Author Archives: Bruce Aird

A Common Ringed Plover in Orange County California

While birding at San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary in southern California on 31-AUG-19, we found a plover with an unusually heavy black breast band. This bird was feeding on the mud of the ponds beside a handful of Semipalmated Plovers, and other shorebirds. Compared to nearby Semipalmated Plovers, this plover seemed slightly larger – just a tiny bit huskier and longer-winged. Further observation of the bird suggested we had found a wildly out-of-place Common Ringed Plover, Charadrius hiaticula. We sent word out to the local birding websites and hotlines, and at that point, the circus began!

What Makes It A Common Ringed Plover?

The male Common Ringed Plover showing the heavy black breast band.

The male Common Ringed Plover showing the heavy black breast band. Photo © Jeff Bray, 2019

Many features that distinguish Common Ringed from Semipalmated Plovers (Charadrius semipalmatus) are minute and subtle. They can be very hard to observe, let alone document. There were seven Semipalmated Plovers clustered around the pond where the mystery plover was foraging. All of them were either females or juveniles; not a single adult male Semipalmated Plover was present. This was, in itself, a little odd. The unknown plover male really stood out with its very wide, black breast band.

Subtler Differences

Common Ringed Plover (above) with Semipalmated Plover (below)

Common Ringed Plover (above) with Semipalmated Plover (below). Photo © Jeff Bray, 2019

Other less obvious differences became apparent with more prolonged observation. First, this bird had almost no visible eye ring. The “Semi-plovers” all sport orange, fleshy eye rings. This Common Ringed Plover showed a narrow black eye ring, only visible in direct sunshine. Second, where the Semipalmated Plovers had limited white arcs in the hind portion of the supercilium. The Common Ringed Plover had a longer white supercilium that extended from just about the middle of the eye to well behind it.

Through most of our observations of this bird, clingy mud coated its bright orange legs.  Still more mud obscured the shape of its bill. Eventually, we were able to obtain photographs showing a little more of the subtle bill differences. The base of the bill was not quite as thick as that of nearby Semi-plovers, and it was slightly longer too. Both species showed plain and bright white underparts from the bill all the way to the vent. But one subtle and clinching difference concerns how the white chin of the Semi-plovers extends up to just above the gape. This differed from the black face of the Common Ringed Plover which clearly dropped down to just below the gape.

About Those Webbed Feet…

Common Ringed Plover showing reduced foot webbing

Common Ringed Plover showing reduced foot webbing. Photo © Bruce Aird 2019

The literature also claims several other marks for separating these two very similar species. First, we address the eponymous palmation of the Semipalmated Plovers. Yes, these little plovers have webbing between their long central toe and the toes on either side. In Common Ringed Plover, this webbing is absent between the inner and middle toe and reduced  between the outer and middle toes. It took a long time to document this on the Common Ringed Plover. Eventually the bird waded into the water, and then walked around, showing us its feet. This provided an opportunity to document its foot webbing. The facial black of this Common Ringed Plover extended through the auriculars all the way back to the brown nape. In a male Semipalmated Plover, the black would go to brown in the auriculars, well short of the nape.

Some sources claim that Common Ringed Plover is slightly paler on the crown and nape upper, compared to Semipalmated Plover. The difference is very slight however, and it may not be true of all Common Ringed Plovers. In fact, the Orange County bird seemed to be slightly darker than the Semipalmated Plovers nearby. It’s possible that the Common Ringed Plovers of western Europe, Great Britain, Iceland and Atlantic Canada are, on average lighter, while those of Eurasia are slightly darker.

Taxonomy and Speculation

Common Ringed Plover comprises three sub-species, per the website, “Birding Newfoundland with Dave Brown” (see link below). These are:

  1. Eastern form: Charadrius h. psammodroma, which breeds in Arctic Canada, the Faroe Islands and Iceland,
  2. Central form: Charadrius h. hiaticula, breeding in Northern and Eastern Europe, southern Scandinavia and Britain, and,
  3. WEstern forms: Charadrius h. tundrae, which breeds in Northern Scandinavia across through Russia to offshore Alaska.
Common Ringed Plover at San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary

Common Ringed Plover at San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary. Photo © Jeff Bray, 2019

All three sub-species typically winter along coastal Africa, but they take different routes to get there. This raises the question of where birds found in North America come from. Birds appearing in Atlantic Canada are likely of the type sub-species, hiaticula, or the western Europe sub-species, psammodroma. Whereas birds appearing on the Alaskan islands and the west coast of the United States probably represent the tundrae sub-species. Almost all birds occurring in the lower 48 states appear during August and September.

Per the article cited, there were nine previous records of Common Ringed Plover in the continental United States. The article is no longer current in this regard. A bird at Point Reyes National Seashore in 2018 and this bird, bring that total up to eleven. Those birds that don’t stray too far from their normal range might retrace the route they followed. But those that stray as far south as North Carolina or southern California may winter with Semi-Plovers. What the 2016 Common Ringed Plover in Illinois did is anybody’s guess!

Just a Short Stay

Common Ringed Plover (left) and Semipalmated Plover in flight

Common Ringed Plover (left) and Semipalmated Plover in flight. Photo © Bruce Aird 2019

Piecing together the story, some birders saw the bird (but didn’t identify it) on 28-AUG-19. This happened again on 30-AUG-19, with birders noting its strangeness but not identifying it to species. You can sort of understand why. Heavily marked male Semi-plovers and male Common Ringed Plovers show some overlap in the width of the breast band. The rest of the identifying features for Common Ringed Plover are quite subtle. Females and juvenile birds of both species are even harder to tell apart.

Making matters worse, some experts cite “distinguishing” features that don’t actually distinguish, the two species. Some experts claim that Common Ringed Plover has more white on  the upper wing surface than does Semipalmated Plover. We looked at this character in the field but could not find a consistent difference either way. The calls of the two species are fairly distinctive. Many people heard the Semi-plovers vocalize. The Common Ringed Plover, however, never made a peep – perhaps an unfortunate word choice there!

The Common Ringed Plover didn’t remain long at San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary. On 03-SEP-19, a disturbance on the pond the bird foraged in, flushed it and it never returned. So, sadly, this bird was with us for only a little over five days. Still, due to eBird and birding websites, many people saw it. This resulted in hundreds of happy people and lots of work for the regional reviewers! Overall, it was a wonderful bird to find and a spectacular first record for Orange County.

“The Shorebird Guide” by O’Brien, Crossley and Karlson
“Shorebirds of the Pacific Northwest” by Paulson

A Most Unusual “Raccoon”

The coati coming over the fence to steal some sugar water

The Coati makes its entrance

On a recent birding trip to southeastern Arizona, I ran across a mammal I have long wanted to meet: the White-nosed Coatimundi, Nasua narica. Known as a coati for short, this attractive beast is a member of the raccoon family, Procyonidae, as suggested by its facial mask and faintly ringed tail. All of the world’s four coati species reside only in the Americas. Other species include the Eastern and Western Mountain Coatis, and the South American Coati. Only the White-nosed Coati occurs in the United States, where it is found from southern Arizona, across the southwest corner of New Mexico to south Texas from El Paso to the Gulf of Mexico. The White-nosed Coati’s range extends all the way through Central America into northwestern Columbia. Continue reading

A Chaseable Red-flanked Bluetail in California

Red-flanked Bluetail on the grounds of the William Clark Library

Red-flanked Bluetail at the William Clark Library in Los Angeles, California

When word broke on a Monday of a Red-flanked Bluetail found at the William Andrews Clark Library, it caused a panic. We scrambled for our field guides to see what one even looked like, and then looked up the library hours of operation. The news wasn’t good: the facility only opened during the week when most of us are working instead of birding. This whole working-for-a-living thing really puts a damper on birding! We spent an anguished week watching the reports verifying the bird was still present. Fortunately, the bird hung around, so we drove to Los Angeles to chase it. A crowd of about 100 local birders milled around by the library gate, mixing with visitors from further afield. Promptly at 9:00 am, the gates opened and people started speed-walking towards the opposite end of the property. The grounds were beautiful: lush, with mature lawns, dense hedges, and concrete walkways shaded by huge ficus and magnolia trees. Continue reading

A Wood Sandpiper in Humboldt County

The Wood Sandpiper

First view of the Wood Sandpiper

Recently, a report of a Wood Sandpiper (Tringa glareola) up in southern Humboldt County, California, sent our pulse jumping. The Wood Sandpiper is a Eurasian shorebird, related to our Solitary Sandpiper. There are comparatively few records of this bird for North America. Wood Sandpipers stray as far as New York occasionally, though most records come from Alaska. This bird is rare enough that some North American field guides don’t even illustrate it. When the photos came through, confirming the bird, we put together a whirlwind trip to go see it. It was a 12-hour drive to the Russ Ranch Wetlands where the bird was, so we set off the night before and drove through the night to reach the marsh the next morning. Continue reading

Bishops and Munias and Whydahs! Oh My!

Adult Scaly-breasted Munia drinking

Adult Scaly-breasted Munia drinking

Few subjects provoke the ire in a roomful of birders more rapidly than whether or not to count introduced species. The ins and outs of what is “countable”, what is “established”, and what is still an exotic alien has reddened faces and clenched fists among birders for decades. After that comes the discussion of which state bird records committee is loosest or tightest in their approach to exotics. By then, former friends begin to disperse faster than the young of the year.

But in the end, that is not really what matters here. When it comes to counting exotics, I find myself more and more adopting an eBird stance. That is: count them all, do it as accurately as possible, and submit your data. In the end, the importance of this goes far beyond a mere life list. What matters most is the impact that these growing populations of exotics have upon our native species and the environment in general. Make no mistake about it, that impact is huge. Continue reading

Exotic Parrots in North America

Rosy-faced Lovebird in a Phoenix, Arizona city park

Rosy-faced Lovebird in a Phoenix, Arizona city park

Any discussion of introduced bird species in North America would be incomplete without considering exotic parrots. In fact, parrots and their allies constitute the single largest class of exotic birds on the continent. According to Forshaw’s Parrots of the World, there are/were 356 parrot species extant in the world as of 2010. Over 20 psittacids (parrots and their relatives) occur frequently enough in North America that the major field guides illustrate them. Yet only eight species grace the official North American checklist. Of these, arguably only six became established anywhere. Those six are: Monk Parakeet, Nanday Parakeet, Green Parakeet, White-winged Parakeet, Red-crowned Amazon and Rosy-faced Lovebird. See the table of species and their status below.

The irony of it abounds. Historically, North America only ever boasted two native psittacid species: Carolina Parakeet and Thick-billed Parrot. The Carolina Parakeet is famously extinct. Thick-billed Parrot was extirpated from its tiny historical range in the United States decades ago. Moreover, they are endangered in their restricted Mexican range. All efforts to re-introduce Thick-billed Parrots in the southwest met with failure. So any parrot seen in North America is by definition, an exotic. Perhaps many species not on the official checklist are well on the way to becoming established. Continue reading

Eureka – A Snowy Plover Story

A Western Snowy Plover on its nest

An adult Snowy Plover incubating on a nest scrape

The amazing story of Eureka, the Western Snowy Plover, began with an unexpected event on Memorial Day weekend of 2017. I do quarterly surveys for Western Snowy Plover (Charadrius nivosus nivosus), an endangered species along the west coast of North America. We survey a 2.2-mile stretch of Huntington State Beach in Orange County, CA. With my teammates, Doug and Chuck, we’ve surveyed this beach every January, March, May and September for four years. Huntington State Beach is a crucial roosting and feeding area for Western Snowy Plover, and we see some on every January, March or September survey.

Surveying takes three of us because the beach is quite deep at about 500 feet from the parking lot to the water’s edge. Our team walks in parallel, zig-zagging down the beach to cover everything. Snowy Plovers, with their pale, wet-sand plumage, can be hard to spot. They make it harder by crouching down in little divots on the beach, hiding until danger is right on top of them. May is the boring survey because it’s the only time we don’t see the plovers on our beach. By May, the plovers have migrated to their breeding areas elsewhere. Continue reading

Anza-Borrego Super-Bloom

The wildflowers north of Borrego Springs

The wildflowers north of Borrego Springs

Just when you think you understand things a little, along comes an event that puts you in your place! The rainfall here on the west coast of the United States in 2017 has been a bit odd. Very welcome, to be sure, but a bit odd. We greatly exceeded expected rainfall this winter and spring. From Washington down to northern California, experts declared an official end to a drought that lasted about a decade. This refilled reservoirs and lakes in that region  to capacity.

In southern California, the rain didn’t erase that long drought as completely, but it still had staggering effects locally. One factor that makes the rain so odd is that it occurred completely outside the Pacific oscillation cycle. The El Nino and La Nina events govern these oscillations. These rains at Anza-Borrego State Park produced a huge wildflower super-bloom. That greatly benefited White-lined Sphinx moths and their predators. Continue reading

A Laysan Albatross in Orange County

The Sea and Sage Audubon chapter winter pelagic trip ran recently on a February day following strong winds and storms from the southwest. A fairly large swell kept people on their toes for most of the day (going airborne while on a boat is bad!!). It was by turns rainy, windy, drizzly and sunny. For those who braved the weather, however, the returns from this trip were spectacular! Every pelagic trip begins with a sense of hope: maybe you’ll see something rare, like an albatross. But realistically, you never really expect one to show up. As it turned out, they weren’t long in coming, and in this case it was an unprecedented one.

Laysan Albatross

Laysan Albatross in Orange County

A Laysan Albatross soars past the boat at close quarters.

The boat left Dana Point harbor and headed straight out into the California Channel. Four miles out, a call of “Albatross!” went up from the back of the boat. The usual stampede ensued! The bird in question, a spectacular adult Laysan Albatross, Phoebastria immutabilis, provided a first record for Orange County. This particular individual was a handsome adult bird. The distinctive dark wings and all-white body, nape and crown are distinctive. And the grayish shadow to the auricular and large pinkish bill with a pale bluish tip seal the deal. The bird made several passes by the boat, found nothing that interested it, and sailed off, leaving us all wishing for more. Alas, it was not to be as we never saw this bird again during the entire trip. But it sure woke everyone up! Continue reading

Coastal Saltmarsh Sparrows


Nelson's Sparrows at Seal Beach National Wildlife Refuge

Nelson’s Sparrow, driven into view by high tides.

The brackish and salt marshes of California are an important and globally-threatened ecosystem. At this point, a century of “civilization” has filled, polluted or destroyed over 95% of California’s coastal salt marshes. These estuaries and marshes are incredibly important. Biologically speaking, they are some of the most productive acres of habitat anywhere. They host tremendous species diversity, and act as vital nursery grounds for many ocean species. They serve as feeding and breeding resources for a variety of species. Endangered species like the California Least Tern, Western Snowy Plover and Light-footed Ridgway’s Rail all use coastal saltmarshes. They also provide wintering or year-round habitat for a number of interesting bird species. The focus of this article is three such species: Belding’s (Savannah) Sparrow, Large-billed Savannah Sparrow and Nelson’s Sparrows. Continue reading