Author: John Cammidge

 The Global Reach of the California Quail

 The Global Reach of the California Quail

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 

The Extraordinary Abilities of Birds

The Extraordinary Abilities of Birds

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 

The Persecuted Family of Cormorants (Muckle Scarf)

The Persecuted Family of Cormorants (Muckle Scarf)

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 the UK), and the European shag (a member of the cormorant family), breed here. The Shetlands are located about 130 miles (210 km) north, off Scotland’s north coast, and are an archipelago of about 100 islands, of which 15 are inhabited. This aquatic group of birds is superbly adapted to catch fish but for this reason, for centuries, has been slaughtered by vigilante-style hunters and, more recently, “culled” as part of government-sponsored wildlife programs.

There is no continent on which cormorants are not represented by at least one species, including Antarctica, where the distinctive white-breasted imperial shag lives. Worldwide, an estimated 35 to 40 cormorant species exist. Typically, they socialize and hunt in groups, nest in colonies, catch their prey underwater, and several species inhabit inland water sites as well as coastal areas. 

 

Adult Cormorant

Great cormorant – adult

 

Great cormorant - juvenile

Great cormorant – juvenile

 

 

Muckle scarf is the name given in the Shetlands to the great cormorant, and as best I can determine, the title is constructed out of muckle for large amount, and scarf for eating voraciously. The European shag is simply called the scarf on the Shetlands. Shag appears to be derived from the Old Norse words skegg, meaning beard” and/or skag “to protrude”. The word refers to the bird’s tufted, forward-curving crest of feathers that appears at the front of its crown during the mating season.  

 

Adult breeding European shag

 

Over the centuries, cormorants have built a reputation for greed and gluttony, and as a result, have suffered a long history of hostility and destruction by humans. As early as 700 BC, the Bible mentions cormorants as an “abomination” of birds not to be eaten, and Chaucer, in the 14th century, calls the bird a glutton. Shakespeare uses the cormorant in several of his plays to represent voraciousness, and in China and Japan, the bird is trained to catch fish for humans. 

The word cormorant was first used during the 1300s based on the Middle English name “curmeraunt”, originating from the earlier Latin name of corvus marinus (“sea crow” or “sea raven”).

 

Both the great cormorant and the European shag were seen by me during my adolescent birdwatching years in the 1960s, but along the coast of Yorkshire, not on the Shetland Islands. The European shag is restricted to marine environments whereas the great cormorant can be found on all kinds of water, including inland lakes, reservoirs, and large river systems.  

From a distance, the great cormorant appears primitive and malevolent, with black plumage, a long snake-like neck, large upright size, and a long hooked bill. In more detail, its feathers display a green-blue sheen bordered with black, and there is a patch of yellowish-orange skin on its face. Males and females are identical, and during courtship, they develop white patches on their flanks and hair-like white feathers on their head. Young cormorants are more brownish, and many have a whitish breast. Yet, like most cormorants, they look evil, hostile, and destructive.

Cormorants frequently are seen resting on perches, with their wings held out to dry. This is because a cormorant’s feathers turn wet while fishing and their wings have to dry to allow them to fly safely.  This lack of waterproofing is in fact an advantage. While fishing, it allows them to trap water in their outer layer of feathers and achieve the same body density as the water in which they are diving.  Their inner layer of feathers retains a thin coating of air around the skin to reduce heat loss. This balance between buoyancy and insulation enables the bird to swim like a penguin and dive like a seal, and to pursue fish in a broad range of temperatures and water depths.

 

Cormorants at Corte Mader

Cormorants at Corte Madera Creek, CA – Wing-drying time

The great cormorant has achieved a wide global distribution, extending from the north Atlantic coast of North America, across the whole of Europe and Asia to Australia, and from Greenland south down to South Africa. The only continents on which the species is not present are South America and Antarctica. As you might imagine, they have established a large population estimated at around 2.1 million.  Half that number is found in Europe. 

Range map for great cormorant

Range map – great cormorant (dark green resident; light green breeding; light blue passage; dark blue non-breeding)

 

The European shag (or simply shag in Britain) is goose-sized and smaller and slimmer than a great cormorant. It has a bottle-green glossy plumage, a more delicate bill, a longer tail, and less yellow around its face. In some places it is called the green cormorant. It possesses the unusual habit of leaping out of the water before it dives. European shags prefer to be solitary, restrict themselves to coastal habitats, and nest on steep cliffs.  It is nonetheless regarded as a pest because of its fish consumption, but is less harmful to the environment than the more common species of cormorant. 

About half the world’s European shag population lives in the UK (110,000), and an estimated 6000 pair breed on the Shetland Islands. Adults usually stay close to their breeding grounds so the species is one of the most common birds seen along the Shetland Islands coastlines during winter.  It is not present in North America. 

 

Shag diving


Shag diving

 

Shag hunting

Shag hunting

 

European shag range map (green breeding; blue non-breeding)

In North America, in addition to the great cormorant, there are five other native species. These are the double-breasted cormorant (the most common and found only in North America), Brandt’s cormorant, the pelagic cormorant, the red-faced cormorant, and the neo-tropic species that inhabits Central and South America but makes its way north during summer to central and northern Texas and other nearby states. All are similar in appearance, with mostly black plumage.

I have seen several neo-tropic cormorants in Costa Rica but none in the United States. Also, in Costa Rica, I have seen the anhinga, or snake-bird as it is sometimes called, that looks like a cormorant but is identified by a straight pointed beak that is used to spear prey, instead of using a long hooked bill like a cormorant. The North America distribution of red-faced cormorants is limited to Alaska where they are resident and nest on the Aleutian Islands. 

 

Anhinga

Anhinga

Thus I have three species for me to spot here in California – the Brandt’s, pelagic, and double-crested cormorants – all of which I have seen. The Brandt’s cormorant, like the European shag, is strictly a marine bird, and ranges along the Pacific Coast from Alaska to the Gulf of California. In winter, those breeding north of Vancouver Island move south. At about three feet in height (91 cm), it is the largest cormorant on the West Coast and is characterized by its black plumage and the greenish iridescence on its back. The feathers at the base of its bill are pale buff, and during courtship it displays a vivid blue throat and eyes. About 100,000 birds are estimated to inhabit the Pacific Coast, with the largest colony (approximately 12,000 birds) on the Farallon Islands.

 

Brandt's cormorant

Brandt’s cormorant

 

Pelagic cormorants populate marine environments similar to the Brandt’s cormorant, but enjoy a slightly more northerly range, and their habitat includes bays and bodies of water connected to the sea. They are usually seen on their own or in pairs. The name of the species is misleading. While pelagic means “living on open oceans”, these birds rarely stray more than a few miles away from land. Their population is estimated at about 25,000, of which 60 percent live in California, and most winter close to their nesting site. Standing about two feet high (60 cm), they are the smallest cormorant in North America. Their plumage is violet-green and they have a coral-red patch on their throat, and white patches on the flanks. 

The population of these and Brand’s cormorants appear to be more affected by the availability of the fish that they forage (anchovy and rock fish) than their relationship with humans.

 

Pelagic cormorant

Pelagic cormorant

 

The larger double-crested cormorant, at two and a half feet in length (75 cm), is by far the most common in North America, and is the only species that is found across the continent. It ranges from the Aleutian Islands in Alaska down to Mexico, and from the north-eastern states down to Florida, the Gulf Coast, and Caribbean. Interior breeding birds migrate for winter to the south and south-eastern United States, and the western population moves to the Pacific Coast. Population estimates are hard to find, but their numbers (approximate calculations suggest up to two million) have increased during recent decades, renewing human dislike for cormorants and resurrecting actions to reduce their numbers.

This is the species I usually encounter along the Corte Madera Creek just north of San Francisco. The birds are usually flying low over the water, or are out fishing, or are perched on rocks drying their wings. My advice for identification is not to look for their double crest. These tufts of short feathers above the eyes appear only during the breeding season, and are the same color as the head feathers. Additionally, they are usually wet and slicked back against the bird’s regular plumage. 

 

double-crested cormorant

Double-crested cormorant 

Range map

 

At a distance, double-crested cormorants are iridescent dark birds with snake-long necks. The color of their plumage is either deep brown or black with a bronze or greenish sheen, and their wing feathers are margined with a darker black. Closer too, you may see the distinctive orange-yellow naked skin on their face and throat, and also their aquamarine eyelids. The latter disappear during winter. 

In summer, these birds breed in large colonies, often in trees, and build conspicuous nests made of sticks and other material, sometimes becoming unwelcome guests because of the acidic guano they produce. As well as foul-smelling, it can harm the soil, affect the vegetation, and also is a health risk for people and poultry.  

Double-crested cormorants in Ontario

Double-crested cormorants nesting

In the past, human interaction with cormorants has varied widely between regions and cultures. In some places, cormorants are welcome as a positive omen because they indicate the presence of fish whereas elsewhere they are despised because of their competition for the same food as humans. In Peru, deposits of cormorant guano are mined as fertilizer to grow food for humans. In China and Japan, cormorant fishing is used as a tourist attraction as well as for catching fish for human consumption. Unfortunately, in many other places, cormorants are subject to less tolerant relationships. 

Cormorants lack natural enemies, and once the use of the pesticide DDT was banned during the 1970s, their numbers began to rapidly increase. Global warming has added to this trend by opening up new territories for breeding and feeding. Once again, cormorants are regarded as overabundant, and persecution has renewed because of the fish they take and the mess that they make during breeding.  Estimates are that each cormorant eats one to one-and-a-half pounds of fish a day (500 grams), or around 10,000 pounds (4,500 kilos) in its lifetime. 

While cormorants are legally protected in many countries in Europe and North America, exceptions have been introduced to allow for their culling in circumstances where they are allegedly causing a nuisance. Methods to reduce the population include trapping and shooting, introducing frightening devices, installing protective nets around fisheries, destroying nests and nesting habitat, oiling eggs (coated with oil) to kill the embryo, killing the young, habitat modification, and forced relocations.  As a result, more than one hundred thousand cormorants are destroyed each year, not including the tens of thousands of eggs that are oiled.

Much has been written about this negative relationship and I have no intention of duplicating these stories. Should you be interested in understanding more about how humans and cormorants interact, I suggest you read the following books: The Double-Crested Cormorant – Plight of a Feathered Pariah by Linda Wires, and the Devil’s Cormorant by Richard King. 

  

Cormorant hunting season

Cormorant hunting season 

 

Hopefully, governments in future will use more humane, non-lethal solutions to control the growth in cormorant populations, such as restricting their habitat, improving fisheries management, relocating excess birds, and fertility management.

Meantime, I wish my daughter a pleasant vacation in the Shetland Islands and hope she will see some of the other Shetland breeding species that appear in California. Examples include the red-throated divers (loons over here), fulmars, puffins, red-necked phalaropes, arctic terns, whimbrels, and goldeneye ducks. 

Thank you for reading this article.

Bird watching in the Shetlands

Bird watching on the Shetlands

The Endangered Western Snowy Plover

The Endangered Western Snowy Plover

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 

The Rise and the Fall of the European Starling

The Rise and the Fall of the European Starling

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 

Identifying Shorebirds

Identifying Shorebirds

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 during April 1961 when I recorded bar-tailed godwits, red knots, sanderlings, dunlins, redshanks, and a turnstone. Some of these same species or their relatives are now seen by me here in California. More about my adolescent bird watching is included my novel She Wore a Yellow Dress.

As you might expect, shorebirds populate the seashore and coastal and inland wetlands. They are represented by four families – sandpipers, plovers, oystercatchers, and avocets/stilts. Other birds that mix with shorebirds, such as waterfowl, seagulls, herons, and grebes are not part of this agenda.

The sandpiper family includes small birds (length 4.5 to 9 inches/11.5 to 23 cm) that are called sandpipers (nicknamed “peeps”), as well as many similar-sized to larger relatives, with names such as sanderling, dunlin, red knot, Wilson’s snipe, wandering tattler, dowitchers, surfbird, three species of phalarope, and ruddy and black turnstones. Wilson’s snipe and the American woodcock occupy inland marshes and forest thickets. There are also species of large sandpiper  that include the long-billed curlew, whimbrel, several types of godwit, willet, and a bird with the title of yellowlegs.  

Within California, a few shorebirds live year-round along the coast and on wetlands, but the population increases dramatically during fall when large numbers of shorebirds arrive or pass through on their way to wintering grounds elsewhere. They return to their northerly breeding sites in spring. The least sandpiper, the smallest shorebird in the world, and the slightly larger western sandpiper, are the common representatives here in California during fall and winter. Additionally, the Baird’s, spotted, stilt, and solitary sandpipers are regular visitors. and rarer varieties show up periodically such as the sharp-tailed sandpiper, buff-breasted, Terek, and upland varieties. 

Most shorebirds arrive from mid-July to mid-November and leave for their breeding grounds during late March to mid-May. Deciding which species of sandpiper you are looking at can be difficult because many species replace their bright summer feathers with rather drab, similar-looking plumage during the fall and winter. To identify the six species of sandpiper most likely to be spotted in California, the following may help:

  • Least: a streaked brown back; smudge-brown breast; yellowish legs; slightly drooped, black bill; prefers muddy habitats; flock size usually limited to dozens; length around 4.5 to 6 inches/11.5 to 15 cm

  • Western: longish, slightly drooped black bill; dark legs; crown and upper back grayish in winter; white undersides; found on beaches, mudflats, and near lakes; migrates in large flocks of hundreds and thousands; length around 6.5 inches/16 cm

  • Baird’s: slender/elegant bird; wing tips extend beyond tail; fairly short black bill; scaled  gray-brown upperparts; spotted buff breast; dark legs; shuffles when feeding; travels to and from southern South America; length around 7 inches/18 cm

  • Spotted: nicknamed “spotty” but breast not spotted in winter; back, wings, neck, and crown olive brown; white undersides; dull yellow legs; bill is pale yellow; white stripe on wings in flight; bobs tail up and down as it walks; widespread across North America; length 7 to 8 inches/18 to 20 cm

  • Stilt: migrates to inland South America; grayish plumage on upperparts; whitish below; dusty gray breast; long yellow legs; prominent white eyebrow; dark, slightly drooped bill; prefers freshwater wetlands; length 8 to 9 inches/20 to 23 cm

  • Solitary:  migrates to central South America; travels alone or in small groups; prefers freshwater ponds and streams; speckled dark brown/green back; grayish breast and white underparts; olive-green legs and bill; bill is straight, thin, and of medium length; prominent white eye ring; length 7.5 to 9 inches/19 to 23 cm

 

least sandpiper, a family of shorebirds

Least sandpiper

 

western sandpiper

Western sandpiper

 

baird's sandpiper, a family of shorebirds

Baird’s sandpiper

 

spotted sandpiper

Spotted sandpiper

 

Stilt sandpiper

Stilt sandpiper

 

solitary sandpiper

Solitary sandpiper

The nickname of “peep” is used by ornithologists to describe this group of small sandpipers that utter a “peeping” call. Their call is a short, thin, and often high-pitched piping cry made during flight or when the birds are running along the sand or mud.

The ubiquitous ruddy turnstone, about 8 inches/20 cm in length, also belongs to the sandpiper family though its appearance is more like a plover. It has a short, dark bill that is slightly upturned at the end. Its similar-sized  relative, the black turnstone, has a much more restricted range, and only winters along the rocky shores of the Pacific Coast. Both species have a distinctive white wing pattern that can be seen in flight.  In Europe, the ruddy turnstone is simply called the turnstone since its cousin is not present.

ruddy turnstone, a family of shorebirds

Ruddy turnstone

 

black turnstone

Black turnstone

 

Ruddy turnstone in flight

Ruddy turnstone in flight

In Europe, small sandpipers are called stints, and during the 1960s I would often watch little stints pass through Spurn Point during the fall, following their breeding season in the Arctic. During those early years, I also spotted greenshanks and redshanks belonging to the sandpiper family but they are not common in North America. If you want to know why I became a birdwatcher, read my novel Unplanned.

Little stint at Spurn wetlands

 Little stint on Spurn wetlands

Easier to distinguish are the larger members of the sandpiper family. They typically possess long bills, some with a slight upward curve like godwits and yellowlegs, and others with bills curved down such as the long-billed curlew and whimbrel. In the case of the willet, the bill is long and straight. One of the most challenging identifications is distinguishing between willets  and the similar sized sandpiper species known as the dowitchers. Two varieties of dowitcher can be seen, the long-billed and the short-billed. Willets are heavier, have plain gray-brown plumage with no markings underneath, and display a distinctive white wing-band in flight. Dowitchers are dull gray, some spotting or barring on the side of their flanks, a white eyebrow stripe, and sometimes can be distinguished by their method of feeding – they probe in the mud with a rapid up and down motion like that of a sewing machine needle. 

willet and dowitcher, families of shorebirds

Willet in the front, short-billed dowitcher behind

There is also the Wilson’s snipe, a member of the sandpiper family and the only species of snipe native to North America. It is typically a winter visitor in California, although a few do hang around the Central Valley for summer. They are secretive and coy shorebirds that use their coloring for camouflage. When flushed, they appear using a very rapid zigzag flight and utter a harsh cry.

 

Wilson's snipe

Wilson’s snipe

Identification of shorebirds is further complicated by the plover family whose members can superficially look like sandpipers in winter, and forage in the same habitats. They are plump-breasted birds, about 6 to 12 inches/15 to 30 cm in length, with rounded heads and short, stubby bills.  They can be distinguished by the color of their bill and legs, and often have a full or partial black collar or breast band. The species commonly found on the California coast are the snowy plover, semipalmated plover, the killdeer (named after its warning cry of “kill-de kill-de), and the black-bellied plover. There are also several infrequent winter visitors to California such as the lesser sand-plover, Pacific golden plover, and piping plover. 

Unlike most other shorebirds, they forage by sight. After spotting their food, they run towards it, stop, and then catch it. Most other shorebirds probe and peck in the sand or mud using the sensitive tip at the end of their bills to locate their prey.    

 

Snowy plover, a family of shorebirds

Snowy plover

 

semipalmated plover

Semipalmated plover

 

killdeer

Killdeer

 

black-bellied-plover

Black-bellied plover, winter plumage

Shorebirds belonging to the oystercatcher and avocet/stilt families are the least difficult to identify, as illustrated below. There are two species of oystercatcher in North America, both around 16 to 18 inches in length (40.5 to 45.5 cm). The American oystercatcher has black and white plumage and a distinctive long, bright orange bill, and is found on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, as well as along the shores of the Pacific. The black oystercatcher is found only along the Pacific coast, and both species are mainly permanent residents. In the UK, I would occasionally spot the European oystercatcher that is a separate species and has black and white plumage similar to the American oystercatcher.

American oystercatcher, a family of shorebirds

American oystercatcher

 

black oystercatcher

Black oystercatcher

Finally, with regard to the avocet/stilt family, the American avocet and black-necked stilt are its representatives in North America. 

American avocet

American avocet winter plumage

My earliest effort with this bird family was to try and spot a European “pied” avocet during a visit to Minsmere Nature Reserve on the east coast of England during 1968. Unfortunately it was a failure, as I describe in Chapter 22 of my novel She Wore a Yellow Dress.  At the time, the species had just returned to Britain after 100 years of absence, attracted by new habitat created through the intentional flooding of the shoreline that occurred during World War Two to defend Britain against a possible German attack. It is now well-established in Britain and has become the symbol of conservation success, being used as the emblem for the British Society for the Protection of Birds. 

 

Black-necked stilt image

Black-necked stilt

 

Unfortunately, it would take too long to describe every species of shorebird in North America and Europe, and how to identify each one. Instead, I will provide a general guide for identifying shorebirds, and will end the paper by introducing you to my favorite of all shorebirds, the black-necked stilt.

First, let me digress and feature the marbled and the bar-tailed godwits, two species of large sandpiper that are fairly easy to identify. They have a long, slightly upturned bill and long pointed wings that enable them to migrate non-stop thousands of miles each year. They are named after the call they make. 

Marbled godwits are regular visitors to California in winter, arriving after breeding on the Great Plains. They are medium-sized and often can be seen congregating in small flocks on coastal mudflats and along estuaries. Some will continue onwards as far south as Mexico and the Caribbean. They can be identified by their mottled cinnamon and black coloring on their upper parts, and the rusty cinnamon plumage that is displayed during flight. They look a little like whimbrels but extend their feet beyond their tail feathers during flight.

It is this species’ cousin, the bar-tailed godwit that holds the record for the longest non-stop flight of any bird. A few years ago, several of these birds were tracked traveling from New Zealand to the Yellow Sea, making the unbroken journey in nine days, a distance of 6,800 miles (11,000 km). They then carried on to Alaska. Others have been tracked flying from Alaska to southern Australia, a distance of 6,900 miles, in ten days. Although breeding in Alaska, the bar-tailed godwit typically crosses the Pacific for the winter rather than traveling south down the West Coast of the Pacific. Thus they are only rare vagrants in California, with most sightings in the north of the state. 

In Europe, the species breed in the Scandinavian Arctic and Siberia, and hundreds of thousands pass through the UK on their way south, with an estimated 40,000 stopping to winter in Britain, especially along river estuaries such as the Thames, Humber, Dee, and Forth. As I mentioned earlier, I was fortunate to see this bird traveling past Spurn Point.

 

North American marbled godwit

North American marbled godwit

Migration map for shorebirds



Marbled godwit – Migration map

Bar-tailed godwit – Alaska:Eurasia

Bar-tailed godwit – Alaska/Eurasia

Bar-tailed godwit migration map

Bar-tailed godwit – Migration map 

 

Godwits are an example of how size, physical features and call help with a bird’s identification, but this often does not help with smaller shorebirds, especially during non-breeding. 

For example, the dunlin, a medium-sized, chunky sandpiper, with a length of about 8.5 inches/22 cm and slightly smaller than an American robin, has a distinctive black belly and a vivid mottled rusty back during spring and summer, but for the rest of the year it molts into a mousy gray-brown and the black stomach patch disappears. In profile, it is round-backed and hunched, has a medium-length drooped bill, and forages using its bill like the needle of a sewing machine (similar to dowitchers).  

 

Dunlin - breeding season

Dunlin – spring/summer plumage

 

Dunlin in winter

Dunlin in winter

You will find recording bill length and curvature to be very helpful for many shorebirds, and leg color will also helps identify some species.  For example, greater and lesser yellowlegs have long legs that are colored bright yellow, oystercatchers possess pale pink legs, and avocets stand on long, spindly blue/gray ones.  

If you see the bird in flight, try to see if it has any form of white wing stripe like a willet, turnstone, sanderling, or oystercatcher. Similarly, some species exhibit a white rump.   

Another important method is noting the bird’s behavior. How does it feed? Does it run and grab its food like a plover, walk steadily and keep its head down like small sandpipers, or rapidly peck in the mud as if its bill is a sewing machine needle like dowitchers and dunlins? Flocks of sanderling forage on the beach rather than mudflats, and they can be seen chasing the waves backwards and forwards to find food within the narrow inter-tidal band.  

 

sanderlings, a family of shorebirds

Sanderlings

Bird calls are also distinctive. Does the bird whistle like a plover, oystercatcher, or dowitcher, or do they call loudly like a yellowlegs? Maybe it chips and peeps like many small sandpipers? 

Finally, look at the habitat in which you see the bird. Oystercatchers, turnstones, tattlers, and surfbirds prefer intertidal rocky seashores. Others, like sanderlings and some plovers prefer the beach. Several types of plover, such as the killdeer, forage in grassy areas, whereas many sandpipers rely on intertidal mudflats, estuaries, and pond edges; several species choose to forage in shallow water like avocets, dowitchers, and yellowlegs, and salt-loving phalaropes spend time at sea or on saltwater lakes such as Mono Lake in California.

These ways of differentiating may seem complex, but if you study a bird carefully you can usually come up with a satisfactory identification. Consider using the checklist below:

Shorebirds Identification Guide

  • Size, shape, and general appearance
  • Single bird, or in small groups, or in flocks
  • Plumage color pattern, including wing stripes/white rump
  • Size, shape, color of bill
  • Length and color of legs
  • Behavior while feeding and in flight
  • Bird call
  • Habitat in which foraging
  • When and where it was seen

Now let me shift to the black-necked stilt to illustrate how the above guide can work. It is a species named after its black and white plumage and the long, thin, pale pink legs. Also, it is the only stilt native to North America, and became a favorite of mine because there is nothing like it in the UK. It is small, about 14 inches/36 cm in length, has an unusually long neck for a shorebird, and walks slowly and deliberately as it forages for food. Its bill is black and needle-like, and its call is a distinctive and loud “yap” or “keek”, often given in a series when alarmed.  The species is fairly abundant in wetlands and coastal areas of California, and using the above guide, I would summarize the stilts I see on the Corte Madera Creek as follows:

                                            Black-necked stilt

  • Tall and lanky with delicate-looking body and long neck
  • Seen in small groups or pairs
  • White below, black wings and back; black extends from back along the neck to end as a black cap covering the head from just below the eye; tail feathers white with some gray banding
  • Long, needle-like bill
  • Long, rosy pink legs
  • Wanders/pecks at food at edge of the mud close to the water/also occasionally sweeps bill through water, and in flight, pink legs are stretched behind its body; it usually flies low over the water
  • Produces a noisy, sharp  “yap”;  high-pitched and the call is repeated
  • Seen on mud flats and at the water’s edge in tidal areas
  • Seen all the year round in northern California wetlands
black-necked stilts, a family of shorebirds

Black-necked stilts at Corte Madera Creek, CA

Since the mid-1960s, the global population of black-necked stilts has remained fairly constant, although in California the numbers have been impacted by a substantial loss of natural wetlands. Of the stilts that breed in California, 70 percent nest in the Sacramento Valley. 

Black-necked stilts are their most noisy during the breeding season and adopt different methods to frighten away potential predators. One is known as the “popcorn display” where several adults circle a potential predator, and jump, hop, and flap their wings, calling loudly to frighten the threat away. There is also the “false incubation” when the adult crouches as if incubating eggs and then moves on to another spot to repeat the process. Finally there is the “broken wing” distraction when the bird feigns injury to persuade the predator to follow it.

Most definitely, the black-necked stilt is my bird of the month.

Black Neck Stilts

 

Shorebirds in general have managed to preserve robust populations, in part because so many breed on the northern Arctic tundra. However, that appears to be under threat because of habitat deterioration and increased nest predation. Climate change is interfering with food and nest availability, such as early summer cold spells, and shifts in animal population is causing a higher proportion of egg and chick losses. More research needs to be done to develop appropriate conservation actions.

The Eccentric Surf Scoter

The Eccentric Surf Scoter

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 

Curlew Day

Curlew Day

In chapter 5 of She Wore a Yellow Dress, I describe my first date back in 1965 with a fellow Hull University undergraduate who became my wife.  She curiously asked about my favorite hobby, and when I said it was bird watching, she wanted the 

Coming to Terms with Terns

Coming to Terms with Terns

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 1971 I made a pilgrimage to Strangford Lough in Northern Ireland to see Sandwich, Arctic and common terns nesting. The latter is detailed in chapter 29 of my novel She Wore a Yellow Dress. They were extremely rare around my home town of York although passage Arctic terns occasionally showed up. Most members of this family are long distance migrants, moving between the northern and southern hemispheres when the seasons change. When I moved to California, sandwich, arctic and black terns were still present, the little  tern was renamed the least tern, and new members included the Caspian, elegant, royal, and Forster’s  terns.

Related to seagulls, terns are classified under the bird family, Laridae, and although similar in appearance to gulls, they have long swept-back wings and forked tail. They are usually identified by their deep rowing flight pattern and quick turns and hovering in pursuit of fish. They can dive vertically into the water from 20 to 50 feet (6 to 15 meters).  Additionally, terns have straight, sharply-pointed bills, whereas gulls possess a more hooked one.

 

Sandwich terns

Sandwich terns

 

Two Terns: Black Tern, Little Tern

Worldwide, there are close to 40 species of terns, usually colored black and white, although in most cases, more white than black. To the casual beach goer they may look alike. The best way to distinguish between species is to note their size, the color of their bill (red, orange, yellow, or black), the existence or otherwise of blackish wing tips, and the length of their tail streamers. Additionally, the elegant, royal and Sandwich terns display a ragged crest on the back of their heads, especially noticeable during the breeding season. 

Most importantly, terns are known for the great distances they travel, especially the Arctic tern that breeds during summer in the Arctic and migrates south for winter to Antarctica. They each can travel around 25,000 miles (40,000 km) annually, gliding as well as flying, usually out at sea, and taking around 40 days for a one-way migration. 

Arctic Tern Migration Map

Arctic tern migration map

 During my years living in Northern California, I have watched the fishing antics of the common tern, the Forster’s tern, the Caspian tern, and the elegant tern. Some varieties breed locally and others, like the common tern, are visitors during migration. The one species of tern that eluded me for many years was the least tern, the smallest of all terns, about the size of a large songbird. They breed in small numbers in the San Francisco Bay Area, but because of their endangered status, they are subject to close protection.

Least Tern

Least tern

 

Least tern Range Map: orange – breeding; blue – non-breeding

Least tern Range Map: orange – breeding; blue – non-breeding

The least tern is distinguished by a distinct white patch on its forehead, interrupting its otherwise solid black cap, and in summer has a yellow bill with a black tip, and yellow feet. It usually flies low over the water with quick deep wing beats and a hunched-over look, and shrill cries of “kellick” or “kip-kip-kip”, often heard just before it is seen plunging into the water after its prey. The species nests in colonies, usually around 25 pair per colony, scratches out a “scrape” in sand or gravel on the beach, and lays three green eggs blotched with brown.

Next and eggs of least terns

Next and eggs of least tern

So you can imagine my excitement when, at the start of August 2021, while on vacation in San Diego County, I discovered that least terns were nesting only a few miles away, close to the Mexican border, under the protection of the Tijuana Slough National Wildlife Reserve. It was a dull, cool, Friday morning as I and my friend drove south for about 30 minutes, before arriving at Imperial Beach, where we quickly located the Reserve’s Headquarters.  We were greeted warmly and offered abundant advice. Immediately, I was told that Bewick’s wrens, scrub jays, dark-eyed juncos, bushtits, song sparrows and Anna’s hummingbirds had been seen close to the Reserve’s building that morning. However, we were soon on our way across the marsh to see what we could see, along with the accompaniment of the sound of helicopters from the nearby helicopter base. In the distance was Tijuana, and the US – Mexico border wall, undulating along the hills and eventually running down to the beach and into the Pacific Ocean.

Tijuana Wildlife Reserve

Tijuana Wildlife Reserve

Almost immediately there were juvenile black-crowned night herons waiting to catch fish, and black phoebes fluttering in search of insects. Other bird species we recorded during our walk were the American kestrel, northern harrier, marbled godwit, cliff swallows, northern mockingbird and a Forster’s tern fishing in the tidal lagoon, but no sighting of a least tern. 

 

black-crowned night heron and marbled godwit terns
Forster’s tern

Forster’s tern

The warden commiserated with us back in headquarters, and told us to visit the beach to the south of the town. At first we encountered several groups of large, stocky shorebirds, called willets, searching for food at the water’s edge, and could see several types of terns fishing out at sea, mainly elegant terns and one large Caspian tern.

However, just when we were about to give up on our search, we heard overhead the cry of “kip-kip-kip”, as two least terns passed us by. They are closely related to the Old World little tern, but are treated as a separate species based on voice difference. I had achieved the purpose of our journey.

Willet

Willet

As for the fate of terns, their numbers and enormous range offers them some security although for several species their numbers have dropped. They suffer loss of habitat from development and disturbance and from predators. Longer time, climate change presents a major threat. The Arctic tern that follows the summer season between hemispheres is at risk of losing up to 50 percent of its natural habitat due to global warming.

 

The July 2021 Pelagic Bird Spotting Experience for a Struggling Bird Identifier

The July 2021 Pelagic Bird Spotting Experience for a Struggling Bird Identifier

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 

From Racing Pigeons to Mourning Doves

From Racing Pigeons to Mourning Doves

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

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 nests from human interference. The United States had many years earlier, in 1918, introduced similar legislation through its Migratory Bird Treaty Act that applied to approximately 1100 species, but which excluded non-native types such as house sparrows, European starlings, and pigeons.

Where I lived, up until the mid-1950s, it was normal to go “bird nesting” and gather the eggs you found to build up your egg collection. I never thought about the consequences on bird populations. Even after it was illegal, I refused to throw away my assortment of eggs. More about my egg collecting habits can be found in my two novels Unplanned and She Wore a Yellow Dress.

 

Birds' egg collection

 

With these strict new controls, you would have expected bird populations to boom, but this has not always been the case. The reasons are complicated and below I try to describe some of the important aspects of avian demographics. At the end of this paper, I illustrate the decline using the European skylark and North America bobolink.


A. Background data

  • A recent survey of 529 bird species in North America found a net decline in population of nearly 3 billion birds since 1970. Today the current bird population is 29 percent lower than it was. The impact is different by species and by the habitat they prefer, and the changes affect common species such as meadowlarks (a member of the blackbird family), horned larks, and red-winged blackbirds, as well as rarer species. There are also birds whose population has moved in the opposite direction. For example, bald eagles show a gain of 15 million birds, falcon populations have increased by a third, and there are 34 million more waterfowl (ducks and geese).
  • Many birds that migrate are affected by this overall decline. Current US radar data indicates a 14 percent decrease in nocturnal spring-migration during the past decade.
  • Europe is suffering from a similar situation of increases and decreases. Wintering waterfowl in the UK have more than doubled, and species such as the jackdaw, wood pigeon, great spotted woodpecker, and nuthatch show a several-fold increase. Conversely, species such as the song thrush, turtle dove, nightingale, cuckoo, swift and fieldfare show alarming declines.
  • There are about 83 million pairs of birds nesting in the UK, down 19 million compared with the late 1960s, but the total bird population seems to have stayed fairly constant since the 1990s. Not included in these numbers are the estimated 6 million captive red-legged partridges and 47 million pheasants that are released annually for shoots.

 

Red legged partridge and reared pheasant, potentially endangered birds

 

  • A new study released by the University of New South Wales estimates a  worldwide median number of wild birds of 50 billion, or six birds for every human on the planet, but is cautious about the accuracy of its calculations. Reliable comparative historical data is missing because there has been no consistent methodology used to establish these counts. The global number of wild bird species is currently in the range of 11,000 to 18,000, and there are around 1,200 species that have fewer than 5,000 individuals worldwide.
  • Avian decline is usually attributed to habitat loss (e.g. caused by new farm practices, urbanization, and drainage, etc.), the use of pesticides, hunting and killing, and climate change.
  • Some species remain common and widespread, with four species qualifying for the worldwide “billion birds” club; these are the house sparrow (1.6 billion), the European starling (1.3 billion), the ring-billed gull (1.2 billion), and the barn swallow (1.1 billion).
  • At the same time, several bird species are now extinct. In North America, the dusky seaside sparrow that lived on the east coast of Florida was last seen alive during the 1980s, and the Bachman’s warbler that bred in the south-east and mid-western states of the US, and wintered in Cuba, is believed to have become extinct in the second half of the 1900s.

 

dusky seaside sparrow and bachman's warbler, potentially endangered birds

 

  • In Europe, the pied raven (a genetic color morph of the common raven), only found on the Faroe Islands, was last spotted during the 1940s, and in summary, since the year 1500, it is estimated about 180 bird species have become extinct worldwide .

    Pied raven, potentially endangered birds

  • So why do these trends matter? The worry is what happens to nature when species that play key roles in pollination and seed dispersal or control the abundance of pests, decline or disappear. The potential effects on society are unclear.

 

B. The skylark and the bobolink

The skylark and bobolink, potentially endangered birds

 

Two examples of bird species under serious threat are the Eurasian skylark and the American bobolink (named for its bubbling “Bob O’Lincoln” song). The species are not related. The bobolink is a member of the blackbird family and the skylark belongs to the lark group of birds; only its cousin, the horned lark, is native to North America. Both species rely on grassland and farmland, which are the habitats in North America that have suferred the greatest loss of bird population during the past 50 years, with a 53 percent decline and a reduction of half a billion birds.

Both species symbolize the countryside’s return of summer. Males deliver a bubbly, metallic song, often fluttering high above the fields, as they look for mates. Their melody has been associated with joy, freedom and enthusiasm, and has inspired poets such as Emily Dickinson, Shelley, Tennyson and Wordsworth. Both species nest on the ground, but that is where the similarities end.

 

Nest of skylark

 

Their appearance is distinctively different as the illustrations below show.

The bobolink migrates between southern Canada and the northern states to southern South America twice a year, a return journey of approximately 12,500 miles (20,000 km). In contrast, skylarks generally do not migrate. However, the two species are known to appear in each other’s territory and both are suffering serious declines in their native habitat.

 

Migratory route of the bobolink

 

Skylarks, while still common in the UK with a population of about 1.7 million, are calculated to have experienced a population decline of around 75 percent since the early 1970s. The switch in agriculture from spring to fall sown cereals has interfered with the birds’ food supply; the move from hay to silage has caused nests to be destroyed by machinery due to earlier harvesting; and on grasslands, intensified stock grazing exposes nests to trampling and makes them more accessible to predators. Efforts to reverse this trend are underway and include more organic farming, providing incentives for sowing spring crops, and implementing standards to prevent nest destruction. Indications at the present time are that these steps are stabilizing the population of skylarks

The plight of the bobolink is similar that of the skylark, with its population having declined around 65 percent since 1970. Even so, it is fairly common, with a breeding population of around eight million, of which 28 percent breed in Canada and 72 percent in the United States. Habitat destruction is the main cause for their loss of breeding territory, and it has to contend with dangerous pesticides in its wintering locations and is often treated as an agricultural pest. While on migration, it is hunted as food in places such as Jamaica.

Efforts are underway to control these interferences, with bans on dangerous pesticides, encouraging working farms to establish additional grassland, maintaining larger fields that apparently are preferred by the bobolink, and probably, most important of all, incentivizing farmers to mow hay fields outside the breeding season.

 

Save the birds

 

 

Learning About Sparrows, Those “Little Brown Birds”

Learning About Sparrows, Those “Little Brown Birds”

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 Worldwide Beauty of Birds

The Worldwide Beauty of Birds

Blue-crowned mot mot   The first resplendent quetzal I ever saw was on April 5, 1998 in the Monteverde Cloud Forest, Costa Rica. The species is considered by many to represent the most beautiful bird in the world, and although it was partially obscured by 

Waterhen, Moorhen or Gallinule – Which is It?

Waterhen, Moorhen or Gallinule – Which is It?

Growing up in Yorkshire, I called them waterhens (now more usually known as moorhens). They are humble birds, preferring freshwater wetlands, and are sedentary, except that they are joined by birds moving from north-west Europe to winter in the UK.  As their name implies, they are the size and shape of a chicken, they “cluck” like a hen, and lay a similar number of eggs. As a child, I sat on the edge of ponds and talked to the birds as they sat incubating their eggs on bulky platforms of reed stems. Usually there were 6 to 10 eggs in the nest, one laid each day, but occasionally the number was as high as 15 to 20, a sign that cooperative breeding was taking place. My novel Unplanned gives you a sense of why I connected so closely with these birds.

 

Common moorhen nest and eggsCommon moorhen nest and eggs

 

When they were disturbed, the sitting bird would quietly slip off the nest and disappear into the bulrushes. The dark brown plumage on their back and wings, and the bluish-black feathers on their belly made it difficult to see them among the vegetation or afloat on the dark-colored water. I would try to spot their chunky bright red bill with its citrus-yellow tip, or look for the white stripes on the flank. As soon as I left, I knew the waterhen would return to its nest. They are mainly sedentary birds, rarely leaving their territory, although you could see them poking around on land during winter when the ponds froze over.

Some of my ornithological experts called them moorhens even though the last place you would find them would be on the moors. It turns out that the word “moor” is derived from the old English word “mere”, which in turn gives rise to the word “marsh”. This made sense since I occasionally visited Hornsea Mere, a large expanse of freshwater near the south-east coast of Yorkshire,  where I would see many moorhens.

 

Common moorhen Range MapCommon moorhen Range Map

 

When I moved to the California in 1979 I thought I was still seeing moorhens, but was told that they were common gallinules, apparently the Latin word for “small hen”. To me they looked the same. They walked on floating vegetation and behaved secretively, just like the ones I knew back home. However, after much debate, they were declared a separate subspecies. Apparently they  “cluck” differently from moorhens, and there are slight morphological differences affecting their red truncated frontal shield. The species inhabits the southern US, central America, and a large part of South America, and is just one of the birds I discovered in California where they use a different name from the one used in Europe.

Apparently, this North America bird also has a relative on the Hawaiian Islands of O’ahu and Kaua’i,  known as the ‘Alae ’Ula (burnt forehead). Legend has it that the bird brought the fire from the volcano to the gods of the Hawaiian people, but during the flight the bird’s white forehead was scorched red by the volcano’s fire.

 

Common gallinule Range MapCommon gallinule Range Map

 

I later discovered this “same-bird, different-name”  phenomenon applies to other species in North America. For example:

  1. guillemots vs. common murres: the British guillemot takes its name from the French word for William – Guillaume – whereas the North American common murre is named after the call that  it makes – a purring and murmuring.
  2. divers vs. loons: the British divers (i.e. great northern, black-throated and red-throated) are believed named after their ability to catch fish, whereas the North American name probably originates from the old English word “lumne”, which means awkward or clumsy, and describes the bird’s poor ability to walk on land. Alternatively,  it may have been taken from the Norwegian word “lune”, meaning to lament, and which describes the bird’s plaintive call.
  3. skuas vs. jaegers: the smaller British skuas (i.e. Arctic, Pomarine and long-tailed) have the same name as their larger, dumpier, more ferocious cousin, the great skua. While the latter keeps its name in North America, the others are called jaegers. The word skua originates from the Faroese name for the bird -skuguur – and since all skuas harass other birds into dropping or disgorging their food – it appears that all species of this bird in Britain are named skua. In North America, the name jaeger is an extract from the German and Dutch words for hunter , reflecting its habit of chasing other sea birds.

Coal Tit, or Moorhens

  1. tits vs. chickadees: Britain has seven species of tit (blue, coal, great, long-tailed, marsh, willow and crested), with the name derived from the old English word meaning “something small”. The name was in use back in the 1540s, and if you are wondering about the word being the slang term for a woman’s breast, this latter designation was inaugurated only as recently as 1928. The colorful plumage, habitat and shape of these birds distinguish them from one another. Their closely-related North American cousins are called chickadees because of their alarm call, but similarities of appearance exist:
  • coal tit vs. chestnut-backed chickadee
  • willow tit vs. black-capped chickadee

 

Willow tit

Other species of chickadee are unique to North America, except for the gray-headed chickadee which is called the Siberian tit throughout its domicile in northern Eurasia.

 

Gray-headed chickadee

But back to moorhens and gallinules.  There is another relative in the United States known as the purple gallinule  that inhabits freshwater swamps and marshes in the southeastern states of the US. They have brilliant purple, blue, and green feathers, and while I have not seen one in California, they have a reputation for vagrancy, with individuals traveling as far west as here, and all the way down to the Galapagos Islands.

Whether they are called moorhens or gallinules, all these birds remain common and widespread, and generally are not at risk from climate change and other interventions, although loss of habitat is a general threat. In the UK, however, the moorhen is on the Amber conservation list because of its population decline during the 1970s and 1980s, and the current reduced clutch sizes during breeding, which possibly indicates a higher level of predator interference. 

 

Purple gallinulePurple gallinule