The iconic avocet

‘Iconic’ is a word that is overused, but in the case of the avocet it is entirely appropriate. Those of you from the UK – and possibly some of you from further afield – may know that in the UK the avocet is the emblem of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds – the RSPB.

A trio of avocet feeding on the water at RSPB Titchwell as a pair of swift hunt winged insects just overhead

The avocet (Recurvirostra avosetta, Dansk: klyde) had all but died out – in fact it may have totally died out – in the UK in the 19th century, but in the 1940’s a breeding population from the European mainland re-established itself when the coastal mudflats along the east coast of England were flooded as a defensive measure against a possible German invasion. So there you go, just occasionally something good can result from a war!

Avocet can be seen breeding on the east coast of England in the summer, and they are resident in the southwest during the winter, they are also winter and passage visitors. It is therefore an early symbol of conservation success and it was originally adopted by the RSPB in 1955 as the their symbol to adorn the new RSPB tie. Its continued success led it to be adopted as the RSPB logo in 1970. They are beautiful birds and they can be pretty feisty when it comes to guarding their territory.

The long upturned beak of the avocet, from which it gets it’s generic name, ‘Recurvirostra’, along with its black and white plumage makes it completely unmistakable. I have seen avocet before but not in such numbers and not so close and it was only on this trip that I realised they have very distinctive pale blue legs. So all in all it’s a very striking bird.

The upturned bill has a functional aspect too. It is the upper mandible which is curved and the avocet use it to stir up the sediment by sweeping it across the surface from side to side dislodging crustaceans, insects and worms which they detect by touch. The one below had captured a meal and the dark shadow just in front of its beak is a cloud of sediment churned up by the scything beak.

As with just about every species on the planet, including humans, the main threat to the avocet comes from inconsiderate human activity including reclamation of wetlands, depletion of water levels in rivers, infrastructure development and pollution by polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB’s), insecticides and heavy metals. Despite that, the global population is estimated to be between 210-460,000 individuals. It’s unclear if those numbers are stable, but as some populations decline others are increasing. So hopefully they’re OK for the time being.

I’ve been up to my eyeballs in non-blogging stuff in the last month so I’ve been struggling to keep up to date with all your blogs. The pace is unlikely to let up before September but I’ll try to visit as many as I can in the meantime. I will be back!

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24 responses to “The iconic avocet

  1. I’m fond of that fourth picture, where the white bird stands at the margin between the brown and the rippled bright blue.

    Strange that World War II should have brought about the reintroduction of the avocet into Britain.

    Steve Schwartzman
    http://portraitsofwildflowers.wordpress.com

    • Hello Steve, I was pleased with the striated reflection and the blue and brown of the mud and water. The neat thing about the reintroduction was that they found their own way back, which just goes to prove that if the required conditions can be restored the creatures will do the rest themselves.

  2. Dear Finn, Thanks to the Creator of nature, and thanks to you who document it and make it available for the rest of us to appreciate. My husband and I live in Marin County of California (20 min north of San Francisco) and our balcony overlooks an 8 sq Km of lake and nature reserved by Audubon Society. We witness all kinds of birds and their migrations. I root for your success in the journey of your endeavor and reaching the goal you have set by creating this blog. We are taking the ride with you. 🙂

    • Hello Fae, welcome aboard The Naturephile and thankyou for your comment. Your balcony sounds like a wonderful place to observe your local birdlife. I hope the ride is a bumpy but enjoyable one!

      Best wishes

      Finn

  3. Beautiful birds, Finn. I was unaware of their history. Thank you. 🙂

  4. A sympathetic post and photos, Finn. What evolutionary purpose is served by the blue legs?, I wonder. I found myself reading your sentence over and over again: “As with just about every species on the planet, including humans, the main threat to the avocet comes from inconsiderate human activity…”. What a toxic species we are!

    • Good question! I can’t imagine what the selective pressure for blue legs is. Maybe they are less visible to prey items in the water 😉

      Alas, we are indeed toxic. We have a lot to learn from various indigenous peoples around the globe on how to respect and exist sustainably in a non-destructive fashion. Unfortunately we nurture fatal attractions to our cars, iPhones and Big Mac’s and I fear we’ll learn the hard way in the next century or so that our ways must change. I hope it’s not too late!

  5. THey are very pretty birds!

  6. Finn, that third image is just wonderful! What a beautiful and elegant bird this is!

    • Thanks Gary, I was really pleased with some of the pictures I managed to get. The birds were very accomodating though, and they’re so much more interesting when they’re in flight!

  7. snowbirdpress

    What a great post! I love the way you give so much history about the species and why you photod it … This is a fine bird … a little different than ours and I’m glad to get a glance at it.

    I know what you mean abot keeping up with the blogs and doing non-blog stuff. Come the end of the year I’ll have to make time for my art again… so I won’t desert you if you cant always get around to me. Just keep doing what you’re doing so well here.

  8. Very interesting post!

  9. I became a member of the RSPB in my teens and always thought their avocet a magnificent, almost mythical, bird. I’ve still never seen one and am delighted by your wonderful photos. I don’t know how far north they go, but one day I really would like to see some. The fact that they have pale blue legs just adds to their mystique.

    The great thing about this blogging world is that if you pop off for a bit, it’s always there for when you have time to come back to it. 🙂

    • Hello Lorna,

      The same with me, it’s only recently I’ve seen avocet at all. Unfortunately their range isn’t as far north as Scotland, the UK population is all in East Anglia during the summer and in the south west of England during the winter.

      I shall try to keep posting through the summer holidays and dip in and out as and when time permits – I’ve got to catch up with all the things I’ve been neglecting since I started blogging a couple of years ago!

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