American Avocet: Growing Land Manager and Public Knowledge

The American avocet is perhaps the most iconic wetland species of the Intermountain West. It is a large, distinctive shorebird with long blue-gray legs, a recurved bill, and a striking white and black chevron pattern on its back and wings. During the breeding season, avocets have an unmistakable ochre-colored head that is molted to their basic plumage of pale gray and white at staging sites during fall migration.

American avocet outfitted with a transmitter

Historically, the species was found along the eastern coast as far north as New Jersey. By the 1900’s over-hunting likely reduced its occurrence along the Atlantic coast to the current, predominantly western, distribution. Today, the avocet is found breeding in west and west-central United States and into south-central Canada. Avocets winter in southern coastal California, south along Baja California and along the Pacific coast of Mexico and Guatemala. Winter populations also exist along the southeastern coastal United States and the Gulf coast of Texas south into Mexico.

The Intermountain West is an area critical for supporting hemispheric populations of avocets. It is thought that more than half of the global population breeds within the Intermountain West Joint Venture’s boundary and over 90% use the region for staging and migration (Donnelly and Vest 2012). The avocet is considered a species of moderate conservation concern within both the United States (Brown et al. 2001) and Canadian (Donaldson et al. 2000) Shorebird Plans, and a species of conservation need within several state wildlife action plans. Because the Intermountain West serves as the primary breeding and migration/staging area for avocets, it is considered a priority shorebird species in the Intermountain West Regional Shorebird Plan (Oring et al. 2012) and a focal species within the Intermountain West Joint Venture 2013 Implementation Plan (Donnelly and Vest 2012). Key sites for breeding can be found within the wetlands of Great Salt Lake, the Lahontan Valley of Nevada and sites within southern Oregon. Avocets also use Great Salt Lake as a staging site to complete the pre-basic molt during fall migration. Population estimates at this site exceed 250,000 individuals, representing more than half of the North American population (Paul and Manning 2008).

American avocets on the Great Salt Lake

Avocets specialize in using temporally unpredictable wetlands. They can be found using a variety of habitat types for foraging and nesting including large saline and alkaline lakes, freshwater marshes, ephemeral wetlands and playas, as well as manmade water impoundments. Many of these habitat types are influenced by human activities, resulting in their loss or degradation. The climatic regime of the arid west, coupled with the growing demand for limited water resources by human populations serve as a critical challenge for shorebird conservation in the Intermountain West. For example, the Great Salt Lake, a critical site for avocet breeding and staging, is currently only two feet above the historic low set back in 1963. Yet, recently proposed water diversion projects would reduce lake elevations to unprecedented levels and thus significantly impact avocet and other shorebird habitat. Climate change will likely exacerbate these problems. Current models predict that climate change within the Intermountain West will result in major losses to avocet breeding, wintering and migration habitats, thus elevating this species conservation status to one of high concern (Galbraith et al. 2014). 

Effective conservation for this species requires attaining several goals outlined within the Intermountain West Regional Shorebird Plan (Oring et al. 2012) including filling important data gaps of their natural history and developing an informed and supportive constituency for long-term shorebird conservation. The breeding biology of avocets is well known; however, we lack an understanding of many aspects of migration for this species including migratory routes, connectivity and use of wetland complexes within the region and wintering sites of specific populations. Outreach initiatives are needed to promote the conservation of avocets and other shorebirds along their entire flyways. One initiative that is making substantial progress toward this outreach goal is found within the Utah Linking Communities, Wetlands and Migratory Birds program.

This initiative brings together community partners to promote shared shorebird conservation along a migratory bird pathway that extends through sites important for shorebird conservation along the Pacific flyway, the Chaplin and Quill Lakes of Canada, the Great Salt Lake of the United States, and the Marismas Nacionales of Mexico. Partners of the Linking Program have established annual bird festivals at each site, shorebird workshops for educators, university shorebird research exchanges, coordination of shorebird monitoring protocols and surveys, and best management practices seminars for local biologists and land managers.

Efforts such as these can be effective in that they are coordinated along the entire flyway, engaging and educating communities where avocets occur. Not only do outreach efforts such as the Linking Program work to preserve critical areas for their ecological values but also for the economic, educational, social and cultural wellbeing of the people who live near them.

Additional wetland habitat goals and actions to support this IWJV focal species can be located in the Habitat Delivery Strategy of the IWJV 2013 Implementation Plan, which includes habitat objectives for the Great Salt Lake.

Brown, S., C. Hickey, B. Harrington, and R. Gill. 2001. United States Shorebird Conservation Plan. 2nd edition.

Donaldson, G. M., C. Hyslop, R. Morrison, H. Dickson, and I. Davidson. 2000. Canadian shorebird conservation plan. Canadian Wildlife Service Environment Canada, Ottawa, Canada.

Donnelly, J. P., and J. L. Vest. 2012. Identifying science priorities 2013-2018: wetland focal strategies. Intermountain West Joint Venture, Missoula, Montana, USA.

Galbraith, H., D. W. DesRochers, S. Brown, and J. M. Reed. 2014. Predicting Vulnerabilities of North American Shorebirds to Climate Change. PLoS ONE 9:e108899.

Oring, L. W., L. Neel, and K. E. Oring. 2012. Intermountain west regional shorebird plan. Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences, Manomet, MA.

Paul, D., and A. Manning. 2008. Great Salt Lake Waterbird Survey Five-Year Report (1997-2001). Great Salt Lake Ecosystem Program and Utah Division of Wildlife Resources.

Read other articles in the Conservation Roundup, Winter 2015 Newsletter Issue:

State Fish and Wildlife Agencies in the Intermountain West: Past, Present, and Future By Ali Duvall, IWJV Assistant Coordinator, and Dave Smith, IWJV Coordinator

American Avocet: Growing Land Manager and Public Knowledge By John Cavitt, Professor of Zoology, Weber State University

Land Trusts and Bird Conservation: Four Facts You Should Know By Ashley Dayer, PhD & Nancy Cheng, Cornell Lab of Ornithology

It Takes A County: Combating Carp in the Harney Basin By Hannah J. Ryan, IWJV Communications Specialist

Keeping It Together in the Upper Green River Valley - VIDEO!