American Avocets are one of the more beautiful shorebirds in North America. We see avocets in Florida in the winter, but they are just getting into the breeding colors when it is time for them to fly back north to their nesting grounds. During my recent trip to Arizona, I stopped by the Gilbert Water Ranch (also known as the Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch) in the metropolitan Phoenix area and found about a half dozen American Avocets in breeding plumage. One of the locals told me that they were actively courting and mating, so I setup my tripod and 500mm lens with teleconverter to see if I could capture some of their courtship rituals.
The water ranch is a water reclamation facility, but unlike most of the water reclamation facilities in Florida, this one is ideal for photographers. The water ranch has several cells with varying amounts of water in them. Unlike the ones in Florida, this facility has multiple habitats representing the different areas of Arizona throughout the facility. So there is a better chance of finding different bird species that tend to prefer specific plants and trees. The other nice thing about the water ranch is that the cells are accessible at many points for photographers to setup on a tripod and photograph the action. There are no steep sides to the cells that make getting to eye level with the birds difficult. Plus you don’t have to worry about any gators coming up out of the water and taking your leg off for a snack.
There were some Northern Shovelers and Mallards visible in the cells, but most ducks had already headed north by the time I arrived. I imagine that January and February are great months for duck photography at the water ranch. I did get to see my first Cinnamon Teal at the water ranch, but I couldn’t get a decent photo of him.
American Avocets are generally shy birds that don’t venture too close to areas where people are moving about. This held true at the Gilbert Water Ranch as well, so I situated myself at the water’s edge and waited patiently and quietly for the birds to become comfortable and continue with their activities. With other people milling around the area, they never came very close to where I was, but I was fortunate to witness a pair participating in their courtship rituals at a distance I could work with.
In this first image, the female is exhibiting behavior that she is ready for the male. However, the male seems to be uninterested in her at this time. Actually, the male is quite interested in the female, but he has his own ritual to go through first. Click the images to view larger.
As the female waits patiently for the male, the male continues preening and walks behind the female to preen on her other side. He repeats this procedure several times while the female continues to show she is ready. This dance ritual by the male continued for several minutes, and at one time the female gave up and went about feeding for a while.
Soon she was back in her ready position and the male became more serious about the courtship. Instead of moving from one side of the female to the other and preening, he began splashing his bill in the water next to her. This continued for about a minute while the female continued to wait.
Soon the male was ready and he hopped up on the back of the female to consummate the relationship.
After about 15 seconds, the male dismounted and grabbed the female’s bill in his bill.
Their bills remained interlocked for a few seconds until they finally separated and went about feeding again.
If successful, there will be a clutch of avocets at the water ranch in a few weeks. How exciting that would be to be able to photograph the little chicks when they first venture out into the world. Some shorebirds chicks are able to walk or swim shortly after hatching. I’ve never had the opportunity to observe an American Avocet nest, so I don’t know how long the chicks stay in the nest or how big they are when they first venture out to follow mom and dad in the water. Maybe I need to go back out to Arizona to find out.
Capturing this sequence was one of the many highlights of my trip to Arizona. I’ll have more to show in the days to come, so check back often.