Photo of the Week – April 5, 2013

A few shorebirds are starting to show up along the Platte River.  The first to come each spring are usually the ubiquitous and noisy killdeer, followed by the taller and more reserved yellowlegs.

Tracks and holes in the sand where a shorebird was probing for invertebrates along the Central Platte River in Nebraska.

Tracks and holes in the sand where a shorebird was probing for invertebrates along the Central Platte River in Nebraska.

As the season progresses, we’ll see a great diversity of sandpipers, dowitchers, snipe, ibis, and many other long-legged wading birds along the sandy banks and sandbars of the river.  A few even venture into our wetlands and wet meadows, though we’ll see fewer in those areas this spring if we don’t get some significant rains soon.

One of the most fascinating things about shorebirds is that many (most?) species have flexible bills that allow them to open just the tips.  This comes in handy when they stick their long bills deep into the sand or mud to probe for invertebrates.  When they find something tasty (how do they know they’ve found one??) they can open the tip of their bill to grab it and extract it.  Opening their entire bill when it’s stuck down a deep narrow hole is not an option (if you’ve ever hand-dug a fence post hole, you know that experience), so a flexible bill tip is a pretty convenient feature to have.

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About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is an ecologist and Eastern Nebraska Program Director for The Nature Conservancy. He supervises the management and restoration of approximately 4,000 acres of land in central and eastern Nebraska - primarily along the central Platte River. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press.
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9 Responses to Photo of the Week – April 5, 2013

  1. abbyl says:

    That’s amazing! Maybe this is a silly question, but how do they open just the end? Do they push it open with their tongues? Leverage it open against something? I can’t imagine they would have muscles/tendons that run all the way out to the tip of the bill.

    • Chris Helzer says:

      It’s a great question, but I don’t know the anatomy either. I’ve found lots of references to the fact, but not good explanations of it. Maybe someone else will chime in here and help us out.

  2. Tom Prunier says:

    Nice picture! Can just see the bird probing multiple times without move it’s feet. Is that a wave mark on the right?

    • Chris Helzer says:

      Thanks Tom. I’m not sure what the mark is – besides a nice accent for the photo composition… It was on a riverine sandbar, so probably not a wave mark in the regular sense.

  3. timupham says:

    I wish they were the tracks of an Eskimo curlew. They use to be very thick in the Midwest. But like the passenger pigeon, they too were overly shot for the marketplace.

  4. I’m enjoying your blog and photos. By any chance do you have a photo or two of the outside and inside of one of the two person blinds? Would be interested to see the set-up.

  5. Tom Prunier says:

    Took a little looking but here is an early drawing of the bill and attachments. Go to the second page for the drawing. Still not convinced that they don’t go all the way to the back of the head as some writers have indicated that the bill can be induced to open its tip if the back of the head (on a freshly killed bird) is pressed. More research is needed…

    http://www.manfamily.org/PDFs/George%20Cumberland%20and%20drawing%20of%20the%20woodcock%20bill.pdf

  6. abbyl says:

    Alright, I was just reading some recent posts of various blogs I follow, and do you think this photo of a long-billed dowitcher on Jim McCormac’s blog http://www.jimmccormac.blogspot.com/2013/04/birds-of-worthington-free-program-april.html is showing the flexibility of the end of the bill? Or is it just a trick of the camera?

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