Eurasian Hoopoe (Photo Credit eBird) I have just returned from a trip to Israel, a country that adopted the Hoopoe as its national bird in May 2008. I was fortunate enough to see one hunting for food on the lawns of HaPisga Gardens in …
Ridgway’s Rail (Photo Credit eBird) Some people hold the opinion that the saying “As Thin as a Rail” derives from a comparison with the skinny and slender shape of birds known as Rails, including the Ridgway’s Rail. Many of these species have laterally compressed …
I was surprised recently to see two pairs of Mute Swans feeding on grass and submerged vegetation at Schollenberger Park, Petaluma, CA. They appeared to be partners and presumably were preparing to breed in March or April. As we passed them with two small dogs one of them, I assume the male, hissed loudly, straightened its neck, and moved in the direction of our pets. The next step, if we had not moved our dogs to one side, was that the bird would flap its wings and physically attack. These birds maybe graceful and beautiful, but their aggressive behavior is out of line with their appearance. As well as chasing pets and children, they physically injure and will sometimes kill other birds, such as waterfowl, and when nesting they are known to attack canoeists, kayakers, and boaters on jet skis.
Swans are a non-native species to the United States and were introduced in the mid-1800s and early 1900s to adorn ornamental lakes, ponds, and city parks. Some went native and escaped to the wild, such as the ancestors of the four we discovered in Petaluma. Their preferred habitat is shallow coastal and fresh water such as estuaries, bays, waterways, streams, ponds, and lakes. Mute Swans are now distributed across North America, and their most significant populations are on the North Atlantic coast, across the Midwestern states, and into parts of the Northwest. There are smaller, localized populations in Canada and throughout the United States. These birds will migrate small distances, but generally do not wander far.
Mute Swan Range Map
Red – breeding habitat/resident; Blue – migration/winter area Photo Credit: Wildfowl Photography
They are large birds, weighing up to 30 pounds (14 km), and are around five feet (150 cm) in length. The body of the adult is solid white. The distinguishing feature from other swan species is their orange bill, with its fleshy, black knob at the base of the upper bill. As described in my novel She Wore a Yellow Dress, my first experience with these birds was in England in the 1950s, when a pair would breed annually in a pond near my farm, and I would frequently visit their nest. I would dare myself to get as close as possible to the birds before the flapping and hissing of the male swan frightened me away. Today there are an estimated 7,000 to 16,000 breeding pairs in the UK. The species is native to much of Euro-Siberia where there are an approximate 500,000 birds, of which 350,000 are in Russia. They winter as far south as North Africa, the Near East, and northwest India and Korea. Mute Swans are not endangered and efforts to control their numbers are underway in some parts of their non-native territories.
They are not the only swan species I can see here in California.
The most common species in North America is the Tundra Swan that usually makes its appearance in California from November to mid-March. They are North America’s most numerous swans, with a global population of around 280,000. They breed in the Canadian Arctic and coastal Alaska, on lakes, ponds, and pools that are near river deltas, and migrate to the Pacific Northwest, inland across to the Great Lakes, and as far as the coastal mid-Atlantic. The species is identified by its yellow patch at the base of its black bill. Sometimes it is referred to as the “Whistling Swan” because of the sound it makes with its wings in flight.
Tundra Swan Photo Credit: Wikipedia
Tundra swans are also found in the UK and across northern Siberia to Japan. The British call it the Bewick’s Swan, the name that it was given in 1830 to recognize the work of the engraver Thomas Bewick, who specialized in illustrations of birds and animals. My sightings of this species have all been in California.
Tundra Swan Range Map
Orange – breeding; Yellow – migration; Blue – nonbreeding Photo Credit: Wikipedia
Next there is theTrumpeter Swan,the one species that is native to North America, but rarely seen inCalifornia. Trumpeter Swans breed in northwestern Canada and Alaska and migrate to the Pacific Northwest. They can also be seen around the Great Lakes, and some migrate to the central interior of the United States. They are the only swans you are likely to see foraging in open fields. The bird is entirely white except for its black bill, legs, and feet. It has been spotted a couple of times in the UK, but I am still waiting to see my first one on either continent.
Trumpeter Swan Photo Credit: All about Birds, The Cornell Lab
Trumpeter Swan Range Map
Purple- all seasons; pink – breeding; blue – winter (all regarded as uncommon) Photo Credit: National Audubon Society
Finally there is the Whooper Swan, a species that is native to Eurasia, and a very rare vagrant to North America. A few birds from Siberia winter in small numbers in the Aleutian Islands, Alaska, but otherwise it is extremely rare. It can be identified by its fairly long, straight neck, black bill with a large triangular yellow patch, and a short tail. It is a species I have seen in the past. Back in the 1960s I saw the occasional Whooper Swan pass through Spurn Point in Yorkshire. It remains a winter migrant from Iceland to Britain, and about 16,000 birds appear annually.
Whooper Swan Photo Credit: e-Bird
Whooper Swan Range Map
Orange – breeding; Blue – non-breeding Photo Credit: Birds of the World
And as a postscript, who could prepare an article on swans and overlook the Australian Black Swan? This species is native to the south-east and south-west regions of Australia and is the official emblem of Western Australia. For Europeans, it is a bird that in history could never exist. It fell into the same category as “flying pigs”. Now, most fortunately, Black Swans have become a highly popular ornamental water bird in countries such as Japan, China, the UK, the United States, and New Zealand. The last time I saw this species was on an ornamental pond outside a hotel on the island of Kauai. Enjoy your swan watching.
It is the start of winter here in Northern California, and a time when tiny Buffleheads, the smallest ducks in North America, arrive to spend their non-breeding season in the state. They are one of 29 duck species in North America and tend to …
European Robin American Robin At this time of year, European Robins, a species commonly called robin or robin redbreast in the UK, are a familiar sight on Christmas cards in England. The practice began during Queen Victoria times in the mid-18th century when the …
During early October this year, I visited the Cosumnes River Preserve, south of Sacramento, to glimpse flocks of Sandhill Cranes flying high in the sky, having just arrived to winter in their thousands among the fields, marshes, and wetlands of the Central Valley of California. They are an amazing sight. Often you hear their loud trilled calls long before you spot them wheeling above you, searching for suitable feeding and resting grounds. They are known for their incredible eyesight. As predominantly plant-eating herbivores, they choose territory that provides them with abundant food, a temperate climate, and an acceptable living environment. Sandhill Cranes roost at night in shallow wetlands and feed during the day on grain fields. They are social birds that often forage in large flocks.
The Cosumnes River Preserve was established amidst farmland in 1987, and its flood plain has become a haven for tens of thousands of migratory waterfowl, songbirds, and raptors, as well as numerous Sandhill Cranes. There are of course other locations in California to catch sight of these birds, including Woodbridge Ecological Reserve near Lodi, Staten Island near Stockton, Pixley National Wildlife Reserve near Bakersfield, Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area near Davis, Soda Lake in San Luis Obispo County, and the Merced National Wildlife Refuge.
Cosumnes River Preserve in the Evening Light of Fall 2022
Sandhill Cranes are magnificent birds, up to five feet tall (1.5 meters), and with a wingspan reaching seven feet (2 meters). Their plumage is gray, augmented with a crimson red forehead, white cheeks, and a long, dark, pointed bill. They are among the oldest species on our planet and are famous for their distinct calls and complex “courtship” dances. The latter include circling each other, pumping their heads, stretching their wings, and leaping in the air. They are one of two crane species native to North America, the other being the very rare Whooping Crane.
Two subspecies dominate California, the Lesser Sandhill Crane and the Greater Sandhill Crane. Elsewhere in North America, there are three local subspecies that do not migrate, known as the Florida, Mississippi, and Cuban Sandhill Cranes, and there is one subspecies called the Canadian Sandhill Crane that is difficult to distinguish from its related Greater Sandhill Crane. Subspecies are classifications of birds that can breed with other related subspecies, but typically do not do so. The two California cranes are identical in body shape, plumage, and color, but the Greater Sandhill Crane is up to five feet tall (1.5 meters) and the Lesser Sandhill Crane only four feet (1.2 meters). The smaller variety is the most common in California.
Lesser and Greater Sandhill Cranes
Publication of this article during the Thanksgiving month of November is appropriate because of the origins of the word “cranberry”. Cranberries are a feature of the United States Thanksgiving table and interestingly are named after Sandhill Cranes. Pilgrims and early settlers in the United States thought the cranberry fruit blossom, with its pink-white petals that curve back over the vine runner, resembled the long, slender neck, white head, and red forehead of a Sandhill Crane, and therefore called them crane-berries. Over the years the name has been shortened to cranberries.
“Sandhill” refers to the Nebraska Sandhills near the Platte River, a broad, shallow, meandering stream with many islands, where more than half a million cranesstop to rest during the spring migration.
Head of a Sandhill Crane
I have visited the Consumnes River Preserve several times in the past to assist groups of third graders from Sacramento’s Leonardo da Vinci K thru 8 School who participate in an annual “wild birds” outing. This visit, however, was motivated by an experience near my home in Marin County when, at about 9.00 am on September 26th 2022, I observed a pair of large birds flying eastward over the Bon Air Shopping Center near the Corte Madera Creek, seemingly preparing to fly across the San Pablo Bay. They made no noise and were flying below the remnants of an early morning fog that had allowed intermittent blue sky to push through its cover. I could see their long, straight, slender necks fully extended in front of them, they were flapping broad serrated wings in slow, regular wingbeats, their legs trailed beyond the end of their tail, and they appeared uniformly gray. Without binoculars, they were too far away for me to see their red crown but they had the profile of Sandhill Cranes. I doubt they were geese, including the Greater White-fronted Geese and Snow Geese that arrive in California around this time, because of the long legs that trailed behind them. Definitely they were not pelicans, blue herons, shorebirds, or swans, and they were too light-colored to be White-faced Ibises that occasionally visit California.
Sandhill Cranes in flight
Greater White-fronted Geese
Many Sandhill Cranes use the Pacific Flyway to migrate each year, which is one of four Avian Flyways that exist in North America. Lesser Sandhill Cranes typically use this route from Siberia, Alaska, and Canada, whereas the Greater Sandhill Cranes usually breed much closer to California, in states like Oregon, Nevada, Washington, and British Columbia, and around 250 pairs are estimated to currently breed in California’s high mountain meadows and high desert. Only about 5,000 to 6,000 of the Greater subspecies winter in California, whereas the total number of Sandhill Cranes in California is projected at around 250,000, with another 40,000 wintering in southern Arizona. Population estimates for all of North America are difficult to find, but it is likely that the total number is close to one and a quarter million. Sandhill Cranes that migrate along the Atlantic and Mississippi Flyways usually winter in Florida, Louisiana, Georgia, Alabama, and Southeast Tennessee, and are generally of the Greater variety. Those that follow the Central Flyway reach Mexico, New Mexico, and Texas for winter.
Sandhill Cranes Range Map: RED-Breeding Common;PINK- Breeding Uncommon;BLUE-Winter;GRAY-Migration
Sandhill Cranes have occasionally reached Europe but are only rare vagrants. During my days in England as a birder, during the 1960s, these birds were never recorded, and the first British sighting of a Sandhill Crane was on Fair Isle during April 1981, the southernmost Shetland island in Scotland, and the second sighting, 10 years later, was on the nearby Shetland Mainland. However, there is an Old World species of crane known as the Eurasian or Common Crane that is found in northern Europe and across the Palearctic into Siberia. It is a long distance migrant that winters in North Africa. Several centuries ago the Common Crane inhabited the UK, but became extinct during the 1700s.Efforts are now underway to reintroduce the species into parts of England that provide suitable habitat. Other species I successfully saw during the 1960s and 1970s are mentioned in my novel She Wore a Yellow Dress.
Eurasian or Common Crane
I still have to record my first sighting of a Whooping Crane in the United States. It is one of the rarest North American birds and almost became extinct in the 1940s because of unregulated hunting and habitat loss. An estimated 21 was all that were left by 1941. Today, there are around 1000 birds, including those reintroduced after captive breeding. The majority nest in central Canada and winter in Texas, although a few breed in Wisconsin and winter in Florida.
The opposite is true for Sandhill Cranes. This species is currently not threatened and its population in parts of the United States has apparently increased by an annual rate of five percent since the mid-1960s, due to wetland restorations and abundant food. It remains illegal in many states to hunt Sandhill Cranes, and those states that do allow the sport (from Saskatchewan down to Texas), usually impose either a very short season or strict quota limits. The meat of Sandhill Cranes is believed by some to be the best among migratory birds, and is sometimes referred to as “The Ribeye in the Sky”.
Unfortunately, by 2080, climate change may rob this species of over 50 percent of its winter habitat, with the likelihood that a significant reduction in its population will occur. Those of you worried about the impact of global warming may wish to add this possible outcome to your arguments for change.
Many years ago, I was required to persuade my fellow birdwatchers that I had spotted a pair of Shore Larks on a beach just north of the Warren at Spurn Point, Yorkshire, England, to have the sighting recorded in the Bird Observatory’s daily log. What …
I was first introduced to Northern Wheatears at the end of March 1961 during a school geology fieldtrip to Stainforth in Ribblesdale, Yorkshire, England. A small group of us were studying the area’s Carboniferous Limestone and Millstone Grit and searching for fossils in the older …
Admired by many, the California Quail, about the size of a pigeon, is a hardy and adaptable ground-dwelling game bird that was originally resident in the United States from Southern Oregon south into Baja California, but has extended its range into the surrounding states and British Columbia. It is often adored by the general public, it was an important source of food for Native Americans, it is still legally hunted for its meat, and it is a fun bird to be seen while bird watching. Back in 1818, several representatives of the species were gifted to King Kamehameha 1 of Hawaii, and in June 1931 it became the state bird of California. It also has featured in several Walt Disney movies, including “Bambi”. Today it continues to inhabit the slopes of Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa on the Big Island of Hawaii.
This bird was totally new to me when I moved to California from England. There is the sturdy Common or European Quail in Britain, but very few visit annually (possibly under 1000), and, as a migrant, it is only present in summer during the breeding season. It is about the size of a Starling, has long, pointed wings, and typically winters in Africa. Because of the small numbers and their presence in summer only, they are not hunted in the U.K., but due to their decline they are on the Amber list of most threatened birds. Admittedly, you can buy quail and quail eggs in the U.K. supermarkets, but these are typically farmed and sourced from the Coturnix Japanese variety of quail. I never saw a Common Quail growing up in Yorkshire, and was much more familiar with the related Common Partridge and Red-legged Partridge. The latter I would see migrating through Spurn Point, a place described in more detail in my novel She Wore a Yellow Dress, and the former I would catch sight of during harvesting time on the farm.
In North America there are five other species of native quail, although only two species overlap with the range of the California Quail. The Mountain Quail (the largest variety in size) is found in the high mountains of the West Coast, and the Gambel’s Quail inhabits the deserts of Utah and the Southwestern United States, into Mexico. The latter was also introduced into parts of Idaho and on to San Clemente Island west of San Diego. The Mountain Quail was introduced to Vancouver Island but has since disappeared. It displays a distinctive head plume like an exclamation mark, and when this is held straight up it indicates that the bird is agitated or alert, and when angled backwards, the quail is typically relaxed, feeding, or resting.
The Northern Bobwhite or Virginia Quail, named after its loud whistled“bob-white” that sweeps upward in pitch, is the most numerous New World quail (around six million birds) and is native to the east of the Rocky Mountains. The range of the smallest, most secretive, and boldly patterned Montezuma Quail is primarily parts of Mexico, Southern Arizona, and New Mexico, and the range of the Scaled Quail, named for its scaly appearance, is likewise restricted to arid areas of the Southwest and Central Mexico.
Quail in North America are permanent residents, although some will move to lower elevations in winter, whereas species native to the Old World usually migrate. Additionally, New World quail belong to their own family of birds whereas Old World quail are members of the Pheasant family which includes partridges and peafowl. The plump-looking California Quail, sometimes called the California Valley Quail, is the gem of the quail collection because of its distinguished appearance and sociable and charming behavior. The bird sports a curled, comma-shaped black head plume that hangs forward from the top of its head. This topknot looks like a single feather but is actually a cluster of six overlapping feathers. Otherwise, the bird is a blend of gray, brown, tan, and white coloring. The chest of the male is slate gray, and its face carries a white stripe. The Gambel’s Quail has a similar topknot although this one is made up of only one or two feathers. Like its California cousin, it has boldly colored plumage. Who cannot be delighted when seeing a pair of adult California Quail during summer, scurrying across the road, chased by a dozen or so chicks, each dressed in a fluffy down costume, and with rust-colored stripes and black and buff markings.
California Quail family
The California Quail scratches on the ground foraging for food – eating seeds, berries, leaves, flowers, and small insects – and is most typically seen near open woodlands, streams, and in parks. When suddenly disturbed these birds may take off with awkward and rapid wing beats interspersed with short glides. If you do not see them, you may hear their famous “Chicago” call that sounds like “ku-ka-ko”. They typically nest in shallow depressions on the ground, will lay 12 to 16 eggs, and have up to two clutches annually. Sometimes you find nests with more than two dozen eggs which is a feature known as an “egg dump”, when a female lays eggs in another bird’s nest. The male feeds and protects the female and the nest with its eggs. Chicks, when born, lack the necessary digestive tract and have to peck at the adults’ feces to obtain a protozoan that helps them consume their food. To help the young survive, quails form nurseries to watch over the community’s new generation, and once breeding is over, they socialize and travel in small flocks known as coveys. They themselves are eaten by bobcats, coyotes, owls, snakes, and sometimes domestic cats.
Quail nest and eggs
It is estimated that, in the United States, one million people hunt quail each year. In California alone, currently around 400,00 quail are harvested during the fall shooting season, although recent wildfires have restricted access to certain parts of the state. Most taken in the state are California Quail, with several thousand Mountain Quail and a few hundred Gambel’s Quail. The state of Idaho is also responsible for harvesting a large number of California Quail and a few Bobwhite Quail, the latter being a species that was introduced into the state during the mid1800s. Fortunately, the global population of California Quail remains at around four million, with three and a half million in North America, and with this population and the size of nesting clutches, the species is not expected to experience significant impact on its numbers because of hunting. In those states that have seen a decline, like Texas primarily due to habitat loss, translocations of quail from other states are used to restore their populations.
No doubt because of their attractive appearance and value as food, the California Quail has spread its wings so to speak, and has been introduced successfully into many other countries. In the late 1800s it was imported into Chile where it was successfully bred, and used to establish populations in Brazil and Argentina. It was successfully introduced into New Zealand during the second half of the 1800s, and by 1890, thousands of canned or frozen quail were being exported to London. Australia has been less welcoming with the California Quail still being eradicated when it turns up in new areas of Australia. They are permanent resident in Victoria and New South Wales. Attempts to introduce the California Quail into Europe have been made since the 1840s but seem to have been successful only in Corsica.
Additionally, other species of New World quails have been introduced overseas, such as the Northern Boblink into several European countries and the West Indies. The Gambel’s Quail made it to Hawaii, on Kahoolawe during 1928, and to Lanai in 1958.
In summary, the California Quail is a prodigious and adaptable bird that provides meat for humans, gives hunters something to shoot at, does not negatively impact humans in any way, and entertains the families who enjoy the outdoors. To the Native Americans, these quail are tasty and easy to hunt, their plumage makes excellent basket decorations, and their eggs were used for cooking. Yet despite the hunting, they have not experienced a huge population decline and presently are classified as of “least concern” for conservation purposes. Another reason is that, like the U.K., most quail that are used for meat in North America belong to the Old World Coturnix Japanese species that is reared in captivity. This species is native to large parts of Russia, East Asia, and Eastern Africa, and is believed to have been domesticated around the 11th and 12th centuries A.D. in Japan. New World varieties are kept more for pleasure, as pets, or to be reintroduced into the wild. I also now know that the Common Quail I failed to see in Yorkshire during my adolescent years has no relationship to the species I observe here in California.
Killdeer faking injury According to research, birds are astonishingly intelligent creatures. Jennifer Ackerman in her book The Genius of Birds dismisses the belief that idioms such as “bird brain”, “eating crow”, “cuckoo”, and “feather brain” have anything to do with a true understanding of the …
As my daughter leaves for a vacation on the Shetland Islands, I am featuring the long-time persecuted family of cormorants on my bird blog for this month. The Shetland Islands are a birders paradise, and both the sleek great cormorant (simply called the cormorant in …
I have volunteered to assist with the protection of the Western snowy plover during their California coastal breeding season this year from March to September. The following is published to coincide with my training as a docent.
This small shorebird is approximately the size of a sparrow, weighs less than two ounces (55 grams), and is about six inches (15 cm) in length. It makes its home on flat, unraked sandy beaches, dry mud or salt flats along the Pacific Coast and estuaries, from Washington State through Oregon, and onto California and into southern Baja California, Mexico. Formerly, the Western snowy plover nested on a large part of this shoreline but today these birds are rarely seen. Prior to the 1970s, it is reported that at least 53 California locations were homes to these plovers, but a few years later that number had halved. Today the Pacific coast population is estimated to be around 2,500, with most of California’s coastal breeding birds found south of San Francisco. The bird’s conservation status was raised to Endangered in March 1993, and probably less than 1000 breeding plovers occupied the West Coast by the year 2000. This number is now increasing. There are also snowy plovers that breed in interior California, south-central Oregon, Nevada, and several other western states, and some of these winter along the West Coast.
Distribution of snowy plovers
The right-hand side of the above range map illustrates the distribution of the Western snowy plover on the West Coast. It is this subspecies that has received most conservation attention. Snowy plovers east of the Sierra Nevada mountains and the Rockies appear less threatened, and populate the Great Basin, parts of Texas, the Central Plains, much of the Gulf coast, the Bahaman islands, and in Central Mexico. Most of these birds are thought to belong to separate subspecies from the Western snowy plover. Also, as well as being called snowy plovers, in some places they are known as Cuban snowy plovers or beach plovers. Genetic studies suggest that the nearby Great Basin population is no different than the Western snowy plover but that there may be demographic and adaptive variations. Those living further east appear to be a different subspecies. Birds of the same name also occupy the west coast of South America, from southwestern Ecuador through western Chile, and are thought to belong to their own subspecies. It is estimated that about 31,000 breeding pairs of snowy plovers exist worldwide.
Cuban snowy plover
The coastal Western subspecies roosts in small depressions on the sand or on the leeward side of objects such as driftwood, kelp or dune vegetation. Their pale plumage blends readily with dry sand or salt flats, making them very difficult to see when they are crouched. They gather in loose colonies or in isolation, and sometimes can be seen scurrying across their sandy habitat like inconspicuous puffs of sea foam. They prefer wide open beaches, and forage on insects, especially beach flies, marine worms, and small crustaceans. Typically they hunt for their food high up on the beach.
Their eggs (usually three camouflaged white and brown speckled) are laid in nearly invisible nests on the ground and are vulnerable to being taken by predators or being trampled on during their approximate 28 days of incubation. The peak hatching period is from early April through mid-August, with most birds site-faithful, returning to the same breeding area each year. The male incubates the eggs during the night and the female does the same for most of the day. Two or three broods may be produced annually whereas the eastern snowy plovers usually raise only one.
The main threats to the Western snowy plover are habitat loss, the spread of European dune grass, human-caused disturbance, and the impact of predators such as dogs, raccoons, coyotes, foxes, crows, ravens, and falcons. About a third of the bird’s population stays in its coastal breeding grounds during winter whereas the remainder migrate a short-distances, north or south, typically for distances of no more than 300 to 500 miles.
Above, Western snowy plover chicks: the chicks leave their nest about three hours after hatching and accompany their parents to find suitable sources of food. Almost immediately they can forage independently and fly after about four weeks.
In appearance, the adult Western snowy plover is pale gray-brown above and white below, with a white hind neck collar and dark lateral breast patches, forehead bar, and eye patches. Early in the breeding season, a rufous crown is evident on breeding males, but not on females. In nonbreeding plumage, the sexes cannot be distinguished. The short bill and legs are blackish. During courtship, the male defends its territory, usually makes several scrapes, and the female then chooses which scrape she prefers by laying eggs in it. Adult plovers will attempt to lure people and predators away from hatching eggs with alarm calls and distraction displays. Their call is a short, sharp, whistled tu-wheet.
Various methods, including beach closures, are used to protect the birds’ coastal breeding grounds. Enclosures and sometimes symbolic fences are erected to protect the nesting area and to prevent predators interfering with breeding. Educational signs and brochures explain what is taking place, announcements are posted on why dogs should be kept on leash, written notices request that kelp and driftwood be left on the beach and that littering should be avoided. There is a ban on flying kites and similar objects, and lighting fires is prohibited. Sometimes docents are stationed nearby – especially at weekends – to explain the situation and to answer visitor questions. Efforts also may be made to restore habitat and expand the breeding area.
The presence of snowy plovers in Europe has never been confirmed and consequently these birds are considered a New World species. However, until 2009, it was thought that the Eurasian Kentish plover, named after the county of Kent south-east of London, was the equivalent to the North American snowy plover. Genetic studies, however, have shown that this is not true, and in July 2011, the International Ornithological Congress (IOC) announced the separation of the two groups.
Kentish plover distribution map: light green breeding; dark green resident; blue non-breeding
Growing up in England during the 1950s and 1960s, the Kentish plover had only recently ceased breeding in Kent, where it had occupied vast expanses of shingle near Dungeness. British breeding numbers were estimated to have shrunk to about 40 pairs by the mid-20th century, and were mainly located in Kent, but with a few birds in the counties of Sussex, Suffolk, and Lincolnshire. Apparently, the last UK pair to breed was in Lincolnshire during 1979. Today the Kentish plover is just a rare passage visitor to southern England with, for example, only 13 recorded sightings during 2016. Its disappearance is attributed to loss of habitat and the greater recreational use of beaches, and early during the last century, its eggs were taken and individual birds killed for decorative purposes. Nonetheless, this neat and charismatic wader remains widespread in other parts of Europe, and migrates to the northern half of Africa, northern India, and south-east Asia, for winter.
Dungeness, Kent, England
Unfortunately, I did not have the resources to travel to Kent during my childhood to try to spot the Kentish plover, and had to satisfy myself with observing its relatives such as lapwings near my home, and ringed plovers, golden plovers, and grey plovers during my visits to Yorkshire’s Spurn Point Bird Observatory. All four varieties still nest in Britain.
Let us hope that the current steps being taken to protect the Western snowy plover along the West Coast of North America will be successful, and that the species does not suffer the same fate as the Kentish plover in England. We should be grateful to all the people who help with this conservation effort.
Here is the story of a species of bird that has flourished on continents where it was introduced during the 19th century while at the same time suffering serious decline in its native Europe. In North America, there were close to 200 million European starlings …
Across North America, there are about 50 native species of shorebirds, not including occasional rare visitors, and in Europe these birds are called “waders” because that is what they do. I first saw waders as a teenager at Spurn Point in the north of England …
One of my favorite species of birds is the surf scoter, a sea duck that is abundant during October through April along the North American west coast as far south as central Baja (Mexico), after breeding in the boreal forests and tundra of Alaska. It also winters on the east coast from Nova Scotia to Florida. While not native to Europe, a few vagrants are blown off course or become disorientated and finish up wintering as far south as the UK. It was one of these vagrants that I witnessed at Spurn Point back in the early 1960s which supposedly was the first surf scoter ever seen there.
Surf scoter Range Map
These large, stocky birds, are 19 to 24 inches (50 to 60 cm) in length and are often are seen in flocks during winter on North American estuaries and marine waters close to shore. They usually are closely packed and may take off as a group if disturbed. Even in summer, the species appears as an occasional summer resident in California and can be seen around river mouths and near harbors. Consequently, what was rare for me in the UK is now commonplace in California.
Flock of surf scoters
However, one of their risks where I live is oil spills. The recent October 2021 Huntington Beach spill in southern California is an example even though the spill was reduced to only 25,000 barrels by the time it was over. Deceased birds in that spill have been identified as the American coot, black-crowned night heron, brown pelican, two species of cormorant, western and California gulls, Northern fulmars, several shearwaters, and a red-footed booby. Fortunately, no surf scoters were reported. Birds that survived their oiling included ruddy duck, snowy plovers, sanderling and western grebes. However, avian casualties are notoriously difficult to calculate. For example, the April to September 2010, 87 day Deepwater Horizon spill, that released over 200 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, is estimated to have killed over 100,000 birds, even though only 8,200 carcasses were collected.
Huntington Beach oil spill
When birds become oiled, their outer feathers clump together and are no longer able to repel water which percolates into their inner down feathers, causing hypothermia. The bird may then die of exposure, sink and drown, or if the bird makes it to land, becomes vulnerable to predators because it cannot fly.
Surf scoter impacted by the Cosco Busan oil spill
The November 2007 oil spill in the San Francisco Bay of an estimated 53,000 gallons, caused by the Cosco Busan hitting the San Francisco – Oakland Bridge, created a much greater impact because it occurred where and when there were hundreds of thousands of migrating and wintering birds. 27 species were affected, and an estimated 2500 died, with many more than that likely left to perish elsewhere. The surf scoter was top of the impact list, with an estimated four percent of its wintering population in the Bay Area being lost as a result.
Surf scoters are members of the sea duck family that includes eiders, goldeneye, bufflehead, Harlequins, and mergansers. Their first name comes from their habit of foraging in ocean surf, whereas the origin of the word “scoter” is unknown. Male adult scoters are unmistakable when seen on the water, with velvety black plumage, a conspicuous white forehead and nape, and a large swollen, irregularly-shaped, multi-colored bill (orange-yellow, white and black). The species is sexually dimorphic (exists in two distinct forms), with the female possessing duller brown feathers, slightly darker above than below, and sometimes pale patches of plumage on the cheek and nape. The female’s bill is dark grey.
The surf scoters’ diet includes mollusks, crustaceans, some plant material, small fish, herring spawn and aquatic insects, which are caught by diving and using their specially adapted bill.
Surf scoter breeding
Population numbers are not well understood but generally are believed to be in decline. For example, in 1987, around 30,000 birds were estimated as wintering in the San Francisco Bay, whereas that number has fallen to around 3,000 in recent years. Even so, rough global estimates estimate around 500,000 individual birds, but with numbers falling. Reasons for the decline are unclear but probably includes global warming that is reducing the size of their breeding grounds, increased development in urbanized estuaries, contamination and pollutants affecting reproduction, invasive species affecting the food chain, and individuals falling prey to bald eagles, river otters, orcas, and sea lions.
Even so, they are a delight to watch as they congregate together, bob as black specks on the water, plunge head-first to catch their prey, and fly short distances to improve their foraging success. Sometimes they are not alone.
It should be noted that there are two other types of scoter resident in North America, the black scoter and the white-winged scoter. Both are nearly circumpolar in their distribution north of the Equator, and in Europe there is also the common scoter and velvet scoter. Until 2009 the Eurasian common scoter and the North American black scoter were considered the same species but are now recognized as separate species. Similarly, the Eurasian velvet scoter and the North American white-winged scoter have been considered the same species.
The black scoter adult male is all black and characterized by a bulbous bill that is mostly yellow. The female looks like a female surf scoter, but with more extensive pale areas on its cheeks and neck.The white-winged male is mostly silken black with large white patches on its wings, an orange-red bill, and a white comma-shaped patch around the eyes. The female is dark brown, lighter below, with two smudgy white facial patches and white wing patches.
Additionally, it is not unusual to have other species of duck mixed in with flocks of scoters. Two species of duck that are primarily black and white, and might cause confusion, are the goldeneye and bufflehead. The goldeneye is medium sized, has a much smaller bill that is blackish in color, has an iridescent green head, a white spot behind the bill, and its neck and underparts are white, unlike the dark feathers of the scoter; females have a warm brown head and a yellow spot at the end of their bill.
The male bufflehead is conspicuously white and black, with a white chest and flanks, an iridescent purple-green head and throat, and a large white patch on the back of the head.The female is brownish with a single white patch on the cheek.
Finally, do not confuse scoters with the much smaller American coot that is dark brown, other than for its white bill tipped in black. Also, it prefers fresh-water lakes, ponds and rivers rather than marine water.
Hopefully, we will spend more time in the future studying and increasing our knowledge of these spirited sea ducks, and protecting their numbers. Progress has been made with establishing procedures for oil spills. Much has been learned as a result of several major spills: the 1967 Torrey Canyon disaster off the coast of southern England that released 25 to 35 million gallons of crude oil; the Amoco Cadiz incident off the northern French coast in March 1978 that released nearly 60 million gallons, killing an estimated 20,000 birds; the Santa Barbara catastrophe of 1969 that spilled up to 4.2 million gallons of oil; and the Exxon Valdez 1989 incident that leaked about 11 million gallons of crude oil.