A beach at Torquay’s coastal zoo, Living Coasts, is proving to be the perfect location for a very special wading bird.
With black and white plumage, long legs and long, thin, curving bills, the pied avocet is an elegant wading bird, thought to be named because of the black patch on its head which resembles the cap once worn by advocates, or lawyers.
On the edge of extinction in Britain in the mid-19th century, the species started to breed on the beaches of East Anglia while they were closed during World War Two. A flock of around 30 adults can now be found at Torquay’s coastal zoo and so far this season there are about a dozen chicks.
Keeper Lisa Jones says that avocets are not well represented in zoos and it’s difficult to get close to see them in the wild, so Living Coasts provides a rare and special view.
“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”, commented Lisa.
The estuary is a calm corner of this busy marine zoo. Keepers rake the sand every day to keep it soft for the birds’ feet, with salt water pools helping keep their feet clean. The estuary is tidal, encouraging natural foraging behaviour in the mud with the pied avocets searching out aquatic insects and other small creatures.
“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.”
Pied avocets nest on the ground in loose colonies, with eggs taking up to 23 days to incubate. Both parents sit on eggs, which have no protection from the elements at this stage.
For further information on Living Coasts go to www.livingcoasts.org.uk