The Back Country Blog

Stilts return to Green Cay

BOYNTON BEACH MAY 2022 — The stilts are back at Green Cay, and they are nesting! It’s almost a rite of spring, the arrival of handful of black-necked stilts out at Green Cay Nature Center in late April or early May, and almost as if on cue, we spotted our first black-necked stilt at the nature center in Boynton Beach on May 8.
stilt on nest

A black-necked stilt nest-sitting at Green Cay in mid-May.

On the following Tuesday, we heard its mate and on Wednesday spotted the nest in the mudflats where the big and small loop trails join each other near the purple martin houses.

In past seasons, Green Cay would provide sanctuary for two or three or more nesting pairs of the birds, depending on conditions at the preserve. Stilts are ground nesters; they’ll find a relatively high spot of land surrounded by shallow water and build a nest made of bits and pieces of vegetation, sometimes lined with a few pebbles.

It’s a risky strategy, because heavy rains and rising water can essentially wipe out the nest. But if the weather cooperates long enough for the eggs to hatch, the surrounding flats will provide a ready supply of food for both the parents and their offspring to catch until the kids are ready to strike out on their own sometime in July. Stilt chicks are capable of walking about and catching their own food not long after hatching.

The nest is too far away to get a count as to the number of eggs, but clutches are generally have four eggs, sometimes five. Typically, the eggs hatch in about 25 days; first flight is four or five weeks later.

Stilt parents are extremely attentive and protective almost to a fault. In fact, whole flocks of stilts — not just breeding pairs — will react in unison, harassing anything they perceive as a threat, say a roaming alligator or a moorhen that gets a bit too close. Moorhens, of course, pose no danger to anything save some aquatic plants, but stilts will react just the same. They’re fun to watch.

So far, as of May 18, we’ve only seen the one pair, but others still could join the party.

Stilts are migratory birds, arriving here to breed from points south. Distribution maps from the likes of Audubon and Cornell show a year-round stilt population along the Gulf Coast in Collier and Lee counties, but weirdly enough only migratory birds along the Atlantic Coast.

startled ducks
Whistling ducks beat a hasty retreat when confronted by a pileated woodpecker.

A bit of avian drama played out at Green Cay last week. There is a hammock on the short loop with some large royal palms, one of which is dead, the trunk still standing. We’ve been watching a pair black-bellied whistling ducks hang out atop the snag since early April, not sure of their intentions.

Whistlers will nest in tree holes, so the dead palm, hollowed out at the top might seem a likely spot to deposit eggs. We’ve seen the pair fly off, leaving the dead palm unattended for extended periods, but always returning. Are there eggs? Can’t tell, but the ducks sure do spend a lot of time looking down inside the hollowed top. Something has their attention.

Last week, we spotted a pileated woodpecker sitting in the dead palm, with the whistler pair nowhere in sight. The woodpecker hung around for maybe 10 minutes while we watched, trying to figure out what he was up to and waiting to see if the whistlers would return, and what would happen when they did.

Eventually the whistlers returned to their favorite snag, and the pileated woodpecker made it clear he was none too pleased with their presence, jabbing at the invaders with his jack-hammer-like bill. The whistlers beat a hasty retreat, flying off almost in the same instant that they landed.

After a bit, the pileated flew off, and the whistler eventually reclaimed their snag. Hard to say what woodpecker was up to. We thought he might be scouting out for a place to put a nest of his own. Given that he left, we figure he was there just to find some tasty bugs and didn’t want to share his meal with the ducks.

Still don’t know whether there were any eggs and if so, whether the woodpecker might have harmed them. On the following Monday, the whistlers were still hanging around the snag regardless, still staring down at whatever is in that hollow.

— By David Sedore

Published by Wild South Florida, PO Box 7241, Delray Beach, FL 33482.

Photographs by David Sedore. Photographs are property of the publishers and may not be used without permission.