Author: John Cammidge

Which British bird is supposed to have influenced the opening notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, and is the name given to Alabama’s state bird?

Which British bird is supposed to have influenced the opening notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, and is the name given to Alabama’s state bird?

In Britain, the Eurasian yellowhammer (member of the bunting genus of birds) is famous for its countryside presence, and identified by a distinctive song, as well as the color of its feathers.  We are sparrow-sized and males display a brightly-colored yellow head and yellowish underparts, […]

Which British bird was killed and imprisoned in cages due to its habit of attacking the blossom of commercial fruit trees?

Which British bird was killed and imprisoned in cages due to its habit of attacking the blossom of commercial fruit trees?

We are a small, colorful European bird and member of the finch family, known as the Eurasian bullfinch, about 15cm (six inches) in length, and weigh around one and a half ounces (35 grams).  Our name reflects our bull-headed appearance.  You will see us in […]

BIRDWATCHING DURING THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC IN CALIFORNIA

BIRDWATCHING DURING THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC IN CALIFORNIA

The current global pandemic reminds me of an early birdwatching experience at Spurn Point Bird Observatory in Yorkshire, England where I visited for several days during October 1962. There were no communications with the outside world, and on the day I left the Observatory, I discovered that the newscasters were reporting the settlement of the Cuban Missile crisis.   The USSR had decided to withdraw its missiles from Cuba in return for President Kennedy promising never to invade Cuba. The possibility of nuclear war and global annihilation had come and gone while I remained totally ignorant of the danger, thanks to my hobby of birdwatching. Like the COVID-19 pandemic, the crisis had the potential to alter the world and change society.

To hope for a similar way today to deal with the coronavirus crisis is naïve. However, it does not stop me birdwatching and I continue to social distance while spotting birds.  I particularly enjoy the absence of stress when I sit outside waiting and looking for the next bird to come along. Recently I returned from Costa Rica where during two weeks I spotted nearly 100 different bird species, including the rare and secretive quetzal (image provided).  

My local ornithological site for the joy of birds is a short drive from my address, and a walk along the nearby creek in Corte Madera, CA.  I take my miniature schnauzer, Winston, with me in case my presence is challenged, allowing my life among the birds to continue as normal.  It seems the perfect thing to do under the circumstances.  I have watched the departure of snow geese to Canada; the arrival of the five types of swallow from South America; listened to the song of the song sparrow, the high pitched keek of the black-necked stilt and the vigorous one or two short notes followed by the trill of the male spotted towhee; I have watched the many shorebirds, gulls, ducks, grebes, cormorants and loons come and go, and followed the western bluebird as it repeatedly perches and then hovers or flies across the park in search of insects. 

At home, I sit outside and look and listen.  The hummingbirds are back, the scrub jays’ swoop and screech their presence, the crows complain and the crested titmouses are busy in the bird box feeding their young.  There are also unusual sightings; a female Nuthall’s woodpecker inspects my fir tree (acorn woodpeckers and northern flickers are more common); a hummingbird risks its life by chasing an American kestrel (kestrels are known to eat hummingbirds), and a rarely-seen male Wilson’s warbler is picking insects from among some yellow flowers.

I look forward to birdwatching as an effective coping mechanism and an approved, if not essential, activity in California, and hope that the public and politicians will use the same level of determination they are using to fight the virus, to prospectively protect the habitat of birds and safeguard them against the effects of global warming.  As many as 25 percent of bird species in the U.S. are believed to be on the road to extinction.  Please stay safe.

Which species of large Atlantic gull is sometimes nicknamed the “minister” or “coffin-bearer”, presumably because of the color of its plumage?

Which species of large Atlantic gull is sometimes nicknamed the “minister” or “coffin-bearer”, presumably because of the color of its plumage?

We great black-backed gulls are the largest gull you will ever see, slow and heavy in flight and often hunched up and threatening on the ground.  Expect to see us individually or in small colonies along the northern shorelines of the North Atlantic and adjacent […]

Which British bird Required a UK Law to Stop it Being Eaten as a Countryside Delicacy and its Eggs taken for Cooking?

Which British bird Required a UK Law to Stop it Being Eaten as a Countryside Delicacy and its Eggs taken for Cooking?

I am a lapwing, also known as a “peewit” because of my distinctive call. Unfortunately, the lapwing has become a casualty of changing British farming practices that have caused loss of habitat and a reduced food supply due to less rotational farming, new tillage and […]

Which British Bird used to peck the tin foil off milk bottles to get to the cream after they were delivered by the milkman?

Which British Bird used to peck the tin foil off milk bottles to get to the cream after they were delivered by the milkman?

I am the blue tit, with the word “tit” derived from the Old Norse word meaning tiny. We are common in Britain and most parts of Europe. Our appearance is as a small, very active and dainty bird (12cm/4.5 inches in length), often hanging upside down, and we love to roam around gardens, hedgerows, parkland and deciduous woodland.

You recognize us by our blue and yellow coloring; we have sky-blue and white feathers on our head, a dark blue line passing through our eyes, an underneath of light yellow, a back of greenish-blue with grey, and dark blue wing and tail feathers. There is a short, thin beak to eat seeds, nuts, insects and caterpillars. Our preference is for insects and spiders but we’ll eat seeds and peanuts given to us in bird feeders. In the olden days, our specialty was drinking cream off the top of milk left in bottles at each home by the milkman. We pecked through the foil tops unless the owner collected the bottles first.  

It’s normal for a blue tit to stay year-round near our breeding territory, and while we can be socially monogamous, we break up with our partner if they turn up late for the breeding season. In winter we sometimes move small distances for better food supplies, but rarely beyond 12 miles (20km). We are joined by relatives from northern Europe who spend winter with us. There are around four million breeding pairs in Britain and our numbers climb to over 15 million during winter. There’s an estimated 30 to 40 million pairs worldwide, mostly inhabiting Europe, and consequently we are not a conservation concern. You don’t find us in the Americas.

We have lots of cousins that live alongside us in Britain, such as the great tit. These relatives have a glossy black head with white cheeks and yellow underparts. There is also the slightly smaller coal tit, with a distinctive grey back, black cap and bib and off-white underparts, and there are marsh tits, crested tits, long-tailed tits and willow tits found in their preferred habitat. None are seen in North America where a separate family of titmouse flourishes, giving American birdwatchers a chance to add new species to their life-list during a visit to Europe.

We love to nest in tree holes and walls and in artificial nesting boxes. Large clutches of eggs are not unusual, with a typical number of 7 to 13 laid. My partner is responsible for incubation but I feed her on the nest. If you annoy us, we raise the crest on our head and warn each other with an alarm-call. There is also a song we sing made up of a high-pitched repetitive tone that ends with a trill. This I use during winter and spring to protect my territory and attract a mate.

You might wonder about the surname “tit” in the name blue tit and imagine that the early Americans called birds over there that look like us as chickadees because of their puritanical desire not to name a bird after a woman’s breasts. Titmouse was used in a few cases but with “tit” translated as small and “mouse” derived from the Anglo-Saxon “mase” meaning “a kind of bird”.  In fact in Britain we were given that name long before 1928 when this part of a woman’s anatomy became known as tits, originating  from the word teat and nursery titties. Since then, the term has developed into sexual slang. Call us what you will, from “primavera” as the Maltese name us, to “blue bonnets” in Scotland. In Northumberland, our ancestors were named “biting toms”, apparently because of the sitting birds propensity to bite the fingers of the boys who wanted to collect their eggs.

50 percent of Bird Species are dimorphic (distinct differences in appearance between the sexes); usually it is the male that is better-looking, but there are exceptions.

50 percent of Bird Species are dimorphic (distinct differences in appearance between the sexes); usually it is the male that is better-looking, but there are exceptions.

I am a red-necked phalarope, known as the peerie (small) duck in the Shetland Isles, and a species where the matriarch is the dominant sex. We are a wading and swimming bird, but not a member of the duck family, and rarely are seen in […]

Which seabird was named after the old Viking word for “foul”?

Which seabird was named after the old Viking word for “foul”?

I am a northern fulmar. My name was derived from old Viking language of “ful” meaning foul and “mar” meaning gull. There are around 500,000 northern fulmars that breed in colonies throughout Britain on steep cliffs at places such as St Kilda (Outer Western Isles, […]

Which shorebird nests in some of the remotest parts of the planet and is an occasional vagrant visitor to Britain?

Which shorebird nests in some of the remotest parts of the planet and is an occasional vagrant visitor to Britain?

I am a long-billed dowitcher, also known as the red-breasted snipe or brownback. Since most of the world’s estimated 500,000 long-billed dowitchers breed in North America, we prefer to be called shorebirds rather than by the British term wader.

In the United States, the word wader refers only to long-legged birds such as storks and herons whereas our legs are short and slender. We rarely appear in Europe but do occasionally turn up thanks to the north Atlantic weather that pushes a few of us across the ocean during our autumn migration. Unfortunately, Europeans talk about us as vagrants because we turn up miles from where we’re supposed to be, but it’s a word that implies we don’t have a home to go to and that we live by begging. Neither is true.

We are chunky, medium-sized, rugby ball shaped members of the sandpiper family (about 29cm/ 11 inches in length; 113 grams/4 ounces in weight) and appear good-looking during the breeding season when our upper body turns rufous-brown and white, and our throat and breast turn a bright cinnamon with dark scalloping. A banding of black and white appears on our tail feathers. By contrast, we molt for winter into rather dull gray feathers and a pale belly. Our beak is long, straight and used for probing shallow water or wet mud in search of food. You can watch us feeding using a rapid up-and-down motion that looks like we’re operating the needle of a sewing machine. Long toes allow us to walk on top of the mud.

I should also mention our close relative, the short-billed dowitcher, who we are often confused with. They look like us, eat like us, and despite their name, have a long beak like us. Fortunately, we don’t compete for the same food. They prefer saltwater whereas we feed in freshwater ponds, sewage treatment areas, marshes, other non-saline water, and the upper parts of estuaries. We also make a different noise; they use a staccato “tu-tu-tu” call while we use short, sharp cries of “keek” or “peet-peet”.

You might wonder about the origins of our name, the long-billed dowitcher. It is thought to have come from the Iriquois Indians although there is an alternative suggestion that it was given to us by early New World hunters who used “duitscher” as their dialect for German and thought we looked similar to the German snipe.

We stay away from humans by nesting in desolate insect-infested tundra along the high Arctic, ranging along the northern coastlines of Canada and Alaska, and as far away as eastern Siberia. Finding a mate is a competitive process; several males will band together to chase after a female, and we call out loudly as we fly around her. Once mated, we fight off any other male that shows an interest in our partner.  She lays her eggs on the ground, usually in sedge or wet meadows, and the nest is cup-shaped, made of marsh grasses and moss, and lined with small leaves. The incubation duties are shared. Once hatched, the chicks quickly leave the nest to feed themselves. I sometimes stay behind for a few days to keep an eye on them while my partner begins her migration south.  

We mainly migrate through the western half of North America, often accomplishing the journey in one stage, whereas our close relatives stop and start several times. We thrive during winter among the network of wetlands in California, although some of us continue as far south as the south-eastern states and Central America. We are one of the last species to migrate.

The challenge during the autumn migration is to avoid the northern storms that can blow an individual long-billed dowitcher, especially juveniles, way off course and even across the Atlantic, more than 2,600 miles (4200km) to Britain, and beyond. This creates surprise appearances in Europe where individual birds may stay for long periods. It takes only a short period of time after arrival to attract the attention of humans. As a rare vagrant, we quickly stimulate interest among a group of birdwatchers known as “twitchers”, who travel instantly to sites where the sighting of a rare species is reported. The purpose is to add that species to their Life List (the list of birds they have personally seen and identified during their lifetime).

Which half-ounce bird travels the 4100km (2650 miles) twice a year between Britain and the Sahal Region of Africa?

Which half-ounce bird travels the 4100km (2650 miles) twice a year between Britain and the Sahal Region of Africa?

I’m a migrant whitethroat, also known as the nettle-creeper or hay chat in certain parts of Britain. I’m member of the warbler family, about the size of an English robin or great tit, and weigh approximately half an ounce (15 grams), so you can imagine […]

Which British bird-of-prey (raptor) was used to entertain humans in a sport where it had to chase and catch skylarks?

Which British bird-of-prey (raptor) was used to entertain humans in a sport where it had to chase and catch skylarks?

I think we merlins, or pigeon hawk, are delightful to look at as the smallest birds of prey in Britain, even smaller than kestrels. Our name is derived from esmerillon, the old French name for our species. We have pointed wings and a relatively long […]

Welcome to my Blog: An Awareness of  Birds, etc.

Welcome to my Blog: An Awareness of Birds, etc.

Thank you for visiting my author Blog page.  Given my lifelong interest in birds, I am publishing summaries of  some of  the species that I became familiar with during my early days as a birder, and these will all be British birds because I began my hobby in Yorkshire, England, around York,  and at Spurn Point Bird Observatory.  This was in the 1950s and 1960s.

My purpose is help readers identify species and understand how human activity and global warming during recent decades has affected the population of certain families of birds and ultimately their future survival.  Anecdotal comments and reference to legends and myths will be included where relevant.  You are invited to nominate birds for future inclusion and I will try and answer questions you might have on those birds already published.  A new species should be added every two to three weeks.

I may also blog on more up-to-date bird watching experiences and provide comments on novels I have read or am reading.

ABANDONED IN BERLIN: Chapter Five

ABANDONED IN BERLIN: Chapter Five

Download as PDF 5. Early Revelations Several weeks later, back in Novato, California, Hilda was increasingly apprehensive about whether or not the woman in the Land Register would fulfill her commitment. Six weeks had passed, and the lady promised a reply within four. An irritated […]

ABANDONED IN BERLIN: Chapter Four

ABANDONED IN BERLIN: Chapter Four

Download as PDF 4. The Vienna Connection The trip to Dresden took over three hours on another bright and warm day, and the tour participants arrived at their destination during early afternoon. On the way, the tour guide lectured them on the present-day economy, culture, […]

ABANDONED IN BERLIN: Chapter Three

ABANDONED IN BERLIN: Chapter Three

Download as PDF


3. The Land Register

Hilda slept soundly Sunday night, excited that the organized tour was beginning, and she would visit the District Court on Tuesday morning. Carlos had asked her to share the Court experience with the rest of the group during the Prague communal dinner in four nights time.

With her jet-lag beaten, she spent Monday in the company of her colleagues, sightseeing in the heart of Berlin. Thoughts of her mother returned just before lunch, during a visit to the concrete stelae of the Holocaust Memorial, nestled next to the Tiergarten and Brandenburg Gate, and close to the site where Hitler committed suicide. Her mother had lost her home to National Socialism, but at least she had survived the Holocaust. As Hilda sat among the cold, grey, concrete slabs, she felt a sense of achievement for her parents who had defied the horrors of anti-Semitism and established a new life for themselves in America. She recalled her mother’s praise for the courage and resilience of her own mother during the harsh years in Berlin under Nazi rule.

Monday evening, Hilda checked her tote bag to make sure it included her passport and birth certificate. She also checked to be certain she had her mother’s identification records in case they were needed to gain entry to the District Court. She intended to visit the Land Register where she hoped to inspect the ownership deeds for her family home. The limit of what she knew about the property was her grandparents lived there after they married in 1910, and it was confiscated during 1936.

The couple was told to leave the hotel around nine in the morning and use the U-Bahn to travel the Pankow to Ruhleben line. The train could be boarded at nearby Sansfelderplatz station, and they should get off at Sophie-Charlotte-Platz. Once there, it was only a short walk to the Charlottenburg District Court.

Early Tuesday, dressed in their smartest clothes, Hilda and John left the hotel to make use of the travel instructions given to them by the tour guide. Everything went smoothly and soon they were at their destination. A pair of imposing wooden doors greeted them and then, pushing hard, they found one of the entryways open to reveal a security gate obstructing further access. To the left was a security cage occupied by a solitary guard, protected behind a thick glass window. The female guard came to the see-through barrier and gruffly asked Hilda who she was, why she was there, did she have an appointment, and who was it she wanted to see? This was all in German and Hilda asked the questions to be repeated, more slowly the second time.

Neither Hilda nor John had any idea who they needed to speak with, and Hilda’s reply was made more difficult because the guard understood no English. In poorly spoken German, Hilda explained she was trying to trace family ownership of a nearby block of apartments and had been told the Court held land registry records. She’d recently arrived in Germany and did not have time to make an appointment, as she was leaving Berlin for Dresden the following morning.

The guard reacted skeptically, displaying signs suggesting she was suspicious of Hilda’s motives. She asked Hilda for her passport and her mother’s birth certificate. As these were handed over, Hilda asked the guard to take the letter that had been prepared in case Hilda and John were not allowed into the building. This seemed to unsettle the interrogator, who realized there was something she would have to do if entry was denied. Her attitude softened and she agreed to let them in. The security gate was released, Hilda was given a piece of paper on which a room number was scribbled, and the couple was instructed to go upstairs. The room number turned out to be the location of the General Inquiries office.

A few minutes later Hilda and John were in General Inquiries. A man and woman sat behind a desk monitoring the flow of visitors, but there were none present when the two arrived.

Hilda once again used her limited German to explain the reason for the visit, and once more, reactions were discouraging. A barrage of questions was asked that seemed intended to persuade them to go away. The woman receptionist asked to see Hilda’s mother’s birth certificate and evidence that she was no longer alive. The documents were provided.

Hilda was not a threatening person. She was somewhat petite and had a super-welcoming face that smiled whenever she talked. On this occasion, she nervously tugged at her light brown hair. The people behind the desk reluctantly decided to check their records. Whatever it was they were looking for, they found it. It changed their attitude and they became more cooperative, and the woman wrote down what appeared to be a property registry number, and passed the note to Hilda. Directions were given to visit the Land Register, or Grundbuch as they called it, and the couple was told this department could help them.

The building corridors were long, and the rooms were not clearly numbered, but eventually Hilda and John found the designated office and offered the piece of paper to a man at the desk. He seemed surprised that they had made it so far without an appointment. He took the piece of paper, and as soon as he confirmed the land plot number on the Registry of Deeds, he told his visitors to go next door.

This new room was larger and busier than anything Hilda and John had so far experienced. There was a large reception desk at one end, staffed by several individuals who seemed to be answering questions and passing packages to people who came and went. Along one side of the room was a shelf with a row of desktop computers, several of which were being used. It appeared many people were searching for property records. There were also several rows of chairs in the center of the room, most unoccupied, that were presumably for visitors to sit and wait until they were called to the front desk.

Hilda and John were unsure of what to do next. They sat and looked around. It appeared that clients were either accessing files online, or receiving physical copies at the reception desk. There was a young lady helping who seemed particularly friendly and Hilda took a liking towards her. She became the target of attention. Hilda approached her with a big smile and asked if she spoke English. She didn’t. Once more, using her limited German, Hilda explained who she was and why she was there. The woman reacted sympathetically and took away the piece of paper, asking her visitor to return to the chair. A few minutes later she beckoned Hilda back to the counter.

She spoke in German. “I will assist you. We have records and I can access them as soon as I have time. If you leave your address, I’ll send copies to your American home, but I need two weeks for research, and the mailing will probably take a similar length of time.”

Hilda’s persistence once more had been effective. She was delighted by the woman’s offer, which seemed genuine. She thanked the assistant and gave her the prepared letter since it included her home address.

People willing to help were always appreciated by Hilda, and on the way out she asked the security guard if there was a florist’s shop nearby. She was directed to a store across the street where she bought a bouquet of flowers and a vase to present as a thank-you gift to the helpful woman. On the return, the attendant waived Hilda and John into the building, asking that they deliver the flowers personally. The recipient’s reaction indicated she rarely received recognition from her clients.

After a quick lunch, the couple decided to take one final look at the apartment building and let the shopkeepers know what happened at the District Court. They used public transport and quickly found the property. The store owners were pleased to receive an update and congratulated Hilda and John on the results of their visit. They asked to be kept up-to-date by email, and repeated their recommendation that the Wir Waren Nachbarn Exhibition should be visited. It was within walking distance and time was available, so the couple decided to visit.

About forty minutes later, Hilda and John found themselves in a large display hall. It was an awe-inspiring exhibit, but somber and sad. The person in charge listened to Hilda explain her family’s history, and went off to research her files. A few minutes later she returned to say that there were no records of Hilda’s family, and the property address fell outside the geographic area served by the Exhibition. It was the first disappointment of the tour, but the willingness of the person to help was a welcome consolation.

That evening, the tour guide spoke to the couple to find out what happened during the day. He was pleased the visit was so successful. For Hilda, it was now a matter of wait and see. She trusted the lady at the Land Register and believed she would honor her promise. It was time to resume the tour and prepare for the bus journey to Dresden the following morning.