Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Episode 543 (9-21-20): Avocets, Stilts, and a Historic Virginia Bird Haven

Click to listen to episode (4:19)

Sections below are the following:

Transcript of Audio
Audio Notes and Acknowledgments
Related Water Radio Episodes
For Virginia Teachers (Relevant SOLs, etc.)

Unless otherwise noted, all Web addresses mentioned were functional as of 9-18-20.


From the Cumberland Gap to the Atlantic Ocean, this is Virginia Water Radio for the week of September 21, 2020.

This week, we feature mystery sounds from two creatures found in coastal Virginia, particularly on an island with an interesting human history and a reputation as a bird haven.  Have a listen for about 15 seconds and see if you know either of these birds, or that island, which now actually is a peninsula.  And here are hints: the first bird’s unusual name sounds like “have a set”; the second bird’s name is something used to make people taller; and a word for stretching your neck out, as these birds sometimes do, may help you guess the island’s name. 

SOUNDS  - ~14 sec

If you guessed an avocet, a stilt, and Craney Island, you’re right!  You heard, first, an American Avocet, and second, a Black-necked Stilt, in a recording by Lang Elliott from the Stokes Field Guide to Bird Songs.  These two wading shorebirds are the only two North American species in the small bird family of avocets and stilts.  They both have striking black and white markings, long legs, and long bills, with the bill of the avocet notably curving upward.  They use their bills in various ways to feed on a variety of aquatic insects and crustaceans.  The two species will share space for their nesting colonies, and they’re known to interbreed and produce hybrid offspring that birders have given the nickname “avo-stilt,” according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

These species typically inhabit shallow water bodies and wetlands in western parts of North America, but both occur in coastal Virginia: the avocet in winter and during spring and fall migration, and the stilt also during migration and sometimes as a summer breeder.  Particularly abundant populations of these birds occur on Craney Island, which is now a peninsula stretching from Portsmouth into the area where the Elizabeth and James rivers meet.  Before the 1950s, the area was truly an island, reportedly named for herons and other birds that were mistakenly called cranes by early European settlers.  The site has experienced various historical developments, culminating in creation in the 1940s of a Navy fuel area and, in 1957, the Craney Island Dredged Material Management Area, an Army Corps of Engineers facility for depositing material dredged from Hampton Roads channels.  With human access limited, Craney Island has become an important habitat for many kinds of birds, with American Avocets and Black-necked Stilts being two birders’ highlights there, according to the “Birding Virginia” Web site.

Thanks to Lang Elliott for permission to this week’s sounds, and we let an American Avocet have the last call.

SOUND  - ~2 sec


Virginia Water Radio is produced by the Virginia Water Resources Research Center, part of Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources and Environment.  For more Virginia water sounds, music, or information, visit us online at virginiawaterradio.org, or call the Water Center at (540) 231-5624.  Thanks to Ben Cosgrove for his version of “Shenandoah” to open and close the show.  In Blacksburg, I’m Alan Raflo, thanking you for listening, and wishing you health, wisdom, and good water.


The American Avocet and Black-necked Stilt sounds were from the Stokes Field Guide to Bird Songs-Eastern Region CD set, by Lang Elliott with Donald and Lillian Stokes (Time Warner Audio Books, copyright 1997), used with permission of Lang Elliott.  Lang Elliot’s work is available online at the “Music of Nature” Web site, http://www.musicofnature.org/.

Click here if you’d like to hear the full version (2 min./22 sec.) of the “Shenandoah” arrangement/performance by Ben Cosgrove that opens and closes this episode.  More information about Mr. Cosgrove is available online at http://www.bencosgrove.com. 


American Avocet photographed at the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge in Utah, May 11, 2009.  Photo by Sheryl Ritter, made available for public use by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's National Digital Library, online at http://digitalmedia.fws.gov; specific URL for this image is https://digitalmedia.fws.gov/digital/collection/natdiglib/id/25354/rec/5, as of 9-22-20.

Black-necked Stilt photographed at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge in Texas, February 28, 2009.
  Photo by Steve Hillebrand, made available for public use by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's National Digital Library, online at http://digitalmedia.fws.gov; specific URL for this image is https://digitalmedia.fws.gov/digital/collection/natdiglib/id/15361/rec/4, as of 9-22-20.

Aerial view of the Craney Island peninsula attached to Portsmouth, Va.  Photo accessed from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers/Norfolk District, “Craney Island Management Facility,” online at https://www.nao.usace.army.mil/About/Projects/Craney-Island/FacilityManagement/, as of 9-22-20.


The following information is quoted from the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources (formerly Department of Game and Inland Fisheries), “Fish and Wildlife Information Service, online at https://vafwis.dgif.virginia.gov/fwis/?Menu=Home.  The American Avocet entry is online at https://vafwis.dgif.virginia.gov/fwis/booklet.html?&bova=040116&Menu=_.Taxonomy&version=18522 , and the Black-necked Stilt entry is online at https://vafwis.dgif.virginia.gov/fwis/booklet.html?&bova=040115&Menu=_.Taxonomy&version=18522.

American Avocet

Virginia Occurrence Comments
“Locally common fall transient and winter resident at Craney Island; smaller numbers (summer and fall) at Chincoteague; rare transient elsewhere on coast (summer and fall).  Rare summer and fall transient elsewhere in state.

Physical Description
“Medium-sized (15 1/2 - 20 in.); largest member of the family Recurvirostridae.  Body, tail, and base of bill are white; the head and long neck are tawny (gray in fall and winter); outer flight feathers of wing and a broad band extending to body are black, as are feathers from shoulder to inner rear edge of wing; rest of wing is white.  Bill is black and almost three times as long as head; curves upward at tip. Legs and feet are light gray-blue.  Often seen swimming. Flies with neck extended.”

“Swamps; flat, muddy boarders of lakes and ponds, particularly alkaline lakes in semiarid regions; tidal flats and muddy bay coasts in winter.”

“Courtship involves wading, bowing, crouching, and dancing with wings spread.  Nesting usually colonial.  Nest is a slight hollow in ground lines with grasses, stems and sticks, on dry flats, gravel beaches, or sparsely-vegetated islands.

Forages by moving bill from side to side in shallow water, finding food by touch; feeds mostly on crustaceans and insects (2/3 of diet), also on aquatic vegetation and seeds.  Wilson's Phalaropes follow behind for commensal feeding.”

Black-necked Stilt

Virginia Occurrence Comments
“Rare transient and summer resident near coast.  Peak counts occur along the coast in late spring.  First documented breeding record from Virginia at Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge [in]…1971.  Subsequent breeding confirmed at Craney Island, Portsmouth [in] 1975. …Breeding confirmed in salt marshes along Chincoteague causeway for first time in 1999.  Adult Black-necked stilts have been observed in territorial displays in Chincoteague causeway marshes [in May 1998, May/June 1999 and 2000, and June 2001].”

Physical Description
“This is a medium-sized shore bird, 13-17 in., with a wingspan of 26-30 inches.  The bill is 2-2.75 in. long, black, slender and slightly upturned.  The color is black from the top of the head to below the eye, along the back of the neck, on the back and the wings.  The rest of the bird is white. …The adult female is grayish rather than dark black on the back, and the immatures are mottled buff and black.”

“This species nests in a hollow on bare ground, sand or gravel, or on a hummock in wet meadows or swamps.

“This bird is gregarious and often is seen is large noisy flocks.  It tends to associate with avocets, godwits, and curlews.  It may use the broken wing display to detract predators from its nest.”

“Forages actively in shallow water wetlands. It feeds on aquatic insects, insect larvae, small invertebrates, and some small fish.  May glean prey from surface of water or mud, probe the substrate, or sweep the bill to catch prey in shallow water.  It eats very little vegetation, and what it does eat may be accidental.”


Used for Audio 

Birding Virginia, “Craney Island Disposal Area,” by Matt Anthony, August 8, 2020, online at https://birdingvirginia.org/portsmouth/hotspots/craney-island-disposal-area-restricted-access. 

Cornell Lab of Ornithology, “All About Birds,” online at https://www.birds.cornell.edu/home.  The American Avocet entry is online at https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/American_Avocet.  The Black-necked Stilt entry is online at https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Black-necked_Stilt.

Cornell Lab of Ornithology, “Birds of the World,” online at (subscription required).  The Recurvirostridae family (avocets and stilts) entry is online at https://birdsoftheworld.org/bow/species/recurv1/cur/introduction.  The American Avocet entry is online at https://birdsoftheworld.org/bow/species/ameavo/cur/introduction.  The Black-necked Stilt entry is online at https://birdsoftheworld.org/bow/species/bknsti/cur/introduction.

Robert Hitchings, “Craney Island has stories to tell,” [Norfolk] Virginian-Pilot, September 16, 2020.

National Audubon Society, “Guide to North American Birds,” online at https://www.audubon.org/bird-guide.  The American Avocet entry is at https://www.audubon.org/field-guide/bird/american-avocet.  The Black-necked Stilt entry is at https://www.audubon.org/field-guide/bird/black-necked-stilt.

Chandler S. Robbins et al., A Guide to Field Identification of Birds of North America, St. Martin’s Press, New York, N.Y., 2001.

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers/Norfolk District, “Craney Island Dredged Material Management Area,” online at https://www.nao.usace.army.mil/About/Projects/Craney-Island/.

Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources (formerly Department of Game and Inland Fisheries), “Fish and Wildlife Information Service, online at https://vafwis.dgif.virginia.gov/fwis/?Menu=Home.  Craney Island species (“known or likely”) are listed online at this link.  The American Avocet entry is online at https://vafwis.dgif.virginia.gov/fwis/booklet.html?&bova=040116&Menu=_.Taxonomy&version=18522.  The Black-necked Stilt entry is online at https://vafwis.dgif.virginia.gov/fwis/booklet.html?&bova=040115&Menu=_.Taxonomy&version=18522.

Virginia Port Authority, “Craney Island,” online at https://www.portofvirginia.com/facilities/craney-island/. 

Virginia Society for Ornithology, “21 April 2017 - Craney Island, Portsmouth, VA,” by Lee Adams, online at https://www.virginiabirds.org/events/field-trip-reports/20170421-craney-island.

Williamsburg [Va.] Bird Club, “Craney Island, August 11, 2017,” online at https://williamsburgbirdclub.org/craney-island-august-11-2017/. 

Kate Wiltrout, “What’s in a name?  Craney Island, Portsmouth,” [Norfolk] Virginian-Pilot, August 17, 2007.

For More Information about Birds in Virginia and Elsewhere 

John James Audubon, Birds of America, online by The National Audubon Society at https://www.audubon.org/birds-of-america.  The American Avocet entry is at https://www.audubon.org/birds-of-america/american-avocet; no entry found for Black-necked Stilt.

Chesapeake Bay Program, “Birds,” online at https://www.chesapeakebay.net/discover/field-guide/all/birds/all. 

Cornell University Lab of Ornithology, “Merlin Photo ID.”  The application for mobile devices allows users to submit a bird photograph to get identification of the bird. Information is available online at http://merlin.allaboutbirds.org/.

Cornell University Lab of Ornithology and the Audubon Society, “eBird,” online at https://ebird.org/home.  Here you can find locations of species observations made by contributors, and you can sign up to contribute your own observations.

Stan Tekiela, Birds of Virginia Field Guide, Adventure Publications, Inc., Cambridge, Minn., 2002.

University of Michigan Museum of Zoology, “Animal Diversity Web,” online at https://animaldiversity.org/.

Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources (formerly Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, “List of Native and Naturalized Fauna of Virginia, April 2018,” online (as a PDF) at https://dwr.virginia.gov/wp-content/uploads/virginia-native-naturalized-species.pdf.

Virginia Society of Ornithology, online at http://www.virginiabirds.org/.  The Society is a non-profit organization dedicated to the study, conservation, and enjoyment of birds in the Commonwealth.

Xeno-canto Foundation Web site, online at http://www.xeno-canto.org/.  This site provides bird songs from around the world.


All Water Radio episodes are listed by category at the Index link above (http://www.virginiawaterradio.org/p/index.html).  See particularly the “Birds” subject category.  For episodes on the Chesapeake Bay or other coastal Virginia waters, see the “Rivers, Streams, and Other Surface Water” subject category. 


Following are some Virginia Standards of Learning (SOLs) that may be supported by this episode’s audio/transcript, sources, or other information included in this post. 

2010 Science SOLs

Grades K-6 Earth Resources Theme
3.10 – impacts on survival of species, including effects of fire, flood, disease, and erosion on organisms; effects of human activity on air, water and habitat; and conservation and resource renewal.

4.9 – Virginia natural resources, including watersheds, water resources, and organisms.
6.9 – public policy decisions related to the environment (including resource management and conservation, land use decisions, hazard mitigation, and cost/benefit assessments).

Grades K-6 Life Processes Theme
1.5 – animals’ basic needs and distinguishing characteristics.

3.4 – behavioral and physiological adaptations.

Grades K-6 Living Systems Theme
2.5 – living things as part of a system, including habitats.

3.5 – food webs.
3.6 – ecosystems, communities, populations, shared resources.
4.5 – ecosystem interactions and human influences on ecosystems.
6.7 – natural processes and human interactions that affect watershed systems; Virginia watersheds, water bodies, and wetlands; health and safety issues; and water monitoring. 

Life Science Course
LS.4 – organisms’ classification based on features.

LS.8 – community and population interactions, including food webs, niches, symbiotic relationships.

LS.9 – adaptations for particular ecosystems’ biotic and abiotic factors, including characteristics of land, marine, and freshwater environments.

LS.10 – changes over time in ecosystems, communities, and populations, and factors affecting those changes, including climate changes and catastrophic disturbances.

LS.11 – relationships between ecosystem dynamics and human activity.

Earth Science Course
ES.8 – influences by geologic processes and the activities of humans on freshwater resources, including identification of groundwater and major watershed systems in Virginia, with reference to the hydrologic cycle.

Biology Course
BIO.6 – bases for modern classification systems, including structures, biochemistry, and developmental stages.

BIO.8 – dynamic equilibria and interactions within populations, communities, and ecosystems; including nutrient cycling, succession, effects of natural events and human activities, and analysis of the flora, fauna, and microorganisms of Virginia ecosystems.

2015 Social Studies SOLs

Virginia Studies Course
VS.1 – impact of geographic features on people, places, and events in Virginia history.

VS.10 – knowledge of government, geography, and economics in present-day Virginia.

Civics and Economics Course
CE.6 – government at the national level.

CE.10 – public policy at local, state, and national levels.

World Geography Course
WG.2 – how selected physical and ecological processes shape the Earth’s surface, including climate, weather, and how humans influence their environment and are influenced by it.

Government Course
GOVT.7 – national government organization and powers.

GOVT.9 – public policy process at local, state, and national levels.

Virginia’s SOLs are available from the Virginia Department of Education, online at http://www.doe.virginia.gov/testing/.

Following are links to Water Radio episodes (various topics) designed especially for certain K-12 grade levels. 

Episode 250, 1-26-15 – on boiling, for kindergarten through 3rd grade. 
Episode 255, 3-2-15
– on density, for 5th and 6th grade.

Episode 282, 9-21-15
– on living vs. non-living, for kindergarten.

Episode 309, 3-28-16
– on temperature regulation in animals, for kindergarten through 12th grade.

Episode 333, 9-12-16
– on dissolved gases, especially dissolved oxygen in aquatic habitats, for 5th grade.

Episode 403, 1-15-18
– on freezing and ice, for kindergarten through 3rd grade.

Episode 404, 1-22-18
– on ice on ponds and lakes, for 4th through 8th grade.

Episode 406, 2-5-18
– on ice on rivers, for middle school.

Episode 407, 2-12-18
– on snow chemistry and physics, for high school.

Episode 483, 7-29-19
– on buoyancy and drag, for middle school and high school.

Episode 524, 5-11-20
– on sounds by water-related animals, for elementary school through high school.

Episode 531, 6-29-20
– on various ways that animals get water, for 3rd and 4th grade.

Episode 539, 8-24-20 – on basic numbers and facts about Virginia’s water resources, for 4th and 6th grade.