Mute Swan Photo Credit: Wikipedia I was surprised recently to see two pairs of Mute Swans feeding on grass and submerged vegetation at Schollenberger Park, Petaluma, CA. They appeared to be partners and presumably were preparing to breed in March or April. As we passed …
It is the start of winter here in Northern California, and a time when tiny Buffleheads, the smallest ducks in North America, arrive to spend their non-breeding season in the state. They are one of 29 duck species in North America and tend to …
At this time of year, European Robins, a species commonly called robin or robin redbreast in the UK, are a familiar sight on Christmas cards in England. The practice began during Queen Victoria times in the mid-18th century when the bird replaced the illustrations of postmen who, back then, often wore bright red coats and were nicknamed “redbreasts”. The original red uniform was used as early as 1784, and some of the current designs were adopted as late as 2019.
The American Robin acquired its name from early American settlers who mistook it to be a relative of the European Robin because of its reddish-orange breast. In fact it is a member of the thrush family, whereas the European Robin fits into the Old World flycatcher family. A fuller description of the behaviors of robins is included in Chapter 13 of my novel She Wore a Yellow Dress.
English Postman during Victorian times
Royal Mail – more recent uniforms
This article was written because my sister, who lives in Lilleshall, Shropshire, asked me to select the robin as the focus for my December Blog. Also, as a birder, I am acquainted with both species. The American Robin appears in my Northern California backyard each winter, as small flocks congregate to hunt for berries, and during a recent trip to England, I observed single European Robins searching for food in many of the gardens I visited. Both varieties are known to sing early at dawn and late into the evening, enjoy the same diet, occupy similar habitats such as gardens, hedgerows, parks, and forested areas, are comfortable around people, and start breeding early in spring. Otherwise, there are differences:
The American Robin is 9 to 11 inches (23-28 cm) long, which is about twice the length of a European Robin that is approximately 5 to 5.5 inches in length (12.5 to 14.0 cm). Both sexes in each species appear similar except that the female American Robin has a lighter shade of red on its underside than the male.
Other than the orange-red breast, the plumage of the two species of robin is different, as shown in the illustrations.
Their song patterns are very different. The European Robin has a sweet, tuneful, high-pitched warbling voice, whereas the American species emits a few, often repeated, perky whistles.
The American Robin is sociable, forming large flocks in the evening and during migration, whereas the European Robin prefers to remain solitary throughout its life. The male European Robin is very fierce about defending its territory and will fight other robins entering its territory, to the death if necessary.
American Robins that breed in Canada and Alaska typically migrate south for winter, sometimes as far as the Southwest United States, Mexico, and along the Gulf and Pacific Coasts. Others remain resident or migrate short distances. Most European Robins remain resident year-round, and in England, are known to stay put, cheerfully chirping, however cold it gets during winter. Some from Scandinavia cross the North Sea to Britain, and others (usually female) leave Britain and winter in France and Spain.
European Robin Range Map: Orange – Breeding; Purple – Year-round; Blue – Winter.
American Robin Range Map
Both species are the subject of extensive folklore. In Europe, Christian tradition believes that a robin arrived at the stable shortly after Jesus was born. While Joseph was gathering wood, the bird fanned the dying embers with its wings to keep the fire alight and Jesus warm. The Virgin Mary rewarded it with a fiery-colored breast; a variation of this story is that the bird burnt itself while keeping the fire alight.
Another English tale says that when Jesus was on the cross a robin flew to him and sang in his ear to comfort him, and that the blood from Jesus’ wounds stained the robin’s breast. An alternative version is that the robin plucked a thorn from the crown of thorns on Jesus’ head, and was injured and its breast stained with blood.
In America, many Native Americans have regarded the American Robin as a symbol of peace, safety, and nurturing, and also a predictor of human relationships. Some have regarded the bird as a guardian of fire, and others as a thief of flames. One legend is that the raven created the robin to sing to people. Michigan, Wisconsin, and Connecticut have adopted the species as their State Bird.
Robins are supposed to be one of the most abundant bird species in their respective territories. In North America, there are an estimated 370 million American Robins, and in the UK, estimates suggest about seven million breeding pairs. Elsewhere in Europe, robins are not subject to the same reverence as in England, and are shot for food and sport. Consequently they are much more timid on the Continent.
Both species are regarded as “least critical” from a conservation perspective, and hopefully, for many years to come, they will symbolize the arrival of spring, greetings at Christmas, and represent hope, renewal, and rebirth for all who witness them.
Sandhill Cranes During early October this year, I visited the Cosumnes River Preserve, south of Sacramento, to glimpse flocks of Sandhill Cranes flying high in the sky, having just arrived to winter in their thousands among the fields, marshes, and wetlands of the Central Valley …
Many years ago, I was required to persuade my fellow birdwatchers that I had spotted a pair of Shore Larks on a beach just north of the Warren at Spurn Point, Yorkshire, England, to have the sighting recorded in the Bird Observatory’s daily log. What …
I was first introduced to Northern Wheatears at the end of March 1961 during a school geology fieldtrip to Stainforth in Ribblesdale, Yorkshire, England. A small group of us were studying the area’s Carboniferous Limestone and Millstone Grit and searching for fossils in the older Ordovician and Silurian outliers. It rained most of the time and the river flooded our camp site forcing us to return home early. However, on the last day before leaving, during a hike along a country trail in Crummack Dale, I encountered my first Northern Wheatear as it hopped along the ground in front of me flashing its prominent black and white tail pattern. I would later record large numbers of Northern Wheatears migrating through Spurn Point, Yorkshire.
Northern Wheatear in Crummack Dale
The Northern Wheatear is a small bird, slightly larger than an English Robin, and breeds in stony, upland areas of the North Pennines as well as on similar terrain elsewhere in western and northern Britain. Once procreation is complete, it migrates south to Africa for winter. The plumage of the male during the breeding season is grey on the upperparts, buff throat, and black wings and face mask. In the fall, it resembles the female except that it keeps its black wings. The female is plain brown above and buff below, with dark brown wings. Both sexes have a white rump and tail, with a black inverted T-pattern at the end of the tail.
Large numbers of Northern Wheatears travel way beyond Britain, across the North Atlantic, to Greenland and eastern Canada. I was thrilled by my first sighting. The species had only occasionally been seen by other birdwatchers around my home town of York, and mostly spotted close to the River Ouse, suggesting that these birds used the river to navigate their way northwards. As described in my novel Unplanned, the river is one of the routes used by the German Luftwaffe to bomb British inland cities during World War 2.
York and the Ouse
Do not be fooled by the Wheatear’s name, it has nothing to do with grain; the species eats insects not seeds. The name is derived from the Old English phrase “hwit aers”, meaning “white arse”, which refers to the bird’s white rump. In England during the 18th and 19th centuries the bird was considered a delicacy, and shepherds would supplement their income by selling the Northern Wheatears they trapped.
Northern Wheatear Range Map: orange – breeding; blue non-breeding (wintering)
The Northern Wheatear spends its winter in Sub-Sahara Africa and breeds throughout Europe and across the Palearctic regions of Asia, with footholds in northeastern Canada as well as in northwestern Canada and Alaska. During the fall migration, birds from Alaska and northwestern Canada cross the Bering Strait to Siberia and then navigate southwestward across ice, water, mountains and deserts, to the Caspian Sea, Iran, and Iraq, from where they cross the Red Sea to Africa, passing by Egypt, the Sudan, and Ethiopia, to arrive in such countries as Uganda, Kenya, and Northern Tanzania. Individual birds begin this annual round trip of up to 18,500 miles (30,000 km) in August, and travel for close to three months to complete the journey. They fly at night and cover, on average, about 180 miles (290 km) a day. They are believed to accomplish the longest journey of any songbird, and their chicks are born with the ability to independently navigate these thousands of miles.
Birds from eastern Canada migrate via Greenland and Europe to winter in West Africa, from Senegal and Sierra Leone east to Mali. Some pass through Britain but many appear to head directly across the ocean to Portugal and Spain from where they cross to Africa.Why these North America breeding birds fly to Africa, and not to Central America, like other birds that nest in Alaska and Northern Canada, is unknown. If an egg is removed from an Alaskan nest and taken to Eastern Canada, the chick will still fly westwards across Canada to Asia.
Northern Wheatear Migration Flight-ways
Today, Britain has approximately 240,000 breeding pair of Northern Wheatears, and the worldwide population is estimated at as many as 125 million. About 40 million breed in Europe, where the population is showing a moderate decline due to agricultural changes and urbanization. Of greater concern are the worsening floods, drought, and extreme temperature changes taking place in Sub-Sahara Africa that are likely to pose a more serious threat to the future well-beingof this species.
Sub-Saharan Africa – Kenya
Northern Wheatears start to breed when they are one year old, and the female is responsible for building the nest and incubating the eggs. The nest is usually located in a cavity such as a rabbit burrow or a crevice among rocks, and the clutch size is typically three to eight pale blue eggs, sometimes with red-brown flecks. Often the male chooses to perch nearby and sing.The chicks are fed by both parents but become independent after about a month. They are left to find their own way to Africa as the fall migration gets underway.
Northern Wheatear Nest
My childhood memories prompted me to write this article to acknowledge that I have failed to observe even a single Northern Wheatear during the past three decades while living here in California. It is not that they never appear, but that they are so very rare. Most cross the Pacific or Atlantic to the Old World for winter, and only the occasional straggler appears in the United States, other than Alaska, including accidental vagrants along the western coastline of California. These exceptions attract a great deal of attention and hordes of birdwatchers descend on the site if it is published. Only a dozen or so sightings have been recorded all-time in California, and mainly take place during the August to November migration period. It is only now that I realize how fortunate I was to encounter this bossy little bird during my teenage years.
California Quail – male and female Admired by many, the California Quail, about the size of a pigeon, is a hardy and adaptable ground-dwelling game bird that was originally resident in the United States from Southern Oregon south into Baja California, but has extended its …
Killdeer faking injury According to research, birds are astonishingly intelligent creatures. Jennifer Ackerman in her book The Genius of Birds dismisses the belief that idioms such as “bird brain”, “eating crow”, “cuckoo”, and “feather brain” have anything to do with a true understanding of the …
As my daughter leaves for a vacation on the Shetland Islands, I am featuring the long-time persecuted family of cormorants on my bird blog for this month. The Shetland Islands are a birders paradise, and both the sleek great cormorant (simply called the cormorant in the UK), and the European shag (a member of the cormorant family), breed here. The Shetlands are located about 130 miles (210 km) north, off Scotland’s north coast, and are an archipelago of about 100 islands, of which 15 are inhabited. This aquatic group of birds is superbly adapted to catch fish but for this reason, for centuries, has been slaughtered by vigilante-style hunters and, more recently, “culled” as part of government-sponsored wildlife programs.
There is no continent on which cormorants are not represented by at least one species, including Antarctica, where the distinctive white-breasted imperial shag lives. Worldwide, an estimated 35 to 40 cormorant species exist. Typically, they socialize and hunt in groups, nest in colonies, catch their prey underwater, and several species inhabit inland water sites as well as coastal areas.
Great cormorant – adult
Great cormorant – juvenile
Muckle scarf is the name given in the Shetlands to the great cormorant, and as best I can determine, the title is constructed out of muckle for large amount, and scarf for eatingvoraciously. The European shag is simply called the scarf on the Shetlands. Shag appears to be derived from the Old Norse words skegg, meaning “beard” and/or skag “to protrude”. The word refers to the bird’s tufted, forward-curving crest of feathers that appears at the front of its crown during the mating season.
Adult breeding European shag
Over the centuries, cormorants have built a reputation for greed and gluttony, and as a result, have suffered a long history of hostility and destruction by humans. As early as 700 BC, the Bible mentions cormorants as an “abomination” of birds not to be eaten, and Chaucer, in the 14th century, calls the bird a glutton. Shakespeare uses the cormorant in several of his plays to represent voraciousness, and in China and Japan, the bird is trained to catch fish for humans.
The word cormorant was first used during the 1300s based on the Middle English name “curmeraunt”, originating from the earlier Latin name of corvus marinus (“sea crow” or “sea raven”).
Both the great cormorant and the European shag were seen by me during my adolescent birdwatching years in the 1960s, but along the coast of Yorkshire, not on the Shetland Islands. The European shag is restricted to marine environments whereas the great cormorant can be found on all kinds of water, including inland lakes, reservoirs, and large river systems.
From a distance, the great cormorant appears primitive and malevolent, with black plumage, a long snake-like neck, large upright size, and a long hooked bill. In more detail, its feathers display a green-blue sheen bordered with black, and there is a patch of yellowish-orange skin on its face. Males and females are identical, and during courtship, they develop white patches on their flanks and hair-like white feathers on their head. Young cormorants are more brownish, and many have a whitish breast. Yet, like most cormorants, they look evil, hostile, and destructive.
Cormorants frequently are seen resting on perches, with their wings held out to dry. This is because a cormorant’s feathers turn wet while fishing and their wings have to dry to allow them to fly safely.This lack of waterproofing is in fact an advantage. While fishing, it allows them to trap water in their outer layer of feathers and achieve the same body density as the water in which they are diving.Their inner layer of feathers retains a thin coating of air around the skin to reduce heat loss. This balance between buoyancy and insulation enables the bird to swim like a penguin and dive like a seal, and to pursue fish in a broad range of temperatures and water depths.
Cormorants at Corte Madera Creek, CA – Wing-drying time
The great cormorant has achieved a wide global distribution, extending from the north Atlantic coast of North America, across the whole of Europe and Asia to Australia, and from Greenland south down to South Africa. The only continents on which the species is not present are South America and Antarctica. As you might imagine, they have established a large population estimated at around 2.1 million.Half that number is found in Europe.
Range map – great cormorant (dark green resident; light green breeding; light blue passage; dark blue non-breeding)
The European shag (or simply shag in Britain) is goose-sized and smaller and slimmer than a great cormorant. It has a bottle-green glossy plumage, a more delicate bill, a longer tail, and less yellow around its face. In some places it is called the green cormorant. It possesses the unusual habit of leaping out of the water before it dives. European shags prefer to be solitary, restrict themselves to coastal habitats, and nest on steep cliffs.It is nonetheless regarded as a pest because of its fish consumption, but is less harmful to the environment than the more common species of cormorant.
About half the world’s European shag population lives in the UK (110,000), and an estimated 6000 pair breed on the Shetland Islands. Adults usually stay close to their breeding grounds so the species is one of the most common birds seen along the Shetland Islands coastlines during winter.It is not present in North America.
European shag range map (green breeding; blue non-breeding)
In North America, in addition to the great cormorant, there are five other native species. These are the double-breasted cormorant (the most common and found only in North America), Brandt’s cormorant, the pelagic cormorant, the red-faced cormorant, and the neo-tropic species that inhabits Central and South America but makes its way north during summer to central and northern Texas and other nearby states. All are similar in appearance, with mostly black plumage.
I have seen several neo-tropic cormorants in Costa Rica but none in the United States. Also, in Costa Rica, I have seen the anhinga, or snake-bird as it is sometimes called, that looks like a cormorant but is identified by a straight pointed beak that is used to spear prey, instead of using a long hooked bill like a cormorant. The North America distribution of red-faced cormorants is limited to Alaska where they are resident and nest on the Aleutian Islands.
Thus I have three species for me to spot here in California – the Brandt’s, pelagic, and double-crested cormorants – all of which I have seen. The Brandt’s cormorant, like the European shag, is strictly a marine bird, and ranges along the Pacific Coast from Alaska to the Gulf of California. In winter, those breeding north of Vancouver Island move south. At about three feet in height (91 cm), it is the largest cormorant on the West Coast and is characterized by its black plumage and the greenish iridescence on its back. The feathers at the base of its bill are pale buff, and during courtship it displays a vivid blue throat and eyes. About 100,000 birds are estimated to inhabit the Pacific Coast, with the largest colony (approximately 12,000 birds) on the Farallon Islands.
Pelagic cormorants populate marine environments similar to the Brandt’s cormorant, but enjoy a slightly more northerly range, and their habitat includes bays and bodies of water connected to the sea. They are usually seen on their own or in pairs. The name of the species is misleading. While pelagic means “living on open oceans”, these birds rarely stray more than a few miles away from land. Their population is estimated at about 25,000, of which 60 percent live in California, and most winter close to their nesting site. Standing about two feet high (60 cm), they are the smallest cormorant in North America. Their plumage is violet-green and they have a coral-red patch on their throat, and white patches on the flanks.
The population of these and Brand’s cormorants appear to be more affected by the availability of the fish that they forage (anchovy and rock fish) than their relationship with humans.
The larger double-crested cormorant, at two and a half feet in length (75 cm), is by far the most common in North America, and is the only species that is found across the continent. It ranges from the Aleutian Islands in Alaska down to Mexico, and from the north-eastern states down to Florida, the Gulf Coast, and Caribbean. Interior breeding birds migrate for winter to the south and south-eastern United States, and the western population moves to the Pacific Coast. Population estimates are hard to find, but their numbers (approximate calculations suggest up to two million) have increased during recent decades, renewing human dislike for cormorants and resurrecting actions to reduce their numbers.
This is the species I usually encounter along the Corte Madera Creek just north of San Francisco. The birds are usually flying low over the water, or are out fishing, or are perched on rocks drying their wings. My advice for identification is not to look for their double crest. These tufts of short feathers above the eyes appear only during the breeding season, and are the same color as the head feathers. Additionally, they are usually wet and slicked back against the bird’s regular plumage.
At a distance, double-crested cormorants are iridescent dark birds with snake-long necks. The color of their plumage is either deep brown or black with a bronze or greenish sheen, and their wing feathers are margined with a darker black. Closer too, you may see the distinctive orange-yellow naked skin on their face and throat, and also their aquamarine eyelids. The latter disappear during winter.
In summer, these birds breed in large colonies, often in trees, and build conspicuous nests made of sticks and other material, sometimes becoming unwelcome guests because of the acidic guano they produce. As well as foul-smelling, it can harm the soil, affect the vegetation, and also is a health risk for people and poultry.
Double-crested cormorants nesting
In the past, human interaction with cormorants has varied widely between regions and cultures. In some places, cormorants are welcome as a positive omen because they indicate the presence of fish whereas elsewhere they are despised because of their competition for the same food as humans. In Peru, deposits of cormorant guano are mined as fertilizer to grow food for humans. In China and Japan, cormorant fishing is used as a tourist attraction as well as for catching fish for human consumption. Unfortunately, in many other places, cormorants are subject to less tolerant relationships.
Cormorants lack natural enemies, and once the use of the pesticide DDT was banned during the 1970s, their numbers began to rapidly increase. Global warming has added to this trend by opening up new territories for breeding and feeding. Once again, cormorants are regarded as overabundant, and persecution has renewed because of the fish they take and the mess that they make during breeding.Estimates are that each cormorant eats one to one-and-a-half pounds of fish a day (500 grams), or around 10,000 pounds (4,500 kilos) in its lifetime.
While cormorants are legally protected in many countries in Europe and North America, exceptions have been introduced to allow for their culling in circumstances where they are allegedly causing a nuisance. Methods to reduce the population include trapping and shooting, introducing frightening devices, installing protective nets around fisheries, destroying nests and nesting habitat, oiling eggs (coated with oil) to kill the embryo, killing the young, habitat modification, and forced relocations.As a result, more than one hundred thousand cormorants are destroyed each year, not including the tens of thousands of eggs that are oiled.
Much has been written about this negative relationship and I have no intention of duplicating these stories. Should you be interested in understanding more about how humans and cormorants interact, I suggest you read the following books: The Double-Crested Cormorant – Plight of a Feathered Pariah by Linda Wires, and the Devil’s Cormorant by Richard King.
Cormorant hunting season
Hopefully, governments in future will use more humane, non-lethal solutions to control the growth in cormorant populations, such as restricting their habitat, improving fisheries management, relocating excess birds, and fertility management.
Meantime, I wish my daughter a pleasant vacation in the Shetland Islands and hope she will see some of the other Shetland breeding species that appear in California. Examples include the red-throated divers (loons over here), fulmars, puffins, red-necked phalaropes, arctic terns, whimbrels, and goldeneye ducks.
I have volunteered to assist with the protection of the Western snowy plover during their California coastal breeding season this year from March to September. The following is published to coincide with my training as a docent. This small shorebird is approximately the size of …
Here is the story of a species of bird that has flourished on continents where it was introduced during the 19th century while at the same time suffering serious decline in its native Europe. In North America, there were close to 200 million European starlings …
Across North America, there are about 50 native species of shorebirds, not including occasional rare visitors, and in Europe these birds are called “waders” because that is what they do.I first saw waders as a teenager at Spurn Point in the north of England during April 1961 when I recorded bar-tailed godwits, red knots, sanderlings, dunlins, redshanks, and a turnstone. Some of these same species or their relatives are now seen by me here in California. More about my adolescent bird watching is included my novel She Wore a Yellow Dress.
As you might expect, shorebirds populate the seashore and coastal and inland wetlands. They are represented by four families – sandpipers, plovers, oystercatchers, and avocets/stilts. Other birds that mix with shorebirds, such as waterfowl, seagulls, herons, and grebes are not part of this agenda.
The sandpiper family includes small birds (length 4.5 to 9 inches/11.5 to 23 cm) that are called sandpipers (nicknamed “peeps”), as well as many similar-sized to larger relatives, with names such as sanderling, dunlin, red knot, Wilson’s snipe, wandering tattler, dowitchers, surfbird, three species of phalarope, and ruddy and black turnstones. Wilson’s snipe and the American woodcock occupy inland marshes and forest thickets. There are also species of large sandpiper that include the long-billed curlew, whimbrel, several types of godwit, willet, and a bird with the title of yellowlegs.
Within California, a few shorebirds live year-round along the coast and on wetlands, but the population increases dramatically during fall when large numbers of shorebirds arrive or pass through on their way to wintering grounds elsewhere. They return to their northerly breeding sites in spring. The least sandpiper, the smallest shorebird in the world, and the slightly larger western sandpiper, are the common representatives here in California during fall and winter. Additionally, the Baird’s, spotted, stilt, and solitary sandpipers are regular visitors. and rarer varieties show up periodically such as the sharp-tailed sandpiper, buff-breasted, Terek, and upland varieties.
Most shorebirds arrive from mid-July to mid-November and leave for their breeding grounds during late March to mid-May. Deciding which species of sandpiper you are looking at can be difficult because many species replace their bright summer feathers with rather drab, similar-looking plumage during the fall and winter. To identify the six species of sandpiper most likely to be spotted in California, the following may help:
Least: a streaked brown back; smudge-brown breast; yellowish legs; slightly drooped, black bill; prefers muddy habitats; flock size usually limited to dozens; length around 4.5 to 6 inches/11.5 to 15 cm
Western: longish, slightly drooped black bill; dark legs; crown and upper back grayish in winter; white undersides; found on beaches, mudflats, and near lakes; migrates in large flocks of hundreds and thousands; length around 6.5 inches/16 cm
Baird’s: slender/elegant bird; wing tips extend beyond tail; fairly short black bill; scaledgray-brown upperparts; spotted buff breast; dark legs; shuffles when feeding; travels to and from southern South America; length around 7 inches/18 cm
Spotted: nicknamed “spotty” but breast not spotted in winter; back, wings, neck, and crown olive brown; white undersides; dull yellow legs; bill is pale yellow; white stripe on wings in flight; bobs tail up and down as it walks; widespread across North America; length 7 to 8 inches/18 to 20 cm
Stilt: migrates to inland South America; grayish plumage on upperparts; whitish below; dusty gray breast; long yellow legs; prominent white eyebrow; dark, slightly drooped bill; prefers freshwater wetlands; length 8 to 9 inches/20 to 23 cm
Solitary:migrates to central South America; travels alone or in small groups; prefers freshwater ponds and streams; speckled dark brown/green back; grayish breast and white underparts; olive-green legs and bill; bill is straight, thin, and of medium length; prominent white eye ring; length 7.5 to 9 inches/19 to 23 cm
The nickname of “peep” is used by ornithologists to describe this group of small sandpipers that utter a “peeping” call. Their call is a short, thin, and often high-pitched piping cry made during flight or when the birds are running along the sand or mud.
The ubiquitous ruddy turnstone, about 8 inches/20 cm in length, also belongs to the sandpiper family though its appearance is more like a plover. It has a short, dark bill that is slightly upturned at the end. Its similar-sized relative, the black turnstone, has a much more restricted range, and only winters along the rocky shores of the Pacific Coast. Both species have a distinctive white wing pattern that can be seen in flight.In Europe, the ruddy turnstone is simply called the turnstone since its cousin is not present.
Ruddy turnstone in flight
In Europe, small sandpipers are called stints, and during the 1960s I would often watch little stints pass through Spurn Point during the fall, following their breeding season in the Arctic. During those early years, I also spotted greenshanks and redshanks belonging to the sandpiper family but they are not common in North America. If you want to know why I became a birdwatcher, read my novel Unplanned.
Little stint on Spurn wetlands
Easier to distinguish are the larger members of the sandpiper family. They typically possess long bills, some with a slight upward curve like godwits and yellowlegs, and others with bills curved down such as the long-billed curlew and whimbrel. In the case of the willet, the bill is long and straight. One of the most challenging identifications is distinguishing between willets and the similar sized sandpiper species known as the dowitchers. Two varieties of dowitcher can be seen, the long-billed and the short-billed. Willets are heavier, have plain gray-brown plumage with no markings underneath, and display a distinctive white wing-band in flight. Dowitchers are dull gray, some spotting or barring on the side of their flanks, a white eyebrow stripe, and sometimes can be distinguished by their method of feeding – they probe in the mud with a rapid up and down motion like that of a sewing machine needle.
Willet in the front, short-billed dowitcher behind
There is also the Wilson’s snipe, a member of the sandpiper family and the only species of snipe native to North America. It is typically a winter visitor in California, although a few do hang around the Central Valley for summer. They are secretive and coy shorebirds that use their coloring for camouflage. When flushed, they appear using a very rapid zigzag flight and utter a harsh cry.
Identification of shorebirds is further complicated by the plover family whose members can superficially look like sandpipers in winter, and forage in the same habitats. They are plump-breasted birds, about 6 to 12 inches/15 to 30 cm in length, with rounded heads and short, stubby bills.They can be distinguished by the color of their bill and legs, and often have a full or partial black collar or breast band. The species commonly found on the California coast are the snowy plover, semipalmated plover, the killdeer (named after its warning cry of “kill-de kill-de), and the black-bellied plover. There are also several infrequent winter visitors to California such as the lesser sand-plover, Pacific golden plover, and piping plover.
Unlike most other shorebirds, they forage by sight. After spotting their food, they run towards it, stop, and then catch it. Most other shorebirds probe and peck in the sand or mud using the sensitive tip at the end of their bills to locate their prey.
Black-bellied plover, winter plumage
Shorebirds belonging to the oystercatcher and avocet/stilt families are the least difficult to identify, as illustrated below. There are two species of oystercatcher in North America, both around 16 to 18 inches in length (40.5 to 45.5 cm). The American oystercatcher has black and white plumage and a distinctive long, bright orange bill, and is found on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, as well as along the shores of the Pacific. The black oystercatcher is found only along the Pacific coast, and both species are mainly permanent residents. In the UK, I would occasionally spot the European oystercatcher that is a separate species and has black and white plumage similar to the American oystercatcher.
Finally, with regard to the avocet/stilt family, the American avocet and black-necked stilt are its representatives in North America.
American avocet winter plumage
My earliest effort with this bird family was to try and spot a European “pied” avocet during a visit to Minsmere Nature Reserve on the east coast of England during 1968. Unfortunately it was a failure, as I describe in Chapter 22 of my novel She Wore a Yellow Dress.At the time, the species had just returned to Britain after 100 years of absence, attracted by new habitat created through the intentional flooding of the shoreline that occurred during World War Two to defend Britain against a possible German attack. It is now well-established in Britain and has become the symbol of conservation success, being used as the emblem for the British Society for the Protection of Birds.
Unfortunately, it would take too long to describe every species of shorebird in North America and Europe, and how to identify each one. Instead, I will provide a general guide for identifying shorebirds, and will end the paper by introducing you to my favorite of all shorebirds, the black-necked stilt.
First, let me digress and feature the marbled and the bar-tailed godwits, two species of large sandpiper that are fairly easy to identify. They have a long, slightly upturned bill and long pointed wings that enable them to migrate non-stop thousands of miles each year. They are named after the call they make.
Marbled godwits are regular visitors to California in winter, arriving after breeding on the Great Plains. They are medium-sized and often can be seen congregating in small flocks on coastal mudflats and along estuaries. Some will continue onwards as far south as Mexico and the Caribbean. They can be identified by their mottled cinnamon and black coloring on their upper parts, and the rusty cinnamon plumage that is displayed during flight. They look a little like whimbrels but extend their feet beyond their tail feathers during flight.
It is this species’ cousin, the bar-tailed godwit that holds the record for the longest non-stop flight of any bird. A few years ago, several of these birds were tracked traveling from New Zealand to the Yellow Sea, making the unbroken journey in nine days, a distance of 6,800 miles (11,000 km). They then carried on to Alaska. Others have been tracked flying from Alaska to southern Australia, a distance of 6,900 miles, in ten days. Although breeding in Alaska, the bar-tailed godwit typically crosses the Pacific for the winter rather than traveling south down the West Coast of the Pacific. Thus they are only rare vagrants in California, with most sightings in the north of the state.
In Europe, the species breed in the Scandinavian Arctic and Siberia, and hundreds of thousands pass through the UK on their way south, with an estimated 40,000 stopping to winter in Britain, especially along river estuaries such as the Thames, Humber, Dee, and Forth. As I mentioned earlier, I was fortunate to see this bird traveling past Spurn Point.
North American marbled godwit
Marbled godwit – Migration map
Bar-tailed godwit – Alaska/Eurasia
Bar-tailed godwit – Migration map
Godwits are an example of how size, physical features and call help with a bird’s identification, but this often does not help with smaller shorebirds, especially during non-breeding.
For example, the dunlin, a medium-sized, chunky sandpiper, with a length of about 8.5 inches/22 cm and slightly smaller than an American robin, has a distinctive black belly and a vivid mottled rusty back during spring and summer, but for the rest of the year it molts into a mousy gray-brown and the black stomach patch disappears. In profile, it is round-backed and hunched, has a medium-length drooped bill, and forages using its bill like the needle of a sewing machine (similar to dowitchers).
Dunlin – spring/summer plumage
Dunlin in winter
You will find recording bill length and curvature to be very helpful for many shorebirds, and leg color will also helps identify some species. For example, greater and lesser yellowlegs have long legs that are colored bright yellow, oystercatchers possess pale pink legs, and avocets stand on long, spindly blue/gray ones.
If you see the bird in flight, try to see if it has any form of white wing stripe like a willet, turnstone, sanderling, or oystercatcher. Similarly, some species exhibit a white rump.
Another important method is noting the bird’s behavior. How does it feed? Does it run and grab its food like a plover, walk steadily and keep its head down like small sandpipers, or rapidly peck in the mud as if its bill is a sewing machine needle like dowitchers and dunlins? Flocks of sanderling forage on the beach rather than mudflats, and they can be seen chasing the waves backwards and forwards to find food within the narrow inter-tidal band.
Bird calls are also distinctive. Does the bird whistle like a plover, oystercatcher, or dowitcher, or do they call loudly like a yellowlegs? Maybe it chips and peeps like many small sandpipers?
Finally, look at the habitat in which you see the bird. Oystercatchers, turnstones, tattlers, and surfbirds prefer intertidal rocky seashores. Others, like sanderlings and some plovers prefer the beach. Several types of plover, such as the killdeer, forage in grassy areas, whereas many sandpipers rely on intertidal mudflats, estuaries, and pond edges; several species choose to forage in shallow water like avocets, dowitchers, and yellowlegs, and salt-loving phalaropes spend time at sea or on saltwater lakes such as Mono Lake in California.
These ways of differentiating may seem complex, but if you study a bird carefully you can usually come up with a satisfactory identification. Consider using the checklist below:
Shorebirds Identification Guide
Size, shape, and general appearance
Single bird, or in small groups, or in flocks
Plumage color pattern, including wing stripes/white rump
Size, shape, color of bill
Length and color of legs
Behavior while feeding and in flight
Habitat in which foraging
When and where it was seen
Now let me shift to the black-necked stilt to illustrate how the above guide can work. It is a species named after its black and white plumage and the long, thin, pale pink legs. Also, it is the only stilt native to North America, and became a favorite of mine because there is nothing like it in the UK. It is small, about 14 inches/36 cm in length, has an unusually long neck for a shorebird, and walks slowly and deliberately as it forages for food. Its bill is black and needle-like, and its call is a distinctive and loud “yap” or “keek”, often given in a series when alarmed.The species is fairly abundant in wetlands and coastal areas of California, and using the above guide, I would summarize the stilts I see on the Corte Madera Creek as follows:
Tall and lanky with delicate-looking body and long neck
Seen in small groups or pairs
White below, black wings and back; black extends from back along the neck to end as a black cap covering the head from just below the eye; tail feathers white with some gray banding
Long, needle-like bill
Long, rosy pink legs
Wanders/pecks at food at edge of the mud close to the water/also occasionally sweeps bill through water, and in flight, pink legs are stretched behind its body; it usually flies low over the water
Produces a noisy, sharp“yap”;high-pitched and the call is repeated
Seen on mud flats and at the water’s edge in tidal areas
Seen all the year round in northern California wetlands
Black-necked stilts at Corte Madera Creek, CA
Since the mid-1960s, the global population of black-necked stilts has remained fairly constant, although in California the numbers have been impacted by a substantial loss of natural wetlands. Of the stilts that breed in California, 70 percent nest in the Sacramento Valley.
Black-necked stilts are their most noisy during the breeding season and adopt different methods to frighten away potential predators. One is known as the “popcorn display” where several adults circle a potential predator, and jump, hop, and flap their wings, calling loudly to frighten the threat away. There is also the “false incubation” when the adult crouches as if incubating eggs and then moves on to another spot to repeat the process. Finally there is the “broken wing” distraction when the bird feigns injury to persuade the predator to follow it.
Most definitely, the black-necked stilt is my bird of the month.
Shorebirds in general have managed to preserve robust populations, in part because so many breed on the northern Arctic tundra. However, that appears to be under threat because of habitat deterioration and increased nest predation. Climate change is interfering with food and nest availability, such as early summer cold spells, and shifts in animal population is causing a higher proportion of egg and chick losses. More research needs to be done to develop appropriate conservation actions.
One of my favorite species of birds is the surf scoter, a sea duck that is abundant during October through April along the North American west coast as far south as central Baja (Mexico), after breeding in the boreal forests and tundra of Alaska. It …
In chapter 5 of She Wore a Yellow Dress, I describe my first date back in 1965 with a fellow Hull University undergraduate who became my wife. She curiously asked about my favorite hobby, and when I said it was bird watching, she wanted the …
One of the very few families of birds that remained constant when I moved from England to California in 1979 was the family of terns. I regularly saw Sandwich, Arctic, common, black, and little terns during my visits to Spurn Point in Yorkshire, and during 1971 I made a pilgrimage to Strangford Lough in Northern Ireland to see Sandwich, Arctic and common terns nesting. The latter is detailed in chapter 29 of my novel She Wore a Yellow Dress. They were extremely rare around my home town of York although passage Arctic terns occasionally showed up. Most members of this family are long distance migrants, moving between the northern and southern hemispheres when the seasons change. When I moved to California, sandwich, arctic and black terns were still present, the little tern was renamed the least tern, and new members included the Caspian, elegant, royal, and Forster’s terns.
Related to seagulls, terns are classified under the bird family, Laridae, and although similar in appearance to gulls, they have long swept-back wings and forked tail. They are usually identified by their deep rowing flight pattern and quick turns and hovering in pursuit of fish. They can dive vertically into the water from 20 to 50 feet (6 to 15 meters). Additionally, terns have straight, sharply-pointed bills, whereas gulls possess a more hooked one.
Worldwide, there are close to 40 species of terns, usually colored black and white, although in most cases, more white than black. To the casual beach goer they may look alike. The best way to distinguish between species is to note their size, the color of their bill (red, orange, yellow, or black), the existence or otherwise of blackish wing tips, and the length of their tail streamers. Additionally, the elegant, royal and Sandwich terns display a ragged crest on the back of their heads, especially noticeable during the breeding season.
Most importantly, terns are known for the great distances they travel, especially the Arctic tern that breeds during summer in the Arctic and migrates south for winter to Antarctica. They each can travel around 25,000 miles (40,000 km) annually, gliding as well as flying, usually out at sea, and taking around 40 days for a one-way migration.
Arctic tern migration map
During my years living in Northern California, I have watched the fishing antics of the common tern, the Forster’s tern, the Caspian tern, and the elegant tern. Some varieties breed locally and others, like the common tern, are visitors during migration. The one species of tern that eluded me for many years was the least tern, the smallest of all terns, about the size of a large songbird. They breed in small numbers in the San Francisco Bay Area, but because of their endangered status, they are subject to close protection.
Least tern Range Map: orange – breeding; blue – non-breeding
The least tern is distinguished by a distinct white patch on its forehead, interrupting its otherwise solid black cap, and in summer has a yellow bill with a black tip, and yellow feet. It usually flies low over the water with quick deep wing beats and a hunched-over look, and shrill cries of “kellick” or “kip-kip-kip”, often heard just before it is seen plunging into the water after its prey. The species nests in colonies, usually around 25 pair per colony, scratches out a “scrape” in sand or gravel on the beach, and lays three green eggs blotched with brown.
Next and eggs of least tern
So you can imagine my excitement when, at the start of August 2021, while on vacation in San Diego County, I discovered that least terns were nesting only a few miles away, close to the Mexican border, under the protection of the Tijuana Slough National Wildlife Reserve. It was a dull, cool, Friday morning as I and my friend drove south for about 30 minutes, before arriving at Imperial Beach, where we quickly located the Reserve’s Headquarters.We were greeted warmly and offered abundant advice. Immediately, I was told that Bewick’s wrens, scrub jays, dark-eyed juncos, bushtits, song sparrows and Anna’s hummingbirds had been seen close to the Reserve’s building that morning. However, we were soon on our way across the marsh to see what we could see, along with the accompaniment of the sound of helicopters from the nearby helicopter base. In the distance was Tijuana, and the US – Mexico border wall, undulating along the hills and eventually running down to the beach and into the Pacific Ocean.
Tijuana Wildlife Reserve
Almost immediately there were juvenile black-crowned night herons waiting to catch fish, and black phoebes fluttering in search of insects. Other bird species we recorded during our walk were the American kestrel, northern harrier, marbled godwit, cliff swallows, northern mockingbird and a Forster’s tern fishing in the tidal lagoon, but no sighting of a least tern.
The warden commiserated with us back in headquarters, and told us to visit the beach to the south of the town. At first we encountered several groups of large, stocky shorebirds, called willets, searching for food at the water’s edge, and could see several types of terns fishing out at sea, mainly elegant terns and one large Caspian tern.
However, just when we were about to give up on our search, we heard overhead the cry of “kip-kip-kip”, as two least terns passed us by. They are closely related to the Old World little tern, but are treated as a separate species based on voice difference. I had achieved the purpose of our journey.
As for the fate of terns, their numbers and enormous range offers them some security although for several species their numbers have dropped. They suffer loss of habitat from development and disturbance and from predators. Longer time, climate change presents a major threat. The Arctic tern that follows the summer season between hemispheres is at risk of losing up to 50 percent of its natural habitat due to global warming.