Bird Blog

Welcome to my Bird Blog: Stories from a Lifelong Birder

Welcome to my Bird Blog: Stories from a Lifelong Birder

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 

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 beating wings. The Belted Kingfisher is a member of about 120 species worldwide, with the most prominent being the Kookaburra, native to Australia and New Guinea. Kingfishers have big heads, dagger bills, and tiny feet. Only the Belted Kingfisher and two other species are resident in the United States. Neither of the other two, the Green Kingfisher and the Ringed Kingfisher, is present in California. 

 

  

Green KingfisherGreen Kingfisher

Photo Credit – National Audubon Society 

 

 

Ringed KingfisherRinged Kingfisher

Photo Credit – National Audubon Society

 

The global population of the Belted Kingfisher is approximately two million, of which two-thirds inhabit North America. It is abundant and widespread near lakes, streams, and estuaries, and is of Least Concern under the United States classification of Birds of Conservation Concern.

 

 

Here is some information on kingfishers in general and Belted Kingfishers in particular:

  1. Belted Kingfishers appear as fossils in several southwestern states and date back at least 600,000 years. Fossils of other kingfisher species go back two million years.
  2.   

  3. Greek mythology explains the derivation of the name kingfisher: A time long ago, a happily married couple named Alcyone (Halcyon in Greek), daughter of Aeolus, God of the winds, and Ceyx, King of Trachis in central Greece, annoyed the God Zeus by comparing their marriage to his with Hera. Legend is that, in a fit of rage, he cast a thunderbolt at Alcyone’s husband’s ship as he was sailing his vessel to Ionia to consult the Oracle over his brother’s death. It sank and Ceyx perished. Hera was so profoundly saddened by the fate of Ceyx that she arranged for Morpheus, God of Apparitions, to create a life-like specter of Ceyx, revealing to Alcyone the circumstances of her husband’s death. Upset by what she saw, she threw herself into the sea and perished.
      
    The Gods of Olympia were so impressed by the couple’s devotion to each other that they had Zeus atone for his deed by transforming the couple into flashing blue Halcyon birds. Halcyon is the Greek word for kingfisher. The story ends with the Gods creating each January for two weeks, a calm and tranquil sea that allows Alcyone to lay her eggs and teach her chicks to fly. Hence, the word “halcyon” has become established in our vocabulary as meaning a happy and peaceful time. Our Greek species of kingfisher is the Eurasian or Common Kingfisher.
  4.  

    Painting by Herbert James Draper, 1915: “Halcyone”Painting by Herbert James Draper, 1915: “Halcyone”

      

  5. A kingfisher is supposed to have been a bird to have flown from Noah’s ark, receiving on its breast the orange of the setting sun and on its back, the blue of the sky.
  6.   

  7. My early days spotting kingfishers occurred in the 1950s, along the sides of the Ouse and River Nidd in Yorkshire. Presumably, these were the birds that originated in Greek mythology. They were known to me simply as the Kingfisher, Common Kingfisher, or the River Kingfisher. They were dumpy, short-tailed, about the size of a sparrow, and passed me by in a splash of blue as they moved fast and low over the water. My 1958 Bird List mentions this bird as observed in 1905, fishing among the ice on the Ouse. Most are resident birds except when there are prolonged freezing conditions in winter.
  8.   

     

    Common/Eurasian KingfisherCommon/Eurasian Kingfisher

    Photo Credit – Wikipedia

     

  9. The Belted Kingfisher belongs to a distinct group of kingfishers known as water kingfishers, sometimes hovering over the water before diving after their prey. The Kookaburra belongs to a sub-family known as tree kingfishers, and the Common or Eurasian kingfisher is a member of a third category known as river kingfishers. All species in the Americas are water kingfishers. Belted ones mainly eat fish in shallow water or swim near the surface. The bird is medium-sized, has a large, squarish head, dagger-shaped bill, shaggy crest, and blue and white plumage. Unlike many other birds the female is more brightly colored than the male and includes a rust-colored belly band.
  10.   

  11. The Belted Kingfisher builds its nest in tunnels. It has a flat toe with sharp, pointed claws that assist with the digging. Nests usually are excavated along a body of water, sloping upwards, and can be as long as eight feet. The clutch size is typically five to eight eggs, and both parents share in the incubation and feeding of the young. Sometimes, they host tenants in their tunnels. Swallows occasionally share their burrows, digging out small cavities. The pair will defend their territory against other kingfishers.
  12.   

    Belted Kingfisher, NestBelted Kingfisher, Nest

    Photo Credit – BirdNote

     

  13. And you are likely to hear Belted Kingfishers because of their three to four-second repeated chattering, a piercing rattle that they make when disturbed.
  14.   

  15. They wander widely and have appeared in the Galapagos Islands, Hawaii, the Azores, Iceland, Greenland, and occasionally in Europe, where they are usually “twitched” because of their rarity.
  16.   

  17. Some Native Americans believe that the kingfisher signals wealth, prosperity, and love for the one who sees it. The bird also features in native art.

 

Belted Kingfisher Native American Art

Belted Kingfisher Native American Art

Credit-Glen Rabena, Hornby Island, B.C.

It is a bird that I love to hear as much as to see.

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 

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 for its favorite seed, the sunflower, and then there was a terrible accident involving a Western Tanager. These are not rare birds in California, just unusual in my backyard.

 

Black-headed Grosbeak RangeBlack-Headed Grosbeak Range

Photo Credit – Wikipedia

 

The Black-Headed Grosbeak is a medium sized bird, about the size of a Starling, and is widespread and common in most parts of California, with its numbers appearing stable. It breeds as far north as southwest British Columbia. The average life span is approximately seven years. It chooses oak and mixed woodland for its summer habitat, but as it starts to migrate during September, to spend up to seven months wintering in central Mexico, it tends to choose open woodland, trees alongside streams, and suburban areas, as its preferred environment. 

  

Black-Headed Grosbeak male and femaleBlack-Headed Grosbeak, Both Sexes

Photo Credit – US National Park Service

 

The plumage of the male and female is somewhat different, but both genders possess a deep, conical beak, which gives the bird its name. The male has a black head, black speckled white back and tail, and an orangish neck, breast, and sides. The female is browner, with a whitish belly and streaking on the sides.

Their diet is mainly insects, snails, and spiders during summer, but they switch to seeds, berries, and fruit in winter. They are one of the few birds that eat monarch butterflies, despite the noxious chemicals these insects contain after eating milkweed during their larval stage. 

 

Spotted TowheeSpotted Towhee

Photo Credit – Sacramento Audubon Society

 

Beware of confusing the Black-Headed Grosbeak with a Spotted Towhee. The latter can be distinguished by its smaller bill and longer tail, and the orange coloring is restricted to its sides.

 

Evening GrosbeakEvening Grosbeak

Photo Credit – American Bird Conservancy

 

Blue GrosbeakBlue Grosbeak

Photo Credit – American Bird Conservancy

 

Rose-breasted GrosbeakRose-breasted Grosbeak

Photo Credit – American Bird Conservancy

 

There are other species of Grosbeak to be found in California, such as the Evening Grosbeak, so-named because, at first, it was thought only to sing at dusk, the Blue Grosbeak, and the occasional Pine Grosbeak, which is widespread across northern Europe and Asia as well as North America. The Rose-Breasted Grosbeak breeds primarily in the forests of the eastern United States, and winters in central and southern Mexico, the Caribbean, Central America, and northern South America.

 

Western TanagerWestern Tanager, Male and Female

Photo Credit – Rocky Mountain National Park Service

 

The Western Tanager that made it to my backyard unfortunately never left. It flew into a house window during the daytime, and died on impact. I hoped it was only stunned but that was not the case. I need to do something about my window! 

 

Western TanagerFatal Accident

Photo Credit – Author

 

Glass windows are worse than invisible. They either reflect foliage and the sky, or face off against another window, and appear not to exist. Up to an estimated one billion birds die annually from window strikes in the United States. I am considering what I should do. Should I place decals or stickers on the window despite its large size? The alternatives include installing shutters, using a mosquito screen or netting, adding a series of rope bird-savers, or inside, maybe I could add blinds, the simplest solution. 

                                                                                                                                                

Western Tanager Range MapWestern Tanager Range Map:

Photo Credit – Terry Sohl, NatureServe

 

Western Tanagers breed in the mountains of California, and as far north as Alaska, and winter in north-west Mexico, and as far south as central Costa Rica.  Despite their name, the species is a member of the Cardinal family. They eat insects, fruit, and berries. Males are readily recognized by their bright red head, lemon-yellow breast and back, and black wings, shoulders, and tail. Both sexes possess a relatively small, light-colored beak. They are a couple of inches shorter than an American Robin and slightly smaller than a Black-Headed Grosbeak. Their typical life span, excluding accidents, is around eight years.

I await the arrival of my next unusual species of bird. 

The Success of the Bald Eagle

The Success of the Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle in Marin County (Photo Credit – Elyse Omernick, Marin Living Magazine)   A friend of mine recently sighted a Bald Eagle near Fairfax, CA. an event that was inconceivable a few years ago. The Bald Eagle returned to Marin County, CA. in 2008 

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 

Linnet Versus The American House Finch

Linnet Versus The American House Finch

I was first introduced during the late 1950s to the small songbird, a member of the finch family, called the Linnet or Common Linnet, when I was associated with the Bootham School Natural History Club in York, England. Founded in 1834, the society was one of the first such school organizations, and included ornithologists who reported on birds in the York area. My references are taken from their Bird List publication, dated March 1958. Coincidentally, at the time of the society’s formation, Darwin was sailing on the HMS Beagle along the west coast of South America, and a year later began his studies in the evolution of the Galapagos finches. 

My experience with the American House Finch came much later when I resumed bird spotting during the COVID pandemic.

 

Early Photo of Bootham School Natural History Outing, where Jonathan was introduced to the LinnetEarly Photo of Bootham School Natural History Outing

(Photo Credit: Bootham Bird List 1958)

 

The name Linnet comes from lin, meaning flax, and linum, Latin for feeding on flax seeds. Back in time, flax seed formed most of the birds’ diet. As well as widely distributed in the UK, Linnets are found across Europe and parts of Asia and Africa, and inhabit farmlands, scrubland, hedgerows, parks, and orchards. They were also introduced into the Dominican Republic.

 

Linnet Distribution MapLinnet Distribution Map

Light green: breeding; dark green: resident: blue: non-breeding.

(Photo credit: Wikipedia) 

 

During the 1950s, these birds were reported around York year-round, they nested in the area, and were joined by large migrating flocks during winter. In the early 1960s, at Spurn Point, I observed several hundred migrating Linnets a day, and before dawn, you could hear them twittering high above in the dark, as they traveled along the coastline. They are one of the first species of bird to make it onto my Life List, along with other finch family members, such as the Chaffinch, Greenfinch, Bullfinch, and the winter visitor known as the Brambling.  I describe the Chaffinch in Chapter 20 of my novel She Wore a Yellow Dress.

Because of their twittering, back in the 19th century, Linnets were a very popular cage bird. 

 

 

Chaffinch, MaleChaffinch, Male

(Photo Credit: Kelvin Rumsby/Getty)

 

Male Linnets have grey heads, dark pink foreheads and breasts, and rich brown backs. Females are more modestly colored. They feed on the ground and in hedgerows, gorse thickets, heathland, and scrub, and consume mainly seeds. Their numbers have fallen. Between 1970 and 2014, the estimated decline in the UK was 54 percent, and across Europe, from 1980 to 2008, a 62 percent reduction is estimated. Changes in farm practices, removal of hedges, and the greater use of herbicides and fertilizers are causes of this decline.  

Here in California, the most common species of bird that visits my birdfeeders is the House Finch. They are similar in size to Linnets (around 5.5 inches/14 cm long), and the males have red markings, comparable to the male Linnets. They are year-round residents, and nest in bushes, or in ivy on buildings, or holes and ledges on manmade structures, and occasionally use the abandoned nests of other birds. They are strongly attracted to bird feeders, preferring to eat small sunflower seeds. They also enjoy using bird baths.

  

 

House Finches at Author’s Bird FeederHouse Finches at Author’s Bird Feeder

(Photo Credit: Author)

 

Of note, some of the male birds’ coloration comes from pigments in the berries and fruit that they eat. If present when molting, the pigment in their feathers will become a stronger red. This is important since females prefer to mate with the reddest of males they can find.

 

 

House Finch Distribution MapHouse Finch Distribution Map

(Photo Credit: NatureServe)

 

House Finches are native to the southwestern United States and Mexico, with California as their capital, and they are mainly permanent residents. Today, an introduced population has established itself on the eastern side of the country. Many of these eastern birds migrate south for winter, with the females flying further south than the males. These birds originate from past practices when caged birds were transported to New York for sale as pets. In 1940, several Long Island shop-owners decided to release their birds to avoid prosecution for selling them. These few released birds multiplied during the following years, and the species’ current population, including those in the southwest, is estimated at between 250 million to over one billion. The species was also introduced in Hawaii around 1859.

Some Californians have suggested that the name House Finch should be changed to Linnet, or California Linnet, because of the bird’s similarity in appearance to the Eurasian Linnet, and the prestige that the new name would carry. So far the idea has not caught on. There is no close genetic relationship between the two species, and flax, after which the Linnet is named, is not a native plant to North America. 

 

 

Comparison of Purple Finch with House FinchComparison of Purple Finch with House Finch

(Photo Credit: Chris Mart) 

 

Before I end, I should mention the Purple Finch. This is a bird whose appearance is the most like the House Finch, especially the females, and it can be tricky distinguishing between the two. However, male Purple Finches are colored a deep cranberry or raspberry red, whereas male House Finches are more orangey- red. Additionally, the male House Finch has brown streaking under its wings, and the territory of the Purple Finch is mainly further north than the House Finch.

  

Purple Finch Distribution MapPurple Finch Distribution Map

(Photo Credit: All About Birds, Cornell University)

 

In summary, if you are in California, go listen to the twittering of House Finches, as they hide among the branches for their turn to eat at the bird feeder. If you don’t have a bird feeder, possibly buy one? If you are in England, you probably will have to travel to the countryside to see the Linnet, since these birds have not yet been persuaded to use garden bird tables.

 

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.

 

SoraSora

(Photo Credit Audubon.org)

 

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 

Dark-Eyed Juncos: Birds that Frolic in the Winter Rains Brought to California in Atmospheric Rivers

Dark-Eyed Juncos: Birds that Frolic in the Winter Rains Brought to California in Atmospheric Rivers

Dark-eyed Junco in my BackyardPhoto Credit: The Author The species of bird known as the Dark-eyed Junco appears to be the only bird willing to forage among my Bay Area backyard bird feeders during this winter’s torrential downpours. While other birds hide in the trees 

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 return punctually each year to the same location. Whether I am walking the dog or doing some serious birdwatching, these black-and-white ducks appear in small groups or in pairs, and sometimes individually, on sheltered estuarine waters along the Pacific coast, such as the lower reaches of the Corte Madera Creek. 

When disturbed, they take flight, sometimes by running a short distance on the surface of the water, but unlike other diving ducks, they can also lift off directly, when they choose. They fly fast and low over the water with rapid wingbeats, and are silent in flight, making no whistling or quacking noise. They can travel at up to 48 miles (77 km) per hour during migration. While on the water, they dive for their diet of mainly aquatic insects, crustaceans, and mollusks, and you can see them leap slightly forward and then plunge below the surface of the water. They usually remain underwater for up to 20 seconds, but sometimes stay submerged for over a minute, popping up far away from where they disappeared. I have yet to see one on dry land.

 

Buffleheads in Flight

Buffleheads in Flight

Buffleheads are bestowed with a large, high-crowned head which is the reason for their name, first being called “bull-headed” using an ancient Greek word, and then this description became “Buffalo Head”, and eventually was shortened to “Bufflehead”. Buffleheads also attract the nickname of “butterball”, a reference to the large amount of fat they carry during migration, and in some places they are known as ”the chickadee of the duck world” because of their small size. The species is native to North America where its current population is around 1.3 million, and this number is believed to be increasing. 

 

Buffleheads Range Map

Bufflehead Range Map in North America

Buffleheads are rarely seen outside of North America, although individual birds occasionally show up in adjacent countries such as Japan, Greenland, and Iceland, and in parts of Europe, where they are considered a very rare migrant. The Bufflehead is mentioned in the Bird Book I used in England during my 1960s birdwatching, but says that the presence of these birds in Britain is “Accidental”. Indeed, as recently as 2016, only a cumulative total of 17 individual Buffleheads had been recorded in the UK since the species initially appeared during 1920. Most sightings are recorded in the Midlands of England, rather than close to the west coast, and that has led to speculation that some of these birds may be escaped ornamental ducks. As far as I know, none have been recorded at Spurn Point on the east coast of Yorkshire, my favorite bird watching haunt during the 1960s, and just one elsewhere in the county. The opportunities for birdwatching during the 1960s at Spurn Point are described in my memoir-style novel titled She Wore a Yellow Dress. 

Buffleheads are only 14 inches (35 cm) long, compared with the Mallard’s 23 inches (58 cm). The adult male is the most colorful, with a large white patch behind its eye and around the back of its head. Otherwise, the rest of the head and back are black with a green and purple sheen. The underbelly is entirely white, making it highly distinctive on the water. In contrast, females are generally gray below and brown above, with a characteristic white patch on the side of their head. 

Buffleheads are monogamous and can mate for life. However, since their average life span is only around 2.5 years, having a partner for life may not be too difficult. Their migration north for breeding purposes starts during February when they fly under the cover of darkness to avoid predators. Ninety percent of the breeding population is believed to be dispersed westward from Manitoba in Canada, with a few non-breeding birds staying behind for summer, as far south as California.  The return trip begins once their summer habitat begins to freeze over. Those nesting in eastern Alberta typically migrate to the eastern United States and the Gulf Coast of Mexico, and birds from western Canada migrate south along the Pacific Flyway. 

There is always a risk of confusing the identification of Buffleheads with other species of diving duck. For example, a male Bufflehead may be confused with a Hooded Merganser as both birds possess similar large white patches on the back of their heads and catch their food in a similar manner. However, they are not related, and while the male Bufflehead is white on its lower half, the Merganser is brown. Also, the Merganser has a thin bill to catch fish whereas the Bufflehead’s bill is more duck-like.

 

Hooded Mergansers

Pair of Hooded Mergansers

Ducks that dabble for food on the surface of the water by tipping their bodies upside down should not be confused with Buffleheads because of this feeding behavior. Such species include Mallards, Shovelers, Wigeon, Teal, Gadwalls, and Pintails. 

Scaup ducks that dive to feed are similar in that they display white flanks but are distinguishable because they have no white patch on their head and are much larger than Buffleheads (close to the size of a Mallard).  

 

lesser scaup duck

Lesser Scaup – Male

There may be confusion with two other species of diving duck, called the Common Goldeneye and the Barrow’s Goldeneye, that are named after their brilliant yellow eyes, surrounded by black in the case of males, and deep brown for females. This possible mistake in identification is due to the white underbelly of the male Goldeneye, the iridescent green on its head, and the white patch on the male’s face. The Common Goldeneye is found widely across the US and Canada, whereas the Barrow’s species is restricted to the northwest and far northeast of North America.

 

Common goldeneye

Common Goldeneye

 

Barrow's Goldeneye

Barrow’s Goldeneye

 

Common Goldeneye Range Map

Common Goldeneye Range Map

It is also these three species of duck that compete with Buffleheads for the best cavities and hollows in trees to be used as nesting sites, despite the physical limitations of webbed feet and the preference of ducks to feed on ponds, lakes, rivers, and along seacoasts. Another possible competitor for tree cavities is the Wood Duck but its breeding territory is largely in the United States, and therefore south of the territory in which Buffleheads nest.

 

Wood Ducks

Wood Ducks – Male and Female

 

Wood Duck Range Map

Wood Duck Range Map

The Bufflehead appears to prefer cavities in aspen and poplar trees, although it will use holes in Douglas firs, ponderosa pines, and black cottonwoods. Holes excavated by Northern Flickers appear as the duck’s first choice since these cavities are small and deep enough to provide security and prevent the larger Goldeneye duck from taking over, to the extent that they will kill the Bufflehead occupant if they have to. Females select the nesting cavity that is usually located two (60 cm) to ten feet (300 cm) above the ground so that the ducklings can safely leap and fall to the ground a couple of days after hatching. An average of nine cream to buff-colored eggs are laid and incubated by the female. The male takes this time off to molt. 

Goldeneyes and mergansers are less choosy with their nesting sites, and will include rock openings, abandoned buildings, open tops of tree stumps, and nest boxes, as suitable sites. Cavities constructed by pileated woodpeckers apparently are preferred by Goldeneyes.

 

Buffleheads: A female at nest

Bufflehead female at nest

As for conservation, Bufflehead numbers are not in decline despite 200,000 to 250,000 being shot each year in the United States and Canada by hunters. As long as deforestation is controlled, the species should continue to flourish and remain of “least concern” from a conservancy perspective. Who knows, maybe the Bufflehead will continue to adapt to using human-provided nesting boxes or convert to the more traditional nesting methods employed by other species of duck, if tree cavities become hard to find.

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 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