East Bay Birds: A Beginner's Guide
Need to Relax? Watch a bird. It's nature's finest stress reliever. Here are 10 easy-to-spot winged locals worth slowing down for.
Can you imitate the sound of screeching air brakes? Have you ever
mated in midair? If you wanted to protect your children, could you
convincingly act as if you were mortally wounded? If you answered
no to these questions, don’t worry. Most people probably would. But
birds are another story. Birds do all of this and more.
You may already know this. After all, bird-watching (or birding, as
those in the know say) is one of the fastest-growing hobbies in the
If you’re not one of the many who have taken up binoculars and started learning about the fascinating lives of birds, you’re missing out on some of nature’s finest work. Now you have no excuse. First, you live in the East Bay, a birder’s paradise, with vast open spaces, varied terrain, and a friendly climate. You also have this guide, which will introduce you to 10 of your easy-to-spot avian neighbors. You’ve been living with them for years. Don’t you think it’s time you got to know each other?
Coots often commune with ducks, but are members of the rail family. They dive like ducks but do not have webbed feet. Look, near ponds and marshes, for a dark, rather boxy 15-inch bird (bill tip to tail) with a round black head, short white bill, and red eyes; its legs and feet are greenish yellow. Coots make a clucking sound and usually move in a convoy, heads thrusting forward and retreating chickenlike. The nest, built by both male and female, is a float, anchored streamside so they can hunt worms, ground insects, grass, even small fish.
These remarkable four-inch bundles of energy are one of California’s few year-round hummers. Their frenetic daytime activity (including wings beating faster than the eye can track) requires such a high metabolic rate that at night they drop into a state called torpor: Their heartbeat slows dramatically, they grow colder, and they require fewer calories. Daylight shows an iridescent green body; the sun brings rosy brilliance to the male’s head and throat. Attracted to tubular red flowers, these nectar seekers can hover and zip sideways and backward from opportunity to opportunity in a way rarely seen in larger birds, which require more lift. Hummers can actually mate in flight.
The female builds a tiny cuplike nest from plant fibers and lichen, and lines it with spider webs, which expand like a delicate silken tissue to accommodate growing hatchlings. Males entice females with spellbinding dives and plunges, and guard their territory with wonderful aerobatic displays. Look for hummers in home gardens, light woodlands, and riparian (that is, on the banks of rivers or lakes) shrubs.
Our state bird doesn’t like to be seen alone. Orderly little families move in processions along the ground in brushy areas, open fields, woodlands, or chaparral, scratching for seeds, grubs, acorns, or grain. These 10-inch birds have the conical bill of a seed-cruncher and show a mottled bluish gray back. Both genders bear a comma-shaped black crest that droops forward from their head; the male also has a black chin. Quails’ tendency to nest rather carelessly on the ground (near a log or rock or brush pile) and to run rather than fly makes them vulnerable to outdoor cats (as are mourning doves, also ground feeders). The courtship call of the male in April and May has been construed as WHERE are you? In non-mating season, the birds often settle for Chi-CA-go!
The stately manner, large size (39 inches bill to tail), and stunningly pure white color of this majestic bird make it as visible and exciting to novice birders as it once was to milliners, who prized its elegant, long tail plumes almost to the extinction of the species. Look for it in grassy shoreline areas and salt and freshwater marshes. To forage, it descends from its treetop nest and wades slowly through shallow water on its long black legs in search of fish. When it has speared one with its sharp yellow beak, the sight of the seafood snack moving down the bird’s long neck is unforgettable. The great egret is sometimes confused with the snowy egret (Egretta thula), which is smaller (24 inches), has a black bill and yellow feet, and nests in colonies near lakesides, marshes, or riverbanks. The snowy egret is also slightly more athletic in its foraging.
At about 5 inches in length, this bird is similar to the lesser goldfinch (Carduelis psaltria) and the American goldfinch (Carduelis tristis). All like to perch and hop in backyards, brush, and shrubbery (the house finch may be a little more urban, since it’s known to nest in hanging plants). The female is streaked from head through belly in a dull gray-brown coloration, but the male has a charming rosy head cap and breast, and red eyebrows. House finches sing with a clear, sweet warble, usually ending on a lower pitch. They belt out their confident kweet from power lines and telephone poles. They love seeds, especially sunflower, and have a short, stubby bill adapted to cracking them. These cheerful city nesters have delighted many a beginning birder.
A long-tailed member of the plover family, this 10-inch bird emits strident calls some people think sound like kill-deeeeeer. It is dark blackish brown on top, with white eyebrows and a whitish underbody interrupted by two conspicuous black neck rings. Favored habitats include large lawns, riverbanks, ponds, and mudflats. The killdeer’s nest is a crude depression scraped into gravel or sandy soil and lined with grass. But if this somewhat low-rent home is approached, one parent will feign the pathetic stumble of a seriously injured bird to attract the attention of the potential predator. Dragging a “broken” wing, the killdeer hobbles away from the nest in an Oscar-worthy performance, luring the predator toward apparently easy prey and protecting the truly vulnerable hatchlings.
This 10-inch summer singer lives at low elevations, enjoying backyards, gardens, parks, shrubby areas, and brush. It feeds on insects, and loves grapes and berries. Visually, it’s unremarkable, with a gray-brown back, long gray tail with white patches, a whitish front, and a dark line from eye to beak. But aurally, it’s amazing. The territorial male shows off to his female partner with a repertoire of elaborate songs—perhaps to compensate for his humble appearance. He can imitate almost anything: phrases from other birds’ songs, squealing car brakes, barking dogs, even kids’ toys. Some people find the incessant mimicry annoying, especially since it frequently blossoms on moonlit summer nights. Other people are as joyously enchanted as the missus presumably is.
Woodpeckers are a striking reminder that listening can be as revealing as looking when you’re trying to spot birds. Evolution has thickened their skulls and strengthened their necks to bear the hammer blows of their chisellike drumming without brain damage or whiplash. They forage for wood-boring insects in dead limbs or trees; their long barb-tipped tongues help them pull the bugs from their holes. Woodpeckers also bore cavities into trees to make their nests, so a pile of wood chippings at the base of a tree might be a clue to their whereabouts. The Nuttall’s male has a brilliant red half-crown toward the back of his head and a black upper back. Males and females (both about seven inches long) have clear white stripes curving down from the top of the eyes toward the shoulder, and have black-and-white barred backs and black-spotted white underbodies. Listen and look for them in oak and riparian woodlands.
These large (19 inches long), handsome raptors are often seen sitting like sentries on fence posts along semirural roads warming themselves, breasts facing the sun. They live in open woodlands, farmlands, and grasslands. When hunting, they seem to stop high in the air, hovering motionlessly (called kiting) to spot a favored prey—perhaps a field mouse or small snake. When excited, they make a loud raspy cry. Their backs are mottled brownish black and white; the breast is pale and slightly streaked; and when the bird poises, tilts, and soars, its tail expands to reveal an unmistakable rust-red (birders call it rufous) fan. Red-tailed hawks build stick nests in tall trees and use them repeatedly. This hawk is often confused with the more common turkey vulture (Cathartes aura), which is larger (about 25 inches), has a featherless red head (for cleaner feasting on carrion), and has more fingerlike flight feathers.
Though not a real blue jay, these 11-inch-long pale-breasted birds (with dark gray cheeks and indigo blue head, wings, and tail) are familiar residents of brush, open scrub, and oak woodlands. They are screechy and aggressive—kvetching when near the ground and not too far from home, but just plain haranguing farther aloft. They eat seeds, insects, and fruit, but especially love acorns. Like the brown-headed cowbird, Western scrub-jays will rob eggs from nests and eat those, too. Their stick-built nests are hidden in bushes or low trees. Don’t mistake them for Steller’s jays (Cyanocitta stelleri), which are about the same size but a more intense blue, with a shorter tail and a distinctive blackish crest. Steller’s jays look slightly more aristocratic, but will dash for another bird’s eggs with equally unseemly avarice.