Category Archives: Birding

Call it birding, bird watching, or field ornithology, this hobby is among the most popular in the United States and many other countries. Whether participating for the science, the aesthetics, or just as an excuse to get out in nature, experiencing the visual and auditory beauty is a joy to all who partake.

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

Andean Condor: Let’s Float Down to Peru!

Adult Male Andean Condor in Cochahuasi Animal Sanctuary

Adult Male in Cochahuasi Animal Sanctuary

While every corner of the globe brings its own plethora of bird species to the table, few countries attract such attention as Peru. Second only to Columbia in the sheer number of species, Peru’s vast array of climates house species from all areas of the birding spectrum. Perhaps the most intriguing species in the nation is the Andean Condor.

Heavier than all other flying birds and second only in wingspan to the Wandering Albatross, this giant scavenger has always struck awe in the entire birding community. I am certainly no exception, and I finally got to see some myself in August of 2018. 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

Barska Level ED Open Bridge

Goodbye Eagle Optics Rangers. Hello Barska Level ED

Barska Level ED 10x42 Open Bridge

Barska Level ED 10×42 Open Bridge

One of the most popular low-cost binocular series in the history of Optics4Birding has been the Eagle Optics Rangers. The Ranger went through several incarnations and improved each time. So, when Eagle Optics closed, we were disappointed to lose the Rangers, and we started looking for a good replacement. In January 2018, we found the Barska Level ED Open Bridge binoculars. Even without a head-to-head comparison, we knew had found our replacement. So, we arranged an evaluation piece from Barska to try them out. Read on to find out why we feel so strongly about the Barska Level ED binoculars. 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

The Death of Planet Earth

NASA 'Epic' Earth image

NASA Captures “EPIC” Earth Image
(click on photos to enlarge)

Has mankind really driven the planet to the edge of a catastrophic crash of life? Is greed blinding us to what is right in front of our faces? Some would say maybe these claims are a little too reactionary.  Okay, so a bit of Florida gets wet, and maybe some people will have to move inland. Can’t science just come up with new technologies to solve the dilemmas we face? Does industry just need to develop a practical and economical electric car? What would happen if we just did “business as usual”? The claims of doom are a bit extreme and, if we accept them at face value, they are really inconvenient to living our lives. What is science telling us about what is happening right now, what we face in the very near future, and what can be done to avoid it?

Earth really is exceptional. From our naturalist point of view, this planet’s life is unimaginably beautiful and breath-takingly diverse. But it doesn’t take a genius to see that Earth’s abundance and diversity is disappearing. There is a point at which this decline becomes mass extinction, and that point is much closer than you may think. Our own survival is indeed inextricably tied to the health of our world. If we expect science to save us, then we need to listen to what science is telling us.  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