Speaking of Nature: Two gods, two rewards

  • In Sicily, this adult black-winged stilt flew in lazy circles over my head until I was able to capture this photo. Look at those legs! PHOTO BY BILL DANIELSON

  • It wasn’t until the stilt landed on a volcanic rock that the length of its legs became so shockingly apparent. PHOTO BY BILL DANIELSON

For the Gazette
Published: 7/26/2022 4:12:32 PM

The last time we spoke I was in the middle of having my attention diverted from a fan-tailed warbler at the edge of a tidal lake in Sicily. I had bushwhacked my way from a parking lot through an odd landscape of tall grasses interspersed with arid, open brush. The map I had looked at before leaving suggested that there was a trail for me to follow, but signs of this trail had slowly faded until I was totally improvising.

At one point I was at the top of a small hill and I caught sight of the water that I was trying to reach. It was at that point that all of my time spent working for the US Forest Service paid off. I knew where I wanted to go, I could guess the best route and so I just pushed onward. The huge uncertainty scratching at the back of my mind was finding my way back to the car, but I had already come so far that I was now committed. Forward was the only direction for me.

Just before emerging from yet another patch of tall grasses (by which I mean 8 to 10 feet tall) I felt a sting on my left calf and looked down to see that I was bleeding. Many of the plants in this new place had thorns that would make a rose bush seem tame and I had managed to stumble into one. But then the tall grasses ended and I emerged out into a gorgeous habitat of reeds that were only about 7 feet tall and that were swaying in a gentle breeze. The light of sunrise was coming in from my right and it illuminated everything in a glowing, golden haze. In the middle was that fan-tailed warbler, just waiting for me.

Taking photos as quickly as I could, I ignored the rest of my surroundings, but there quickly came some serious competition for my attention. A bird that was flying above me in slow, lingering circles was uttering a clear, bright call. It was as if Nikonus and Iso had been so impressed by my determination to press forward that each of them decided to send me a reward. Iso, the merciful goddess of light, had rewarded me with the warbler. Nikonus, the strict god of time, had sent me a different bird that would still require some skill to photograph. He never ever lets up.

The bird’s legs told me the whole story. This was some sort of stilt, but it would be hours before I found my way back to my car, headed back to base camp and could once again consult my Peterson Field Guide to determine that it was a black-winged stilt (Himantopushimantopus). I had seen this bird’s American cousin (the black-necked stilt) on many occasions when visiting Florida, so there really wasn’t much mystery to the bird’s taxonomy. All I needed was the exact name.

Over and over again the bird flew in a wide circle above my head. I have to assume that this was a gift from Nikonus because the bird took the same, slow path so many times, which gave me a chance to adjust the settings on my camera and wait for just the right time to fire. Under normal circumstances the bird might have flown above me only once or twice, but this time the bird continued its circles until it decided I had the shot that I wanted. Then it finally settled down, landed in the water and began searching for food.

Much like its American cousin, the black-winged stilt nests in areas that are either close to, or completely surrounded by water. Nests may rage from a simple “scrape” in the soil, to a mound raised above the water level with a flat top lined with pebbles and shells. An average clutch of 4 eggs is incubated by both sexes and after about 3 weeks the chicks hatch and leave the nest to follow their parents around and find food for themselves. I can’t imagine how adorable a young stilt would be. Just imagine a cotton-ball body atop a pair of chopstick legs.

I could probably write about the birds of Sicily for another two months, but now that I am home I find myself anxious to reacquaint myself with some of the plants an animals of home. However, don’t be surprised if the birds I saw find their way into future columns about our familiar local species. Here in New England we have the American goldfinch, but there is also a bird that is simply called a goldfinch. Here in New England we have the black-capped chickadee, but Sicily had a similar bird called a blue tit. Plenty to talk about in the winter months when things start to slow down.

Bill Danielson has been a professional writer and nature photographer for 25 years. He has worked for the National Park Service, the US Forest Service, the Nature Conservancy and the Massachusetts State Parks and he currently teaches high school biology and physics. For more in formation visit his website at www.speakingofnature.com, or head over to Speaking of Nature on Facebook.

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