Author: John Cammidge

The Success of the Bald Eagle

The Success of the Bald Eagle

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

Linnet Versus The American House Finch

Linnet Versus The American House Finch

I was first introduced during the late 1950s to the small songbird, a member of the finch family, called the Linnet or Common Linnet, when I was associated with the Bootham School Natural History Club in York, England. Founded in 1834, the society was one 

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 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.


Canada goose - Moffitt's

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. 

Canada and Cackling Geese

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.


Canada goose damage

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

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.  


Brent Geese

Extract of illustration from British Birds by Kirkman and Jourdain


Brent goose Range map

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

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.


Canada Geese trends in the UK

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. 

Canada goose golf


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 

The American White Pelican

The American White Pelican

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, 

History of the Crow

History of the Crow

Recently, I came across a glossy, all-black American crow removing fiber from the back of my outdoors lounge chair. It gave me a look of disgust and then resumed its destruction, presumably using the stuffing to decorate its nest some distance away. Both sexes look alike so I could not determine if the thief was male or female. Crows are smart, social, and resourceful birds, and nearly daily visitors to my California back yard. Often in family groups,  they squawk incessantly, feed on whatever they can find, and fly from perch to perch for reasons that are unclear to me. They live in tight-knit family units, with young crows staying with their parents to help raise their younger siblings in future years. There are around 30 million of them in North America, although in recent years the population has been affected by the West Nile virus, a mosquito-borne pathogen that kills corvids more than any other species of bird.

Even so, the American crow population appears to be exploding, and today the bird is present in most urban and suburban settings, having learned to pick out safe situations and avoid dangerous ones. They are a lot smarter than they look. Records suggest that they spread westwards across North America as European settlers moved from east to west. Back then, they were often unwelcome guests because of their habit of foraging in cornfields and orchards. They were considered vermin and suffered unrestrained persecution through shooting, poisoning, and the destruction of their nests and eggs. In some cases, bounties were paid. An example was in the 1940s and 1950s when the US Federal government offered a bounty for each bird killed to protect the nation’s grain supply.

In the Old World, persecution of European crows has probably even been more severe over the centuries. Henry VIII in England passed the Preservation of Grain Act in 1532 in response to a series of poor harvests. The Act made it compulsory for every person in the country to kill as many crows as possible, along with other vermin such as weasels, stoats, hedgehogs, badgers, and foxes. Parishes raised levies to pay the bounty, and communities that failed to kill in sufficient numbers were punished with fines.

Supposedly, the meat of a crow is foul-tasting and the term “eating crow” is used for people who admit to humiliating mistakes and errors. Additionally, in Leviticus 11:15, God declares that “ravens of any kind” (the corvid family) should be regarded as unclean and never be eaten.


American Crow Hunt


In the United States, prior to 1972, crows were shot or poisoned at will and denied protection under the 1918 Federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act. This situation was amended in 1972 when corvids were made exempt from hunting, but with exceptions for landowners to kill the birds if they believed they were damaging or threatening trees, agricultural crops, livestock or wildlife. Specific days were set aside for hunting the birds outside their breeding season, but only firearms, bows and arrows, and falconry could be used. California adopted this exemption and authorizes licenses and permits from December 5 to April 7, with a daily bag limit of 24 birds. Data on numbers killed is limited although, in 2015, hunters reported killing about 35,000 birds.

So, if you were an intelligent bird, where would you move for greater safety and protection – likely to either urban or suburban centers where shooting is not permitted? In addition to not having crow shoots, cities provide alternative sources of food, have a warmer climate, offer an abundance of  trees for roosts, and supplies artificial light to help look out for predator owls. In the city of San Francisco, an estimated 122 crows were recorded in 2000, whereas today the number has risen to around 900.


Distribution of American Crows

American crow Range Map

Crows remember their experiences and communicate them to others, they protect each other at night by roosting in tight-knit “murders” (a hunting term used since the 14th century for a group of crows), they problem-solve such as opening plastic bags, dropping nuts in front of cars to be driven over, soaking hard food items in fountains and bird baths before eating, and collecting and storing food for future use. They can recognize individual humans and behave hostile towards those that threaten them or come too close to their breeding territory.

They cluster in parks and gardens, scavenge and compete for food at dumpsters and bird feeders, and cackle whenever they choose, including early in the morning. They mainly feed on dead animals, fruits, seeds, grain and nuts, insects, amphibians, small mammals, shellfish, and the eggs and chicks of other birds. The latter habit causes offense among humans, although there is no evidence that it reduces the population of other species of bird. Increasingly, crows rely on humans and urban habitats for their food, safety, and the availability of nesting sites.


Two Crows: Hooded Crow and Carrion Crow


The American crow is comparable to the carrion crow and hooded-crow in the Old World, that I would see during the 1950s and 1960s. Some of these experiences are recounted in my novel She Wore a Yellow Dress.  European crows display the same levels of intelligence and are equally as aggressive. For example, in parts of Berlin, crows have learnt to single out elderly ladies carrying plastic shopping bags as a likely source of food. More locally, here in California, crows will follow golf carts on the golf course, and look for food while the golfers are away conducting their sport.

The carrion crow is a glossy, all-black corvid, and fairly common across Western Europe. It was a resident around my rural home near York, England when I was a child, despite the habit of farmers erecting “scarecrows”, skinny decoys dressed in old clothes to resemble a human figure, to frighten away these birds. The ash-grey hooded crows were occasional winter visitors, but their numbers in Yorkshire have since declined.


European rook


The European rook is very similar to the American crow in that it is gregarious and prefers to live in tree-top colonies. They are relatively large black-feathered birds, distinguished from other corvids by the whitish featherless area on their face. So far, they appear reluctant to move into urban settings.


Two Crows: A Pair of Ravens


One of the greatest enemies of the American crow is the raven, a much larger and all-black bird, with large bill, wedge-shaped tail feathers (crows are fan-shaped), and a well-developed ruff on its throat. Its call is more of a croaking sound, or “gronk-gronk”, and unlike the crow, it is not common in populated areas. Where their habitats overlap, crows will attack their larger cousin to try and stop the latter’s habit of pillaging crows’ eggs and the young. They also engage in mobbing other birds when they believe their territory is under threat. On a quiet afternoon in California, you can hear the “caw-cawing” of a group of crows chasing  high overhead after a red-shouldered or red-tailed hawk, and you can hear the hawk’s repeated “kea-oah” call as it tries to avoid being pecked to death.

In summary, American crows are uniquely adapted to cope with a changing environment and the increasing presence of humans. European corvids have done the same, but to a lesser degree. Along with sparrows, rock pigeons and starlings, crows are now the fourth “city bird”, but because of the mess and noise that they make and the false belief that the West Nile virus is spread by them, there is a desire to control their numbers. However, he simplest solutions are to keep crows out of trash cans (do not feed them) and discourage garden visits with netting and inaccessible bird feeders, rather than killing them. Remember, if you do menace crows, they can carry a grudge against you for a very long time to come, and communicate their dislike to others. The look I received from the crow that was stealing the stuffing from my chair suggested that was not yet on its enemy list.


American Crows

The growing abundance of siskins

The growing abundance of siskins

Eurasian Siskin Male There were not many birds I could see in the UK growing up that are also here in California. The siskin is an exception. It is a small finch, about the size of a sparrow, with a sharp pointed bill, pointed wing 

Four and twenty blackbirds

Four and twenty blackbirds

Blackbird male I recorded the blackbird virtually every time I went out bird watching during the 1950s. Along with the starling and house sparrow, it was the most common bird in the York area, and I enjoyed its presence. I often followed it to its 

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?

Growing up in the countryside of Britain during the 1950s, I always was fascinated by the sight and sound of the yellowhammer. It belongs to the bunting family and is sparrow-sized at 6.5 inches (16.5 cm) in length. The males would sing from the tops of hedges “tehe-tehe-tehe-tehe-tehe-tehe-tehe-tehe-tehe-e-e-e-se” (last note drawn out), which was translated in English to “a-little-bit-of-bread-and-no-cheese”. It was all part of the countryside charm that I describe in my novel Unplanned. Supposedly, the song inspired the four-note opening motif (dit-dit-dit-dah) of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, when he heard the yellowhammer sing as he walked in Prater-park in Vienna, or so the story goes.

The male yellowhammer has a bright lemon-yellow head and yellowish underparts, a chestnut rump, greenish olive on the nape, wing feathers that are red-striped black, and white on its outer tail feathers. The female is more drab and streaky. Walking home from primary school, these birds would regularly greet me from the hedgerows and road margins. They were delightful. At the time, there was probably around  four million of these birds across the British countryside, and the bird was described as “abundant in the York area” in the late 1950s, with the addendum that “no walk or cycle ride in the York district fails to disclose the presence of these birds, especially during the breeding season”. They are typically residents, and gather in large mixed flocks during winter, with other buntings, finches and sparrows. They feed mainly on seed, especially foraging for spilt grain and where cereal is fed to cattle. Yellow hammers typically build their nests on or very near the ground among vegetation or low bushes. I watched these birds as a young child to locate their nests, and took some ogf their eggs for my collection.


Yellowhammer nestYellowhammer nest


This situation began to change in the UK, slowly at first, but by the 1980s, yellowhammer numbers were under threat from agricultural interventions. Hedgerows were removed to increase the acreage of farmland, changes in agricultural practices reduced the amount of seed available, urbanization took away habitat, the greater use of pesticides harmed the population, and crows and cats found it easier to catch these birds.

Today, the number of British yellowhammers has fallen by well over 50 percent since 1970 to approximately 1.5 million, and the species is now on the UK Red list of Conservation Concern. For unknown reasons  the yellowhammer has not chosen to use back yard bird feeders.


Yellowhammer range mapYellowhammer range map


It is widely distributed across Europe, and its Asia range includes northwest Turkey, the Caucasus, and northern Kazakhstan. It was introduced by humans many decades ago into New Zealand (where it is widespread and common), South Africa, and the Falkland Islands, but it is not found in North America. There are alternative buntings in North America, but not many in California. Of the 9 North America species, only the Lazuli bunting is seen in my state, and is uncommon where I live.

Curiously, you will hear people in North America talk about yellowhammers, but they are not the bird that I grew up with. It is the local nickname given to the northern flicker (or eastern yellow-shafted flicker) that is present in Alabama.  The underside of its wings and tail are bright yellow feathers and it “hammers” away (drums) with its beak when searching for food.  The rumor is that the bird’s nickname was first given to Confederate soldiers in Alabama  who wore pieces of yellow cloth attached to their uniforms as they went off to battle.  It became recognized as Alabama’s state bird in 1927.

The bullfinch and the fruit trees

The bullfinch and the fruit trees

Female and male bullfinch There was a small apple orchard close to our farm in the early 1950s that was one of my preferred childhood patches for bird watching. I would go there to watch jackdaws, woodpeckers, starlings, blackbirds, and thrushes, but during spring, I 

From the King of the Atlantic, the great black-backed gull, to the more gentle opportunist, the western gull, on the Pacific Coast

From the King of the Atlantic, the great black-backed gull, to the more gentle opportunist, the western gull, on the Pacific Coast

Great black-backed gull There were never great black-backed gulls around the farm during my childhood, and only a few wintered close to York.  I had to go to the seaside if I wished to see them. Great black-backed gulls are the largest gull in the 

When was the British Lapwing eaten as a countryside delicacy and why is it under threat today?

When was the British Lapwing eaten as a countryside delicacy and why is it under threat today?

It was 1958, I was 14, and had recently joined the York Bootham School Natural History Club to broaden my knowledge of birds and to learn of the best birding spots near York. 138 species were listed by the School, and I had probably seen half of them. A description that caught my eye was that of the lapwing (also called the peewit or green plover) since this was one of the earliest birds I could recognize out in the fields. The Club’s report alarmed me by stating:

“Old Bootham records (beginning March 1851) indicate that this species has always been a common bird in the York area, but it is less common than it used to be. Many diaries at the turn of the century report the presence of many nests in fields near York, while today it is increasingly easy to find fields having no resident pair of breeding lapwing.”

It was enough to stop me from eating their eggs.


Lapwing nest and eggsLapwing nest and eggs


This pigeon-sized bird lays – usually 3 or 4 eggs – in an open field, using a scrape in the ground. If its nest is threatened, it may approach you and pretend a wing is damaged by dragging it along on the ground. If you do not follow, it may start to dive-bomb and screeching “peewit, peewit”. The bird is medium-sized (about12 in/30 cm) in length, has black and white plumage, a glossy green back, a wispy crest on its head, and rounded paddle-shaped wings. It breeds across northern Europe and north Asia, and winters as far south as North Africa, Northern India, and southern China. It gets its name from the undulating pattern of its flight and has long suffered from human activity.


Lapwing range map: yellow – breeding; green – year round; purple – winterLapwing range map: yellow – breeding; green – year round; purple – winter


Not only were lapwing eggs taken for food in earlier times, but the bird was killed and eaten as a countryside delicacy. The consequences became so severe that the British government passed the Protection of Lapwings Act in 1926 to make it illegal to offer the bird for human consumption or willfully disturb its nest. Even so, during World War 2, its eggs were knowingly taken and turned into powder to be consumed by soldiers on the front line. 

This population decline has continued because of the use of pesticides, loss of habitat, and reduced food supplies. Their number in England and Wales is now  approximately 80 percent lower than it was at the end of the 1950s. Even so, there are still an estimated 140,000 breeding pairs of lapwing, and in winter this number increases to around 650,000 individual birds because of visitors, with many gathering in flocks on flooded pastures and ploughed fields. The species is currently on the UK Red List of birds with conservation concerns, allowing for close monitoring and preventative actions.


Lapwings in winterLapwings in winter


I should mention that there is a similar looking bird in the southern hemisphere known as the southern lapwing. This species is widespread throughout South America and its range has expanded to Panama, Costa Rica, and other parts of Central America. Since its population is expanding, it is not considered at risk. Like the northern variety, it has a crest, can be very noisy, and makes use of similar habitats.


Southern lapwingSouthern lapwing


Arriving in California, I lost contact with this bold and beautifully crested bird  They are not found in North America except for occasional vagrants in eastern Canada and the northeast US. Its closest relative in North America is the widespread killdeer which is also a member of the plover family, has similar feeding habits, is similarly rowdy, and feigns injury to protect its nest. This species I see during much of the year.


Californian killdeerCalifornian killdeer


It seems a long time ago since I ate lapwing’s eggs, and regardless of its legality, I have no intentions of resuming the habit. Hopefully, steps being taken to safeguard the species presence in the UK will be successful.  As temperatures rise, causing foreign birds to arrive in the UK, native birds such as the lapwing are at risk of being pushed out.



Cute lapwingsCute lapwings


From Blue Tits to Chikadees

From Blue Tits to Chikadees

Growing up with blue tits on the farm is one of my earliest memories. These feisty little birds (4.5 in/12 cm in length) were noisy, sociable, and inquisitive, and the moment we hung up bacon rind after breakfast, they would be there, hanging upside down, 

Phalaropes and their unusual sexual dimorphism

Phalaropes and their unusual sexual dimorphism

Red-necked phalarope Sexual dimorphism was not something that had significance to me during my juvenile years as a bird watcher. I sometimes wondered why the female blackbirds were brown and why it was more difficult to identify female chaffinches and bullfinches than their more colorful 

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

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

For 10 years, starting in the early 1950s, my family spent a summer week’s holiday in a rented bungalow on the coastal hillside at Reighton Gap near Filey, Yorkshire. The bungalow has since been demolished. Nearby, to the south-east, stood the hard chalk outcrops forming the nearly perpendicular cliffs known at the time as Bempton Rocks. Today they are named the Bempton Cliffs and are an RSPB Nature Reserve. They were a haunt of mine during my early days of bird watching and a special place for watching the fulmar..


Bempton Cliffs, a home of the northern fulmarBempton Cliffs


The cliffs are occupied by about a quarter-of-a-million seabirds that breed along the alluvial ledges that adorn the face. Here is the only gannet colony in England with about 10,000 breeding pairs. I was mesmerized by these birds, so much so that I titled chapter 16 in my novel She Wore a Yellow Dress as The Voracious Gannet. Their insatiable appetite reminds me of my thirst for knowledge during my first job at Ford Motor Company in 1967. It was also at the Bempton Rocks that I was given a guillemot egg to add to my egg collection.


Gannets at BemptonGannets at Bempton


My favorite species, however, was the fulmars, gull-like, pelagic birds, always over the sea, that glide low over the water and then soar high up the cliff face on rising air. One of their distinguishing features is the “tubenose” or large nostrils on top of their upper bill that links to salt glands in their nasal passage, allowing them to excrete a high saline solution to desalinate their body. Today at Bempton there are about 800 breeding pairs, and following nesting, they spend the rest of their time far out at sea, usually journeying south before returning to their nesting site in spring. 

Occasionally, I would see fulmars over the sea at Spurn Point in the 1960s.  Their breeding population today in the UK is around 500,000 pairs, and in winter, the population grows to in excess of 1.5 million.  A fulmar usually lays one egg on the ledge of bare rock or on a grassy cliff, and defends it and its chick by spitting foul-smelling, orange-colored stomach oil at whatever is threatening it.  There are an estimated 3.5 million fulmars in Europe, and likely well-over seven million globally.


Fulmar tubenosesFulmar tubenose


These are heavy set, medium-sized sea birds (18-20 inches long/46 to 50 cm), colored grey and white, with a pale yellow bill and gray legs, and display a large wingspan. The word fulmar is derived from the Old Norse words full for stinking and mar for gull. There are three subspecies; one that lives in the Arctic, another across the Northern Atlantic, and a third that inhabits the North Pacific.


Northern fulmar range mapFulmar range map: yellow – breeding; blue – wintering


The fulmar, sometimes called the Northern fulmar, is one of the few birds in my childhood that I can also see here in California. The same is not true for the gannet that only breeds on the east coast of Canada and spends winter at sea as far south as Florida and Texas.

However, the opportunity to actually observe fulmars in California is low because they only visit California during winter and spend most of their time away from land. Nonetheless, individuals do show up in bad weather, and if you go whale-watching, you may spot several out at sea. They are a darker gray than the pale white ones I saw at Bempton Cliffs. 


Pacific dark morph fulmarPacific dark morph fulmar


Globally, fulmars are very abundant and therefore classified as Of Least Concern from a conservation perspective in North America.  They are on the watch list in the UK and Europe because over there, their numbers have declined and dropped about 40 percent since the mid-1980s. They are sensitive to oil and plastic ingestion and can become caught up in fishing nets when following fishing vessels to feed on waste.  Climate change also affects the quality of their food and its availability, which in turn influences the fulmars’ breeding success. This is one of the few species I see in California as well as can go and inspect in the UK when I visit my family.