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 to use the stuffing to decorate its nest some distance away. Both sexes […]
Author: John Cammidge
Which bird is called A Woosell (ouzel) Cocke by William Shakespeare in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or as a colly (calling) bird on the Fourth Day of Christmas, or announced in a farewell song published in 1926, or was rumored to die if it ate pomegranates. Today, it is the national bird of Sweden, has as its cousin, the American Robin, and 24 of them feature in a nursery rhyme.
I first identified the blackbird in my early years when it was one of the top three commonest species in Britain, along with the starling and the house sparrow. At the time, an estimated 6 million pairs were supposed to be resident in the country whereas today it has has slipped to fifth position, with 5 million pairs, conceding top place to the wren with an estimated 11 million couples, followed by the robin (7.4 million), house sparrow (5.3 million) and wood pigeon (5.2 million).
These were the first birds whose eggs I collected as a child. They nested in hedgerows at a height I could reach and often could be seen coming and going as they built there nest. I simply waited for them to lay their eggs. It was easy to distinguish the sexes. The male has a glossy black plumage, an orange-yellow bill and a yellow eye-ring, whereas the female is a duller sooty brown, with a yellowish bill and mottling on her breast. The male also has exceptional singing abilities, with melodious low-pitched warble sounds, often sung from an elevated perch. These distinctions between the two sexes are an example of sexual dimorphism, where the male is dominant for breeding purposes. Both sexes emit a persistent “chick-chick” alarm call if they are threatened; for example, when I was nearing their nest.
These birds were visible to me all year round. Some would move short distances locally but most stayed close to their breeding area. There are exceptions. I was introduced to the catching and ringing of blackbirds to monitor their movement . A few travelled as far as Ireland, France, the Netherlands and Denmark but most stayed within a 20 to 30 mile radius of their breeding territory. Further evidence of their migration came to me during a trip to Spurn Point Bird Observatory in April 1961 when I counted 40 birds traveling northwards.
Another feature exemplified by blackbirds is albinism. On rare occasions birds could be seen with patches of white feathers on their plumage, and from time to time, totally white blackbirds are reported. Lack of melanin pigment is supposed to cause this condition and it is accompanied with pink eyes. Some 50 or so species are recorded in Britain as having this weakness but blackbirds account for 40 percent of cases. House sparrows come next, followed by jackdaws and the British carrion crow.
Once I moved to California, I lost touch with these sociable birds. They have not made it to the New World except for the rare vagrant and those brought in to live a life of captivity in aviaries. Instead, there are five species of New World blackbirds (red-winged, rusty, brewer’s, yellow-headed and tricolored), unrelated to the European variety. Collectively, their population is several hundred million, and compares with other populous North American birds such as the mourning dove (est. 350 million), American robin (est. 370 million), chipping sparrow (est. 230 million) and dark-eyed junco (est. 200 million). Albinism also occurs among North American specie of bird, with the robin having most records, followed by the house sparrow and American crow.
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 Britain on a farm during the 1950s, I was always fascinated by the sight and sound of the yellowhammer that belongs to the bunting family and is 6.5 inches (16.5 cm) in length. The males would sing from the tops of hedges […]
Which British bird was killed and imprisoned in cages due to its habit of attacking the blossom of commercial fruit trees?
There was a small mixed orchard of apple and pear trees a few yards away from my farm during the 1950s and close to a farm laborer’s cottage that stood derelict. The occupier had not been seen since World War 11. When I wandered down […]
The current global pandemic reminds me of my birdwatching experience at Spurn Point Bird Observatory in Yorkshire, England during October 1962. I stayed there for several days while there was no communication with the outside world. On the day I left the Observatory, I discovered that the world had just passed through the Cuban Missile crisis. The USSR had decided to withdraw its missiles and President Kennedy had promised not to invade the country. The possibility of nuclear war and global annihilation had come and gone while I was busy doing something else. I would love to treat COVID-19 in the same way.
However, I must admit that the pandemic has helped me with my present-day birdwatching and has allowed me to devote more time to my favorite hobby. It is not necessary to socially distance from birds, the mask is not essential, I escape the house, and hands washing no longer seems important. I enjoy the reduction in stress, the fresh air, the walking for exercise, and staring through binoculars looking for my next new species of the day . When COVID-19 arrived in March 2020, I had just returned from Costa Rica where I had spotted nearly 100 species of bird in10 days (including the rare and secretive quetzal – see the image). I have put to good use these same skills here in California.
My preferred nearby ornithological location is a short drive from my home, the creek at Corte Madera, CA. In recent months I have watched the departure of snow geese to Canada, the arrival of five types of swallow from South America, the passage of shorebirds both north and south, including sandpipers, avocets, dunlin and yellow-legs, an osprey out fishing, the splash of arriving pelicans, the twittering of song sparrows, the low-flying passage of cormorants, the varieties of duck and geese that fly in to feed, and even the spotted towhees and bluebirds that welcome my arrival by fluttering ahead of me.
At home, I sit outside, look and listen. The presence of clicking hummingbirds is permanent, the scrub jays’ screech their whereabouts, the crows complain to their friends and the crested titmice, goldfinches, siskins, chickadees, wrens and house finches are busy chattering around the bird feeder Some more unusual arrivals have appeared such as a female Nuthall’s woodpecker, a rarely-seen male Wilson’s warbler and a hummingbird chasing a kestrel.
I recommend birdwatching to effectively cope with the lock downs and avoid some of the other inconveniences of COVID-19. You may have to study the bird manual repeatedly to recall the names of birds that you have just seen, but be patient, knowledge comes with time and perseverance, and reconnecting with our feathered friends is a rewarding hobby.
Which species of large Atlantic gull is sometimes nicknamed the “minister” or “coffin-bearer”, presumably because of the color of its plumage?
I never saw great black-backed gulls around the farm during the 1950s, and at the time, only a few wintered around York. They are the largest gull in the world, measuring 30 inches (75cm) in length. By comparison, an adult golden eagle ranges in size […]
Which British bird Required a UK Law to Stop it Being Eaten as a Countryside Delicacy and its Eggs taken for Cooking?
It was 1958, I was 14, and had recently joined the York Bootham School Natural History Club to broaden my knowledge of birds around my home and to learn of the best birding spots near York. 138 species were listed and I had probably seen […]
Which British Bird used to peck the tin foil off milk bottles to get to the cream after they were delivered by the milkman?
Growing up with blue tits on the farm is one of my earliest memories. These are feisty little birds (4.5 in/12 cm in length), noisy, sociable, inquisitive and lovable. The moment I threw out bacon rind or hung up monkey nuts (peanuts in their shells), they would be there. It was as if they were watching, waiting and knew what was about to happen. They came so close to me that I could imagine they were tame. The word “tit” is derived from the Old Norse word meaning tiny.
Blue tits are amongst the most intelligent birds and only the covid (crow) and parrot families exceed them. Blue tits have the knack for knowing what you are doing. Individual birds develop behaviors and others learn from them. Back in 1921 , the first case of a blue tit opening the caps off milk bottles left on people’s doorsteps was reported. By 1949, this practice was widespread across the country – an example of social learning. At home, we took our milk directly from the cows, but at elementary school, I watched as blue tits attacked the tin foil on the tops of school milk to get at the cream below. Where there were different colored milk tops for different types of milk, the birds seemed to know which color offered the creamiest milk.
The bird also has a sense of smell. Studies have shown that blue tits feeding their chicks will not enter their nest if it has been laced with the scent of a weasel (an aggressive predator that looks like a ferret). They have also been shown to solve puzzles that enable them to reach their food. Additionally, where medical plants are available, they will select vegetation like lavender, mint or curry leaves to line their nests to sterilize them and make the nest safer for raising chicks. The genius of birds!
British blue tits are strictly resident, seldom moving from where they were hatched. Their population has increased since my childhood, and presently there are an estimated 4 million breeding pairs in Britain. In winter, they are joined by visiting blue tits from the Continent, and the population rises to around 15 million. It is noteworthy that during my visits to Spurn Point Bird Observatory I never once recorded the sighting of a blue tit. The species is currently on Britain’s green list of endangered birds, that is “of least concern”.
They are beautiful birds; each has a cobalt blue crown (edged in white), wings and tail, a greenish back and yellowish underparts. There is a black band running through the eyes of the bird and round its nape. Some of their British cousins are almost as pretty – such as the great tit, coal tit and long-tailed tit.
When I moved to California , I was no longer able to watch these birds. You do not find them in North America. However, what you do find are close relatives such as titmice and chickadees. I am used to spotting the occasional chestnut-backed chickadee and pairs of titmice in my back yard, both very charming birds, with lively demeanors, and talkative. Observing them brings back memories of the lovable blue tits I enjoyed watching around my first home.
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.
A smallish dainty bird (7in/18cm long), called a red-necked phalarope, attracted a lot of discussion during my time at Spurn Point Bird Observatory in the early 1960s, where the species was a very infrequent visitor. Although classified as a shorebird, it swims rather than wades, […]
For 15 years, from about 1950, my family spent a week on holiday in a rented bungalow on the cliff top at Reighton Gap, near Filey, Yorkshire. We always expected the accommodation to have been washed away by the sea by the following year because […]
Early during my birdwatching career, it was the more common species I recorded as I stayed close to home, but by the start of the 1960s, when I was 16, I discovered Spurn Point Bird Observatory where my expectations suddenly changed. I was on the pathway of hundreds of thousands of migrating birds and was surrounded by highly experienced birders who could tell me what I was seeing. There were unusual birds like the hawfinch, ring ouzel and black redstart; there were scarce species such as the ortolan bunting and icterine warbler; and I was fortunate to spot very rare species such as the surf scoter and black-browed albatross.
With the Humber Estuary nearby, there was also the possibility of finding the occasional very rare wader. One of these rarities happened to be the long-billed dowitcher, a shorebird related to snipes, and a member of the sandpiper family. It was so rare that it did not receive a mention in my first two bird books and the third gave it the alternative name of red-breasted snipe. Maybe there have been 100 sighting of this bird in the British Isles throughout time.
It is a tubby, medium-size, rugby ball shaped bird, measuring about 29cm/ 11 inches in length and 113 grams/4 ounces in weight, and transforms its appearance during the breeding season when its upper body turns rufous-brown and white, and its throat and breast become a bright cinnamon with dark scalloping. By contrast, during the fall and winter, the bird moults into rather dull gray feathers and a pale belly. I hoped to spot one by looking for its long beak that would be used with a rapid up and down motion, like a sewing machine, as it searched for food in the shallow water and wet mud of the Humber Estuary. I was unlucky, I never saw one.
That situation changed when I moved to the United States in 1979. I lived along the San Francisco Bay and near the wetlands of the Sacramento River. Like the Humber Estuary, there were hundreds of thousands of waders visiting during the fall and winter. Apparently there is an estimated 500,000 long-billed dowitchers in North America and most breed among the desolate insect-infested tundra along the high Arctic, ranging along the northern coastlines of Canada and Alaska. They travel south for the winter, mainly down the west coast, and settle as far away as Central America. Their preferred habitat is fresh water, both along the Bay and delta and including California’s rivers and lakes. Flocks can be seen feeding and twittering at each other at the same time. It is the occasional bird that is traveling south that gets caught up in storms and bad weather and is blown the 2,600 miles (4,200km) across the Atlantic to the British Isles and Europe.
The name of the bird possibly comes from the Pennsylvania Dutch dialect for “German” to distinguish it from the English-named variety, the Wilson’s snipe. Duitscher is their word for German. Back in 1950, American ornithologists identified a separate species of this bird that they called the short-billed dowitcher. The two species are difficult to distinguish although the short-billed prefers a habitat of saltwater and the long-billed is usually found in freshwater.
And so by settling in California, I was able to see a species that had evaded me in Britain. Both the long-billed and short-billed are common during winter, feeding on the mudflats and wetlands, and only a few minutes drive away from my home.
Spotting vagrants in Britain, like the dowitcher, will likely reveal to you the existence of twitchers (the two words are not related!). These are birders who are willing to travel long distances, immediately, and without hesitation, when a rare bird is reported so that they can add it to their Life List of bird species seen. They sometimes prefer to record birds that other people spot rather than pursue birds on their own. The term apparently originated in Britain during the 1950s because of the nervous behavior of a well-known ornithologist who would chase down unusual species at short notice. “Twitcher” is in popular use in Britain and Europe but is less well known in North America. However, as more and more birders travel internationally, the use of the designation is spreading.
The behavior is global as shown recently when a yellow-crowned night heron (known locally as the “crab-eater”), was suddenly spotted on the shoreline at Sausalito, CA. It quickly attracted a following and was reported in the local press. The bird’s normal distribution is on the Gulf coast, along the Mississippi valley , and in parts of Mexico and South America; it rarely reaches the latitude of the San Francisco Bay Area. Maybe its appearance is another consequence of global warming?
Which half-ounce bird travels the 4100km (2650 miles) twice a year between Britain and the Sahal Region of Africa?
It was my job as a young child in the early 1950s to scythe the stinging nettles from around our farm’s chicken coops. I used a hand scythe so I would not sting myself and I made sure there were dock leaves nearby just in […]
As a young boy in Britain during the early 1950s, I did not contribute to the well-being of merlins. These are small, fierce falcons that hunt other birds by attacking them in flight, and appear somewhat pigeon-like, which has earned them the nickname of pigeon […]
I began birdwatching and egg collecting at the start of the 1950s in Britain when I was 7 years old. Egg collecting came to an abrupt halt in 1954 when the British government made this pastime illegal but I continued to maintain my “life list” of species spotted, and joined the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and other ornithological organizations for assistance. Now is the time to share some of my stories with you.
I remained a fanatical birdwatcher, including a regular visitor to Spurn Point Bird Observatory, into the late 1960s, but my passion wandered as I experienced girls and married in 1967, and by the late 1970s, family responsibilities had taken over. In 1979 I moved to work in California where I encountered the challenges of different words for the same bird, and hundreds of new species that I was supposed to see. I gave up on the challenge, more or less until a few years ago when I was asked to accompany school third graders on trips to see the sandhill cranes near Sacramento. Writing the novel She Wore a Yellow Dress, which features a bird species in every chapter, has reignited my passion and the lock downs imposed by COVID-19, have helped my transition back into this wonderful hobby. I am pleased to share with you some of my reminiscences from the past and new experiences from the present day.