubation duties and while one was on the eggs (there were four eggs), the other was on constant alert. Any bird that came close to the nest, intentional or not, was quickly driven away. In particular, the stilts were constantly chasing laughing gulls.
When the stilts weren’t driving off other birds, there was still plenty of work to be done. Nest maintenance was continuous. In addition, adults would turn the eggs over at certain intervals.
After 23 days the first egg hatched. On day 24 two more eggs hatched. The fourth egg hatched three days later.
If this sounds kind off odd, I’ve been told stilt eggs are laid over several days, which explains the time difference for hatchings.
My schooling on black-necked stilt families didn’t end with the hatchings. If I thought the parents were protective before, they were even more protective now. I recall one day observing two black-necked stilt families come into contact and how the parents were yelping and trying to drive the invading family away. All the while, the baby stilts from both sets of parents went about their business of finding food as if nothing was happening.
As the babies began to grow and look more and more like adults and less like downy chicks, the parents would take them to new feeding areas. After several weeks, I never saw them again.
I have no doubt that most or possibly all the babies became adults.
What I wonder about most, however, was whether the new adults moved on to other parts of the Valley or returned to the Island to eventually raise their young?
I’ll never know the answer to that, but sometimes when I see a stilt on SPI I wonder if this is an old friend.
The Coastal Current