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The 'impossibly beautiful' courtship dance of black-necked stilts, explained

Bird migration starts in early March, and it's in full swing on Alberta lakes where water birds like black-necked stilts are engaging in a courtship dance.

Naturalist Brian Keating says now is the time to watch migration season on Alberta's lakes

Upon reaching Frank Lake, Brian Keating said he was greeted by a cacophony of birdsong, and witnessed what he called the 'impossibly beautiful' and romantic mating behaviour of black-necked stilts. (Brian Keating)

Bird migration starts in early March, and it's in full swing on Alberta lakes where water birds like black-necked stilts are engaging in a courtship dance.

"All the ponds and the lakes around our province right now are pumping with life," naturalist Brian Keating told The Homestretch on Monday.

Keating ventured out on Saturday to watch migration habits on Frank Lake, which is about 50 kilometres east of High River, Alta., with fellow naturalist Greg Wagner, a volunteer caretaker for the area.

  • Watch the nuptial dance of the black-necked stilt below:

The courtship of black-necked stilts

1 year ago
Duration 0:11
Naturalist Brian Keating says these shorebirds engage in a mating dance before walking away together with bills entwined.

Upon reaching the destination, Keating said he was greeted by a cacophony of birdsong, and witnessed what he called the "impossibly beautiful" and romantic mating behaviour of stilts.

"They dance side-by-side, the male dances around the female splashing the water with his bill," Keating said.

"She leans down, he jumps on top ... and then it's done, and they walk away with bills entwined."

'Guests on their land'

With thin pink legs, black-and-white plumage and long black bills, black-necked stilts are striking, Keating said.

"These birds, they are something else," he said.

Though dignified in appearance, they will jump up and down flapping their wings in the presence of predators in what is called a "popcorn display."

Related to avocets, they primarily stick to shallow water, and Keating said they have a discernible walk when stalking prey.

An avocet pictured here is differentiated from black-necked stilts by its curved bill, peachy-coloured head and neck, and black legs. (Brian Keating)

"You can you can figure one out a long ways away just by … the way that they hunt, and they've got the second-longest legs in proportion to their body of any bird in the world … exceeded only by flamingos," Keating said.

Keating cautioned Homestretch listeners that this "intensely beautiful" spring migration season is fleeting, so for those hoping to watch migration themselves, now is the time to get out.

"The birds that are coming through right now — stuff is happening as we speak, and we just can't take it for granted. We've got to get out there and drink it in," he said.

However, Keating also said his naturalist friend Wagner offered prudent advice for amateur birders venturing into wildlife habitats.

"When we do go and visit these very special Alberta places, [Wagner] said let's be kind and considerate of the wildlife, and walk with humility. We are, after all, the guests on their land." 

For more fascinating stories about Alberta's wildlife from naturalist Brian Keating, visit his website and check out these stories:

With files from The Homestretch

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