My Bird Blog is a series of “then and now” stories that combine my experiences as a juvenile birdwatcher in Britain during the 1950s and 1960s with my knowledge of the same species in California today. Each month I publish the details of a bird …
Canada geese breeding season is underway at my golf course, and my erratic golf shots risk the lives of these birds as they eat, mate, and nest nearby. Their population seems to increase each year. Their eggs have hatched and the baby goslings, dressed in …
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 eating voraciously. 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.
Thank you for reading this article.
Bird watching on the Shetlands
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 …
This rare fall and winter visitor to the UK and occasional vagrant in the western states of North America is featured by me to celebrate its first ever appearance in the county of Shropshire in the West Midlands of England. The event took place during …
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 a few years ago, dispersed from Alaska to Mexico, with geographic extensions into Puerto Rico, Jamaica, and Cuba. Most are descendants of approximately 100 starlings released in New York’s Central Park during 1890 and 1891 by a group of people dedicated to introducing bird species mentioned by Shakespeare in his plays. Their territory rapidly expanded due to the species strong flight ability, its adaptability to various habitats, the production of two broods each season, their aggressiveness, and their diverse dietary choices. The average life span is two to three years but individuals can live up to 20 years.
As early as 1914, people in the United States realized how harmful these birds could be and efforts were made to discourage them. For example, in parts of Connecticut, residents tried to scare them away by fastening teddy bears to trees occupied by the birds, and fired rockets through the branches.
Red coloring – European starling introduced Blue coloring – native habitat
By 1928, European starlings had reached the Mississippi, and in 1942 they had made their way to the West Coast. Today, these birds are regarded as pests and their numbers are supposed to be in decline. Estimates in recent years are that the North America population has decreased to around 140 million.
The United States classifies the species as invasive and does not protect it under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. As a consequence, hundreds of thousands of starlings are killed each year. The US Department of Agriculture reports eliminating 1.5 million birds during 2012 and about 700,000 in 2019.The damage that these birds cause annually to North America agriculture is estimated at approximately one billion dollars.
The North America experience is repeated elsewhere. For example, in Southern Africa, the starling was introduced in 1897 around Cape Town and is now the most common bird in that region. In New Zealand, starlings were introduced in 1862 to destroy the hordes of caterpillars and insects that invaded newly planted crops, whereas today it is considered a pest by orchard owners and an advantage in pastoral areas. In Australia, the starling was introduced in the Melbourne area during 1857 to control insects that were invading farm crops, and rapidly spread across the south-east of the country. In Argentina, the European starling appeared first during 1987 in Buenos Aires and has rapidly expanded its territory.
Shakespeare only mentions the starling in Henry IV, Act 1, whereas I refer to them twice in my novels. In Unplanned they forecast the weather, and in She Wore a Yellow Dress I feature their habit of flocking in flight during fall and winter to create acrobatic murmurations. They are permanent residents, although some will migrate short distances.
The seagull and the starling
Growing up in Yorkshire, England during the 1960s, I encountered starlings in most places, from around the farm to school grounds, and I also saw one attacked and drowned by a common gull at Spurn Point bird observatory. They received virtually no mention from my colleague birdwatchers because of their abundance. However, since I moved to the United States in 1979, their population in Britain has declined by an estimated 90 percent. The reasons are unclear but seem to include loss of habitat and the poisoning of the insects that they eat. Even so, there remains an estimated 1.8 million breeding birds in the UK, even though the species is placed on Britain’s red-list of birds that carry the greatest conservation concern.
European starling aggression
They are aggressive, stocky, social, and noisy birds that are medium-sized (about 8 inches/20 cm long – the size of an American robin), have short triangular wings, a short tail, pinkish red legs, and a long, slender, pointed bill that is yellow during the breeding season but becomes dark in the fall. They tend to walk rather than hop, and typically roost in trees and on telephone and power lines. During summer, their plumage is a dark, iridescent purplish-green, molting into a blackish-brown with feathers tipped in white to give the bird a speckled appearance. Starlings belong to the family that includes myna birds noted for their voice mimicking. The starlings own whistling and whizzing are sometimes a mimic of other starlings, and occasionally they will repeat the sounds of people, animals, and inanimate objects like police sirens.
European starlings are common in towns, suburbs, and in the countryside close to human settlements, where they forage for food on the ground. They are highly social and enjoy an evening singsong. Eating habits are omnivorous and include taking fruits, grains, and seeds, which has caused them to be treated as agricultural pests. The fact that they eat invertebrates, such as leatherjackets (the larval stage of daddy long legs) that damage the roots of grasses and crops, is often overlooked.
They also compete aggressively to secure tree cavity-space for nesting sites, and in North America displace native species such as bluebirds, oak titmice, acorn woodpeckers, and tree swallows. Starlings quite literally push out the native bird. Nesting in gutters and vents of buildings and competing aggressively at bird feeders have added to their notoriety, as do their messy droppings that can cause disease.
It is hard to mistake other birds for European starlings. The common grackle in North America is similar looking, but larger, and has a yellow eye whereas starlings have dark eyes. These grackles are resident east of the Rocky Mountains and their cousins, the great-tailed grackle, are present in southern California but look distinctly different. Other similar-looking birds in North America include the brown-headed cowbird and Brewer’s blackbird. In Europe, the nearest comparable species is the blackbird.
It is the winter’s evening entertainment of aerial displays known as murmurations that is the welcome side of starlings. These murmurations sometimes involve hundreds of thousands of birds and occur when they gather above their roost at dusk to fly in patterns before settling down for the night. The feature is particularly visible from October to February. Where does the name come from? The best guess is from the low and indistinct sound that the birds make in unison, particularly after they land, and is taken from the Latin “to murmur” or “to mutter”. These flocks of birds can be seen twisting, turning, swooping, and swirling across the sky in mesmerizing shape-shifting clouds. The behavior is believed to confuse predators and help the birds keep warm, and studies show that each bird follows the path of about seven of its closest neighbors. No other bird has a comparable aerial display, although dunlins, some sandpipers, American robins, red knots and geese can be seen traveling in flocks.
The starling may also have weather-predicting abilities. Like many birds, starlings possess a special middle-ear receptor known as a Vitali organ that detects extremely small changes in atmospheric pressure. As atmospheric pressure falls – indicating an approaching storm – the birds fly lower and lower and eventually roost to quietly await the arrival of rain. This weather forecasting ability, however, does not include long range forecasting!
Despite the entertainment value, the starlings’ reputation remains much more as a pest and they suffer from human persecution. They are frightened out of gardens because of aggressively occupying bird feeders, their nests are destroyed because of the inconvenience and their filth, and farmers shoot, trap, and poison them because of crop destruction.
Another feature of European starlings is that they are subject to mysterious deaths when up to hundreds of birds fall out of the sky and die. These incidents have been reported in the UK, the United States, the Netherlands, and Spain. There are stories of starlings tumbling from above and ending up dead on the road, in gardens, and across fields. The cause is a mystery and suggestions offered include that the birds were being chased by a bird of prey and hit the ground as they changed direction, or that they were reacting to a change in the weather, or that they had been poisoned. Tests usually show the birds died of physical injuries rather than from health causes. There are, however, incidents of birds flying too low and hitting moving vehicles, and drones causing chaos in the midst of murmurations.
European starlings – an invasive species
So what is the future of the European starling? Should these birds be protected, especially in the Old World where their numbers are in serious decline, or culled as in the New World where they remain an invasive species and a threat to agriculture and native birds? United States regulations allow their eggs to be taken as well as permitting their capture and lethal removal. In the Old World, people use scaring devices, shoot or trap the birds, and spray chemical repellants. In countries such as the Netherlands, Spain and France, starlings are sometimes eaten as food (for example, as pate de sansonnet).
It is a controversy that won’t be resolved anytime soon. Sadly, once upon a time, the European starling was a national treasure, a source of aesthetic beauty, and occupied an important role in agriculture. Today, thanks to the Agricultural Revolution, most of that has changed. The introduction of pesticides, the development of crops that are resistant to insects, mechanization, and the implementation of new farming practices, has replaced the need for the starling. The species now has a reputation as an invasive agricultural pest that carries disease to livestock and people.
In the meantime, I invite you to reflect on the starlings past history and consider the Legend of Branwen, the daughter of the King of all Britons. After marriage to the King of Ireland, she moved to Ireland where she was abused by her husband. She taught a starling to speak and had it fly to her brother to tell him of her plight. The bird succeeded in its task and her brother came and rescued her. Exactly whether or not this happened is uncertain, but the tale is believed to be based on real events that occurred during the Bronze Age of British history. Well done the European starling!
Last but not least, you may also be interested in watching the Netflix movie The Starling, recently released, and starring Melissa McCarty, Chris O’Dowd and Kevin Kline.
It is fall, and the time when many Californians catch sight of flocks of the white pelicans flying in formation between their breeding grounds in the northern interior of North America, to winter along the Pacific Coast as far as Mexico, on the Salton Sea, …
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 also winters on the east coast from Nova Scotia to Florida. While not native to Europe, a few vagrants are blown off course or become disorientated and finish up wintering as far south as the UK. It was one of these vagrants that I witnessed at Spurn Point back in the early 1960s which supposedly was the first surf scoter ever seen there.
Surf scoter Range Map
These large, stocky birds, are 19 to 24 inches (50 to 60 cm) in length and are often are seen in flocks during winter on North American estuaries and marine waters close to shore. They usually are closely packed and may take off as a group if disturbed. Even in summer, the species appears as an occasional summer resident in California and can be seen around river mouths and near harbors. Consequently, what was rare for me in the UK is now commonplace in California.
Flock of surf scoters
However, one of their risks where I live is oil spills. The recent October 2021 Huntington Beach spill in southern California is an example even though the spill was reduced to only 25,000 barrels by the time it was over. Deceased birds in that spill have been identified as the American coot, black-crowned night heron, brown pelican, two species of cormorant, western and California gulls, Northern fulmars, several shearwaters, and a red-footed booby. Fortunately, no surf scoters were reported. Birds that survived their oiling included ruddy duck, snowy plovers, sanderling and western grebes. However, avian casualties are notoriously difficult to calculate. For example, the April to September 2010, 87 day Deepwater Horizon spill, that released over 200 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, is estimated to have killed over 100,000 birds, even though only 8,200 carcasses were collected.
Huntington Beach oil spill
When birds become oiled, their outer feathers clump together and are no longer able to repel water which percolates into their inner down feathers, causing hypothermia. The bird may then die of exposure, sink and drown, or if the bird makes it to land, becomes vulnerable to predators because it cannot fly.
Surf scoter impacted by the Cosco Busan oil spill
The November 2007 oil spill in the San Francisco Bay of an estimated 53,000 gallons, caused by the Cosco Busan hitting the San Francisco – Oakland Bridge, created a much greater impact because it occurred where and when there were hundreds of thousands of migrating and wintering birds. 27 species were affected, and an estimated 2500 died, with many more than that likely left to perish elsewhere. The surf scoter was top of the impact list, with an estimated four percent of its wintering population in the Bay Area being lost as a result.
Surf scoters are members of the sea duck family that includes eiders, goldeneye, bufflehead, Harlequins, and mergansers. Their first name comes from their habit of foraging in ocean surf, whereas the origin of the word “scoter” is unknown. Male adult scoters are unmistakable when seen on the water, with velvety black plumage, a conspicuous white forehead and nape, and a large swollen, irregularly-shaped, multi-colored bill (orange-yellow, white and black). The species is sexually dimorphic (exists in two distinct forms), with the female possessing duller brown feathers, slightly darker above than below, and sometimes pale patches of plumage on the cheek and nape. The female’s bill is dark grey.
The surf scoters’ diet includes mollusks, crustaceans, some plant material, small fish, herring spawn and aquatic insects, which are caught by diving and using their specially adapted bill.
Surf scoter breeding
Population numbers are not well understood but generally are believed to be in decline. For example, in 1987, around 30,000 birds were estimated as wintering in the San Francisco Bay, whereas that number has fallen to around 3,000 in recent years. Even so, rough global estimates estimate around 500,000 individual birds, but with numbers falling. Reasons for the decline are unclear but probably includes global warming that is reducing the size of their breeding grounds, increased development in urbanized estuaries, contamination and pollutants affecting reproduction, invasive species affecting the food chain, and individuals falling prey to bald eagles, river otters, orcas, and sea lions.
Even so, they are a delight to watch as they congregate together, bob as black specks on the water, plunge head-first to catch their prey, and fly short distances to improve their foraging success. Sometimes they are not alone.
It should be noted that there are two other types of scoter resident in North America, the black scoter and the white-winged scoter. Both are nearly circumpolar in their distribution north of the Equator, and in Europe there is also the common scoter and velvet scoter. Until 2009 the Eurasian common scoter and the North American black scoter were considered the same species but are now recognized as separate species. Similarly, the Eurasian velvet scoter and the North American white-winged scoter have been considered the same species.
The black scoter adult male is all black and characterized by a bulbous bill that is mostly yellow. The female looks like a female surf scoter, but with more extensive pale areas on its cheeks and neck. The white-winged male is mostly silken black with large white patches on its wings, an orange-red bill, and a white comma-shaped patch around the eyes. The female is dark brown, lighter below, with two smudgy white facial patches and white wing patches.
Additionally, it is not unusual to have other species of duck mixed in with flocks of scoters. Two species of duck that are primarily black and white, and might cause confusion, are the goldeneye and bufflehead. The goldeneye is medium sized, has a much smaller bill that is blackish in color, has an iridescent green head, a white spot behind the bill, and its neck and underparts are white, unlike the dark feathers of the scoter; females have a warm brown head and a yellow spot at the end of their bill.
The male bufflehead is conspicuously white and black, with a white chest and flanks, an iridescent purple-green head and throat, and a large white patch on the back of the head. The female is brownish with a single white patch on the cheek.
Finally, do not confuse scoters with the much smaller American coot that is dark brown, other than for its white bill tipped in black. Also, it prefers fresh-water lakes, ponds and rivers rather than marine water.
Hopefully, we will spend more time in the future studying and increasing our knowledge of these spirited sea ducks, and protecting their numbers. Progress has been made with establishing procedures for oil spills. Much has been learned as a result of several major spills: the 1967 Torrey Canyon disaster off the coast of southern England that released 25 to 35 million gallons of crude oil; the Amoco Cadiz incident off the northern French coast in March 1978 that released nearly 60 million gallons, killing an estimated 20,000 birds; the Santa Barbara catastrophe of 1969 that spilled up to 4.2 million gallons of oil; and the Exxon Valdez 1989 incident that leaked about 11 million gallons of crude oil.
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 …
This is a memoir of a COVID-invigorated Bird Spotter and his July 2021 journey from Half Moon Bay to the pinnacles of the Southeast Farallon Islands, and waters beyond, in search of pelagic birds: puffins, shearwaters, storm-petrels, and albatross.
My thanks go to Alvaro Jaramillo who organized the trip, the crew of the New Captain Pete who took us on the journey, the bird spotters who saved me the effort of using my bird book, and my daughter for her 2021 Father’s Day gift and willingness to accompany me. During the COVID pandemic, I have revived my childhood hobby of birdwatching, but with over 850 species inhabiting the United States, recognition is a very challenging task. Too often, birds disappear before you have time to identify them, so I am still gathering expertise.
The purpose of the trip was to learn how to recognize new Californian pelagic species and to refresh my memory on those pelagic species I had encountered at Spurn Point in England, during the 1960s. Here was an opportunity to travel with experts.
The journey involved an early morning departure, the sky was overcast, the sea was heaving, there was a chilly wind blowing onshore, we were warned of sea sickness once we left the harbor, and told that we would be on board for 10 hours. I had struggled earlier in the morning to decide how many layers of clothing to bring so that I would remain warm but not hot. The boat’s destination was to be a cluster of inhospitable, rocky peaks, about 35 miles from Half Moon Bay, known as the Southeast Farallon Islands, and afterwards we would visit the edge of the continental shelf, several miles to the west. I wondered what might happen.
The expert bird spotters on board quickly reported shorebirds they had identified, even before I had drunk my coffee and the vessel had passed beyond the fog horn at the entrance to Pillar Point Harbor. During late May, 2021, an experiment was begun using sound baffles to lessen the noise of this fog horn, without jeopardizing marine safety, as the authorities responded to resident complaints that the warning signal, given off every 10 seconds, is too loud. Some people argue the noise keeps them awake at night whereas others claim it lulls them to sleep!! Having used a local hotel the night before, I would vote with the former.
Brown pelicans at half moon bay
If you ever want to see brown pelicans, this is the place to visit. There were hundreds along the harbor walls, roosting, preening themselves, communicating with their neighbors, waiting for food, or simply watching passing traffic. Other species identified by my colleagues included a black oystercatcher, wandering tattler, double-crested cormorants, and on the water, pigeon guillemots, common murres, and a pair of marbled murrulets. The occasional Caspian tern, the largest tern in the world, circled above with its head down, before plunge-diving into the water for its breakfast. This was a fine start to the day.
The birds that caused the most excitement were the two marbled murrulets, about the size of American robins, because of their rarity. Strangely, although it is a seabird that feeds offshore, as well as making use of inshore bays, it nests among the branches of old growth trees from Alaska, south along the Pacific coast, to the Santa Cruz Mountains. Only a single egg is laid, and because of the human destruction of their nesting habitat and their eggs being eaten by ravens and jays, they are now endangered in California. This was a species I had never seen before, and I quietly celebrated as it was added to my life list.
They were no longer present on our return, but other species spotted in the harbor at that time included a ruddy turnstone, surfbird, willets, and a pair of surf scoters.
During the journey to the islands, we quickly lost sight of the shorebirds, and left behind the pelicans that rarely feed more than five miles from shore. They were replaced by hundreds of sooty shearwaters, common murres, and pigeon guillemots. No one spoke of the many gulls we saw except for a comment about a Heermann’s gull that was accompanying several brown pelicans, presumably intending to steal their food.
By now, cameras were in use to capture the important ornithological moments, binoculars were gazing out to sea, looking for something new, and the most serious guests were meticulously noting down the species they had spotted and the population count for each variety. Personal breakfasts were in progress, except when food was grabbed by the wind and blown overboard; the less brave rested in the wind-protected cabin, but so far no one was sea sick. The greatest commotions occurred when we passed spouting humpback whales and sighted Pacific white-sided dolphins.
As we came close to the Southeast Farallon Islands, more and more birds appeared in flocks as they returned to their nesting locations. New species appeared such as Northern fulmars, pink-footed shearwaters, Cassin’s and rhinoceros auklets, and red-necked phalaropes. I recall seeing the first and last of these species many years ago at Spurn Point. It was easy to miss the auklets because of their small size and their habit of diving quickly as we approached them. They are one of very few species that can “fly” underwater. Others include common murres, puffins (a type of pelagic bird), dippers, penguins and gannets.
Curiously, no one mentioned the many gulls flying around, such as Western and California gulls, possibly because these birds are regularly seen onshore.
Red necked phalarope
Probably the most memorable sight of the day for me was observing the about 20 small, dainty red-necked phalaropes (slightly larger than a house finch) swimming and spinning on the water. These are very special birds, one of the few species that exhibit reverse sexual dimorphism, with the female displaying the more colorful feathers and being the one that selects the mate. Once she has laid her eggs, she may disappear to find another mate, leaving the original partner to incubate the eggs and to take care of the young chicks.
Even before we arrived at the Farallones – where you are not allowed to land – we sighted our first tufted pelagic bird; a puffin, about the size of a pigeon but twice its weight. It was out fishing but detoured to inspect our boat, using its poorly developed wings that require strong and rapid wingbeats to stay airborne – up to 400 beats a minute. It flew directly towards us staying close to the ocean. More puffins appeared once we were among the Southeast Farallon Islands. They are members of the auk family and are found along open waters, islands, and rocky cliffs of the north Pacific. Population estimates are about 2.5 million birds worldwide. This species is larger than other puffins and each bird has a distinctive white “face mask”, with golden head flumes during the breeding season. Once it finishes breeding, it spends up to eight months out at sea and is rarely seen at this time.
The islands are amazing. You are greeted by the unforgettable noises, echoing off the cliffs, of thousands of seals and sea lions, and hundreds of thousands of breeding birds, and you cannot miss the foul smell of their guano. I have never seen anything like it. The islands are home to the largest seabird nesting site in the contiguous United States and the largest colony of Western gulls in the world. Half the world’s population of ashy storm-petrels (another class of bird I added to my life list) is resident here, and more than 400 avian species have been recorded. We entered the relatively calm waters near the islands, and stopped to inspect the wildlife.
Ashy storm petrel
The jagged peaks and craggy shores, and the sea that surrounds them, teemed with life. Even some gray whales swam by. In the distance, there were huge congregations of common murres, pigeon guillemots, and Western gulls, and nesting colonies of Brandt’s and double-crested cormorants. The latter two species had segregated themselves, with the double-crested cormorants occupying nests higher up the cliff. Technically cormorants are not “pelagic” (i.e. do not inhabit the open sea), because of their need to stay close to the land to dry their non-waterproof feathers.
The Southeast Farallon Islands are largely barren, and part of a granite ridge running northwestward that appears above the ocean surface to create this inhospitable archipelago. The granite originated in Cretaceous geologic times, about 100 million years ago, deep under the earth’s surface, apparently in the same magma core that formed the southern Sierra Nevada Mountains (such as Yosemite). This block was torn off far to the south, possibly 300 miles away, and because it was attached to the Pacific Plate, the fragment has slowly drifted north. The boundary between the Pacific Plate and the North American Plate is located a few miles to the east of the Farallon Islands, and is marked by the San Andreas Fault. Estimates are that the islands are moving north, on average, by a little over an inch (3 cm) per year.
These almost inaccessible islands, with sheer cliffs, make you want to discover more about their history. Here is what I found out:
- Native Americans believed the islands were haunted and named them “Islands of the Dead”, and generally stayed away; occasionally, they would take out dead bodies for water burials. Early mariners who encountered the islands called them “Devil’s Teeth”.
- The first “recorded” sighting by a European was Sir Francis Drake on July 24, 1579, when he landed on the islands to collect seal meat and birds eggs. Because the visit was close to the Feast Day of James the Great (one of Jesus’s Twelve Apostles), he named the archipelago the “Islands of Saint James”. It was not until the 1700s when the Spanish substituted the name “Los Farallones de los Frailes” (Rocky Islets of the Brothers), although it is likely that the Spanish visited before and after Sir Francis Drake. Since Spanish sailors were instructed to sail west of the islands, it was not until 1769 that Gasper de Portola discovered the entrance to the San Francisco Bay.
- Human occupation began with Russian and American fur traders during the early 1800s when they and their Alaskan native hunters harvested elephant seals for their blubber and fur seals and sea lions for their pelts, and took birds’ eggs and birds for food.
- During the 1850s, when the population of San Francisco exploded as a result of the 1848 California Gold Rush, the islands became a source of desperately needed food. Seabird eggs were collected by the thousands, and one common murre’s egg could sell for the equivalent of $30 in today’s value. An Egg War broke out as people fought over the rights to collect this food, and in 1863, one company (the Pacific Egg Company) was given sole egg collecting rights. As a result, by the early 1880s, the common murre population had been decimated to the point that only 6,000 birds survived out of an original 500,000. Egging was declared illegal in 1881, but the Southeast Farallon Islands’ Light keepers continued to collect them for some years afterwards as a way of supplementing their government income. Eventually, the practice ceased as demand fell and the Petaluma poultry industry took over the supply of eggs and chicken meat.
- Light keepers arrived on the Southeast Farallones in 1855 when the Lighthouse came into operation, and remained there until 1972. Most brought their wives and children. Early on, the only contact they had with the outside world was the supply ship that visited every three months, and the occasional hellos from sailors on passing vessels.
- In 1909, President Theodore Roosevelt designated some of the Farallones as a national wild life refuge. The largest, the Southeast Farallones, were left out because by then they hosted the US Navy and US Lighthouse Service, but eventually were added in 1969. During World War 11, the Islands became home for the US Military, who erected a radar station and relocated up to 78 personnel to live on the islands. Today, the Farallones remain a protected wild life refuge, and only a few scientific researchers are allowed to stay there.
Farallon National Wildlife refuge
- Nearby, are the deep water sites used from 1946 to 1970 to dump radioactive waste, but with the claim that most of the radiation had decayed by 1980.
- Other remnants of the past survive. Feral cats, abandoned by former residents, introduced rabbits and rodents, oil spills and other pollution all compete and threaten the Islands’ native ecosystem. Today, the most significant threat is the invasive house mice, probably first left behind during the 1800s by sailors, and now with an estimated population of 60,000. Their impact on the Islands’ native species is severe, and proposals to eradicate them have been under study for nearly two decades. The recommendation is to drop from helicopters, about 1.5 tons of pellets laced with the controversial rat poison called Brodifacoum. It thins the blood, causing the animal to bleed to death. There is intense opposition from those who worry about the secondary effects that the poison may have on other wildlife. Some non-targeted species will likely consume the pellets, and amounts of bait will fall off the steep rocks into protected waters. Worries are that the Western gulls will scavenge the dead mice, fly to the mainland, and subsequently die of the poison. The chemical is already banned for use on the California mainland. The counter arguments are that the mice prey on the islands’ native animals and eat the seeds of native plants, and therefore need to be eliminated. The presence of these mice has attracted migrating burrowing owls, and one of the concerns is that these birds may turn their attention to the already threatened ashy storm-petrels if the mice disappear. Supporters of the proposal believe these fears are unfounded, and plan to haze birds during the project with spotlights, noise, effigies, etc. to keep them away from the poison; they argue that total eradication is an urgent need. Others argue for new options that would achieve the same or similar ends, such as the use of contraceptives, that do not disturb additional pieces of the islands’ ecosystem. Currently, the Fish and Wildlife Service supports the eradication project, and the proposal is before the California Coastal Commission for review.
Farallon house mice
But it is time for me to return to bird watching and the marine life along our journey. Next, we sailed westward over the Continental shelf, and were greeted by a change of bird species. Most prominent was the appearance of several black-footed albatrosses, yet another pelagic bird! These large seabirds, with long, narrow wings, dark plumage, and a long, thick bill, used for feeding on the surface of the water, were as curious about us as we were of them. They settled on the water close to the vessel as we stopped to take photographs. The birds roam the north Pacific, but nest primarily on the Hawaiian Islands.
During this part of the journey, we also encountered a blue whale, the largest animal known to have existed, as it surfaced to breathe while eating. There were also several lone mola mola, or sunfish, that we passed, flapping their bodies while lying on their sides near the water’s surface. These strange-looking fish have a truncated body with large head that is equipped with long dorsal and anal fins.
Thus my outing came to an end. It seemed a lengthy journey back to the harbor, with the same sequence of birds that we had spotted earlier, but in reverse order. As soon as cormorants began to fly close to the boat, and brown pelicans reappeared, I knew we were close to land, even though I could not see it. The cormorants were in convoy, flying low over the water, and the pelicans were out fishing. The temperature had risen, my clothing had turned out to be perfect for the weather, the sea swell had almost disappeared, the wind had dropped, and the sun was fighting its way through the high clouds.
I reflected on my birding achievements. I was now able to distinguish between sooty shearwaters, common murres, and pigeon guillemots, without reference to my bird guide, and a more proficient birder on board confirmed the accuracy of my identification.
All in all, the outing accomplished its purpose of sharpening my knowledge of California’s pelagic birds and reintroducing me to species I had been familiar with in the UK. The next stage, as I return to birdwatching, will be to improve my knowledge of shorebirds, such as sandpipers, plovers, oystercatchers, and avocets. There are many species in North America and these birds are often migratory and forage for food at their California stop-over sites during their long journeys between the Arctic tundra and their non-breeding locations in the southernmost parts of South America. We disembarked, I bid farewell to my daughter, who left for San Luis Obispo, and I set off for Marin County. I was relieved that I had not experienced seasickness and pleased that the COVID pandemic had caused me to return to my childhood hobby of birdwatching.
For thousands of years, domesticated pigeons have been an integral part of human life. Egyptian hieroglyphics and stone carvings in Mesopotamia (now modern Iraq) indicate that these birds were domesticated at least 5,000 years ago. Over centuries they have been kept as symbols of prosperity, …
Population Decline among Wild Birds, with Special Attention to the Eurasian Skylark and the American Bobolink
It was the summer of 1954 when my childhood hobby of birds’ egg collecting came to an end. The British government implemented the Protection of Birds Act, 1954 that forbid me to take wild birds’ eggs, and at the same time, protected adults and their …
During the 1950s and 1960s, as a young birder in the north of England, I ignored the rather common, drab and inconspicuous-looking birds known as house sparrows and tree sparrows. Both are Old World species, distributed across Europe and Asia, and rarely migrate significant distances. The house sparrow forages for grain and seeds and household scraps, whereas the tree sparrow’s diet includes fruits and invertebrates. There was a third kind of “little brown bird” that I could see furtively skulking among the hedgerow, that I called a hedge sparrow. However, later in life, I was told it was not a member of the sparrow family, and I should call it a dunnock.
Eurasian dunnock (not a hedge sparrow!)
The house sparrow appears in my novel She Wore a Yellow Dress, in particular in Chapter 23, titled The Cockney Sparrer. Back then, in 1968, I worked at Ford in Dagenham, and the cockney people who I now worked with were supposed to chirp like sparrows and move around in groups like sparrows; hence their nickname of sparrers.
Unfortunately, it seems that these birds suffered due to their closeness to humans. Today, while the house sparrow population has stabilized, during the 1977 to 2006 period, their numbers declined about 70 percent, and the tree sparrow population fell by 93 percent. Agricultural change, pollution, the wider use of pesticides, more cats, less availability of waste food, and maybe even diseases, caused these reductions.
The Great Sparrow Campaign, China in 1958–1961
Another example of the decline in sparrows happened in China during 1958. The country implemented its Great Sparrow Campaign to cull the tree sparrow population because it was believed the bird was contributing to the declining yield of farmers’ crops. Several million birds were slaughtered. What was not realized was that the tree sparrow eats locusts, and because of the culling of sparrows, these insects multiplied, invaded the fields, ate all the vegetation they could find, and caused an even greater reduction in food supplies. The outcome was the Three Years of Natural Disasters during which tens of millions of Chinese died of starvation.
Once I moved to the United States, there was a dramatic change in the number and varieties of sparrows I could see, although there were still a few Eurasian house sparrows. Th Eurasian species was introduced deliberately into the United States, when eight pairs were released in Brooklyn, New York in the mid-1850s. These birds flourished and rapidly spread across the 48 lower states and parts of Canada. They arrived in California during 1910, and by the 1940s, it was estimated there were about 150 million house sparrows in North America They became regarded as pests because of the food they ate and the displacement of native species that they caused, such as robins, chickadees, and bluebirds. As in Europe, their numbers declined dramatically and the current population is estimated to be around seven million. Even so, the worldwide number of house sparrows is put at close to half-a-billion.
Where have all the sparrows gone?!
The highly active Eurasian tree sparrow also made its way to North America but was less effective in broadening its range. It was brought from Germany, with a dozen or so released in St. Louis during 1870. The species took hold but were restricted geographically because of the more aggressive and adaptable house sparrow.
Now I need to comment on North America’s species of native sparrow that I have come to know since moving to the San Francisco area. They comprise some 35 to 50 species, including several that do not carry the sparrow name, but for now, let me focus on the California varieties. Here we have the white-crowned sparrow (resident along the coast but with migrants inland during winter, and recognized by their distinctive zebra-like black and white head feathers ). Then there is the golden-crowned sparrow (a winter visitor with a golden stripe on its crown, bordered by black). Thirdly, there is the resident rufous-crowned sparrow (with a rufous crown, grey face, grey underparts and rust-colored stripes on its back); there is the song sparrow, the most widespread and most common resident in California, typically seen close to water (and usually singing its heart out from a perch); and then there is the chipping sparrow, a summer resident that migrates mostly to Mexico for winter (crisp and cleanly shaped, frosty-colored underparts, bright rusty crown and black line through the eye). Last but not least is the Eurasian house sparrow that I have already mentioned.
Somewhat rarer are the Lincoln sparrow (winter visitor that looks similar to the song sparrow except it has a buffy-colored appearance); the white-throated sparrow (winter visitor, with a white throat and yellow between the eye and bill); the grasshopper sparrow (summer visitor; brown and tan with slight streaking and a species whose population has tumbled 70 percent during the last 50 years, probably due to habitat loss, pesticides, and brood parasitism); the fox sparrow (winter visitor; rust-brown above and grey on the head); and the savannah sparrow (year round; brown above and white below, yellowish stripe over the eye, and crisp streaking). Occasionally, rarer species turn up such as the LeConte’s sparrow, and with so many species you can be excused from recognizing them all.
Just to add to the confusion, there are several species that are not named “sparrow” but belong to this family. Examples, frequently seen in my backyard, are the black-hooded dark-eyed junco, the all-brown California towhee, and the orange and black spotted towhee. All usually forage on or near the ground, and can be seen kicking up food with their feet.
So where does the word “sparrow” come from and why are North American birds given the name when they are not related to the family of Eurasian sparrows? They belong the “bunting” family, and it is presumed that early immigrants saw “little brown birds”, like the ones back home, and adopted the name “sparrow” because it was familiar to them. The English word “sparrow” is derived from the old Anglo-Saxon word “spearwa”, meaning “fluttering”.
Just keep things complicated, there are also several species of bunting in Europe. The one I often saw migrating was the snow buntings, and it is one that winters in the United States. Other North America species of bunting include the Lazuli, Lark, Indigo, Painted, and Varied buntings. In the UK, the corn bunting, reed bunting, cirl bunting, Lapland bunting, and yellowhammer (“ammer” means bunting in German) are the family’s representatives.
Inadvertently, we have another Americanism where the American word describes something very different from what it does in the UK. It joins such words as pavement, chips, biscuit, braces, and purse.
Recently, I came across a glossy, all-black American crow removing fiber from the back of my outdoors lounge chair. It gave me a look of disgust and then resumed its destruction, presumably using the stuffing to decorate its nest some distance away. Both sexes look …