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 …
Author: John Cammidge
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 …
California Quail – male and female
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.
Japanese or Coturnix Quail
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 …
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 …
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.
One of the very few families of birds that remained constant when I moved from England to California in 1979 was the family of terns. I regularly saw Sandwich, Arctic, common, black, and little terns during my visits to Spurn Point in Yorkshire, and during …
This is a memoir of a COVID-invigorated Bird Spotter and his July 2021 journey from Half Moon Bay to the pinnacles of the Southeast Farallon Islands, and waters beyond, in search of pelagic birds: puffins, shearwaters, storm-petrels, and albatross.
My thanks go to Alvaro Jaramillo who organized the trip, the crew of the New Captain Pete who took us on the journey, the bird spotters who saved me the effort of using my bird book, and my daughter for her 2021 Father’s Day gift and willingness to accompany me. During the COVID pandemic, I have revived my childhood hobby of birdwatching, but with over 850 species inhabiting the United States, recognition is a very challenging task. Too often, birds disappear before you have time to identify them, so I am still gathering expertise.
The purpose of the trip was to learn how to recognize new Californian pelagic species and to refresh my memory on those pelagic species I had encountered at Spurn Point in England, during the 1960s. Here was an opportunity to travel with experts.
The journey involved an early morning departure, the sky was overcast, the sea was heaving, there was a chilly wind blowing onshore, we were warned of sea sickness once we left the harbor, and told that we would be on board for 10 hours. I had struggled earlier in the morning to decide how many layers of clothing to bring so that I would remain warm but not hot. The boat’s destination was to be a cluster of inhospitable, rocky peaks, about 35 miles from Half Moon Bay, known as the Southeast Farallon Islands, and afterwards we would visit the edge of the continental shelf, several miles to the west. I wondered what might happen.
The expert bird spotters on board quickly reported shorebirds they had identified, even before I had drunk my coffee and the vessel had passed beyond the fog horn at the entrance to Pillar Point Harbor. During late May, 2021, an experiment was begun using sound baffles to lessen the noise of this fog horn, without jeopardizing marine safety, as the authorities responded to resident complaints that the warning signal, given off every 10 seconds, is too loud. Some people argue the noise keeps them awake at night whereas others claim it lulls them to sleep!! Having used a local hotel the night before, I would vote with the former.
Brown pelicans at half moon bay
If you ever want to see brown pelicans, this is the place to visit. There were hundreds along the harbor walls, roosting, preening themselves, communicating with their neighbors, waiting for food, or simply watching passing traffic. Other species identified by my colleagues included a black oystercatcher, wandering tattler, double-crested cormorants, and on the water, pigeon guillemots, common murres, and a pair of marbled murrulets. The occasional Caspian tern, the largest tern in the world, circled above with its head down, before plunge-diving into the water for its breakfast. This was a fine start to the day.
The birds that caused the most excitement were the two marbled murrulets, about the size of American robins, because of their rarity. Strangely, although it is a seabird that feeds offshore, as well as making use of inshore bays, it nests among the branches of old growth trees from Alaska, south along the Pacific coast, to the Santa Cruz Mountains. Only a single egg is laid, and because of the human destruction of their nesting habitat and their eggs being eaten by ravens and jays, they are now endangered in California. This was a species I had never seen before, and I quietly celebrated as it was added to my life list.
They were no longer present on our return, but other species spotted in the harbor at that time included a ruddy turnstone, surfbird, willets, and a pair of surf scoters.
During the journey to the islands, we quickly lost sight of the shorebirds, and left behind the pelicans that rarely feed more than five miles from shore. They were replaced by hundreds of sooty shearwaters, common murres, and pigeon guillemots. No one spoke of the many gulls we saw except for a comment about a Heermann’s gull that was accompanying several brown pelicans, presumably intending to steal their food.
By now, cameras were in use to capture the important ornithological moments, binoculars were gazing out to sea, looking for something new, and the most serious guests were meticulously noting down the species they had spotted and the population count for each variety. Personal breakfasts were in progress, except when food was grabbed by the wind and blown overboard; the less brave rested in the wind-protected cabin, but so far no one was sea sick. The greatest commotions occurred when we passed spouting humpback whales and sighted Pacific white-sided dolphins.
As we came close to the Southeast Farallon Islands, more and more birds appeared in flocks as they returned to their nesting locations. New species appeared such as Northern fulmars, pink-footed shearwaters, Cassin’s and rhinoceros auklets, and red-necked phalaropes. I recall seeing the first and last of these species many years ago at Spurn Point. It was easy to miss the auklets because of their small size and their habit of diving quickly as we approached them. They are one of very few species that can “fly” underwater. Others include common murres, puffins (a type of pelagic bird), dippers, penguins and gannets.
Curiously, no one mentioned the many gulls flying around, such as Western and California gulls, possibly because these birds are regularly seen onshore.
Red necked phalarope
Probably the most memorable sight of the day for me was observing the about 20 small, dainty red-necked phalaropes (slightly larger than a house finch) swimming and spinning on the water. These are very special birds, one of the few species that exhibit reverse sexual dimorphism, with the female displaying the more colorful feathers and being the one that selects the mate. Once she has laid her eggs, she may disappear to find another mate, leaving the original partner to incubate the eggs and to take care of the young chicks.
Even before we arrived at the Farallones – where you are not allowed to land – we sighted our first tufted pelagic bird; a puffin, about the size of a pigeon but twice its weight. It was out fishing but detoured to inspect our boat, using its poorly developed wings that require strong and rapid wingbeats to stay airborne – up to 400 beats a minute. It flew directly towards us staying close to the ocean. More puffins appeared once we were among the Southeast Farallon Islands. They are members of the auk family and are found along open waters, islands, and rocky cliffs of the north Pacific. Population estimates are about 2.5 million birds worldwide. This species is larger than other puffins and each bird has a distinctive white “face mask”, with golden head flumes during the breeding season. Once it finishes breeding, it spends up to eight months out at sea and is rarely seen at this time.
The islands are amazing. You are greeted by the unforgettable noises, echoing off the cliffs, of thousands of seals and sea lions, and hundreds of thousands of breeding birds, and you cannot miss the foul smell of their guano. I have never seen anything like it. The islands are home to the largest seabird nesting site in the contiguous United States and the largest colony of Western gulls in the world. Half the world’s population of ashy storm-petrels (another class of bird I added to my life list) is resident here, and more than 400 avian species have been recorded. We entered the relatively calm waters near the islands, and stopped to inspect the wildlife.
Ashy storm petrel
The jagged peaks and craggy shores, and the sea that surrounds them, teemed with life. Even some gray whales swam by. In the distance, there were huge congregations of common murres, pigeon guillemots, and Western gulls, and nesting colonies of Brandt’s and double-crested cormorants. The latter two species had segregated themselves, with the double-crested cormorants occupying nests higher up the cliff. Technically cormorants are not “pelagic” (i.e. do not inhabit the open sea), because of their need to stay close to the land to dry their non-waterproof feathers.
The Southeast Farallon Islands are largely barren, and part of a granite ridge running northwestward that appears above the ocean surface to create this inhospitable archipelago. The granite originated in Cretaceous geologic times, about 100 million years ago, deep under the earth’s surface, apparently in the same magma core that formed the southern Sierra Nevada Mountains (such as Yosemite). This block was torn off far to the south, possibly 300 miles away, and because it was attached to the Pacific Plate, the fragment has slowly drifted north. The boundary between the Pacific Plate and the North American Plate is located a few miles to the east of the Farallon Islands, and is marked by the San Andreas Fault. Estimates are that the islands are moving north, on average, by a little over an inch (3 cm) per year.
These almost inaccessible islands, with sheer cliffs, make you want to discover more about their history. Here is what I found out:
- Native Americans believed the islands were haunted and named them “Islands of the Dead”, and generally stayed away; occasionally, they would take out dead bodies for water burials. Early mariners who encountered the islands called them “Devil’s Teeth”.
- The first “recorded” sighting by a European was Sir Francis Drake on July 24, 1579, when he landed on the islands to collect seal meat and birds eggs. Because the visit was close to the Feast Day of James the Great (one of Jesus’s Twelve Apostles), he named the archipelago the “Islands of Saint James”. It was not until the 1700s when the Spanish substituted the name “Los Farallones de los Frailes” (Rocky Islets of the Brothers), although it is likely that the Spanish visited before and after Sir Francis Drake. Since Spanish sailors were instructed to sail west of the islands, it was not until 1769 that Gasper de Portola discovered the entrance to the San Francisco Bay.
- Human occupation began with Russian and American fur traders during the early 1800s when they and their Alaskan native hunters harvested elephant seals for their blubber and fur seals and sea lions for their pelts, and took birds’ eggs and birds for food.
- During the 1850s, when the population of San Francisco exploded as a result of the 1848 California Gold Rush, the islands became a source of desperately needed food. Seabird eggs were collected by the thousands, and one common murre’s egg could sell for the equivalent of $30 in today’s value. An Egg War broke out as people fought over the rights to collect this food, and in 1863, one company (the Pacific Egg Company) was given sole egg collecting rights. As a result, by the early 1880s, the common murre population had been decimated to the point that only 6,000 birds survived out of an original 500,000. Egging was declared illegal in 1881, but the Southeast Farallon Islands’ Light keepers continued to collect them for some years afterwards as a way of supplementing their government income. Eventually, the practice ceased as demand fell and the Petaluma poultry industry took over the supply of eggs and chicken meat.
- Light keepers arrived on the Southeast Farallones in 1855 when the Lighthouse came into operation, and remained there until 1972. Most brought their wives and children. Early on, the only contact they had with the outside world was the supply ship that visited every three months, and the occasional hellos from sailors on passing vessels.
- In 1909, President Theodore Roosevelt designated some of the Farallones as a national wild life refuge. The largest, the Southeast Farallones, were left out because by then they hosted the US Navy and US Lighthouse Service, but eventually were added in 1969. During World War 11, the Islands became home for the US Military, who erected a radar station and relocated up to 78 personnel to live on the islands. Today, the Farallones remain a protected wild life refuge, and only a few scientific researchers are allowed to stay there.
Farallon National Wildlife refuge
- Nearby, are the deep water sites used from 1946 to 1970 to dump radioactive waste, but with the claim that most of the radiation had decayed by 1980.
- Other remnants of the past survive. Feral cats, abandoned by former residents, introduced rabbits and rodents, oil spills and other pollution all compete and threaten the Islands’ native ecosystem. Today, the most significant threat is the invasive house mice, probably first left behind during the 1800s by sailors, and now with an estimated population of 60,000. Their impact on the Islands’ native species is severe, and proposals to eradicate them have been under study for nearly two decades. The recommendation is to drop from helicopters, about 1.5 tons of pellets laced with the controversial rat poison called Brodifacoum. It thins the blood, causing the animal to bleed to death. There is intense opposition from those who worry about the secondary effects that the poison may have on other wildlife. Some non-targeted species will likely consume the pellets, and amounts of bait will fall off the steep rocks into protected waters. Worries are that the Western gulls will scavenge the dead mice, fly to the mainland, and subsequently die of the poison. The chemical is already banned for use on the California mainland. The counter arguments are that the mice prey on the islands’ native animals and eat the seeds of native plants, and therefore need to be eliminated. The presence of these mice has attracted migrating burrowing owls, and one of the concerns is that these birds may turn their attention to the already threatened ashy storm-petrels if the mice disappear. Supporters of the proposal believe these fears are unfounded, and plan to haze birds during the project with spotlights, noise, effigies, etc. to keep them away from the poison; they argue that total eradication is an urgent need. Others argue for new options that would achieve the same or similar ends, such as the use of contraceptives, that do not disturb additional pieces of the islands’ ecosystem. Currently, the Fish and Wildlife Service supports the eradication project, and the proposal is before the California Coastal Commission for review.
Farallon house mice
But it is time for me to return to bird watching and the marine life along our journey. Next, we sailed westward over the Continental shelf, and were greeted by a change of bird species. Most prominent was the appearance of several black-footed albatrosses, yet another pelagic bird! These large seabirds, with long, narrow wings, dark plumage, and a long, thick bill, used for feeding on the surface of the water, were as curious about us as we were of them. They settled on the water close to the vessel as we stopped to take photographs. The birds roam the north Pacific, but nest primarily on the Hawaiian Islands.
During this part of the journey, we also encountered a blue whale, the largest animal known to have existed, as it surfaced to breathe while eating. There were also several lone mola mola, or sunfish, that we passed, flapping their bodies while lying on their sides near the water’s surface. These strange-looking fish have a truncated body with large head that is equipped with long dorsal and anal fins.
Thus my outing came to an end. It seemed a lengthy journey back to the harbor, with the same sequence of birds that we had spotted earlier, but in reverse order. As soon as cormorants began to fly close to the boat, and brown pelicans reappeared, I knew we were close to land, even though I could not see it. The cormorants were in convoy, flying low over the water, and the pelicans were out fishing. The temperature had risen, my clothing had turned out to be perfect for the weather, the sea swell had almost disappeared, the wind had dropped, and the sun was fighting its way through the high clouds.
I reflected on my birding achievements. I was now able to distinguish between sooty shearwaters, common murres, and pigeon guillemots, without reference to my bird guide, and a more proficient birder on board confirmed the accuracy of my identification.
All in all, the outing accomplished its purpose of sharpening my knowledge of California’s pelagic birds and reintroducing me to species I had been familiar with in the UK. The next stage, as I return to birdwatching, will be to improve my knowledge of shorebirds, such as sandpipers, plovers, oystercatchers, and avocets. There are many species in North America and these birds are often migratory and forage for food at their California stop-over sites during their long journeys between the Arctic tundra and their non-breeding locations in the southernmost parts of South America. We disembarked, I bid farewell to my daughter, who left for San Luis Obispo, and I set off for Marin County. I was relieved that I had not experienced seasickness and pleased that the COVID pandemic had caused me to return to my childhood hobby of birdwatching.
For thousands of years, domesticated pigeons have been an integral part of human life. Egyptian hieroglyphics and stone carvings in Mesopotamia (now modern Iraq) indicate that these birds were domesticated at least 5,000 years ago. Over centuries they have been kept as symbols of prosperity, …
Population Decline among Wild Birds, with Special Attention to the Eurasian Skylark and the American Bobolink
It was the summer of 1954 when my childhood hobby of birds’ egg collecting came to an end. The British government implemented the Protection of Birds Act, 1954 that forbid me to take wild birds’ eggs, and at the same time, protected adults and their …
During the 1950s and 1960s, as a young birder in the north of England, I ignored the rather common, drab and inconspicuous-looking birds known as house sparrows and tree sparrows. Both are Old World species, distributed across Europe and Asia, and rarely migrate significant distances. The house sparrow forages for grain and seeds and household scraps, whereas the tree sparrow’s diet includes fruits and invertebrates. There was a third kind of “little brown bird” that I could see furtively skulking among the hedgerow, that I called a hedge sparrow. However, later in life, I was told it was not a member of the sparrow family, and I should call it a dunnock.
Eurasian dunnock (not a hedge sparrow!)
The house sparrow appears in my novel She Wore a Yellow Dress, in particular in Chapter 23, titled The Cockney Sparrer. Back then, in 1968, I worked at Ford in Dagenham, and the cockney people who I now worked with were supposed to chirp like sparrows and move around in groups like sparrows; hence their nickname of sparrers.
Unfortunately, it seems that these birds suffered due to their closeness to humans. Today, while the house sparrow population has stabilized, during the 1977 to 2006 period, their numbers declined about 70 percent, and the tree sparrow population fell by 93 percent. Agricultural change, pollution, the wider use of pesticides, more cats, less availability of waste food, and maybe even diseases, caused these reductions.
The Great Sparrow Campaign, China in 1958–1961
Another example of the decline in sparrows happened in China during 1958. The country implemented its Great Sparrow Campaign to cull the tree sparrow population because it was believed the bird was contributing to the declining yield of farmers’ crops. Several million birds were slaughtered. What was not realized was that the tree sparrow eats locusts, and because of the culling of sparrows, these insects multiplied, invaded the fields, ate all the vegetation they could find, and caused an even greater reduction in food supplies. The outcome was the Three Years of Natural Disasters during which tens of millions of Chinese died of starvation.
Once I moved to the United States, there was a dramatic change in the number and varieties of sparrows I could see, although there were still a few Eurasian house sparrows. Th Eurasian species was introduced deliberately into the United States, when eight pairs were released in Brooklyn, New York in the mid-1850s. These birds flourished and rapidly spread across the 48 lower states and parts of Canada. They arrived in California during 1910, and by the 1940s, it was estimated there were about 150 million house sparrows in North America They became regarded as pests because of the food they ate and the displacement of native species that they caused, such as robins, chickadees, and bluebirds. As in Europe, their numbers declined dramatically and the current population is estimated to be around seven million. Even so, the worldwide number of house sparrows is put at close to half-a-billion.
Where have all the sparrows gone?!
The highly active Eurasian tree sparrow also made its way to North America but was less effective in broadening its range. It was brought from Germany, with a dozen or so released in St. Louis during 1870. The species took hold but were restricted geographically because of the more aggressive and adaptable house sparrow.
Now I need to comment on North America’s species of native sparrow that I have come to know since moving to the San Francisco area. They comprise some 35 to 50 species, including several that do not carry the sparrow name, but for now, let me focus on the California varieties. Here we have the white-crowned sparrow (resident along the coast but with migrants inland during winter, and recognized by their distinctive zebra-like black and white head feathers ). Then there is the golden-crowned sparrow (a winter visitor with a golden stripe on its crown, bordered by black). Thirdly, there is the resident rufous-crowned sparrow (with a rufous crown, grey face, grey underparts and rust-colored stripes on its back); there is the song sparrow, the most widespread and most common resident in California, typically seen close to water (and usually singing its heart out from a perch); and then there is the chipping sparrow, a summer resident that migrates mostly to Mexico for winter (crisp and cleanly shaped, frosty-colored underparts, bright rusty crown and black line through the eye). Last but not least is the Eurasian house sparrow that I have already mentioned.
Somewhat rarer are the Lincoln sparrow (winter visitor that looks similar to the song sparrow except it has a buffy-colored appearance); the white-throated sparrow (winter visitor, with a white throat and yellow between the eye and bill); the grasshopper sparrow (summer visitor; brown and tan with slight streaking and a species whose population has tumbled 70 percent during the last 50 years, probably due to habitat loss, pesticides, and brood parasitism); the fox sparrow (winter visitor; rust-brown above and grey on the head); and the savannah sparrow (year round; brown above and white below, yellowish stripe over the eye, and crisp streaking). Occasionally, rarer species turn up such as the LeConte’s sparrow, and with so many species you can be excused from recognizing them all.
Just to add to the confusion, there are several species that are not named “sparrow” but belong to this family. Examples, frequently seen in my backyard, are the black-hooded dark-eyed junco, the all-brown California towhee, and the orange and black spotted towhee. All usually forage on or near the ground, and can be seen kicking up food with their feet.
So where does the word “sparrow” come from and why are North American birds given the name when they are not related to the family of Eurasian sparrows? They belong the “bunting” family, and it is presumed that early immigrants saw “little brown birds”, like the ones back home, and adopted the name “sparrow” because it was familiar to them. The English word “sparrow” is derived from the old Anglo-Saxon word “spearwa”, meaning “fluttering”.
Just keep things complicated, there are also several species of bunting in Europe. The one I often saw migrating was the snow buntings, and it is one that winters in the United States. Other North America species of bunting include the Lazuli, Lark, Indigo, Painted, and Varied buntings. In the UK, the corn bunting, reed bunting, cirl bunting, Lapland bunting, and yellowhammer (“ammer” means bunting in German) are the family’s representatives.
Inadvertently, we have another Americanism where the American word describes something very different from what it does in the UK. It joins such words as pavement, chips, biscuit, braces, and purse.