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 …
Many years ago, I was required to persuade my fellow birdwatchers that I had spotted a pair of Shore Larks on a beach just north of the Warren at Spurn Point, Yorkshire, England, to have the sighting recorded in the Bird Observatory’s daily log. What …
I was first introduced to Northern Wheatears at the end of March 1961 during a school geology fieldtrip to Stainforth in Ribblesdale, Yorkshire, England. A small group of us were studying the area’s Carboniferous Limestone and Millstone Grit and searching for fossils in the older Ordovician and Silurian outliers. It rained most of the time and the river flooded our camp site forcing us to return home early. However, on the last day before leaving, during a hike along a country trail in Crummack Dale, I encountered my first Northern Wheatear as it hopped along the ground in front of me flashing its prominent black and white tail pattern. I would later record large numbers of Northern Wheatears migrating through Spurn Point, Yorkshire.
Northern Wheatear in Crummack Dale
The Northern Wheatear is a small bird, slightly larger than an English Robin, and breeds in stony, upland areas of the North Pennines as well as on similar terrain elsewhere in western and northern Britain. Once procreation is complete, it migrates south to Africa for winter. The plumage of the male during the breeding season is grey on the upperparts, buff throat, and black wings and face mask. In the fall, it resembles the female except that it keeps its black wings. The female is plain brown above and buff below, with dark brown wings. Both sexes have a white rump and tail, with a black inverted T-pattern at the end of the tail.
Large numbers of Northern Wheatears travel way beyond Britain, across the North Atlantic, to Greenland and eastern Canada. I was thrilled by my first sighting. The species had only occasionally been seen by other birdwatchers around my home town of York, and mostly spotted close to the River Ouse, suggesting that these birds used the river to navigate their way northwards. As described in my novel Unplanned, the river is one of the routes used by the German Luftwaffe to bomb British inland cities during World War 2.
York and the Ouse
Do not be fooled by the Wheatear’s name, it has nothing to do with grain; the species eats insects not seeds. The name is derived from the Old English phrase “hwit aers”, meaning “white arse”, which refers to the bird’s white rump. In England during the 18th and 19th centuries the bird was considered a delicacy, and shepherds would supplement their income by selling the Northern Wheatears they trapped.
Northern Wheatear Range Map: orange – breeding; blue non-breeding (wintering)
The Northern Wheatear spends its winter in Sub-Sahara Africa and breeds throughout Europe and across the Palearctic regions of Asia, with footholds in northeastern Canada as well as in northwestern Canada and Alaska. During the fall migration, birds from Alaska and northwestern Canada cross the Bering Strait to Siberia and then navigate southwestward across ice, water, mountains and deserts, to the Caspian Sea, Iran, and Iraq, from where they cross the Red Sea to Africa, passing by Egypt, the Sudan, and Ethiopia, to arrive in such countries as Uganda, Kenya, and Northern Tanzania. Individual birds begin this annual round trip of up to 18,500 miles (30,000 km) in August, and travel for close to three months to complete the journey. They fly at night and cover, on average, about 180 miles (290 km) a day. They are believed to accomplish the longest journey of any songbird, and their chicks are born with the ability to independently navigate these thousands of miles.
Birds from eastern Canada migrate via Greenland and Europe to winter in West Africa, from Senegal and Sierra Leone east to Mali. Some pass through Britain but many appear to head directly across the ocean to Portugal and Spain from where they cross to Africa. Why these North America breeding birds fly to Africa, and not to Central America, like other birds that nest in Alaska and Northern Canada, is unknown. If an egg is removed from an Alaskan nest and taken to Eastern Canada, the chick will still fly westwards across Canada to Asia.
Northern Wheatear Migration Flight-ways
Today, Britain has approximately 240,000 breeding pair of Northern Wheatears, and the worldwide population is estimated at as many as 125 million. About 40 million breed in Europe, where the population is showing a moderate decline due to agricultural changes and urbanization. Of greater concern are the worsening floods, drought, and extreme temperature changes taking place in Sub-Sahara Africa that are likely to pose a more serious threat to the future well-being of this species.
Sub-Saharan Africa – Kenya
Northern Wheatears start to breed when they are one year old, and the female is responsible for building the nest and incubating the eggs. The nest is usually located in a cavity such as a rabbit burrow or a crevice among rocks, and the clutch size is typically three to eight pale blue eggs, sometimes with red-brown flecks. Often the male chooses to perch nearby and sing. The chicks are fed by both parents but become independent after about a month. They are left to find their own way to Africa as the fall migration gets underway.
Northern Wheatear Nest
My childhood memories prompted me to write this article to acknowledge that I have failed to observe even a single Northern Wheatear during the past three decades while living here in California. It is not that they never appear, but that they are so very rare. Most cross the Pacific or Atlantic to the Old World for winter, and only the occasional straggler appears in the United States, other than Alaska, including accidental vagrants along the western coastline of California. These exceptions attract a great deal of attention and hordes of birdwatchers descend on the site if it is published. Only a dozen or so sightings have been recorded all-time in California, and mainly take place during the August to November migration period. It is only now that I realize how fortunate I was to encounter this bossy little bird during my teenage years.
Northern Wheatear North America Range Map
California Quail – male and female Admired by many, the California Quail, about the size of a pigeon, is a hardy and adaptable ground-dwelling game bird that was originally resident in the United States from Southern Oregon south into Baja California, but has extended …
Killdeer faking injury According to research, birds are astonishingly intelligent creatures. Jennifer Ackerman in her book The Genius of Birds dismisses the belief that idioms such as “bird brain”, “eating crow”, “cuckoo”, and “feather brain” have anything to do with a true understanding of …
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 soft, fluffy, yellow and gray down feathers, come close to my danger zone as they learn how to feed. Goslings hatch with their eyes open, leave the nest within 24 hours, but cannot fly for the first nine to ten weeks.
Canada geese are large, aggressive waterfowl, 30 to 43 inches long (75 to 110 cm), with wingspans of 50 to 75 inches (125 to 190 cm). They are recognized by their long black neck, black head, crown, and bill, and contrasting white cheeks and chinstrap, with gray-brown upperparts and paler feathers below. The various subspecies differ in size but all are recognizable as Canada geese. The Western or Moffitt’s subspecies is the one that I usually see grazing at the golf course. They are herbivorous, forage on grass, and consume aquatic vegetation and algae. During fall and winter, they catch insects and rely on berries and seeds.
Moffatt’s Canada geese
The smaller, northern nesting subspecies of Canada geese, such as Taverner’s, Dusky, and Lesser, typically migrate long distances, often in large V-shaped formations, whereas my golf course variety opt to be “year-round” residents. Canada geese breeding in northern Canada and Alaska move southwards throughout the US as cold weather arrives, whereas those that nest in the Lower 48 U.S. states generally stay local. The population of Canada geese in North America is stable to slightly increasing, but the number of year-round residents is dramatically growing. Reasons include the longer breeding season in milder climates, the absence of hunting in urban habitats, and their choice of predator-free sites.
Canada geese range map, all seven subspecies: red breeding; pink limited breeding; purple year round presence; blue migrant mainly in winter
You may see a small version of the Canada goose embedded in groups of larger birds, especially during winter. Other than their size, which is about 25 inches (64 cm) in length, they are identical to their larger relations, except for a somewhat rounder and stubbier head. These are now a separate species, classified as cackling geese, and named after the high-pitched call they make. They are about the size of a mallard duck. Their bigger Canada geese cousins are nicknamed honkers.
Cackling goose on the right
The creation of this species dates back to 2004 when the American Ornithologists’ Union gave cackling geese their own separate status. The British Ornithologists’ Union followed suit in June 2005. All four subspecies of cackling geese nest on the Canadian and Alaskan tundra and migrate south for winter in search of food and to avoid the cold weather. They are identified by their small size. By the 1960s there had been a drastic population decline in this species due to recently introduced predators. By the late 1970s, their population had declined to about 100,000 and the bird was on the Endangered list. Subsequent conservation efforts have resulted in a present day population estimated to be over three million.
Cackling goose range map
So what is going on with Canada geese, and what is their history? How did a native North American species find its way to Europe and New Zealand? As their name implies, they originated in Canada, but most seem to live outside their ancestral home.
Biologists believe that there are now more Canada geese in North America than at any other time in history. By the late 1800s, the largest subspecies of Canada geese (the giant Canada goose), that bred in southern Canada and the northern United States had, to a great extent, disappeared. Early settlers gathered their eggs, hunted them for food, and destroyed their habitat. Consequently, in the early 1900s, geese bred in captivity were introduced into the southern part of this subspecies former range, and other areas where they had not bred before. The outcome has been an astonishing explosion in the numbers of Canada geese. In 1950, there were perhaps one million Canada geese in North America, whereas today the number has billowed to around seven million, of which approximately half are resident.
They have thrived as a result of new feeding opportunities and the protection of living in parks, suburban wetlands, on reservoirs, and using lakeside lawns and golf courses. They tolerate humans, and it is believed that the larger subspecies have stopped migrating because of the improved availability of food and suitable year-round climate. Unfortunately, this growing population is causing environmental damage because of the birds’ droppings, overgrazing, sometimes aggressive territorial behavior, the noise they make, and the risk of causing aircraft collisions. They have a life span of 10 to 24 years, raise one brood annually, and have a clutch of two to eight eggs. Ongoing discussions at national and local levels are taking place to decide what should be done to control their numbers, especially the “resident” variety.
Clipped corn seedlings
In Europe, very few Canada geese managed to make it there naturally. Most of today’s population originates from ancestors that were introduced. As early as the late 1600s, Charles II of England added Canada geese to his waterfowl collection in St. James’s Park, but Canada geese remained relatively uncommon in the UK until the mid-1900s when there was an estimated 2,200 to 4,000 birds. Today the number has surged to around 125,000.
St. James Park, London
When I look back on my 1950s early birdwatching days in the UK, I see that my first bird book, received on my tenth birthday (British Birds by Kirkman and Jourdain), makes no reference to Canada geese. Six geese species are mentioned, with one – the brant or brent goose – looking similar to a Canada goose. However, it lacks the white cheek of Canada/cackling geese. It is small (22 to 24 inches/ 55 to 60 cm in length), has a black head and neck, a white spot in the side of its neck, a grey-brown back, and either a pale or dark belly. Brent geese breed as far away as Alaska and along the central Canadian Arctic, across northeastern Greenland, to northern Europe, and onwards east into Siberia. These geese migrate south during winter in North America, to the northeastern United States and along its Pacific Coast, and in Europe to the coastlines of north-west European countries. About 100,000 migrate to the UK. Those with dark bellies appear in eastern England and travel from Russia and Siberia, and the pale bellied ones in the north east of Britain migrate from Spitsbergen and Greenland.
Extract of illustration from British Birds by Kirkman and Jourdain
Brent goose range map
So what has caused this dramatic increase of Canada geese since the end of World War 2 in the UK? The bird is now regarded as a pest by farmers and a nuisance by many members of the general public.
Canada geese nest
In 1939, the hunting of wildfowl in the UK, including Canada geese, was reduced to only part of the year by the Duck and Goose Act, followed in 1954 by the Protection of Birds Act that made it illegal to collect any wild birds’ eggs and to destroy their nests. As a result, the number of Canada geese increased in their traditional locations, and new methods of control became necessary. Since these birds were relatively easy to catch, they were trapped and transferred to suitable new locations where geese were absent. However, because those remaining in the original site quickly replaced their lost numbers, and the transferred geese successfully bred, their population rapidly grew. By 1968, Britain’s Canada geese had more than doubled from the early 1950s to about 10,000, then rose close to 20,000 by 1978, and in 1999 reached 82,000.
Historic trends in the UK for Canada geese
And then there is New Zealand where Canada geese were introduced to the South Island during 1905 and 1920 for hunting purposes, and in the 1970s, they were added to the North Island. Their population has grown spectacularly, with current estimates of about 60,000 birds, of which two-thirds are located on the South Island. Canada geese are now regarded as a serious pest because of their alleged pollution of waterways, damage to pastures and crops, congregations in public places, and the safety risk to aircraft. However, modern day efforts to control their numbers have so far failed. In 2011 Canada geese were removed from New Zealand’s list of gamebirds, and responsibility to control their numbers transferred to farmers. The idea was that the species could now be hunted year round, hunting would not require a license, and there would be no limit on the numbers that hunters could shoot. Unfortunately, farmers seem to lack the resources to fulfill these responsibilities.
Canada geese in New Zealand
So what is to be done to prevent this relentless growth in the Canada geese population? The solution likely lies in addressing the cause of the problem rather than its symptoms. In New Zealand, effective national coordination of wildlife probably needs to be reinstated. In North America and the UK new management controls should be introduced, and the public educated on the need to limit Canada geese numbers.
Methods include reducing the availability of nesting sites and sterilizing eggs, restricting the birds’ sources of food, and lessening their sense of well-being. The latter includes closing access to bodies of water from the land, installing streamers or reflective ribbon to discourage the birds from spreading, carrying out hazing and harassment to scare them away, and maybe using chemical lawn treatment to make the grass unpalatable.
Meantime, I shall continue to complete my 18 holes on the golf course, and hope that I can continue not to injure any Canada geese! While the geese with goslings appear smart enough to stay away from the links, many of those not breeding risk their lives by foraging on the fairways and wandering across the greens.
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 …
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 November 2021 and was reported to me by my sister who lives a few miles away from where the female bird was caught on camera.
This was not a species I expected to see during my early days of bird watching in 1960s even though back then it was a rare migrant to the UK. Probably spotting the firecrest, as described in Chapter 3 of She Wore a Yellow Dress, was the closest I came to recording these small rare birds. The bluetail is still a vagrant today but the number of annual sightings has increased. At the end of 2013 there had been an accumulated total of 127 observations, and more have occurred since. The trend is possibly tied to the bird extending its breeding range westward from Russia into Finland, and some of these birds choosing to winter in Western Europe rather than in Southeast Asia.
The species belongs to the chat family of birds, so-called because of their harsh and chattering calls (13th century chateren – to twitter or make quick, shrill sounds). Back in the 1960s I observed two of its cousins, the winchat and stonechat. Both sightings were recorded at Spurn Point in Yorkshire. The winchat breeds throughout Europe, and in Britain populates the country’s northern and western uplands. In recent years its population in the UK has halved for reasons unknown. It is a long-distance migrant and winters in central and southern Africa. The stonechat is the more common species in Britain, preferring open country such as heathland, moorland, and rough grassland. Its population is stable, and it is only a short-distance migrant. Neither winchats nor stonechats are present in the United States.
In North America, the yellow-breasted chat represents this family of bird, with a population of around 13 million, and the species breeds from British Colombia/Ontario, south to the Gulf coast and Florida. They winter across the southern United States, through Middle America, to western Panama. In California, a few breed in the north-west and along the Pacific coast, and more pass through during migration. I recently was fortunate to see one while fulfilling my docent responsibilities to protect the nearby nesting snowy plovers.
Yellow-breasted chat bird
Distribution of the yellow-breasted chat bird
But let me return to the primary topic of this month’s Blog, the red-flanked bluetail. It is a small passerine bird and native to a large part of northern Europe and south-east Asia. It nests from Finland east across Siberia to Kamchatka, and south to Japan, and winters mainly in Korea, Taiwan and Southeast China. It is very secretive, preferring to occupy undisturbed, old growth, coniferous forest, and is often difficult to spot. Estimates place its global population at between 20,000 and 41,000, but without signs of a decline in numbers. It first appeared in Finland during 1949, and present-day studies suggest that there may several thousand pairs nesting in the country. Their movement west continues with isolated cases of breeding in Estonia, Sweden, and Norway. On the eastern side of its territory, red-flanked bluetails sometimes overshoot their Asian winter habitat, and a few end up in Western Alaska.
Red-flanked bluetail Range Map: orange – breeding; light blue – non-breeding
Oddly the red-flanked bluetail does not migrate along its shortest route. Their “migration memory” usually carries them first eastwards, across eastern Russia and China, before they change direction to fly south to their wintering grounds. Storms in Asia can push some birds eastwards towards Alaska. Some of those that reach North America seem to turn southwards, explaining the occasional sightings in western locations such as in Vancouver (2013), Wyoming (2019), Idaho (2016), the Farallon Islands, CA (1989 and 2019), San Clemente Island, CA (2011), Los Angeles (2018/19), and Mexico (2021). Even so, this species is extremely rare in North America and should not be confused with the slightly larger, shiny blue and rust-orange colored, western bluebird.
The western bluebird is a common bird, with an estimated population of 6.7 million. It is social and often seen in flocks during the non-breeding season. The species feeds on fruit and berries, and also hunts for terrestrial insects by fluttering down from low perches to pluck insects from the ground.
Western bluebird Range Map
The male red-flanked bluetail has similar blue coloring on its upperparts, rump, and tail, but the coloring is not as bright as on the western bluebird. The bluetail also has a white belly and throat, orange-brown flanks, an off-white chest, and a white band above the eyes. The female displays more subdued colors, with olive brown upperparts, rufous flanks, and a blue tail.
The species in Europe continues to increase as the red-flanked bluetail extends its territory westwards. Finland reported an estimated 730 territorial males during 2020, although the bird’s numbers can vary dramatically between years. In Britain there are now around 15 sightings annually, mainly in Scotland and the coastal hot spots of the north-east of England and East Anglia. An exception was the Shropshire sighting. Even my 1960s stomping grounds at Spurn Point report occasional sightings.
However, despite favorable trends, the red-flanked bluetail is vulnerable to the loss of undisturbed mature forests. Its expansion west may be due to climate change that is decreasing the duration of soil frost and snow-cover, and thereby helping with the food supply. Meanwhile, its conservation category is of “Least Concern”.
Image of the Mexico sighting
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 …
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, or around the estuary of the Colorado River. These heavyset birds majestically soar, hover, wheel and circle high overhead, before descending onto shallow water. They are the second-largest bird in North America (the California condor is #1), weigh up to 30 pounds, are nearly five feet in length, have a ten foot wing span, are dressed in stark white plumage with bold black markings under their wings, possess a massive bill, and carry their head in an S-shape during flight.
The ones that breed east of the Rocky Mountains usually migrate south and east along the Gulf of Mexico for winter, and those parenting west of the Rockies travel over deserts and mountains towards the Pacific Ocean. Populations breeding in Texas and Mexico usually winter there.
Migration is necessary to find new sources of food as their summer feeding grounds freeze-over. Their diet consists mostly of fish, especially small schooling fish such as chub, sticklebacks, mullet, and carp, and they forage during the daytime in winter, and at night while breeding.
American white pelican
American white pelicans nest in colonies on marshy or rocky islands close to, or on, remote freshwater mountain lakes, reservoirs and wetlands. It is estimated that there are about 60 breeding colonies in North America, and that each one can accommodate up to 5,000 birds. The largest ones exist in Utah, North Dakota, Minnesota, and in the inland states of Canada.
Global population ranges from approximately 140,000 to 180,000 individuals. Numbers fell dramatically during the mid-twentieth century due to hunting, the use of pesticides, and habitat loss, but have subsequently recovered. Even so, the species is threatened by environmental change, human disturbance, and retaliation from humans for preying on fish in commercial hatcheries.
The pelican’s nest is a depression on the ground or a mound of vegetation and dirt, usually containing one to three eggs. Only the strongest chick survives, with the others usually starving to death because they fail to compete for food. The bird’s life span is around 15 years.
Few sights are more captivating a flock of these large white birds circling overhead and then clumsily descending to the surface of the water either to forage for food or land on isolated islands for rest, to preen themselves, and to sleep. Probably the most visible feature of the American white pelican is its huge yellow-orange bill and distensible throat pouch. The bird is a dabbler, usually fishing in shallow waters less than six feet (180 cm) deep, by thrusting its large bill into the water to scoop up fish. A flock may sometimes work together to herd fish into shallow water where they are easier to catch. The flexible pouch acts as a fishing net to allow the bird to drain away the water and position the fish head-first before swallowing them. It is not used to store food.
The bird is similar in shape to the smaller and slender North American brown pelican, but the latter prefers saltwater rather than freshwater, and dives for its food rather than scooping up fish from the top of the water. It has gray-brown plumage, a yellow head, white neck, and the very distinctive long bill of all pelicans.
They are mainly coastal birds, usually found within 5 miles (8 km) of sea, and are spread along the North America’s Atlantic and Pacific Coasts, most remaining resident in their territory.
Although it is not usual to confuse the American white pelican with other species of birds there are alternative large white birds in similar habitats that might cause confusion.
For example, snow geese, with their white plumage and black wing tips. They are much smaller than pelicans, and their bills are shorter and colored pink with dark edgings. They may be seen in huge numbers, honking in “V” formation flocks during winter as they migrate from their Arctic breeding grounds to the warmer parts of North America. They fly with their necks extended, and unlike pelicans, flap their wings constantly.
There are also all-white swans, such as trumpeter swans, that may be confused with the white pelican. These graceful, long necked, heavy-bodied birds glide majestically on the water and fly with slow, purposeful wing beats, and with necks outstretched. Last, there is the great white egret, an elegant bird, with a long, pointed yellow bill and black stilt-like legs, but unlike the pelican it stalks and spears its prey.
Great white egret
During my early years of birdwatching in the UK, I never saw a pelican except in captivity. They had become extinct in Britain hundreds of years earlier during Roman times, when they were hunted for food and their habitat drained. According to fossil evidence, the pelican was common among Britain’s reed beds 12,000 years ago.
The species closest to Britain is the Dalmatian pelican that breeds in Eastern Europe around the Black Sea, and in parts of central Asia and Russia. It displays a stunning silvery-white plumage that contrasts with its orange-red pouch during the breeding season. On its nape it has a thick crest of feathers. You can imagine the excitement, therefore, among bird watchers when, a few years ago, a Dalmatian pelican was spotted near Land’s End in Cornwall, England. Presumably it had been blown off course.
And finally, the symbolism attached to the pelican in Europe is worth mentioning. Ancient legend has it that in times of famine a mother pelican would wound herself by striking her breast to feed her young with her own blood. The Christian faith took this myth to signify the death of Jesus Christ and the sacrifice of his own life for the redemption of humans. The bird thus became popular as an image on altar frontals and in stained glass church windows, as depicted below.
Pie Pelicane, Jesu Domine: Me immundum munda tuo Sanguine
(“Lord Jesus, Good Pelican: Wash my filthiness and clean me with Your Blood”)
Thomas Aquinas, 1225-1274.
Finally, as for their ability to deal with climate change, their summer range is forecast to shift northwards but wintering grounds may not be as flexible.
One of the very few families of birds that remained constant when I moved from England to California in 1979 was the family of terns. I regularly saw Sandwich, Arctic, common, black, and little terns during my visits to Spurn Point in Yorkshire, and during 1971 I made a pilgrimage to Strangford Lough in Northern Ireland to see Sandwich, Arctic and common terns nesting. The latter is detailed in chapter 29 of my novel She Wore a Yellow Dress. They were extremely rare around my home town of York although passage Arctic terns occasionally showed up. Most members of this family are long distance migrants, moving between the northern and southern hemispheres when the seasons change. When I moved to California, sandwich, arctic and black terns were still present, the little tern was renamed the least tern, and new members included the Caspian, elegant, royal, and Forster’s terns.
Related to seagulls, terns are classified under the bird family, Laridae, and although similar in appearance to gulls, they have long swept-back wings and forked tail. They are usually identified by their deep rowing flight pattern and quick turns and hovering in pursuit of fish. They can dive vertically into the water from 20 to 50 feet (6 to 15 meters). Additionally, terns have straight, sharply-pointed bills, whereas gulls possess a more hooked one.
Worldwide, there are close to 40 species of terns, usually colored black and white, although in most cases, more white than black. To the casual beach goer they may look alike. The best way to distinguish between species is to note their size, the color of their bill (red, orange, yellow, or black), the existence or otherwise of blackish wing tips, and the length of their tail streamers. Additionally, the elegant, royal and Sandwich terns display a ragged crest on the back of their heads, especially noticeable during the breeding season.
Most importantly, terns are known for the great distances they travel, especially the Arctic tern that breeds during summer in the Arctic and migrates south for winter to Antarctica. They each can travel around 25,000 miles (40,000 km) annually, gliding as well as flying, usually out at sea, and taking around 40 days for a one-way migration.
Arctic tern migration map
During my years living in Northern California, I have watched the fishing antics of the common tern, the Forster’s tern, the Caspian tern, and the elegant tern. Some varieties breed locally and others, like the common tern, are visitors during migration. The one species of tern that eluded me for many years was the least tern, the smallest of all terns, about the size of a large songbird. They breed in small numbers in the San Francisco Bay Area, but because of their endangered status, they are subject to close protection.
Least tern Range Map: orange – breeding; blue – non-breeding
The least tern is distinguished by a distinct white patch on its forehead, interrupting its otherwise solid black cap, and in summer has a yellow bill with a black tip, and yellow feet. It usually flies low over the water with quick deep wing beats and a hunched-over look, and shrill cries of “kellick” or “kip-kip-kip”, often heard just before it is seen plunging into the water after its prey. The species nests in colonies, usually around 25 pair per colony, scratches out a “scrape” in sand or gravel on the beach, and lays three green eggs blotched with brown.
Next and eggs of least tern
So you can imagine my excitement when, at the start of August 2021, while on vacation in San Diego County, I discovered that least terns were nesting only a few miles away, close to the Mexican border, under the protection of the Tijuana Slough National Wildlife Reserve. It was a dull, cool, Friday morning as I and my friend drove south for about 30 minutes, before arriving at Imperial Beach, where we quickly located the Reserve’s Headquarters. We were greeted warmly and offered abundant advice. Immediately, I was told that Bewick’s wrens, scrub jays, dark-eyed juncos, bushtits, song sparrows and Anna’s hummingbirds had been seen close to the Reserve’s building that morning. However, we were soon on our way across the marsh to see what we could see, along with the accompaniment of the sound of helicopters from the nearby helicopter base. In the distance was Tijuana, and the US – Mexico border wall, undulating along the hills and eventually running down to the beach and into the Pacific Ocean.
Tijuana Wildlife Reserve
Almost immediately there were juvenile black-crowned night herons waiting to catch fish, and black phoebes fluttering in search of insects. Other bird species we recorded during our walk were the American kestrel, northern harrier, marbled godwit, cliff swallows, northern mockingbird and a Forster’s tern fishing in the tidal lagoon, but no sighting of a least tern.
The warden commiserated with us back in headquarters, and told us to visit the beach to the south of the town. At first we encountered several groups of large, stocky shorebirds, called willets, searching for food at the water’s edge, and could see several types of terns fishing out at sea, mainly elegant terns and one large Caspian tern.
However, just when we were about to give up on our search, we heard overhead the cry of “kip-kip-kip”, as two least terns passed us by. They are closely related to the Old World little tern, but are treated as a separate species based on voice difference. I had achieved the purpose of our journey.
As for the fate of terns, their numbers and enormous range offers them some security although for several species their numbers have dropped. They suffer loss of habitat from development and disturbance and from predators. Longer time, climate change presents a major threat. The Arctic tern that follows the summer season between hemispheres is at risk of losing up to 50 percent of its natural habitat due to global warming.
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 …