On a beach, somewhere in the English Riviera a special wading bird has found the perfect spot to setup home.
The beach at Living Coasts, Torquay’s coastal zoo, is tended by keepers with all the care and dedication of Buddhist monks raking the gravel of a zen garden.
Pied Avocets, elegant wading birds that have black and white plumage, long legs and long, thin, curving bills.
Their name is said to come from the black patch on their head.
Pied Avocets were on the brink of extinction following the industrial revolution of the 19th Century.
However, the species clung onto our shores and began to breed on the beaches of East Anglia while they were closed during the Second World War.
Home on the Exe estuary
Back in Torquay a flock of 30 adults reside on the beach and with them a dozen chicks.
Keeper Lisa Jones said:
They breed well at Living Coasts because we provide exactly the right habitat for them – an estuary which is tidal, the right sand, appropriate shelter and some grassy areas. They can fly about inside our huge net canopy, but choose to nest at the estuary.”
The estuary is a calm corner of this busy little marine zoo. Keepers rake the sand every day to keep it soft for the birds’ feet and provide salt water pools to help keep their feet clean. The estuary is tidal, which encourages natural foraging behaviour in the mud.
We don’t have to do too much to encourage breeding – logs are placed around the estuary to give them privacy for their nest sites and they have access to water for their mating displays. We have to source mini-mealworms that are small enough for the chicks to eat. The movement of these mealworms, as well as encouragement from their parents, stimulates the chicks to start feeding on their own within a few days of hatching.
Guests might occasionally see the adult birds squatting over the chicks. “This is to keep them warm and protect them, but at the same time their waterproof coating rubs off on the chicks – they have no protection from the elements at this stage.
Its not easy being an avocet parent.
Once paired the couples stay together for 6 years if not longer and they breed successfully year on year.
Pied avocets feed in brackish or salt wetlands, often searching for aquatic insects and other small creatures.
The birds often nest on the ground in loose colonies, with their eggs taking up to 23 days to incubate.
Both parents sit on the eggs, defend the next and guard the brood.
Unfortunately the Pied avocets have a short lifespan of just 15 years in zoos.
More details about the latest hatchlings can be found at www.livingcoasts.org.uk or by calling 01803 202470.