Author: John Cammidge

Hummingbirds That Live In California

Hummingbirds That Live In California

Humming-bird Hawk-moth Photo Credit – Graeham Mounteney, Butterfly Conservation   Hummingbirds are small, often migratory birds that inhabit the Americas. They have compact bodies, long, narrow beaks, and relatively long blade-like wings. The latter allows them to fly in every direction and to hover. Typically, 

Belted Kingfisher: What You Need To Know

Belted Kingfisher: What You Need To Know

Belted Kingfisher Photo Credit – I-naturalist (Birds of San Diego County)   I usually hear the Belted Kingfisher rather than see one when walking alongside the Corte Madera Creek near San Francisco. Occasionally, you might observe one perched above the water or hovering on rapidly 

Eurasian Collared Doves – Invaders or Colonizers?

Eurasian Collared Doves – Invaders or Colonizers?

Eurasian Collared Doves

Photo Credit – Cornell Lab of Ornithology


Recently, I was walking alongside my local creek-side in Northern California when I heard the purring sound of goo-Goo-goo, and strove to find out what it was. I discovered a pair of Eurasian Collared Doves sitting in a tree. Later, they descended to the ground, presumably to consume their diet of seeds and invertebrates. Looking back at my bird-spotting in the early 1960s in the north of England, I registered sighting a Eurasian Collared Dove, but I don’t know where. At the time, I was much more interested in the smaller Turtle Doves that nested among the woodlands on the moor where I grew up. 



Turtle DoveTurtle Dove

Photo Credit – The Guardian


The turtle dove is a beautiful bird, not seen in the United States, and migrates between Africa and parts of Europe. Unfortunately, since 1996, it has been on the British red list of birds most at risk of extinction, and today, only about 2,100 pair breed in the U.K., down an estimated 98 percent since the 1970s. This species is described in more detail in Chapter 17 of my novel She Wore a Yellow Dress. 



Eurasian-Collared-Dove-Range MapEurasian Collared Dove Range Map

Photo Credit – Birdwatching HQ


But let us return to the Eurasian Collared Dove. The species occupies a territory that has dramatically increased over the centuries, giving it a reputation for being one of the great avian colonizers. The bird probably originated in the Bay of Bengal region, but by the 1600s it had expanded its range to include European Turkey and the Balkans. From there, it spread rapidly north and west throughout Europe during the 1930s and 40s. The species first nested in Britain in 1955, and by the mid1960s, about 3000 were nesting. Today, the British population of Eurasian Collared Doves is around 250,000 pairs. There is no clear explanation for this colonialism. Possibly it is genetic; it has dominantly been westwards, and climate – such as cold and the amount of rainfall – appears to affect it. 



Mourning DoveMourning Dove

Photo Credit – Cornell Lab of Ornithology


The Eurasian Collared Dove is medium-sized, a little larger than a Mourning Dove, pale, pinky-brown/gray, has a distinctive black half-neck collar edged in white, and its eyes are deep red. The two sexes are virtually indistinguishable. In the United States, a similar population explosion has occurred.

The species was first resident in the Americas during the mid1970s after about 50 birds escaped from a pet shop in the Bahamas, and presumably made its way to Florida. A burglary freed the first group, and the shop owner released the remainder. A few more may have found their freedom in 1976 when 72,000 inhabitants of Guadeloupe Island had to evacuate because of seismic activity. Today, in the United States, the Eurasian Collared Dove is broadly distributed across western, central, and southern states but not across the northeast. It is strongly dispersive, meaning it will move long distances from its birthplace but does not migrate. It is a chronic breeder and spreads prolifically. Studies in the United States indicate an annual population growth of 13 percent.

But despite arriving here by its own means, it is still considered invasive and a non-native species that possibly competes for food with native species. However, studies do not yet show a negative impact on populations of native birds. People hunt it for food and sport. I wonder about the fairness of this treatment, but then consider other introduced species, such as the House Sparrow, Starling, Rock Pigeon, and Mute Swan, and the damage they have caused.



Invasive Birds of CaliforniaNine Invasive Birds of California

Photo Credit – A-Z Animals
Western Bluebirds, an Example of Natal Philopatry

Western Bluebirds, an Example of Natal Philopatry

Western Bluebirds Male & Female Photo Credit – National Geographic   The number of Western Bluebirds fluttering and dropping to the ground in search of insects appears to have dramatically increased this fall around the golf course I use here in northern California. What is 

Backyard Tales of a Black-headed Grosbeak and a Western Tanager

Backyard Tales of a Black-headed Grosbeak and a Western Tanager

Black-Headed Grosbeak Photo Credit – Author   The fall migration is underway. There are birds appearing in my Northern California backyard which I have not identified before. First there was the Black-Headed Grosbeak, a member of the Cardinal family, inspecting my bird feeder, probably looking 

Owls of Marin

Owls of Marin

Barn Owls

Photo Credit – Birds and Blooms


Someone from San Anselmo recently asked me about Owls in Marin, and expressed interest in installing an Owl Box. I believe Owl Boxes are available as part of the Hungry Owls Project sponsored by the WildCare organization in San Rafael, Marin County. Barn Owl Boxes and Screech Owl Boxes are available, and both types of owl are resident in Marin County, CA.



Great Horned Owl and Range Map


The most common owl in Marin County is the Great Horned Owl which breeds in the nests of other birds, such as raptors and covids, and is probably an unsuitable guest for Bird Boxes. They are one of the most common owls in North America, and are widely distributed across the continent and in parts of South America. The size of the owl makes it too large for most nest boxes, but there are other considerations. Great Horned Owls are fierce predators, and as well as eating squirrels and mice, they may attack housecats and small dogs. Their diet goes well beyond rodents. They may even attack humans while defending their territories. Even so, I spot them occasionally in my backyard, high in the conifer trees, displaying their horn-like tufts, and in the evenings and early mornings, I can hear their haunting hoots. Sometimes they are mobbed by cawing American crows because the Great Horned Owl is the crows’ most dangerous predator. 

My dissertation on “European” Owls can be found in Chapter 18 of my novel She Wore a Yellow Dress, and the species most common to both this Bird Blog and that discourse, is the Barn Owl.



Barn Owls Distribution MapBarn Owl Distribution

Photo Credit – The Barn Owl Trust


Barn Owls are one of the most widely distributed birds in the world, and are found almost everywhere except in polar and desert areas and northern Asia. The species is nocturnal and specializes in hunting small mammals on the ground, especially rodents. It flies silently, and its call is a drawn-out screech. Sub-species of the Barn Owl live in different parts of the globe, and the bird is non-migratory. They nest in hollow trees, cliff cavities, barns and silos, and nest boxes, and long ago, one nested in the chimney of my Yorkshire home. The nest collapsed, the female dropped down the chimney into my brother’s bedroom, where it startled him and terrorized him until my parents caught and removed it. 

Only the female sits on the nest, using the featherless area on her abdomen, known as the “brood patch”. Owls eat, but rarely drink. They obtain most of their water from their prey. Here in Marin it is believed that the population of the Barn Owl has declined in recent years because of the loss of nesting habitat and the effect of rat poison.


Northern Spotted Owl


Marin County, and in particular, Point Reyes National Seashore, the Golden Gate National Park, and Muir Woods,  are  home to the Northern Spotted Owl. These are large owls, with rounded heads and no ear tufts. I have seen them on tree-tops in northern Point Reyes. They prosper in the northern coastal climate of California, and sometimes use nest boxes. It is suggested that their population has been supported by the presence of large numbers of dusky-footed woodrats, the owl’s preferred prey. You will note from the Range Map that there are three subspecies of Spotted Owl, each occupying a different geographic range.


Barred Owl


However, not everything is stable for the Northern Spotted Owl. In 2002, their close relative, the Barred Owl, began to arrive in Marin County. This is an eastern species that has expanded its range westwards. Barred Owls are slightly larger than the Northern Spotted Owl, more aggressive, less choosy when selecting their prey, and may negatively affect the territory and nesting behavior of the Northern Spotted Owl. The two species look similar, except that the Northern Spotted Owl has a spotted brown and white pattern on its chest, while the Barred Owl has a barred brown and white pattern. 

Western Screech Owl


The Western Screech Owl may also occupy nest boxes, and has a presence in Marin County.  It is a small, stocky owl, with conspicuous ear tufts, and tends to have a rufous plumage. It is doubtful that you will ever see this variety of owl. It is a nocturnal hunter and spends its daytime hiding in roost holes in trees. They include suburbia and public parks among their chosen habitats, and if you install an owl box, include a couple of inches of untreated wood shavings since the Western Screech Owl does not build its own nest. Also, beware of starlings that compete for the same roosting sites.  Finally, if you hear one, it will sound like a set of whistled hoots, and not the screeching implied by the bird’s name. 

Despite this article’s Marin County focus, it is not to say that there are no other species of owl found in California. There are several, with their own unique preferences for habitat. These include the Northern Pygmy Owl, Northern Saw-whet Owl, Flammulated (flame-colored) Owl, Burrowing Owl, the Great Gray Owl, the Short-eared and Long-eared Owls, and the rare Snowy Owl.


Northern Pygmy Owl



Flammulated Owl


Burrowing Owls


Great Gray Owl


The Northern Pygmy Owl is about the size of a sparrow, hunts during the daytime, is generally non-migratory, has a rapid high-pitched staccato call, and nests in tree cavities and woodpecker holes. The Northern Saw-whet Owl (possibly named after its saw-like call), sometimes migrates, and inhabits dense forests in the central and southern United States. The Flammulated Owl, about the size of an American Robin, migrates to Mexico and Central America after breeding in eastern parts of California and other south-west States. Unlike other owls, it feeds on insects.

Today, the Burrowing Owl is found mainly in California’s Imperial Valley, although decades ago, it was more widespread, and included a breeding population in Marin County. It lives underground in burrows that it digs itself. 

The Great Gray Owl is a large owl that avoids people, is a permanent resident of coniferous forests, hunts at night, and in California, its range is restricted to the north-eastern part of the State.


Long-eared Owl


Long-eared Owls are occasional winter visitors and have been spotted in Marin County. Historically, they likely bred in this County. They are medium-sized, have long ear tufts that are held erect, and are rarely seen because in the daytime they hide in trees, and at night, they hunt in open areas. Short-eared Owls are rare and declining in number in California. They are recognized as a species of special concern because of loss of habitat. The species is ground-nesting, and prefers grassland and marshland such as that found in north-eastern California and the Central Valley. During winter, a few may appear along parts of the California coast.

Hopefully, now that you know something about California owls, you will choose to advocate for these birds in your part of the State, possibly exempting yourself from invasive species such as the Barred Owl. 

POSTSCRIPT: And it would be remiss of me not to mention a large owl species that is dominanly white with mottled plumage, and very rare in California, the Snowy Owl. Their presence here is highly unusual, although one last year made it as far south as Los Angeles County. They breed in the Arctic tundra and some move south for winter, occasionally reaching  Central California. Unlike most owl species, they hunt during the daytime, as well as at night.  


Snowy Owl

Black-throated Gray Warbler in Yosemite Valley

Black-throated Gray Warbler in Yosemite Valley

Male Black-throated Gray Warbler (Photo Credit eBird)   During May this year, the Black-throated Gray Warbler made its way onto my birding “life list” as a result of a visit to Yosemite Valley. Not that these birds are rare in California ,but I had never 

The Legendary Hoopoe: A Pretty Bird with Poor Personal Hygiene

The Legendary Hoopoe: A Pretty Bird with Poor Personal Hygiene

Eurasian Hoopoe (Photo Credit eBird)   I have just returned from a trip to Israel, a country that adopted the Hoopoe as its national bird in May 2008. I was fortunate enough to see one hunting for food on the lawns of HaPisga Gardens in 

As Thin As A Ridgway’s Rail

As Thin As A Ridgway’s Rail

Ridgway’s Rail

(Photo Credit eBird)


Some people hold the opinion that the saying “As Thin as a Rail” derives from a comparison with the skinny and slender shape of birds known as Rails, including the Ridgway’s Rail. Many of these species have laterally compressed bodies, which from the front make them appear thin, but from the side they look full-bodied. This unusual form permits each bird to pass easily through thick vegetation that grows in freshwater and saltwater marshlands. The alternative opinion is that the maxim refers to the more mundane wooden rail, stick, or bar used in the construction of fences. Etymology suggests that the bird took its name from the Latin and Old French word “rascula” that means “to rail” or “to mock”, and is likely a description of the hoarse vocalizations that these birds make. The Latin word “regula” is probably the source of “As Thin as a Rail” since it translates as “a straight stick”.  Whichever is correct, this month’s Bird Blog features representatives of the Rail family of birds, and two species in particular that I am familiar with – the fairly abundant Water Rail in Europe and the very rare California Ridgway’s Rail in the San Francisco Bay Area.


Thin as a RailThin-as-a-Rail

(Photo Credit Lonely Birder)


Back during 1960, I recorded my first sighting of the elusive Water Rail. I do not recall its location but the most likely place was Fairburn Ings in the West Riding of Yorkshire, England. Back then, the site was an enormous slag heap of mining waste overlooking an area of open water and marshland created by ground subsidence caused by underground coal extraction. While the location was not a bird sanctuary until later that decade, I found it accessible for my childhood birdwatching. “Ings” is an Old English word to describe an area of water meadows and marshland. 


European Water RailEuropean Water Rail

(Photo Credit Encyclopedia Britannica)


Water Rails are hen-sized birds, about 9 to 11 inches (23 to 28cm) long, with chestnut-brown upperparts mottled with a black pattern, gray underparts and face, black-and-white barred flanks, and a mainly reddish- orange, long bill, used to probe mud and shallow water in search of food. The plumage affords excellent camouflage during the breeding season, and in winter, while the birds are potentially more visible, they skulk among the reeds and generally stay hidden. You are more likely to hear them emitting their pig-like grunts and rasping calls, than to see them. Also, as with other species of rail, they are rarely seen in flight preferring to move significant distances only under the cover of darkness. 

Currently, it is estimated there are about 4000 breeding pairs in Britain, primarily distributed in the eastern region of England, and in winter they are joined by birds that migrate from Central and Eastern Europe. Western European Water Rails generally are sedentary thanks to the warmer weather. Conservation-wise, the species is considered of “Least Concern”, with a stable population in the UK, although their numbers are at risk due to flooding and freezing, habitat loss, and predation. The Water Rail population in Europe is estimated at around 700,000 birds.


Water Rail Range MapEuropean Water Rail Range Map
Green – resident; Blue – winter; Yellow – summer; Orange – passage.  

(Photo Credit Bird Field Guide UK)


Move the clock forward about 60 years to last month when I had the satisfaction of sighting my first of another type of rail – the California Ridgway’s Rail.  Prior to 2014, it was called the Clapper Rail, but following genetic research, this species was split into three regional groups, one known as the Mangrove Rail inhabiting the east coast of South America, the Clapper Rail that inhabits the US East Coast and Caribbean, down to Central America, and the Ridgway’s Rail for those resident in California, Arizona, Nevada, and along the western coast of Mexico. All three species are secretive wetland birds, the size of about a chicken, and are known for their loud rattling and chattering calls. The Ridgway’s Rail has been further separated into three subspecies, with the name of Light-footed Ridgway’s Rail given to birds in Southern California and Mexico, the Yuma Ridgway’s Rail to those found in the lower Colorado River and salty waters of the Salton Sea, and the name of California Ridgway’s Rail to those in the San Francisco Bay Area. 



East Coast Clapper RailEast Coast Clapper Rail

(Photo Credit Audubon)


Mangrove RailMangrove Rail

(Photo Credit iNaturalist)


In addition, there is the King Rail, the largest bird in the rail family, at 15 to 19 inches (38 to 48 cm) in length, and one which is widely distributed throughout the eastern half of the United States. It prefers freshwater habitats. Also, in 2014, the Aztec Rail, about two inches smaller than the King Rail, was spun off from the King Rail as a separate species, and is resident in Mexico’s interior freshwater marshes. 



2014 Introduction of new rail species2014 Introduction of new rail species

(Photo Credit SF Bay Wildlife Society)


King RailKing Rail

(Photo Credit Cornell Lab. of Ornithology)


Not shown on the above map is the distribution of the smaller rails which are native to North America. There is the Black Rail, a very rare and elusive bird, and difficult to spot because of its color. It is a mouse-sized representative, found in the southeastern coastal parts of the United States and interior sites, plus California. Its population is approximately 50,000, and of these, about 5,000 live in California primarily among the marshes of the northern Bay Area. The Virginia Rail, about 10 inches (25 cm) long, is more widespread and has a presence in northern California, the Central Valley of California, and the San Francisco Bay area. Finally, the scarce Yellow Rail, which is about six inches (15cm) long, breeds in Canada and winters along the Gulf Coast. A small population is present in California during winter, particularly in central California and along the coast.


Black RailBlack Rail

(Photo Credit Travis Lux)


Virginia RailVirginia Rail

(Photo Credit Wikpedia)


Yellow RailYellow Rail

(Photo Credit Cornell Lab. Of Ornithology)


But now let me address the California Ridgway’s Rail. It is 13 to 19 inches (33 to 48 cm) in length and named after Robert Ridgway, an important ornithologist during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, who for 40 years, was the Curator of Birds at the Smithsonian Institution. Among his many accomplishments was describing the taxonomy of the birds that now bear his name.

Like other species, the California Ridgway’s Rail is highly secretive and lives concealed among cordgrass, pickleweed, and saltgrass growing in salty and brackish water along the San Francisco Bay estuary. These birds are non-migratory. Over decades, large segments of the species’ habitat have been lost to urban development and in-filling, and as a result, by the 1970s, the bird was declared “endangered”. Today its population hovers around 1,100, and the majority live in wildlife refuges and ecological reserves, including the newly-restored four acre tidal wetland near my home that is part of the over 200 acres of salt marsh known as the Corte Madera Marsh Ecological Reserve. It is situated across from San Quentin Prison and the Larkspur Ferry Terminal, and during construction, non-native vegetation was replaced with around 17,000 salt-tolerant native seedlings.


Corte Madera Ecological ReserveCorte Madera Ecological Reserve

(Photo Credit Corte Madera Memories)


On a Sunday during March this year I was walking along the loop trail at low tide when a flock of what appeared to be Western Meadowlarks flew in and settled in the grass, maybe 20 yards (18 meters) away from me. I wanted to confirm the identification through my binoculars. As I looked, there was no sign of the Meadowlarks, but suddenly a larger bird’s head and body popped up above the grass, giving the appearance on wanting to know “what is happening around here?”. By the time I comprehended what I was looking at, it had vanished into the grass, and I lost the opportunity to take a photo.  It was a hansom grey bird, with a pinkish breast, and a whitish rump patch that was not visible to me. The shape was what you would expect, and its long, prominent bill was clearly seen. 

California Ridgway’s Rails forage by probing into muddy wetlands in search of invertebrate prey and prefer to inhabit areas with tall plant material that gives them protection. A special salt gland is used to drink seawater, and nesting usually takes place from mid-March to August. An average of seven eggs is incubated, and both partners share in the incubation. Once the chicks are hatched, they will leave the nest in a couple of days and may be carried on the backs of their parents during their first two weeks to help them survive high tides and to cross open water. The chicks are vulnerable to predatory fish, and the adults are preyed on by raptors, owls, foxes, and feral cats.  


California Ridgway’s Rail with YoungCalifornia Ridgway’s Rail with Young

(Photo Credit Cornell Lab. of Ornithology) 


I feel honored to have observed this species in their natural habitat and hope that their present numbers will at least be sustained. Not only are they vulnerable to loss of habitat, but rising sea levels offers them a new threat. 

Hopefully, you have found my description of this family of birds at least of interest, if not useful. However, I would be remiss if I did not mention the most abundant and wide-spread rail in North America. It differs from other species in that it possesses a uniquely short and conical lemon-yellow colored bill and black face, and goes by the name of Sora rather than Rail. It can be found in freshwater marshes, including at the edges of water, and can be seen by me close by at the Las Gallinas Sanitary Ponds in San Rafael. The origin of the name is unclear but most likely comes from a Native American word, although no one knows which language and which indigenous people. 

It is a small, chubby, highly secretive and stealthy, chicken-like bird (8 to10 inches/20 to 25 cm long). Most of its reproduction occurs in the north-central United States and Canada although, for winter, it migrates long distances, and flies as far south as Central and South America. Some pass through California, and there is a small resident population of Soras across the north and center of the state in places where suitable habitat exists. Its call is distinctive, either a high-pitched shout of “your-it, your-it” or a fast horse-like whiny. I hope to see one soon.



(Photo Credit


Finally, I acknowledge that this family of birds may seem a little daunting to you, not least because of the many species (there are 152 species worldwide in the avian family of Rallidae), and most are difficult to see because of their size, and their skulking and secretive behaviors. Maybe consequently they have not attracted much attention other than those varieties that face extinction. This could be the reason why I overlooked this family of birds when I published my novel She Wore a Yellow Dress.  

Attacked by Swans

Attacked by Swans

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 

Buffleheads: Ducks that Nest in Trees

Buffleheads: Ducks that Nest in Trees

  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 

Two Species of Robin; Same Name, Different Bird; The European Original and the American Look-alike

Two Species of Robin; Same Name, Different Bird; The European Original and the American Look-alike

European Robin


American Robin

American Robin

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 Traditional Christmas Uniform

English Postman during Victorian times


Royal-Mail latest uniform

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

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. 


Winter Robin Christmas Card

Seasonal Greetings

Sandhill Cranes are back in California for Thanksgiving

Sandhill Cranes are back in California for Thanksgiving

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 

Shore Lark or Horned Lark, the Same Bird?

Shore Lark or Horned Lark, the Same Bird?

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 

Northern Wheatears, Champions of Migration

Northern Wheatears, Champions of Migration

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

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

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

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

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-being  of this species. 


Sub-Saharan Africa - Kenya

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

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. 


Northern Wheatear North America Range Map

Northern Wheatear North America Range Map