On the sunny spring morning of May 8, I set out to do some birdwatching at Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge. I arrived at the Cayuga Pool sub-impoundment known as Kumpf Marsh, just east of Cayuga Pool on Route 77. Kumpf Marsh is an important and favorite stopover area for shorebirds during their spring and fall migration.
Earlier that day, Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge (INWR) Biologist Paul Hess observed a Wilson’s Phalarope and some dowitchers at Kumpf Marsh, which I was hoping to see. As I walked north just 30 yards on Feeder Road, I scanned the shallow marsh with binoculars for the shorebirds feeding across the water to the west. The first bird I immediately noticed was an adult Black-necked Stilt in beautiful breeding plumage! I could hardly believe this exciting find!
Black-necked Stilts are common in the states of Florida, Texas, Arizona and California, where they reside year-round, but extremely unusual for western New York, where there are no recorded sightings. Stilts also spend summers in the breeding season throughout the western interior United States. A widespread species, Black-necked Stilts can occur year round in Mexico and South America. Most recently, I had seen one at Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge earlier in the spring, which was also a very rare occurrence and the only place in New York where stilts have occurred outside of Long Island, where one or two birds have been seen sporadically in the past ten years. Now, INWR could claim Black-necked Stilt for its own, boosting our known avian species number by one!
Knowing there was no mistaking this bird for any other and that there was no local record, I texted the Western New York Bird Alert service and wrote a Genesee Birds post. Then I looked at the bird for some time with my scope and binoculars. I photographed the bird to document its presence and hoped others would arrive to see the bird before it bird flew, which they did. The stilt did eventually fly away when a Northern Harrier swooped through the area just after noon, so some birders hoping to see the bird missed it at this time. However, the stilt returned later the same day in the evening. Subsequently, the bird was re-found by DEC employee Greg Lawrence on May 11 at South Feeder Marsh, Tonawanda State Wildlife Management Area, where Willie D’Anna and I both observed it at closer range on May 11. Here we could see the red eye color and also detect that the bird’s back had a brownish cast, indicating this bird is a female.
The Black-necked Stilt is a large-sized shorebird, about the same size as a Greater Yellowlegs, although in height it appears taller due to its long leg length. The color of the body feathering is contrasted in bold black and clean white. The facial pattern resembles a yin/yang of black on the upper head and white on lower head. There is a white area around the eye that is greater above within the black upper face. The neck is white with a thin black nape widening into the black upper parts. The back, underparts and tail are white. The wings are all black. The legs are bright “bubble gum” pink with knobby ankles. The bill is black, thin, long and sharply pointed. With the scope, the bill looked to have a little upturn. All said this is a striking bird.
Stilts feed on aquatic invertebrates by tilting forward to pick food from the water with their needle-like bills. The long, elegant legs are raised high with each step forward, as if carefully tiptoeing.
On a Buffalo Ornithological Society (BOS) Field Trip on June 17, the stilt was seen again at Kumpf Marsh! The last sighting I am aware of was June 20. Anyone who sees or has seen the stilt is urged to inform the refuge office and submit an eBird checklist documenting the presence of this rare bird for western New York. The only previous record in the BOS region is from Smithville, Ontario in October 1979. Accompanying my account is the best photo I have seen of the stilt, taken on May 25 by Kayo Roy of Fonthill, Ontario. Many thanks to Kayo for sharing his photo.