Long-legged Waders

These large, long-legged birds have prospered in coastal and inland waters in many parts of the world



Fossil evidence suggests that the ancestors of these birds evolved at least 50 mya and probably even earlier. They are tall wading birds found mainly in the brackish waters of Europe, Africa and the Americas where they filter feed on algae and brine shrimp. Their beaks are so down-curved that they can operate upside down, filtering food from just below the surface of the water. The Greater Flamingo (right), photographed on lake Naivasha in Kenya, eats a wide variety of small, aquatic animals.


The Lesser Flamingo (left) feed mainly on blue/green algae. I find it amazing that a bird as large as the Flamingo can exist on such a diet.

They can readily be found in huge flocks on alkaline lakes in the Rift Valley. This photograph was taken at Lake Nakuru.


Spoonbills employ a different feeding technique, wading slowly with their flat beak sweeping from side to side whilst filtering food from the water.

They are found in Eurasia, Australia, Africa with just one species in north and central America where they inhabit coastal waters and lagoons, saline lakes and shallow fresh waters, which are sometimes a long way inland.


The photograph of the African Spoonbill (right) was taken by Tom G when we were en route to Nakuru in Kenya.


Avocets also favour shallow water, preferably brackish, where they swing their beaks from side to side using the bottom part of the curved beak to disturb aquatic invertebrates and bring them to the surface where they can be caught. Avocets have webbed feet and can swim quite readily; Stilts have partly webbed feet and swim less well.

They are found in Europe, Africa, Australia and the Americas.


The Pied Avocet (left) was photographed at Inner Marsh Farm on the Wirral in the UK.

They were nesting in a scrape on bare ground near the water.


The American Avocet (right) in breeding plumage, standing in its typical one-legged pose, was photographed in the Estero Grande State Park, Texas in April 2010.

By August the rusty colour will have been replaced by a subdued grey colour. No other Avocet undergoes this yearly change of plumage.



Stilts favour shallow water where small items of food can be picked from the water surface. They are found in all five main regions of the world. The almost impossibly long legs of the Black-winged Stilt (left), photographed at a bird reserve close to Barcelona Airport, enable it to find food in deeper waters than many other waders.


Jacanas are not strictly wading birds but I find it convenient to include them here. They have long legs and extremely long toes which spread the weight so that they can walk on floating leaves of water plants. They eat frogs and fish, swim rather reluctantly and will occasionally fly.


They are found in Asia, Africa and Central America. The Wattled Jacana (right) was photographed at Aripo in Trinidad.

The image shows part of the wattles and the two red bobbles on the top of the black head. They are reminiscent of the two bobbles on the head of the Red-knobbed Coot. In fact a frontal view would show that the wattles on the Jacana merge together to form a frontal shield, reminiscent of some Shelducks.

Dowitchers, Godwits and Shanks.


Short-billed Dowitchers are usually found in salty waters whereas the Long-billed species favour fresh waters.

I photographed these Long-billed Dowitchers (left) at the Green Valley Water Treatment unit in Tucson, Arizona.

Bar tailed Godwits (left) are found in coastal waters whereas Black-tailed species seem to favour inland waters.


Redshank and Greenshank can sometimes be seen feeding together less than 1 metre apart. I found a study by Edington and Morgan, University College, Cardiff in 1973 which provides an example of niches which enable these birds to feed close together:-

62% were feeding in water and submerged mud, 23% feeding on the exposed mud surface and 15% were probing 0-3 cm into the exposed mud.


33% were feeding in water and submerged mud, 17% feeding on the exposed mud surface, 28% were probing 0-3 cm into exposed mud and a further 22% were probing 3-6 cm into the exposed mud. Greenshanks are clearly able to probe deeper than Redshanks.

The Common Redshank (right) was photographed at East Lothian in Scotland.