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Saturday, January 21, 2017

BACKYARD BIRD-WATCHING

TRY STARTLING A TATTLER AND IT WILL SHOW YOU HOW IT GOT ITS NAME


Shorebird breeds up north but likes to spend winters here


BY ERNIE COWAN


Our mild winter days are a wonderful time to wander the scenic coastline of San Diego, enjoying the collection of both resident birds and migratory visitors. There is always plenty to see.

Dominating the shoreline are the ungainly brown pelicans, now beginning to take on seasonal breeding colors, while the cliffs of La Jolla are teeming with activity as cormorants begin to build their informal nests of seaweed and engage in dramatic courting displays in hopes of attracting a worthy mate.

By late March the Brandt’s cormorants with their distinctive blue throats and the double-crested cormorants with their crown of white or black feathers will be tending freshly laid eggs.

Just about everywhere, there are also flocks of gulls feeding, congregating or seemingly posing for photographs on light posts or rocks.

These are all relatively large birds. They are easy to spot, and they congregate in large flocks. But take a closer look and you might find an interesting character known as a wandering tattler. Winter is a good time to spot the tattlers because their
 

Oft seen feeding at shoreline 

FROM E1 numbers grow with the arrival of birds migrating from less hospitable locations. 

About half the size of gulls and generally not found in flocks, the tattler is most frequently found feeding in shallow pools on rocky shorelines at low tide. The most distinctive thing about the tattler is its constant dipping and bobbing as it moves over the rocks or darts out of the way of an approaching wave. It’s almost like the bird is dancing to the upbeat tempo of music only it hears. The bird’s buffy gray color sometimes helps it blend with the natural shoreline colors, but its yellowlegs are a good identifying field mark. The tattler is considered a mediumsized shorebird with a stout, straight bill, a wingspan of about 20 inches, white under parts and a white eye stripe. 

So how did the wandering tattler get its name? Some bird names are obvious. A blue-footed boobie has blue feet, a red-tailed hawk has an obvious red tail, and a white-winged dove has distinctive white edges to its wings. 

Because of its habit of traveling great distances and its distribution over a wide area, this member of the sandpiper family was called a wanderer. It spends summers breeding in the far northern mountains of Canada and Alaska, and then migrates to the southern coastline of California and Mexico in the winter. They can generally be found along any of the rocky shorelines of San Diego from Point Loma to Oceanside. 

Once startled, the bird flies away while making a loud tattling call, perhaps as an alert to other nearby shorebirds. 

Once your sharp eyes spot the wandering tattler probing for food, keep an eye out for other shorebirds that might be feeding in the same area. Those will include the black or ruddy turnstones, other species of sandpipers, black oystercatchers, snowy egrets and surfbirds. 

San Diego’s bays and beaches are great places for winter birding, offering viewers several species that they can add to their life lists. 

January is also a good time to start planning for some of the major birding events of the year and to make sure your calendar is marked. 

February brings the annual San Diego Audubon Bird Festival, Feb. 23-26 at the Marina Village Conference Center. Visit www.sandiegoaudubon.org for details. 

February is also the start of the spectacular Swainson’s Hawk migration, where thousands of the birds pass through Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. A daily hawk watch takes places in Borrego Springs through mid-April. Visit borregohawkwatch.blogspot.com for updates once the migration begins. 

And backyard birders should be preparing now to welcome the arrival of hooded orioles, who first appear in late February but begin arriving at feeders in big numbers in March. One of my favorite oriole nectar feeders is the First Nature feeder. It’s inexpensive and easy to keep clean. Hummingbirds will also use this feeder. 

Cowan is a freelance writer based in Escondido. Email him at  or follow him at erniesoutdoors.blogspot.com