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 

The Legendary Hoopoe: A Pretty Bird with Poor Personal Hygiene

The Legendary Hoopoe: A Pretty Bird with Poor Personal Hygiene

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

As Thin As A Ridgway’s Rail

As Thin As A Ridgway’s Rail

Ridgway’s Rail

(Photo Credit eBird)


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


Thin as a RailThin-as-a-Rail

(Photo Credit Lonely Birder)


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


European Water RailEuropean Water Rail

(Photo Credit Encyclopedia Britannica)


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

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


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

(Photo Credit Bird Field Guide UK)


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



East Coast Clapper RailEast Coast Clapper Rail

(Photo Credit Audubon)


Mangrove RailMangrove Rail

(Photo Credit iNaturalist)


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



2014 Introduction of new rail species2014 Introduction of new rail species

(Photo Credit SF Bay Wildlife Society)


King RailKing Rail

(Photo Credit Cornell Lab. of Ornithology)


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


Black RailBlack Rail

(Photo Credit Travis Lux)


Virginia RailVirginia Rail

(Photo Credit Wikpedia)


Yellow RailYellow Rail

(Photo Credit Cornell Lab. Of Ornithology)


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

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


Corte Madera Ecological ReserveCorte Madera Ecological Reserve

(Photo Credit Corte Madera Memories)


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

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


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

(Photo Credit Cornell Lab. of Ornithology) 


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

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

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



(Photo Credit


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

Attacked by Swans

Attacked by Swans

Mute Swan Photo Credit: Wikipedia I was surprised recently to see two pairs of Mute Swans feeding on grass and submerged vegetation at Schollenberger Park, Petaluma, CA. They appeared to be partners and presumably were preparing to breed in March or April. As we passed 

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 

Sandhill Cranes are back in California for Thanksgiving

Sandhill Cranes are back in California for Thanksgiving

Sandhill Cranes During early October this year, I visited the Cosumnes River Preserve, south of Sacramento, to glimpse flocks of Sandhill Cranes flying high in the sky, having just arrived to winter in their thousands among the fields, marshes, and wetlands of the Central Valley 

Shore Lark or Horned Lark, the Same Bird?

Shore Lark or Horned Lark, the Same Bird?

Many years ago, I was required to persuade my fellow birdwatchers that I had spotted a pair of Shore Larks on a beach just north of the Warren at Spurn Point, Yorkshire, England, to have the sighting recorded in the Bird Observatory’s daily log. What made the task difficult was that the presence of a Shore Lark in this neighborhood was unusual, the encounter demanded that I supply a detailed justification, and that as a teenager, I had never done this before. Nonetheless, I was successful with my presentation.


Drawing of Spurn Point April 1961Drawing of Spurn Point April 1961- see my novel She Wore a Yellow Dress for more details


Today there are fewer sightings of Shore Larks in Britain than during the 1960s, and according to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, only around 100 Shore Larks arrive to winter each year in the UK. These birds appear along the east coast of England during October to March, traveling south from their breeding grounds. They usually spend summer in Scandinavia and the far north of Eurasia, migrating in search of new sources of food and to avoid the cold weather. Typically they appear along sea-shores and on salt marshes. Those breeding in the mountains of south-east Europe and southern Asia tend to remain there year-round.



Shore Lark: Global Range MapShore Lark: Global Range Map – orange breeding; purple year-round; blue non-breeding


Contrast this with my experiences today in California as I fulfill my docent responsibilities to protect the nesting Snowy Plovers on Surf Beach, close to the Vandenberg Space Force Base. During my visits, I have seen close to the above annual number of UK birds that look similar to the ones at Spurn Point, either undulating in flight in small flocks, or erratically walking and running among the dunes foraging for food. The distinction is that in North America these birds are called Horned Larks, and are the only lark that is native to North America.  In Europe, there are several other native species such as the Skylark, Crested Lark, and Wood Lark. The Shore Lark probably spread to the New World around 600,000 years ago. Today many are resident in North America year-round, and are joined during winter by Horned Larks from the north and from mountainous areas. Birds belonging to this species return to their birthplace each summer, a characteristic known as philopatry.


Horned Lark: North America Range MapHorned Lark: North America Range Map


Horned Larks breed throughout North America, choosing open ground or habitats possessing short vegetation. They construct grass-lined, cup-shaped nests in depressions on the ground, laying a clutch of three to five eggs. Their scientific name translates as “desert lover of the high mountains”.


Horned Lark breedingHorned Lark breeding


There is also a species known as Meadowlark in North America but these birds belong the blackbird, not lark family. Also, efforts in the past to introduce the Eurasian Skylark into North America have usually failed, although a small population survives today on Vancouver Island, and vagrants from Asia are occasionally seen in Alaska.


North American Western MeadowlarkNorth American Western Meadowlark



Eurasian SkylarkEurasian Skylark


This species with two names enjoys one of the largest worldwide ranges of any songbird, and has an estimated global breeding population of 140 million, with 97 million in North America. The species is usually classified as of “Least Concern” from a conservation point-of-view. However, in North America, its numbers have declined by an estimated two thirds since 1970, in part due to pesticides, as well as caused by loss of habitat. In western North America, Horned Larks are one of the species most often killed by wind turbines although, as the chart below illustrates, this cause of death among birds is minor compared with other means of fatality. In the UK, the Shore Lark is on the Amber (Watch) List of birds due to habitat loss caused by changes in agricultural practices and urbanization. 


Wind Turbine Deaths: It Happens!!Wind Turbine Deaths: It Happens!!


The Shore Lark is easily distinguished from other Old World larks by its pale yellow throat, the yellow on its face, and a black breast-band and cheeks. It is pinkish brown above and whitish below. Males have a small black band across their crown and small black feather tufts, only visible at short range, that are horn-like (two pointed black feathers jutting out backwards on either side of the crown). Males are slightly larger and darker than females and their “horns” are more prominent. The same description applies to New World Horned Larks.


Horned Lark or Shore Lark?Horned Lark or Shore Lark?


As for the most appropriate name for this species, the North American term seems most suited since it refers to the bird’s obvious feature of “horns”. Also, only in certain parts of Europe does the species migrate to coastal habitats during winter that justifies the name of “Shore Lark”. Personally I am satisfied with either name, and I am delighted that my volunteering at Surf Beach has reconnected me with a species that caused me so much excitement many years ago. However, whether this species continues as a winter visitor to the UK remains uncertain. Global warming will impact mountain and high altitude upland regions as the tree line advances upwards, potentially pushing the habitat of these birds further north. 

Northern Wheatears, Champions of Migration

Northern Wheatears, Champions of Migration

I was first introduced to Northern Wheatears at the end of March 1961 during a school geology fieldtrip to Stainforth in Ribblesdale, Yorkshire, England. A small group of us were studying the area’s Carboniferous Limestone and Millstone Grit and searching for fossils in the older 

 The Global Reach of the California Quail

 The Global Reach of the California Quail

California Quail – male and female Admired by many, the California Quail, about the size of a pigeon, is a hardy and adaptable ground-dwelling game bird that was originally resident in the United States from Southern Oregon south into Baja California, but has extended its 

The Extraordinary Abilities of Birds

The Extraordinary Abilities of Birds

Killdeer faking injury

According to research, birds are astonishingly intelligent creatures. Jennifer Ackerman in her book The Genius of Birds dismisses the belief that idioms such as “bird brain”, “eating crow”, “cuckoo”, and “feather brain” have anything to do with a true understanding of the brain structure of birds, and my early experiences as a bird watcher confirm her belief. One of my first memories of unusual bird behavior is at Spurn Point in Yorkshire when two partridges flew over the Warren. The female hit the overhead electric wires and decapitated herself, and the male landed and called out for her for at least 30 minutes. Further details of my adolescent bird watching are in my novel She Wore a Yellow Dress.  

There are many other illustrations of bird intelligence that I could give you from my experiences but I want this article to focus on the more bizarre aspects of bird behavior. Examples of strange conduct I have used in previous blogs include birds feigning injury, shrikes impaling prey on thorns before eating their victims, fulmars spitting foul liquid at anything that threatens their nest, and the parasitic behavior of Eurasian cuckoos and brown-headed cowbirds.


Great Indian hornbill, a source of interesting bird behavior

Great Indian hornbill

Let us start with Indian hornbills.  There are nine species in India, so how about choosing the largest one, 40 to 48 inches long (100 to 120 cm), the great Indian hornbill. It is native to the tropical rain forests on the Indian subcontinent and in south-east Asia, and like all hornbills, has a huge casque on top of its massive bill. The casque is hollow and serves no known purpose, but for this article the species uniqueness lies in something quite different. 


Great hornbill nest

Great Indian hornbill nest

The female builds a nest after entering the hollow of a large tree and then seals the entrance while she is still inside so that she can no longer leave. She uses dung and pellets. The male supplies the pellets of mud from the forest floor; first he swallows the material and later regurgitates it as saliva-covered nesting matter for the female to use. During the next 8 to 10 weeks the male feeds the female through the nest slit as she molts, the eggs hatch, and the chicks become half-developed.


Red-breasted nuthatch, a source of interesting bird behavior

Red-breasted nuthatch

Another example of unusual bird behavior involves the red-breasted nuthatch, a resident and native to most of Canada and the United States. It is a small compact bird with a very short tail, and like the hornbill, nests in holes in trees. After building the nest, it will spread a coating of conifer resin at the entrance to the hole, sometimes applying it with a piece of bark, for the purpose of preventing other birds, like wrens and woodpeckers, from using the space.


Red-breasted nuthatch Range Map

Red-breasted nuthatch Range Map

Should you happen to be in New Guinea, look out for a bird that is poisonous, known as the hooded pitohui. It is a small black and orange bird with powerful bill and dark red eyes that inhabits the hills and low mountains of the islands of Papua New Guinea.  The poison is in its feathers and skin. Apparently, along with the fruit and seeds that they eat, these birds are also partial to invertebrates such as the small melyrid beetle. It is this creature that provides them with the poison, known as batrachotoxin. In humans, in small doses, it can cause tingling and numbing, but in large quantities it may lead to paralysis, cardiac arrest, and death. Local people leave the bird alone, call it the “rubbish bird”, and consider it inedible. Snakes that eat its eggs may become sick because of the poison the female wipes onto her clutch of eggs. 


Hooded pitohui, a source of interesting bird behavior

Hooded pitohui

Across the globe, in the Amazon and Orinoco basins of South America, lives a bird known as the hoatzin (pronounced wat-sin), and sometimes called the reptile bird, skunk bird, or stinkbird. It is pheasant-sized, with a long neck and small head, and feeds on leaves and fruit. It has no known close relatives among the bird world, but like some dinosaurs, Hoatzin chicks are born with two claws on each wing that survive for the first three months of their lives and are used for climbing and balance.


Hoatzin chick, a source of interesting bird behavior

Hoatzin chick

The hoatzin’s digestive system is unique among birds. It employs bacterial fermentation in the front part of its gut to break down vegetable material, much like cattle do. However, this process causes the bird to produce a highly disagreeable, manure-like odor. While indigenous people sometimes collect its eggs, it is rare that they hunt the bird because they consider its meat to be undesirable. The hoatzin is fairly common in its range today because it inhabits mangrove swamps and riverine forest.



Hoatzin adult

Last but not least, let me introduce you to the Eurasian wryneck, a member of the woodpecker family that pretends to be a snake when threatened. In my early birdwatching days it was a summer resident in the UK, from March to mid-July, breeding chiefly in southern England and occasionally in Wales. Today it is only a passage bird with less than 300 sightings in Britain annually.

It is sparrow-sized and feeds on ants, and like the hornbill and nuthatch, nests in holes in trees.  When threatened, it has the ability to turn its head 180 degrees, twist its neck, and hiss like a snake, and is nick-named snake bird because of this behavior. It has often been linked to witchcraft, curses, and evil spells. Using its Latin name of Jynx torquilla, it is supposed to “jinx” people (i.e. bring them bad luck).


Eurasian wryneck

Eurasian wryneck


Eurasian wryneck Range Map

Eurasian wryneck Range Map: orange – summer; blue – winter; green – all year

As you might expect, none of these unusual birds are particularly threatened at the moment, either by global warming or human interventions. 

The Growing Abundance of Canada Geese

The Growing Abundance of Canada Geese

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 

The Persecuted Family of Cormorants (Muckle Scarf)

The Persecuted Family of Cormorants (Muckle Scarf)

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 Endangered Western Snowy Plover

The Endangered Western Snowy Plover

Western Snowy Plover

I have volunteered to assist with the protection of the Western snowy plover during their California coastal breeding season this year from March to September. The following is published to coincide with my training as a docent.

This small shorebird is approximately the size of a sparrow, weighs less than two ounces (55 grams), and is about six inches (15 cm) in length. It makes its home on flat, unraked sandy beaches, dry mud or salt flats along the Pacific Coast and estuaries, from Washington State through Oregon, and onto California and into southern Baja California, Mexico. Formerly, the Western snowy plover nested on a large part of this shoreline but today these birds are rarely seen.  Prior to the 1970s, it is reported that at least 53 California locations were homes to these plovers, but a few years later that number had halved.  Today the Pacific coast population is estimated to be around 2,500, with most of California’s coastal breeding birds found south of San Francisco. The bird’s conservation status was raised to Endangered in March 1993, and probably less than 1000 breeding plovers occupied the West Coast by the year 2000. This number is now increasing. There are also snowy plovers that breed in interior California, south-central Oregon, Nevada, and several other western states, and some of these winter along the West Coast.

Distribution Map of the snowy plover

Distribution of snowy plovers

The right-hand side of the above range map illustrates the distribution of the Western snowy plover on the West Coast. It is this subspecies that has received most conservation attention. Snowy plovers east of the Sierra Nevada mountains and the Rockies appear less threatened, and populate the Great Basin, parts of Texas, the Central Plains, much of the Gulf coast, the Bahaman islands, and in Central Mexico. Most of these birds are thought to belong to separate subspecies from the Western snowy plover. Also, as well as being called snowy plovers, in some places they are known as Cuban snowy plovers or beach plovers. Genetic studies suggest that the nearby Great Basin population is no different than the Western snowy plover but that there may be demographic and adaptive variations. Those living further east appear to be a different subspecies. Birds of the same name also occupy the west coast of South America, from southwestern Ecuador through western Chile, and are thought to belong to their own subspecies. It is estimated that about 31,000 breeding pairs of snowy plovers exist worldwide.

Cuban Snowy Plover

Cuban snowy plover

The coastal Western subspecies roosts in small depressions on the sand or on the leeward side of objects such as driftwood, kelp or dune vegetation. Their pale plumage blends readily with dry sand or salt flats, making them very difficult to see when they are crouched. They gather in loose colonies or in isolation, and sometimes can be seen scurrying across their sandy habitat like inconspicuous puffs of sea foam. They prefer wide open beaches, and forage on insects, especially beach flies, marine worms, and small crustaceans. Typically they hunt for their food high up on the beach.  

Their eggs (usually three camouflaged white and brown speckled) are laid in nearly invisible nests on the ground and are vulnerable to being taken by predators or being trampled on during their approximate 28 days of incubation. The peak hatching period is from early April through mid-August, with most birds site-faithful, returning to the same breeding area each year. The male incubates the eggs during the night and the female does the same for most of the day. Two or three broods may be produced annually whereas the eastern snowy plovers usually raise only one.

The main threats to the Western snowy plover are habitat loss, the spread of European dune grass, human-caused disturbance, and the impact of predators such as dogs, raccoons, coyotes, foxes, crows, ravens, and falcons. About a third of the bird’s population stays in its coastal breeding grounds during winter whereas the remainder migrate a short-distances, north or south, typically for distances of no more than 300 to 500 miles.

Western Snowy Plover chicks

Above, Western snowy plover chicks: the chicks leave their nest about three hours after hatching and accompany their parents to find suitable sources of food. Almost immediately they can forage independently and fly after about four weeks.

In appearance, the adult Western snowy plover is pale gray-brown above and white below, with a white hind neck collar and dark lateral breast patches, forehead bar, and eye patches. Early in the breeding season, a rufous crown is evident on breeding males, but not on females. In nonbreeding plumage, the sexes cannot be distinguished. The short bill and legs are blackish. During courtship, the male defends its territory, usually makes several scrapes, and the female then chooses which scrape she prefers by laying eggs in it. Adult plovers will attempt to lure people and predators away from hatching eggs with alarm calls and distraction displays. Their call is a short, sharp, whistled tu-wheet. 

Western Snowy Plover Enclosure Sign

Various methods, including beach closures, are used to protect the birds’ coastal breeding grounds. Enclosures and sometimes symbolic fences are erected to protect the nesting area and to prevent predators interfering with breeding. Educational signs and brochures explain what is taking place, announcements are posted on why dogs should be kept on leash, written notices request that kelp and driftwood be left on the beach and that littering should be avoided. There is a ban on flying kites and similar objects, and lighting fires is prohibited. Sometimes docents are stationed nearby – especially at weekends – to explain the situation and to answer visitor questions. Efforts also may be made to restore habitat and expand the breeding area.

The presence of snowy plovers in Europe has never been confirmed and consequently these birds are considered a New World species. However, until 2009, it was thought that the Eurasian Kentish plover, named after the county of Kent south-east of London, was the equivalent to the North American snowy plover. Genetic studies, however, have shown that this is not true, and in July 2011, the International Ornithological Congress (IOC) announced the separation of the two groups. 

Kentish plover chick
Kentish plover distribution map

Kentish plover distribution map: light green breeding; dark green resident; blue non-breeding

Growing up in England during the 1950s and 1960s, the Kentish plover had only recently ceased breeding in Kent, where it had occupied vast expanses of shingle near Dungeness. British breeding numbers were estimated to have shrunk to about 40 pairs by the mid-20th century, and were mainly located in Kent, but with a few birds in the counties of Sussex, Suffolk, and Lincolnshire. Apparently, the last UK pair to breed was in Lincolnshire during 1979. Today the Kentish plover is just a rare passage visitor to southern England with, for example, only 13 recorded sightings during 2016. Its disappearance is attributed to loss of habitat and the greater recreational use of beaches, and early during the last century, its eggs were taken and individual birds killed for decorative purposes.  Nonetheless, this neat and charismatic wader remains widespread in other parts of Europe, and migrates to the northern half of Africa, northern India, and south-east Asia, for winter.

Dungeness, Kent, England

Dungeness, Kent, England

Unfortunately, I did not have the resources to travel to Kent during my childhood to try to spot the Kentish plover, and had to satisfy myself with observing its relatives such as lapwings near my home, and ringed plovers, golden plovers, and grey plovers during my visits to Yorkshire’s Spurn Point Bird Observatory. All four varieties still nest in Britain. 

Western snowy plover monitoring

Let us hope that the current steps being taken to protect the Western snowy plover along the West Coast of North America will be successful, and that the species does not suffer the same fate as the Kentish plover in England. We should be grateful to all the people who help with this conservation effort.

The Appearance of a Siberian Rarity, The Red-Flanked Bluetail

The Appearance of a Siberian Rarity, The Red-Flanked Bluetail

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