Monday, May 19, 2008

Love Story

Sometimes, one can learn more from watching one bird in action than from chasing down dozens.

For the past few weeks, I've been lustfully (and successfully) pursuing spring warblers at San Joaquin Marsh: Yellow, Hermit, and Townsend's Warblers seem to be everywhere, along with the resident Orange-crowned Warblers and Common Yellowthroats.

Meanwhile, in the front ponds, the ever-present American Avocets are pairing up. Animal reproductive rites can be fast, crude and, well, animal, but every pair of American Avocets we've seen has carried out a lovely, highly structured ritual that could well be a motif out of a classical Kabuki play.

First, the male fights off potential rivals (in the marsh, there are many). The female puts her neck and head down while he gently walks around her, sprinkling water on her with his beak:

Then, they consummate their relationship—a tricky balancing act that not all pairs pull off successfully:

(We did actually see one unfortunate male fail in his mating attempt: he lost his balance and tumbled into the water as his stunned mate looked on. If Judd Apatow did nature documentaries, he would have loved this.)

At this point, the male of another species might just shuffle off (or roll over or light a cigarette). But the Avocets linger together, the male protectively draping a wing over the female. The two cross their beaks, as if to formalize their bond:

I know it's unwise to anthropomorphize animals: for all I know, these elegant gestures have the same emotional import for American Avocets as blinking and sneezing have for me. But if this is so—isn't it cool that something this starkly utilitarian could be so beautiful?


cjs said...

What a cool story. Your photos are great and I love the narrative.

Sparverius said...

I ditto that. Thanks.