NATURE’S VIEW: The Conspicuous Long-legged Shorebird of the Marsh

Story and photography by Jim Clark

The black-necked stilt has two special places in my bird-loving heart. First, it’s one of the most beautiful and entertaining shorebirds in North America. I can sit watching them for hours. The second reason? Well, that will be revealed later. For now, let’s learn a little bit about this most unique shorebird.

Black- necked Stilt 2 - 06302011 - Chincoteague VA (c) Jim Clark_6

Black-necked stilt wades in a salt marsh on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. © Jim Clark

Instead of blending into its environment, the stilt stands out. It is a tall, graceful shorebird with black-and-white plumage, thin red legs, and a long, thin pointed black bill. With a supple, measured walk, the stilt looks to be a delicate and fragile creature. It’s not.

Stilts are vocal and aggressive defenders of their nest sites from all potential threats. Through time, the only threat they couldn’t defend against was their near extinction by humans from market hunting in the nineteenth century. But the determination of conservation-minded people and the passage of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 finally afforded protection for stilts and hundreds of other bird species.

Black-necked stilt protects its territory from a willet. © Jim Clark

Black-necked stilt protects its territory from a willet. © Jim Clark

Along the Mid-Atlantic coast where I photograph black-necked stilts, their habitat is a salt marsh with its stands of smooth cordgrass, salt marsh haygrass and black rush, and mosaics of salt pannes, ponds, tidal creeks, and mudflats. Stilts prefer the shallow water pools of the marsh where they feed by probing and gleaning along exposed mudflats and in the shallower portions of the pool.

Stilts are vociferous with their loud and incessant “yip-yip-yip” call when agitated. The clamoring call from several pairs of stilts as they keep an ever-watchful eye over their domain is one of the most enjoyable sounds from the marsh.

A pair of stilts I photographed was busy feeding, preening and keeping a watchful eye over their territory. I watched as the pair fed by pecking on insects on the surface of the water, plunging their heads into the water and herding small fish into the shallow portions of the salt pool. I even witnessed this pair fly above me to grab flying insects.

Black-necked stilt. © Jim Clark

Black-necked stilt. © Jim Clark

For the entire morning I photographed the stilts as they fed and defended their territory from would-be intruders. The low-angled morning light bathed the birds in a nice warm glow, enhancing their rich black plumage and pinkish-red legs. I made a slow, steady approach to where I could sit in the marsh and photograph at a low perspective without disturbing them.

My lens of choice was the 600mm f/4 on a very sturdy tripod. For flight images, I used an 80-400mm VR zoom lens. My ISO was just high enough to keep a fast shutter speed and the great morning light allowed me to use much lower settings.

I promised to give you the second reason that stilts have a special place in my heart. The black-necked stilt is the logo for the Chincoteague Bay Field Station where I lead nature photography workshops. The logo (shown in the photo of me below) appears on all their products—shirts, cups, hats and stationery, for example. And the logo is from an image I captured of a black-necked stilt that morning in the marsh.


Jim at CBFS Sign with his stilt logoA past NANPA president and contributing editor for Outdoor Photographer, Jim is also a nature photography instructor for the Chincoteague Bay Field Station, Wallops Island, Virginia. The author/photographer of six books, Jim is particularly proud of two children’s books he did with his son Carson. Jim was also a major contributor to the book, Coal Country. Visit Jim’s website at www.jimclarkphoto.com, blog at www.jimclarkphoto.wordpress.com or visit him on Facebook.