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 …
Author: John Cammidge
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 …
It is fall, and the time when many Californians catch sight of flocks of the white pelicans flying in formation between their breeding grounds in the northern interior of North America, to winter along the Pacific Coast as far as Mexico, on the Salton Sea, or around the estuary of the Colorado River. These heavyset birds majestically soar, hover, wheel and circle high overhead, before descending onto shallow water. They are the second-largest bird in North America (the California condor is #1), weigh up to 30 pounds, are nearly five feet in length, have a ten foot wing span, are dressed in stark white plumage with bold black markings under their wings, possess a massive bill, and carry their head in an S-shape during flight.
The ones that breed east of the Rocky Mountains usually migrate south and east along the Gulf of Mexico for winter, and those parenting west of the Rockies travel over deserts and mountains towards the Pacific Ocean. Populations breeding in Texas and Mexico usually winter there.
Migration is necessary to find new sources of food as their summer feeding grounds freeze-over. Their diet consists mostly of fish, especially small schooling fish such as chub, sticklebacks, mullet, and carp, and they forage during the daytime in winter, and at night while breeding.
American white pelican
American white pelicans nest in colonies on marshy or rocky islands close to, or on, remote freshwater mountain lakes, reservoirs and wetlands. It is estimated that there are about 60 breeding colonies in North America, and that each one can accommodate up to 5,000 birds. The largest ones exist in Utah, North Dakota, Minnesota, and in the inland states of Canada.
Global population ranges from approximately 140,000 to 180,000 individuals. Numbers fell dramatically during the mid-twentieth century due to hunting, the use of pesticides, and habitat loss, but have subsequently recovered. Even so, the species is threatened by environmental change, human disturbance, and retaliation from humans for preying on fish in commercial hatcheries.
The pelican’s nest is a depression on the ground or a mound of vegetation and dirt, usually containing one to three eggs. Only the strongest chick survives, with the others usually starving to death because they fail to compete for food. The bird’s life span is around 15 years.
Few sights are more captivating a flock of these large white birds circling overhead and then clumsily descending to the surface of the water either to forage for food or land on isolated islands for rest, to preen themselves, and to sleep. Probably the most visible feature of the American white pelican is its huge yellow-orange bill and distensible throat pouch. The bird is a dabbler, usually fishing in shallow waters less than six feet (180 cm) deep, by thrusting its large bill into the water to scoop up fish. A flock may sometimes work together to herd fish into shallow water where they are easier to catch. The flexible pouch acts as a fishing net to allow the bird to drain away the water and position the fish head-first before swallowing them. It is not used to store food.
The bird is similar in shape to the smaller and slender North American brown pelican, but the latter prefers saltwater rather than freshwater, and dives for its food rather than scooping up fish from the top of the water. It has gray-brown plumage, a yellow head, white neck, and the very distinctive long bill of all pelicans.
They are mainly coastal birds, usually found within 5 miles (8 km) of sea, and are spread along the North America’s Atlantic and Pacific Coasts, most remaining resident in their territory.
Although it is not usual to confuse the American white pelican with other species of birds there are alternative large white birds in similar habitats that might cause confusion.
For example, snow geese, with their white plumage and black wing tips. They are much smaller than pelicans, and their bills are shorter and colored pink with dark edgings. They may be seen in huge numbers, honking in “V” formation flocks during winter as they migrate from their Arctic breeding grounds to the warmer parts of North America. They fly with their necks extended, and unlike pelicans, flap their wings constantly.
There are also all-white swans, such as trumpeter swans, that may be confused with the white pelican. These graceful, long necked, heavy-bodied birds glide majestically on the water and fly with slow, purposeful wing beats, and with necks outstretched. Last, there is the great white egret, an elegant bird, with a long, pointed yellow bill and black stilt-like legs, but unlike the pelican it stalks and spears its prey.
Great white egret
During my early years of birdwatching in the UK, I never saw a pelican except in captivity. They had become extinct in Britain hundreds of years earlier during Roman times, when they were hunted for food and their habitat drained. According to fossil evidence, the pelican was common among Britain’s reed beds 12,000 years ago.
The species closest to Britain is the Dalmatian pelican that breeds in Eastern Europe around the Black Sea, and in parts of central Asia and Russia. It displays a stunning silvery-white plumage that contrasts with its orange-red pouch during the breeding season. On its nape it has a thick crest of feathers. You can imagine the excitement, therefore, among bird watchers when, a few years ago, a Dalmatian pelican was spotted near Land’s End in Cornwall, England. Presumably it had been blown off course.
And finally, the symbolism attached to the pelican in Europe is worth mentioning. Ancient legend has it that in times of famine a mother pelican would wound herself by striking her breast to feed her young with her own blood. The Christian faith took this myth to signify the death of Jesus Christ and the sacrifice of his own life for the redemption of humans. The bird thus became popular as an image on altar frontals and in stained glass church windows, as depicted below.
Pie Pelicane, Jesu Domine: Me immundum munda tuo Sanguine
(“Lord Jesus, Good Pelican: Wash my filthiness and clean me with Your Blood”)
Thomas Aquinas, 1225-1274.
Finally, as for their ability to deal with climate change, their summer range is forecast to shift northwards but wintering grounds may not be as flexible.
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 …
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 nest in hedgerows or listened to the prolific singing as it tried to attract a mate or warn off potential rivals.
I admit to collecting its eggs. However, as I explain in my novel She Wore a Yellow Dress, I always considered the eggs of the song thrush to be more attractive, and they were my first choice for collecting. At the time, there were about six million pairs of breeding blackbirds in the UK, but this number shrank to around five million between the 1970s to mid-1990s. It is unclear what caused the decline, but it is more likely to do with the destruction of hedgerows by farmers than my childhood egg collecting. Their population is now stable and the blackbird has been moved from the UK’s Amber to Green List of Birds of Conservation Concern.
UK blackbirds are resident all year round and their numbers swell in winter when Scandinavian birds arrive because of the warmer climate. I experienced this migration during a trip to Spurn Point in April 1961 when I recorded 40 blackbirds flying northwards. The European population is estimated to be around 140 million, and the species breeds across Eurasia and North Africa. It was also introduced in Australia and New Zealand.
Blackbird Range Map: orange – breeding; violet – year-round; blue – non-breeding
The male possesses a glossy black plumage, an orange-yellow bill, and a yellow eye-ring, whereas the female is a duller sooty brown, has a yellowish bill, and mottling on her breast.
Blackbirds are frequently featured in legend and mythology. Druid legend has it that listening to a singing blackbird transfers you to the otherworld or a higher place of existence. Celtic belief is that if you place blackbird feathers under someone’s pillow they will tell you their innermost secrets. Shakespeare used the bird – he called it an ousel cock – in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and other cultures believe that if you dream about a blackbird, it is a sign of misfortune to come in the coming weeks. And there is the Nursery Rhyme “Sing a Song of Sixpence”, whose origins appear to be lost in time. Maybe there was a pie; alternatively the birds may symbolize the 24 hours of the clock; or possibly the rhyme refers to an incident in Henry VIII’s suppression of the monasteries, or maybe it is political satire portraying events in Henry VIII’s Court?
Sing a Song of Sixpence
Another feature of blackbirds is albinism. On rare occasions, birds develop white patches of feathers, and occasionally, totally white blackbirds can be seen. Lack of the pigment melanin is supposed to cause this condition, and it is accompanied with pink eyes.
Blackbird with albinism
Once I moved to California in 1979, I lost touch with these sociable birds. They never made it to the New World except as very rare vagrants. Instead, there are five other species of New World blackbirds (red-winged, rusty, brewer’s, yellow-headed, and tricolored), all of which are unrelated to the European species.
Several species have been shown vulnerable to climate change. For example, shifts in temperature have reduced the availability of food for the rusty blackbird, and water drought in California is affecting the distribution of red-winged blackbirds. By contrast, there is evidence that global warming is improving the survival rate of the UK blackbird because of warmer winters.
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 …
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
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 world, measuring on average 30 inches (75cm) in length. By comparison, an adult golden eagle ranges in size from 27 to 33 inches (70 to 84 cm).
These birds were seen regularly by me at Spurn Point during the 1960s, and occasionally I would watch them as they attacked other birds. They were aggressive and vicious. The prey they caught included smaller gulls, terns, and ducks, as well as migrating songbirds that they swallowed immediately they were seized. Once I watched a great black-backed gull chase a tern out at sea ; it attacked its prey while in flight, repeatedly jabbing the poor tern until the exhausted bird collapsed into the water where it was eaten. They also chase birds to rob them of the food the bird has already caught. I also saw them during a 1968 visit to Minsmere Nature Reserve that is described in chapter 22 of my novel She Wore a Yellow Dress.
Great black-backed gulls chasing an osprey
The great black-backed gull is nicknamed “the minister-of-the-sea”, or “coffin-bearer”, presumably because of the adult’s crisp black and white appearance. You can identify the birds by their size, the black coloration on their broad upper wings, the gleaming white head, big yellow bill and orange-red spot on the lower mandible, plus pinkish legs and yellowish eyes.
It is a species whose fortunes have been closely linked to its relationship with humans. During the 1800s, great black-backed gulls were harvested for their feathers which were used by the hat-making trade, and as soon as this practice ended, their numbers rebounded. The use of garbage dumps and other sources of human refuse have also helped them add to their numbers and expand their territory. Today about 35,000 birds breed in the UK, and this number increases to around 75,000 during winter when migrating birds arrive from the north.
Great black-backed gulls gathering
The range of the great black-backed gull extends across northern Europe and over the Atlantic to North America’s Atlantic Coast and Great Lakes. There are an estimated 800,000 birds worldwide, of which about 350,000 are resident in Europe. These gulls are closely monitored in the UK in circumstances when they choose to nest close to humans and create a risk to human safety. Thus the bird is kept on the conservation amber watch list in Britain. In North America, its status is classified as Least Concern since its range is expanding and its numbers increasing.
Great black-backed gulls Range Map
Once I moved to California, I could no longer see these powerful and dominating gulls. In California, the largest gull is the western gull which measures around 25 inches (64 cm) in length. It lives along the Pacific Coast, ranging from British Columbia, Canada to Baja California in Mexico. However, there is nothing fierce or aggressive about this species. It feeds on fish and invertebrates and consumes roadkill on land. Because of its restricted distribution, its population is relatively small at around 120,000 individual birds. This compares to the smaller California gull, that has a similar range, whose population is estimated at 600,000. I usually observe both species here daily in the San Francisco Bay Area. Because its population is stable western gulls are classified Least Concern for conservation purposes.
Their plumage is mainly bright white, although their back and wings are colored dark gray and they have black plumage with white spots at the rear edges of their wings. Their beaks are thick and bright yellow and display a red spot on the front of their lower bill. Their legs are pink. These gulls are strictly carnivores and eat mostly fish and marine invertebrates.
Western gull Range Map
The future of both the great black-backed gull and western gull appear to rest heavily on their relationship with humans, plus the flexibility of their diet. Temperature changes have both positive and negative effect on their livelihood. For example, as sea water warms and plankton sinks into deeper and colder water, the fish follow them down and become less available to surface-eating birds. Conversely, in Europe’s North Sea, global warming has created an abundance of swimming crabs.
One final word is to acknowledge the many different species of gull around the world – over 50 species – and the difficulty this causes in identifying individual gull species because they often look alike. In the UK, there are six types of commonly occurring gull (common gull, black-headed, herring gull, kittiwake, lesser black-backed, and of course, the King of the Atlantic, the great black-backed gull. That number is in the process of rising to seven as the Mediterranean gull makes its home in Britain.
In North America, there are 28 types of gull. California hosts five relatively common species (California gull, ring-billed gull, glaucous-winged gull, Heerman’s gull, and of course, the very visible western gull), but this number dramatically increases in winter when California is home to several migrating species such as the herring gull, Thayer’s gull, and Sabine’s gull. I continue to develop my abilities to identify each species rather than clump them together as “seagulls”!
Great black-backed gulls by age
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 …
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, …
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 mates. Probably the clearest example of this distinction was the pheasant, with the male’s rich chestnut and golden brown body contrasted with the female’s rather dowdy pale brown and black plumage. Of about 10,300 species of bird globally, virtually all are either monomorphic or sexually dimorphic where the male is the more brightly colored. I had yet to encounter the phalaropes, a variety of shorebird, that contradict the usual sex role. The female possesses the more brightly colored plumage, does not incubate the eggs, and may breed with multiple mates (polyandry).
The male chaffinch
The female chaffinch
My mother told me how male birds needed to compete to attract their mates and were the dominant partner during breeding. I was not convinced. When I looked at humans it was the female that wore the colorful clothing and ornamentation. Later on at Hull University, where I studied Geography, I learned that there are many cultures around the world where it is the male that wears the flamboyant clothing. I describe my years at Hull in the early chapters of my novel She Wore a Yellow Dress.
It was not until I moved to California that I came across phalaropes and witnessed reverse sexual dimorphism for the first time. There are three species of phalarope, all of which display this phenomenon, and the one I most typically see is the red-necked variety. Females are the more brightly colored bird and it is they that select their male partner. After the female chooses the nesting site, the male builds the nest, incubates the eggs, and nurtures the offspring, while the female goes off and may mate with other males.
Red-necked phalarope Range Map: pink – breeding; green – migration; blue – winter.
The red-necked phalarope and grey phalarope (or red phalarope as it is called in North America) are found both in Europe and North America, whereas the Wilson’s phalarope is restricted to the Americas. It is named after a Scottish-American ornithologist. These are small, delicate-looking waders, ranging in length from about seven inches (18 cm) for the red-necked phalarope, to up to nine inches (23 cm) for the larger Wilson’s phalarope.
Red phalarope, breeding female
Red phalarope, non-breeding adult
Back in my early days, I hoped to spot either a red-necked or gray phalarope at Spurn Point during the 1960s visits but was unsuccessful. Both species are quite rare. The red-necked phalarope breeds in the UK, but no more than about 30 pairs, and these are located primarily in the western and northern Isles of Scotland. During fall, additional birds from Iceland, the Faroes and Scandinavia pass down the east coast, and it was one of these I had hoped to see. Some travel south-westward to migrate across the Atlantic and eventually arrive in the tropical parts of the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands, a journey of up to 6,200 miles (10,000 km). There they are joined by North American birds. Other European red-necked phalaropes turn south-east, and travel about 3,700 miles (6,000 km) to spend winter on the Arabian Sea in the Indian Ocean.
Red phalarope Range Map
Gray phalaropes are an Arctic-breeding bird and are much rarer in the UK than the red-necked phalarope. They only migrate over the sea and their appearance on land is usually caused by birds being blown off course by storms. There are around 200 sightings per year in the UK. Gray phalaropes spend winter on the open sea off the west coast of South Africa. In North America, this species is known as the red phalarope, and breeds in the northern region of the continent, and for winter, they travel to the southern parts of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
Wilson’s phalarope image and Wilson’s phalarope Range Map
Wilson’s phalaropes nest in the north-west United States and Canada and migrate for winter along the west side of the continent to South America They move in large flocks and use a series of stopovers at places like the Great Salt Lake, Mono Lake, and the Salton Sea, as well as at sewage ponds and smaller wetlands. Like the other species, they spin to stir up their food and eat so much on stopovers that they can double their body weight.
Flock of Wilson’s phalaropes over Mono Lake
Estimates are that there are around 4 million red-necked phalaropes worldwide, about 2.2 million red/gray phalaropes, and a global breeding population of 1.5 individual birds for Wilson’s phalarope. They maintain sufficient numbers that they are of low conservation concern. The exception is the red-necked variety in the UK where global warming is pushing its breeding territory northwards and the bird has not bred in Northern Ireland since 1980. Its conservation status in Britain is red. It also suffers population declines in places like eastern Canada where the loss of prairie wetlands has affected its numbers. Similarly, Wilson’s phalarope that nests in freshwater marshes sufferS from the drainage of wetlands.
The origin of the birds’ name is unclear; it maybe French. Phalaropes are strikingly beautiful and delicate-looking birds, with strong-willed females!
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 …
Long-billed dowitcher Early during my bird watching career, I recorded mainly everyday species around my home near York, but at the start of the 1960s, at the age of 16, I took my first journey to Spurn Point. Here my ornithological expectations quickly changed. I …
The whitethroat, weighing half-an-ounce (14 grams), flies 2650 miles (4100km), twice a year, between its breeding grounds and wintering location
The whitethroat is a bird I became acquainted without knowing its name. I must have been eight years old, and riding a two-wheeler bicycle when I fell into a bed of stinging nettles along the farm driveway. It was painful experience and the reddened rashes covered my arms and face. Once I had rubbed the rashes with dock leaves, I wanted atonement. I took the undersized scythe from the farm shed and set about destroying this hurtful vegetation. Close to the hen house, unexpectedly, there appeared a cup-shaped nest made out of grass and plant fibers, strung between several nettle stems. I looked inside. There were three small greenish – gray eggs with dark markings. I immediately stopped cutting but could see no sign of the parents. The eggs remained there for several days and I eventually took them to add to my egg collection. It was only later that my grandfather told me that I had found the nest of a whitethroat.
Eggs of the whitethroat
The whitethroat is a small passerine bird that has a pure white throat, rusty-colored upper parts and pale buff under parts. The male possesses a grey head that is absent on the female whose coloring is duller and browner than the male. Whitethroats are summer visitors to the UK and the books I have retained from the mid-1950s indicate that these birds were common and widespread around York, the area in which I lived. They nest among undergrowth, in lower parts of bushes, among bramble (blackberry) patches, and in nettle beds, and have gained the nickname of “nettle creepers”. They rely on insects for food.
The female whitethroat
My teenage bird notebook records that I also saw a lesser whitethroat during May 1960, although I cannot recollect where this was. The lesser species is not as common (about 75,000 breeding pairs in Britain today), and is found mainly in central and southern England. The bird is smaller than the regular whitethroat (also named the greater whitethroat), and is identified by its greyer upper parts and the silky white plumage below. It is a secretive bird, often remaining hidden in bushes and hedges. Both types of whitethroat are Old World species and not present in North America except as rare vagrants.
Whitethroats typically arrive in the UK during mid to late April and return to their wintering grounds starting late August. They begin their spring journey in the Sahel Region of central Africa (Senegal eastward to Sudan), and follow a route that can be as long as up to 3500 miles (6,000km). They travel by night, using high altitude tail winds to speed their progress, and consume Salvadora berries to give them the necessary energy. The greater whitethroat uses a conventional north-south route between its wintering and breeding grounds, whereas the lesser whitethroats travel to Europe using an elliptical route around the eastern Mediterranean.
Map of the Sahel Region, Africa
There is an estimated population of 45 million whitethroats, of which 50 percent breed in Europe. The UK population is estimated at around 1.1 million pairs, although with habitat deterioration in the Sahel Region, these numbers can vary dramatically between years. For example, a serious drought during the winter of 1968 in the Sahel Region resulted in a 90 percent reduction in the numbers arriving in Britain the following year. Temperature change is having an effect by advancing their spring migration by about five days. Both species currently have a conservation classification of “Least Concern” in the UK, meaning there is no significant reduction in numbers and species continue to maintain a significant breeding population.
Whitethroat range map: green breeding; light blue migration; dark blue wintering
Here in California, there are no whitethroats to see. Instead, I concentrate on a dozen species of warblers, cousins to whitethroats. Many of these birds also engage in long distance migration, and winter in central and southern South America. As in Europe, they are now starting their spring journey north several days earlier than they did in the past.
I look back with pleasure on recording my first relatively unusual bird, and I am delighted knowing that both species remain breeding successes in the UK. The situation in the Sahel Region of Africa, however, is worrisome. Droughts followed by destructive floods are more intense, and temperatures are rising faster there than in other parts of the world. The impact on people and agriculture is clear, but less apparent is the effect of climate change on the supply of of wind-born insects, the winter food supply of whitethroats.