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American avocet makes surprise visit to Carroll

An American avocet flew into Carroll County last weekend and created quite a stir in the world of birding. The arrival of this long-legged shorebird was quite a surprise as there are no previous records of this western breeding species visiting Carroll County.

It was first spotted by Sharon Schwemmer and Mark Scarff who were participating in the Carroll County Bird Club's annual Fall Bird Count. The avocet was standing in the shallow water of the sediment pond behind the Hampstead/Greenmount Walmart. It was in the company of yellow legs (another shorebird species) and killdeer and, to the delight of many birders, remained in the area for at least three days after it was identified.

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Photographer Ken Koons captured a great picture of the avocet on Monday afternoon that was published in Tuesday's Carroll County Times (page A7). The avocet is the only North American shorebird with a bill that curves upward, and this unique characteristic is easily observed in Ken's photo. Our shorebird visitor has already donned its winter plumes—gray head and neck, white throat and underparts, and a dark chevron design on its back that it wears year-round.

During the breeding season, the head and neck are colored in a warm cinnamon. Male and female are similar although the bill of the female is a bit shorter and the upward curve is more pronounced.

The avocet pair is monogamous and typically raises one brood during the breeding season. They scrape a nest in the ground that they line with plant stems. Usually four eggs are laid and incubated, mostly by the female, for three to four weeks. When the young birds hatch, they are precocial, meaning that they are able to leave the nest within a day of hatching. They are able to walk and run and seek shelter from predators.

The American avocet breeds in western North America. During spring and fall migration, while most avocets are traveling through the western half of our country, some choose to follow the Atlantic Flyway along the coast. And although the greatest number of migrating avocets are drawn to Central America, some winter along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts from Virginia to Florida and from Florida to Texas.

Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge in Smyrna, Delaware is an excellent place to visit at this time of year to see American avocets as they stopover to rest and "refuel" during migration. If you go, you will also see many other species of migrating shorebirds and waterfowl.

The official website for Bombay Hook (http://www.fws.gov/refuge/Bombay_Hook/about.html) states:

"Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge protects one of the largest remaining expanses of tidal salt marsh in the mid-Atlantic region. The refuge, located along the coast of Delaware, is mostly marsh, but also includes freshwater impoundments and upland habitats that are managed for other wildlife… It is primarily a refuge and breeding ground for migrating birds and other wildlife. The value and importance of Bombay Hook for migratory bird protection and conservation has increased through the years, primarily due to the management of the refuge and the loss of high quality habitat along the Atlantic Flyway."

I remember the thrill of seeing my first American avocet many years ago in Chincoteague, Virginia. I was birding with my artist friend Jo Dye who was familiar with all the shorebirds that were flying through that fall season. I also saw my first male painted bunting with Jo; it was a first for both of us, and we were at Huntington Beach State Park in South Carolina. But that's another story…

Sue Yingling is a Times outdoors writer. Her column appears every other Sunday. Reach her at 410-857-7896 or sports@carrollcountytimes.com.

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