Natural History Notes on the Birds

Charadriformes II

Gulls, Terns, Skuas and Jaegers, and Alcids

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About the categories

Name

Common name

Food

The main food category.

Feeding Techniques

How it acquires its food.

Habitat

What kind of area does the bird live?

Plumage

Is there similarity between the male and the female, between winter and spring, young and adult, or are there variations in the plumage amongst the species.

Distribution

Approximately where it is found in the United States.

Breeding

Unique aspects on how the species breeds.

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Special notes on the status or natural history of this bird.

Notes from A. C. Bent

Selections from the Life Histories of North American Birds, edited by A. C. Bent.

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Name

Western Gull
Lesson Plan

Food

Ominivorous scavenger

Feeding Techniques

Opportunistic; uses its large beak to eat what it wants

Habitat

Pacifc coast; rarely goes inland

Plumage

The male and the female have the same plumage. Four years to acquire adult plumage

Distribution

Pacific states coastline

Breeding

Often a colonial breeder

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

egger - person who collects eggs to be used for food

sagacity - wisdom

J. H. Bowles was co-author with Leon Dawson on the Birds of Washington.

Notes from A.C. Bent

Food: Before the encroachments of civilization gave the western gull an easy way of earning its living as a scavenger, its principal food supply was gleaned from the sea; it followed the schools of small fish in flocks, hovering, screaming, and struggling for its prey in strenuous competition. When its appetite was satisfied a game of tag sometimes ensued, such as Mr. J. H. Bowles (1909) described as follows:

One catches a herring, and instead of eating it flies with the fish hanging from its bill, past three or four comrades. These accept the challenge and rush madly after, while the pursued goes through all sorts of evolutions in seeking to elude them. If overtaken, the order of chase is reversed, and the game goes merrily on until all are tired. The fish, or tag trophy, is not eaten but is dropped upon the playground in a condition decidedly the worse for wear.

Although fish still form a large part of its food, especially about its breeding grounds, it is primarily a scavenger, like the other large gulls, and has learned to frequent harbors and populated shores, where it can easily gorge itself on the garbage dumping grounds, pick up unsavory morsels at the outlets of sewers, and feed on whatever refuse it can find scattered along the beaches. It also follows vessels to pick up whatever scraps of food are thrown overboard. It feeds at low tide on the sand flats, mud banks, river shores, and mussel beds, where it finds dead fish, clams, seaworms, dead rats, or any kind of fresh animal food or carrion. It understands how to break the shells of a clam or a sea urchin by flying up into the air with it and dropping it on hard ground or on a rock, sometimes making several attempts before succeeding.

Mr. Walter E. Bryant (1888) says of its feeding habits:

The gulls are indiscriminate feeders; in addition to their usual articles of diet, they subsist largely upon eggs during the summer. They do not eat the eggs of their own species, nor do they trouble the cormorants after the murres have commenced laying. Sea-urchins, crabs, young murres, and rabbits, and fish stolen from the cormorants' nests are eaten. Not being quick enough to swoop upon the rabbits they catch them by patient watching at their burrows, and will patiently try for 15 minutes to swallow a squealing young rabbit, and finally fly away with the hind feet protruding. The dead bodies of murres are also eaten; they detach pieces of flesh by backing away and dragging the body, meanwhile shaking their heads, till a piece breaks off.

Perhaps the most important food supply of the western gull on its breeding grounds consists of the eggs of other birds, near which it almost always nests. The sagacity displayed by the gulls in taking advantage of the human egg hunters is well described by Dr. A. L. Hermann (1859) as follows:

At 1 o'clock every day, during the egg season, Sundays and Thursdays excepted (this is to give the birds some little respite), the egg hunters meet on the south side of the island. The roll is called to see that all are present, that each one may have an equal chance in gathering the spoil. The signal is given, every man starting off at a full run for the most productive egging grounds. The gulls understanding, apparently, what is about to occur, are on the alert, hovering overhead and awaiting only the advance of the party. The men rush eagerly into the rookeries; the affrighted murres have scarcely risen from their nests before the gull, with remarkable instinct, not to say almost reason, flying but a few paces ahead of the hunter, alights on the ground, tapping such eggs as the short time will allow before the egger comes up with him. The broken eggs are passed by the men, who remove only those which are sound. The gull then returning to the field of its exploits, procures a plentiful supply of its favorite food.

I have repeatedly seen this gull drink salt water, and I believe that all ocean gulls do so though I have heard it stated that they prefer fresh water. They do not, however, like their food too salty as the following instance, related by Mr. A. W. Anthony (1906) will illustrate:

I was one day watching some western gulls, a few yards from me on a wharf, when a large piece of salted fish was thrown out from an adjacent boathouse. It fairly glistened with a thick incrustation of salt, and I was somewhat curious to see if the gulls would eat food so highly seasoned. No sooner had it fallen than it was seized upon by a gull and as quickly swallowed; but from the surprised actions of the bird it was evidently not to his liking; no sooner had it reached the stomach than it was ordered out again. Dropping the fish on the wharf the bird eyed it for a moment, turning its head from side to side, and, to judge from its soliloquy, made a number of uncomplimentary remarks on the depraved tastes of mankind that would spoil good fish in that manner. Then picking up the fish it flew down to the water, and holding it under the surface shook its head from side to side violently "sozzeling" the meat about for several seconds. It was then taken back to the wharf, laid down and inspected, and carefully sampled; this time, however, it was not bolted as at first, but held for a moment in the mouth and again rejected, and carried back to the water, where it was even more roughly laundered. This operation was repeated several times; and the piece of fish, which must have weighted 4 ounces at the outset, was reduced to half that size before it reached a state of freshness that suited the palate of the gull.

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Name

California Gull
Lesson Plan

Food

Omnivorous

Feeding Techniques

Forages while walking

Habitat

Variety of habitats from sea coast to inland agricultural fields.

Plumage

The male and the female have the same plumage. Generally takes three years to obtain adult plumage.

Distribution

Throughout the western United States.

Breeding

Breeds in colonies. Nest is scrape in the ground.

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Notes from A.C. Bent

It has always seemed to me that the above name should have been applied to the western gull, Larus occidentalis, the characteristic gull of the California coast, for the subject of this sketch, Larus californicus, is essentially a bird of the inland plains. It is common enough on the California coast in winter, together with several other species, but it is not known to breed within that State except in the elevated regions east of the Sierras in the northern part of the State. Although we are accustomed to associate gulls with the seashore this species seems to be confined, during the breeding season, to the interior, where it is widely distributed and in many places abundant, particularly in the vicinity of the larger lakes, from northern Utah to the barren grounds on the Arctic coast. The exact limits of its distribution are none too well known, for the casual observer might easily mistake it for the herring gull, which it closely resembles. The ranges of the two species come together at the eastern edge of the Great Plains, and undoubtedly many mistaken identifications have been made where specimens have not been collected. Such was the case at Crane Lake, Saskatchewan, where the herring gull had been reported as breeding abundantly, but where all of the large gulls that we collected during two seasons' work proved to be California gulls, which were very common.

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Name

Glaucous-winged Gull
Lesson Plan

Food

An opportunistic scavenger.

Feeding Techniques

Aggressive scavenger that feeds generally along water areas.

Habitat

Coastal areas, but especially in areas where humans are found

Plumage

The male and the female have the same plumage. , takes four years to achieve adult plumage.

Distribution

Found only along the Pacific coast, generally from Northern California northward.

Breeding

Colonial breeder; both sexes raise young

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Notes from A.C. Bent

Food: These, like other large gulls, are useful scavengers all along the coast and are practically omnivorous. They were constantly following our ship in search of small scraps that might be picked up, and, while we were at anchor at Ketchikan and Unalaska, they were especially numerous and always in sight, eagerly waiting for the garbage to be thrown overboard. They are abundant, in winter, in the harbors of nearly all the large cities on the Pacific coast as far south as southern California, where they feed largely on refuse and seem to fill the place occupied by the herring gull on the Atlantic coast. They are particularly numerous about the garbage heaps which are dumped on the shore to be washed away by the advancing tides. In such places they appear to realize that they are protected and are very tame. In their eagerness to secure the choice morsels of food they seem to forget all about the presence of human beings, even within a few feet. At other times it is difficult for a man to walk up within gunshot distance of them. They become much excited and clamorous in their scramble for food, competing at close quarters with other species of gulls, with dogs, and with the lazy indians. They are none too particular in their choice of food and will eat almost anything that is edible.

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Name

Thayer's Gull

Lesson Plan

Food

An opportunistic scavenger.

Feeding Techniques

Habitat

Plumage

The male and the female have the same plumage. takes four years to achieve adult plumage.

Distribution

Breeding

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Notes from A.C. Bent

Name

American Herring Gull
Lesson Plan

Food

An opportunistic scavenger.

Feeding Techniques

Aggressive scavenger that feeds generally along water areas.

Habitat

Water environments

Plumage

The male and the female have the same plumage. takes four years to achieve adult plumage.

Distribution

Throughout the United States. One of our most abundant birds.

Breeding

Colonial breeder; both sexes raise young

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Notes from A.C. Bent

Behavior: The flight of the herring gull varies greatly under different circumstances. At times, especially in calm weather, the birds flap along slowly with broad, slow wing beats like those of herons or cormorants. In this manner they may fly close to the water or high in the air, and they are usually massed in loose flocks. Occasionally, however, their flight is in a long line, one behind the other, or in broad lines abreast, and rarely they may be seen in the typical V formation of ducks. In rising, a flock often ascends nearly vertically in a great circle all together, or in many intersecting circles.

The play of light and shade, of sun and shadow, alternately make the birds appear dark and light. Many hours are spent by the gulls in this graceful and beautiful sport of soaring in circles - a sport which apparently requires but little effort, as, under favorable conditions, few wing beats are necessary. The descent may be made in the same manner as the ascent by circling, but at times the birds drop swiftly down by tipping or rocking from side to side.

In windy weather the flight of the herring gull is far from slow and heron-like. Then it is extremely graceful, as the bird alternately sails with great rapidity before the wind or beats up into it.

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Name

Bonapart's Gull
Lesson Plan

Food

Largely insectivorous. (See in Notes from A. C. Bent)

Feeding Techniques

Forages while walking, and flying

Habitat

Varied habitats as long as there is water.

Plumage

The male and the female have the same plumage. adult birds have non-breeding and breeding plumages; takes three years to become an adult.

Distribution

Throughout the United States

Breeding

Breeds in northern Canada. Breeding behavior not well undersood.

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

The link below for Coleopa frigida goes to a site which discusses using the maggot of this fly in trout fishing. The modern scientific name is Coelopa frigida .

Notes from A.C. Bent

Food: Like its larger relative, the Franklin's gull, the Bonaparte's gull is largely insectivorous. Over the marshy ponds of the interior flocks of these pretty birds are frequently seen beating back and forth, adroitly catching insects on the wing, and their stomachs are often packed full of such food. Many insects are gleaned from the surface of still pools or picked up from the drift rows of decaying vegetation along the shores. Mr. Arthur H. Norton (1909) says that in Maine it "has been found feeding over rafts of drifting seaweeds, when its diet was found to consist of maggots, probably Coleopa frigida a fly that breeds at high-water mark in decaying seaweeds (Algae and Zostera)." Nuttall (1834) examined two that "were gorged with ants and their eggs, and some larvae of moths in their pupa state." On the seacoast they live on small fish, shrimps, and other surface-swimming crustaceans, marine worms, and other small aquatic animals. Apparently very little, if any, vegetable food is taken.

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Name

Mew Gull
Lesson Plan

Food

Omnivorous

Feeding Techniques

Forages while walking

Habitat

Primarily coastal

Plumage

The male and the female have the same plumage. adult birds have non-breeding and breeding plumages; takes three years to become an adult.

Distribution

Pacific Coast

Breeding

Breeds in small colonies in Canada, Alaska. Nest may be on the ground,on roof of building, or even on water.

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

sea mews - another name for Mew Gull

assiduously - with great care and detail

offal - waste products

Notes from A.C. Bent

Macgillivray (1852) says:  

The fields having been cleared of their produce and partially plowed, to prepare them for another crop, the "sea mews," deserting the coasts, appear in large flocks, which find subsistence in picking up the worms and larvae that have been exposed. These flocks may be met with here and there at long intervals in all the agricultural districts, not only in the neighborhood of the sea, but in the parts most remote from it. Although they are most numerous in stormy weather, it is not the tempest alone that induces them to advance inland; for in the finest days of winter and spring they attend upon the plow, or search the grass fields as assiduously as at any other time. 

This gull also picks up floating offal from the surface of the water, and catches small fish, such as sand eels and young herring. From the beaches and rocks on the shore it picks up crustacea, mollusks, echinoderms, etc. In general habits it closely resembles the ring-billed gull. Its flight is light and buoyant and it dips down to the water gracefully, rarely if ever plunging below the surface. Its cry is shrill and somewhat harsh.

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Name

Ring-billed Gull
Lesson Plan

Food

Scavenger - Omnivorous

Feeding Techniques

Forages while walking

Habitat

Habitats with water including parks and urban areas

Plumage

The male and the female have the same plumage. Three years to acquire adult plumage

Distribution

Throughout the US

Breeding

Breeds in colonies sometimes with California or Herring Gulls.

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Notes from A.C. Bent

Behavior: The flight of the ring-billed gull is not markedly different from that of the other larger gulls; it is light and graceful as well as strong and long sustained. It can poise stationary in the air when facing a good breeze without moving its wings except to adjust them to the changing air currents, and can even sail along against the wind in the same manner. It is often so poised while looking for food on the water, but if the wind conditions are not favorable it is obliged to hover. When food is discovered it either plunges straight downward or floats down more slowly in a spiral curve, and picks up its food without wetting its plumage. When alighting on the water its wings are held high above it as it drops lightly down with dangling feet. It swims gracefully and buoyantly, sitting lightly on the surface. It rises neatly from the water. It has no very distinctive field marks and closely resembles several other species; but it is somewhat smaller than the California gull and very much smaller than the herring gull; it also has a lighter gray mantle and less white in its black wing tips. The black ring in its bill is not always in evidence and can not be seen at any distance. Its notes are similar to those of other closely related gulls, but they are on a higher key than those of the two larger species referred to above. When alarmed or when its breeding grounds are invaded it utters a shrill, piercing note of protest - kree, kreeee - like the cry of a hawk, but when its excitement has somewhat subsided this note is softened and modified and the subdued kow, kow kow notes are often heard from a flock of gulls floating overhead. It is often noisy while feeding, while a cloud of hovering gulls show their excitement by a chorus of loud squealing notes and shrill screams. While pursuing its ordinary vocations it is usually silent, except for an occasional soft, mellow kowk.

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Name

Heermann's Gull
Lesson Plan

Food

Primarily fish - but will also scavenge.

Feeding Techniques

Forages while walking

Habitat

Coastal waters

Plumage

The male and the female have the same plumage. ; three years to adult plumage.

Distribution

Primarily Pacific Coast

Breeding

Breeds on islands in the Gulf of Mexico

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Heermann's Gull was named after A. L. Heerman, early American naturalist.

Notes from A.C. Bent

Nesting: The nest in all cases was simply a well-formed depression in the ground with no lining whatsoever. There must have been over 15,000 Heermanns gulls nesting on this island. 

Mr. Pingree I. Osburn (1909) found a colony of Heermann's gulls breeding "on a remote rock off the coast of the State of Jalisco, Mexico, in about the parallel 180 N." He writes: 

The rock was about 25 feet high and 50 by 150 feet across, with a plat of coarse bunch grass a foot high in the center, and along the edge a barren strip of white rock, broken up here and there with crevices and bowlders. The rock contained 31 pairs of breeding birds, ascertained after a careful count. The birds in the nesting grounds behaved in much the same manner as the western gulls, but were tamer, swooping down within a foot of my head and alighting nearby while I was photographing in the colony.

A cursory survey of the rock showed that it was steep on all sides. The birds undoubtedly preferred the level ground for a nesting place, as only one set was found on this cliff. The nests were located usually between boulders or nestled down in the bunch grass in the center of the rock. Those in the grass were usually well made of sticks, dry grass, and weeds, and sometimes with a slight lining of feathers. They were much better made and more compact than those of the western gull. Several nests in my collection still show their original shape and construction; also retain the strong odor peculiar to these birds on their nesting grounds. A few sets were found with almost no nest; simply a cup-shaped cavity scantily lined with shells and a stick or two. The nests were well scattered about over the rock, no close grouping being evident. The measurements of the nests average, in inches - outside width, 10; depth, 2 1/2. No other species of gull was seen in company with the Heermann gulls, and none within hundreds of miles of these islands. 

The first visit to the rock was on April 11. At this time about one-third of the eggs were heavily incubated. The remainder were in all the lesser stages. The sets contain two and three eggs in about equal numbers, with a possible majority of three.

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Name

Great Black-backed Gull
Lesson Plan

Food

Scavenger

Feeding Techniques

Forages while walking - Uses sharp beak to grab what it wants

Habitat

Coastal areas especially around people

Plumage

The male and the female have the same plumage. Takes four years to acquire adult plumage

Distribution

Atlantic coast

Breeding

Breeds in colonies, sometimes with Herring Gulls. Nest is on ground.

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Notes from A.C. Bent

Food: The great black-backed gull is a voracious feeder, omnivorous, and not at all fastidious. On or about its breeding grounds it feeds largely on the eggs of other birds, particularly sea birds, when it can find them unprotected, or upon the small young of such birds as are unable to defend them. Mr. M. A. Frazar (1887) describes its method of capturing young eiders as follows: Two or three gulls will hover over a brood in the water, which, of course, confuses the mother duck and scatters the brood in all directions. Then, by following the ducklings after each dive, they would soon tire them out, and a skillfully directed blow at the bare of the skull, which seldom missed its aim, would in an instant finish the business, and, before the unhappy duck would know which way to turn, its brood would be one less. On several occasions I have seen the mother duck drawn several feet in the air by clinging to the gull us it dove for its prey, and several times I have seen a venturesome "black-back" get knocked over with a charge of shot when he happened to get too interested in his pursuit and allow of my too close approach.

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Name

Laughing Gull
Lesson Plan

Food

Varied; fish and also a scavenger

Feeding Techniques

Forages while walking

Habitat

Ocean coast

Plumage

The male and the female have the same plumage.

Distribution

Eastern coast from Maine to Texas

Breeding

Colonial breeder

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Notes from A.C. Bent

Young: The period of incubation is about 20 days. The young when first hatched are carefully brooded by their parents, who stand over them to protect them in wet weather or to shield them from the rays of the hot sun. They are fed at first on half-digested soft food, which they take from the open bill of the old bird, but later on are weaned and taught to feed on solid food. They remain in the nest for a few days, but soon learn to run about and hide in the grass or under herbage. For the next month or six weeks they lead an inactive life during the period of growth-feeding, resting and sleeping most of the time. They are fed by their parents until they are able to fly and for some little time thereafter. The flight stage is reached, on Muskeget, during the last week of July or the first week of August, at which time the adults, still in full nuptial plumage, may be seen hovering over the little grassy meadows, where young birds of various sizes may be found hidden in the long thick grass, so well concealed that one must be careful not to walk on them. Here they remain motionless until disturbed, often until touched, when they run nimbly or fly away. Comparatively few young birds may be seen exercising in the open sandy spaces or on the beaches, running about on their long legs almost as fast as a man can run, or learning to make short flights from the high spots.

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Name

Sabine's Gull
Lesson Plan

Food

Fish

Feeding Techniques

Forages off the surface of the water

Habitat

Open ocean

Plumage

The male and the female have the same plumage.

Distribution

More common in Pacific ocean

Breeding

Nests close to Arctic circle in small colonies.

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Notes from A.C. Bent

Behavior: On the wing this species bears a closer resemblance to a tern than it does to the other gulls. It flies with continuous wing beats, seldom, so far as I have observed, sailing, and its flight is direct though not straight. It may swoop to the earth to pick up a bit of food or hover a moment if something attracts its attention, but only for an instant does it delay before resuming its onward flight in the direction it was going. It seems almost devoid of curiosity. I have never had one fly about me when walking over the tundra, as the short-billed gulls and Arctic terns frequently do, and unless I am directly in its path I have never seen one torn aside in its flight to look at me. If one of their own species or another bird is shot they pay no attention to the fallen comrade, even if it be only wounded. They attend strictly to their own business. They usually fly singly or with one or more short-billed gulls, but sometimes two are seen together, rarely three. Except on their breeding grounds they are not social and are generally silent. At St. Michael I have seen as many as six birds together on the bay, but on land they are usually solitary. When a number do come together on the water it appears to be the presence of food that attracts them rather than a desire for the society of their own or other species. When a half dozen birds are resting on the water it is usual to see them scattered about, each 80 or 100 yards from his nearest neighbor and not close together, as other gulls generally are.

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Name

Yellow-footed Gull
Lesson Plan

Food

Fish and other marine animals

Feeding Techniques

Forages along the coast

Habitat

Varies. Salton Sea, along the coast, inland agricultural fields

Plumage

The male and the female have the same plumage.

Distribution

Gulf of California

Breeding

Young fed by both parents

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Notes from A.C. Bent

No Bent Available

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Name

Franklin's Gull
Lesson Plan

Food

Primarily insects

Feeding Techniques

Forages while walking on the ground

Habitat

Inland - agricultural fields

Plumage

The male and the female have the same plumage. ; adult birds have non-breeding and breeding plumages; takes three years to become an adult.

Distribution

Found inland - rarely at the coasts

Breeding

Breeds in colonies, inland, where it builds a nest in a marsh.

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Notes from A.C. Bent

Spring: In late April or early May, when the rich black soil has thawed to the surface, the settler of the northwest prairies goes forth to plow. The warm season is short and his tillage vast, so he delays not for wind or storm. One day he is dark as a coal heaver, when the strong winds which sweep almost ceaselessly over the prairie hurl upon him avalanches of black dust. Next day, perchance, in a driving storm of wet snow, he turns black furrows in the interminable white expanse, his shaggy fur coat buttoned close around him. Then comes a day of warm sunshine, when, as he plows, he is followed by a troop of handsome birds which some might mistake for white doves. Without sign of fear they alight in the furrow close behind him, and, with graceful carriage, hurry about to pick up the worms and grubs which the plow has just unearthed. Often have I watched the plowman and his snowy retinue, and it appeals to me as one of the prettiest sights which the wide prairies can afford. No wonder that the lonely settler likes the dainty, familiar bird, and in friendly spirit calls it his "prairie pigeon" or "prairie dove.":

The above quotation, from Mr. H. K. Job (1910), furnishes a vivid picture of this useful prairie bird and its arrival in the spring, which occurs at about the time that the last of the ice goes out of the lakes. The beautiful Franklin's gull, or Franklin's rosy gull, as it was first called, is both useful and ornamental throughout the whole summer, and is justly popular in consequence. Although it was described by Swainson and Richardson in Fauna Boreali-Americana, it seems to have been almost wholly unknown by the earlier writers on American birds, and was for many years considered a rare bird. It was not until the great western plains began to be settled and cultivated that we began to realize the astonishing abundance of this species and its importance to the agriculturist.

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Name

Ivory Gull
Lesson Plan

Food

Feeds off of dead animals especially mammals. See below.

Feeding Techniques

Habitat

Ocean

Plumage

The male and the female have the same plumage.

Distribution

Arctic Circle

Breeding

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Notes from A.C. Bent

Food: The feeding habits of the ivory gull are hardly becoming a bird of such pure and spotless plumage. It is a greedy and voracious feeder and is none too particular about the quality of its food or how it obtains it. When some of these birds have been feeding on the carcass of a whale they present a sorry spectacle, for in their eagerness to satisfy their gluttonous appetite they crowd themselves into the entrails of the animal and their beautiful white plumage becomes smeared with blood. They are particularly fond of the blubber and flesh of whales, walruses, and seals, even when somewhat putrid, and, when busily engaged in such a feast they are tame and unsuspicious. Nothing in the way of animal food comes amiss to them and they even frequent the holes in the ice used by seals for the purpose of feeding on the excrement of these animals. Pieces of meat, blood, or offal from slain animals scattered on the ice or snow will always attract them. Any refuse thrown from the galley of a ship is readily picked up. Mr. Kumlien (1879) says that he once saw one try to swallow the wing of an eider, which the cook threw overboard. They also feed to a large extent on lemmings and other small rodents. On their breeding grounds, in the Polynia Islands, Captain McClintock (1856) found the bleached bones of lemmings scattered about their nests, "also fresh pellets, consisting of their bones and hair."

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Name

Black-legged Kittiwake
Lesson Plan

Food

Fish

Feeding Techniques

Forages while flying - drops down to the surface of the water to obtain prey

Habitat

Coastal waters

Plumage

The male and the female have the same plumage

Distribution

Pacific coast and northeast Atlantic coast

Breeding

Colonial breeder

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Notes from A.C. Bent

Nesting: The kittiwake is decidedly an oceanic gull, being seldom seen inland, except as a wanderer on migrations, and breeding on the rocky cliffs and crags of our Arctic coasts exposed to all the fury of ocean storms in which it seems to delight. On the Greenland coast most of the large breeding colonies are on the high cliffs near the heads of deep fjords, but farther south the preference seems to be for lofty rocky islands.

My first intimate study of the nesting habits of the Atlantic kittiwake was made on the famous Bird Rocks, in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, in 1904, one of the southernmost outposts of its breeding range. We landed here in a small boat, late in the evening of June 23, under rather exciting circumstances. As the great cliffs towered above us in the moonlight we saw a lantern coming down the ladder to show us where to land and we ran in among the breakers. There was a crash which brought us to our feet as we struck an unseen rock; but the next wave carried us over it and landed us among the rocks and flying spray. We were overboard in an instant, struggling in the surf up to our waists, for the boat was rapidly filling, as wave after wave broke over us. A few moments of rapid work served to unload our baggage and attach a stout line to the boat, the signal was passed aloft and the powerful steam winch above landed her high and dry. After exchanging hearty greetings with our genial host, Captain Bourque, we enjoyed the novel experience of being hoisted up in a crate to the top of the cliff, over 100 feet high. It was certainly a new and interesting sensation to feel ourselves slowly rising in the darkness up the face of these somber cliffs, with the surf thundering on the rocks below us and with a cloud of screaming seabirds hovering about us, barely discernible in the moonlight, like a swarm of ghostly bats whose slumber had been disturbed and who were protesting at our rude intrusion.

On the following day the wind was blowing a gale and clouds of sea birds were drifting about the rock in a bewildering maze, 10,000 of them in all. There were great white gannets sailing on long powerful wings, tipped with black; clouds of snowy kittiwakes hovering in the air; hundreds of swift-winged murres and razor-billed auks darting out from the cliffs; and quaint little parties of curious puffins perched on the rocks. There was a constant babel of voices, the mingled cries of the varied throngs; deep, guttural croaks and hoarse grunts from the gannets; a variety of soft purring notes from the murres; and sharp, piercing cries from the active kittiwakes distinctly pronouncing the three syllables for which they are named, as if beseeching us to "keep away" from their precious nests.

For a more intimate study of their nesting habits we were lowered down the face of the cliff in a crate, dangling at the end of a long rope and whirling helplessly about in space, but within a few feet of the confiding, gentle birds on their nests. They were so accustomed to the intimacy of man that it was an easy matter to study and photograph the dainty creatures at short range. Their nests were scattered all over the perpendicular face of the cliff, on every available little shelf. I was surprised to see how small and narrow a ledge could support a nest in safety. The nests were firmly and well built of seaweeds, grasses, and mosses, and were securely plastered on to the rock; apparently they were made of wet seaweed which adhered firmly to the rock as it dried; evidently the nests had been used for successive seasons, fresh material being added each year. They were deeply cupped and well built up on the outer sides, so as to form safe cradles for the young. Incubation was far advanced at this date (June 24), and many of the eggs had hatched. The nests must, indeed, be well built to hold the weight of two lusty young and the brooding parent in such precarious situations. Mr. Ora W. Knight (1908) gives the dimensions of a nest found on Baccalieu Island, Newfoundland. "Its diameter at base was 1 foot, and at top 8 inches; interior diameter, 6 inches; and depth, 2 inches."

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Name

Parasitic Jaeger
Lesson Plan

Food

Fish

Feeding Techniques

Kleptoparasitic

Habitat

During non-breeding it is found on the ocean, and it breeds inland.

Plumage

The male and the female have the same plumage.

Distribution

The Gulf Coast and the southern part of the east and west coast.

Breeding

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

opprobrious - expressing contemptuous reproach

Notes from A.C. Bent

Contributed by Charles Wendell Townsend

As one watches a flock of terns whirling like driven snow, now here, now there, and ever and anon plunging for fish, one may sometimes see a dark, hawk-like bird suddenly appear on the scene and spread devastation in the ranks. With relentless energy he singles out and pursues some hapless individual until it drops its prey. This is a Jaeger, a gull-like bird, with hawk-like characteristics. A more appropriate name for him would be robber rather than Jaeger or hunter, for he obtains his food by robbing other birds. He has, however, all the grace and agility of the true hunting birds - the hawks - but his actions rarely end in bloodshed. After all robbery is a less serious crime than murder, but the term robber is opprobrious, while that of hunter is not, so it is perhaps well that the name remains as it is.

The parasitic Jaeger is circumpolar in its distribution and breeds throughout the barren arctic grounds in North America, Greenland, Europe, and Asia. In Europe it nests as far south as the Shetlands. It winters from the southern part of its summer range along the coast even as far as Brazil, Australia, and the Cape of Good Hope, but in the interior of the continents it is only of casual occurence.

Spring: In the brief arctic spring, when the ice is breaking up and the snowdrifts are dwindling, the parasitic Jaeger arrives on the breeding grounds on the tundra near the shores of the Arctic Ocean, or at a distance from the sea on the shores of ponds or lakes. It generally nests apart, not in communities. Of its courtship nothing is known. It is possible that the "wailing cries" described by Nelson and mentioned later may be in the nature of the love song. When surprised near the nest, Nelson (1887) says, "it creeps along the ground with flapping wings to decoy away the intruder."

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Name

Pomarine Jaeger
Lesson Plan

Food

Fish

Feeding Techniques

Kleptoparasitic

Habitat

During non-breeding it is found on the ocean, and it breeds inland.

Plumage

The male and the female have the same plumage.

Distribution

The Gulf Coast and the southern part of the east and west coast.

Breeding

See below

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

In C. Boyce Hills's account of the Pomarine Jaeger (below) he refers to a Pomatorhine skua. This is an earlier name for the Pomarine Jaeger. This link goes to a John Gould sketch of the bird using the name Pomatorhine skua.

Notes from A.C. Bent

Nesting: Very little has been published on the nesting habits of the pomarine jaeger. Mr. Hennessey, in the notes referred to above, which he kindly sent me, states that these birds are "abundant about Winter Harbour, where they breed on the low, flat, marshy land in the neighborhood, choosing the small mounds or slight elevations that abound in these places upon which to rear their brood. The nest is a slight depression in the soil of the elevation and just deep enough to admit the eggs and breast of the bird. No material is used in its construction, but the bottom is covered with much loose soil and rubbish apparently blown in accidentally." Mr. C. Boyce Hill (1900) published the following account of the nesting habits of this species in Siberia:

On our way down the Yenisei the steamer which was towing us fortunately ran ashore on one of the numerous sand banks which abound in this river. I say fortunately because it enabled us to discover this skua nesting. After having inquired the probable duration of our stoppage, Popan and I agreed to explore the small islands near at hand - a group named the Brekotsky. We took one each, and on mine, a large, flat marsh, I observed a Pomatorhine skua, which was presently joined by another. The birds did not appear at all demonstrative nor to resent intrusion, like the long-tailed skuas, so I thought they could not be nesting. But after much searching and watching I observed one settle right in the center of the marsh, so at once proceeded to the spot. The bird rose when I was within a few yards of it, and to my delight I saw the nest with two eggs. I waited a few moments for the skua to come within shot and killed it; after pursuing Its mate, I captured that also. The nest was a mere depression in the ground, on a spot rather drier than the surrounding marsh, and to reach it I was at times up to my knees in swamp; so that had It not been for a foundation of ice at a depth of from 18 inches to 2 feet from the surface I do not think I should have been able to record this event. I also found nesting on this Island some scaup ducks and red-necked phalaropes.

Mr. Ludwig Kumlien (1879) found this species breeding on the Greenland coast under very different conditions. He writes:

I have, however, nowhere found them so very common as on the southern shores of Disko Island; at Laxbught and Fortuna Bay there must have been many hundred pairs nesting. Their breeding place was an Inaccessible cliff about half a mile from the seashore. The greater number of the birds nesting here were in the plumage described in Doctor Coues's monograph of the Laridac as the nearly adult plumage; but there were also a good many birds that were unicolored blackish brown all over, but with the long vertically twisted tail feathers. That these were breeding I think there can be no doubt, as I saw them carrying food up to the ledges on the cliff, for the young I suppose.

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Name

South Polar Skua
Lesson Plan

Food

Fish

Feeding Techniques

They rob other birds, usually gulls and terns, of the fish that they catch. This is another example of kleptoparasitism.

Habitat

Pelagic waters of the Pacific.

Plumage

The male and the female have the same plumage.

Distribution

Pelagic waters from Alaska to California

Breeding

Nests in the Antarctica.

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Notes from A.C. Bent

The South Polar Skua was unknown to Bent when he put together the Life Histories of North American Birds. He does have a short notation for the Atlantic species of Skua, the Great Skua.

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Royal Tern
Lesson Plan

Food

Fish

Feeding Techniques

Diving from the air into the water. (See below)

Habitat

Coastal waters

Plumage

The male and the female have the same plumage. , adults have breeding and non-breeding plumage

Distribution

Southeastern coastal waters

Breeding

Nests in colonies; makes shallow depression in the sand

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Notes from A.C. Bent

Food: The food of the royal tern consists almost wholly of small fish, up to 4 inches in length, which it catches by plunging down into the water, in much the same way as the smaller terns. Mr. Philip H. Gosse (1847) thus describes the process: 

High above the water we discern a bird, the snowy whiteness of whose plumage contrasts with the blue sky. He flies rapidly round and round in a large circle, quickly flapping his wings without intermission. Suddenly he arrests his flight, flutters his wings in rapid vibration, as he looks downwards, but in a moment proceeds as before. It was doubtless a fish near the surface, but which disappeared before he could descend. Presently he again stops, abort, flutters; then bringing the elbow of the wings to a right angle, descends perpendicularly, but with a singular turning of the body, so as to present now the back, now the belly, alternately, to the observer; not, however, by a rotation, but irregularly, and as if by jerks. But his purpose is again frustrated; for on nearly reaching the surface he recovers himself with a graceful sweep and remounts on flagging wing. Again he circles, and again, and again stops; at length, down he swoops, disappears with a splash, and in a moment breaks, struggling, from the wave, and, as if to rise burdened with prey were difficult, flags heavily near the surface, and circling slowly round, gradually regains his former altitude.

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Name

Caspian Tern
Lesson Plan

Food

Fish

Feeding Techniques

Diving from the air to the water.

Habitat

Water habitats

Plumage

Breeding and non-breeding adult plumage; The male and the female have the same plumage.

Distribution

Along both coasts and found in the interior of the eastern states.

Breeding

Nests in colonies; makes shallow depression in the sand. See below

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Notes from A.C. Bent

Young: With the return of the main colony of Caspian terns I had exceptional opportunities to watch the feeding of the young. The adult Caspians carry fish food to the island directly from the sea. The single fish was carried crosswise in the bill and seemed to be about from 2 to 3 inches in length. The fish are minnows of different species, and at no time did they seem to swallow this food before allowing the young to have the food; that is, the parent bird did not first eat and partially digest the finny delicacies. The male (?) wings his way in from the adjacent waters with the fish crosswise in his bill. The moment he lands on the island there is a commotion among all the young terns. As a rule the rightful heir would seize the fish before it would leave the parent's bill and unhesitatingly get the fish by the head; then with one or two gulps it would disappear head first, and nine times out of ten if the fish was of considerable length, say about 3 or 4 inches, the youngster would keel over on its back, with its little red feet frantically waving in the air, the fish's tail also waving about (for the caudal fin and that end of the fish protruded about three-quarters of an inch), while the process of digestion started. However, this display on the part of the little tern lasted only about three or four minutes, and while the little fellow was lying on its back it displayed the writhings of a person suffering from suffocation; but once back on its feet the little Caspian would besiege the parent bird for more fish.

The adult Caspian has a very decided note, and while I fully appreciate no bird's call or cry can be properly imitated by the printed word, to me they called "ca-nrr, ca-arr, ca-an, ca-arrrrrrrr." The young know the call of its parents. I was very much amused in watching a little fellow that had selected a slight hole within 2 feet of my blind to take a sun bath. Here it would lie as still as death until it would hear the particular "ca-arr" of its own ma or pa.Then it would suddenly come to life, and, opening wide its little red beak, would chirp loudly in reply and rush about waving its little wing stumps in a most grotesque manner. The parents would make a few circles above their little one and alight or fly off after seeing it was safe. An incident that would frequently happen in the afternoon was that a little fellow would seek its hole and lie still until the "ca-arr" cry which it knew best would again be heard, then it would suddenly be galvanized into instant action. The young, when frightened, utter a peculiar whistling note.

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Name

Elegant Tern
Lesson Plan

Food

Fish

Feeding Techniques

Diving from the air into the water.

Habitat

Coastal areas

Plumage

Breeding and non-breeding adult plumage; The male and the female have the same plumage.

Distribution

Found only on the coast; primarily the western coast

Breeding

Nests in colonies; makes shallow depression in the sand

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Notes from A.C. Bent

This beautiful tern well deserves its name, for in color, form, and behavior it is certainly one of the most elegant of our sea birds, the most exquisite member of the charming group of "sea swallows." Unfortunately, owing to its remote habitat, it has been seen in life by very few ornithologists. Many handsome specimens have found their way into collections, but the dried skin can give but a faint impression of the grace and beauty of the living bird. Not all of the few collectors who have explored the coasts of the peninsula of Lower California have succeeded in finding it, and still fewer have seen it on its breeding grounds. Consequently very little is known of its life history and habits.

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Name

Forster's Tern
Lesson Plan

Food

Fish

Feeding Techniques

Diving from the air into the water, but also "hawks" for food. See below.

Habitat

Water habitats

Plumage

The male and the female have the same plumage. breeding and non-breeding plumage. Adult plumage after first year.

Distribution

Throughout the United States.

Breeding

May breed in small colonies; builds nest in marsh

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

"When the insects are flying well the terns prefer to hawk." Using the word hawk in this sentence means that the Forster's Tern, instead of diving for the insects, will actually chase for them in the air as a flycatcher would.

Notes from A.C. Bent

Food: Being so largely a bird of the marshes, Forster's tern feeds less on fish and has a more varied bill of fare than the other terns. It may be seen catching insects on the wing, as well as hovering over the pools, its bill pointing straight downward, looking for tiny morsels of food on the surface. It sometimes makes a diving plunge into the water, but more often it drops down lightly or swoops gracefully along the surface, picking up its food without wetting its plumage. Rev. P. B. Peabody (1896) notes that "the first apparent spring-time food consists of dead fish and frogs and other aquatica that have perished in the winter ice, and are being revealed as the latter melts beneath the sun." Mr. W. L. Dawson (1909) says: 

When the insects are flying well the terns prefer to hawk. Dragon flies and caddis flies are favorite quarry, and in pursuit of the latter the birds will often rise to a height of several hundred feet.

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Name

Common Tern
Lesson Plan

Food

Fish

Feeding Techniques

Diving into the water to catch fish.

Habitat

Water areas.

Plumage

The male and the female have the same plumage. , adults have breeding and non-breeding plumage.

Distribution

More common in the eastern states and Atlantic coast. Can be found along Pacific coast.

Breeding

Nests in colonies; makes shallow depression in the sand

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

just out of down - refers to the young Herring Gulls going into their first juvenal plumage with real feathers replacing down feathers

Notes from A.C. Bent

Dr. Louis B. Bishop sends me the following interesting notes on the behavior of terns on an island in Stump Lake, North Dakota. He says: 

On the third island we found the terns killing the young ring-billed gulls by chasing them till they took to the water, then descending on their heads in a perfect shower, striking at the back of their heads until they had pierced their brains. We saw three killed in this manner in less than half an hour, two more before we left, and many bodies of those killed before. The old gulls seemed to pay no attention to them. 

I remember it as if it were yesterday. Eastgate and I had seated ourselves on the bank of the high island, and the adult gulls had gone offshore.

Suddenly we noticed the terns screaming loudly and diving at something in the high weeds. Wondering what was the matter we watched, and soon saw a young gull make its way to the water with the terns diving at it. When it swam from shore the terns simply rained on it. The gull was, I think, just out of down. As the terns descended, the little gull tried to strike back, but presently a tern struck it on the back of the head, and its head fell to one side. Soon it came to life again, when the terns again descended until its head fell to rise no more. Then the terns left it to chase up others. We tried to save some of these young gulls by shooting the terns that were attacking them, but to no avail; the other terns paid no attention to those who were killed, or to the reports of the gun. They were more anxious to kill the young gulls than to save their own lives. We picked up several of the young gulls thus killed, and the backs of their heads, where merely a membrane covers the brain at this age, looked like pincushions. The only explanation I could think of was that the adult gulls ate the terns' eggs and young, and the later were taking their first chance to retaliate. This theory was strengthened by the fact that we did not find nearly as many young terns as there ought to have been with a colony as large as this.

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Name

Sandwich Tern
Lesson Plan

Food

Fish

Feeding Techniques

Dives into the water

Habitat

Coastal shoreline

Plumage

The male and the female have the same plumage. , adults have breeding and non-breeding plumage.

Distribution

Coastal areas of the eastern coast

Breeding

Nests in colonies; makes shallow depression in the sand

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Notes from A.C. Bent

Food: The food of Cabot's (Sandwich) tern consists almost wholly of small fish, such as small mullets, sand launces, and young garfish, which it obtains by making vigorous plunges into the water much after the manner of other terns; but it also eats shrimps and squids. It is more of a sea bird than the smaller terns, and is more often seen feeding out on the open sea or among the breakers than in the quiet tidal estuaries. Audubon (1840) thus describes its feeding habits: 

While plunging after the small mullets and other diminutive fishes that form the principal part of its food, it darts perpendicularly downward with all the agility and force of the common and arctic terns, nearly immersing its whole body at times, but rising instantly after, and quickly regaining a position from which it can advantageously descend anew. Should the fish disappear as the bird is descending the latter instantly recovers itself without plunging into the water.

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Name

Least Tern
Lesson Plan

Food

Fish

Feeding Techniques

Dives into the water

Habitat

Coastal shoreline

Plumage

The male and the female have the same plumage.

Distribution

Both west and east coasts and in areas of the midwest. Endangered

Breeding

Nests in colonies; makes shallow depression in the sand

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

millinery trade - this refers to the people who gathered bird feathers to adorn hats worn by women during the early nineteen hundreds.

extirpated - extinct within that area;

Notes from A.C. Bent

Clearly impressed upon my mind is a vivid picture of a peaceful summer scene in a remote corner of Cape Cod; a broad, flat sandy point stretched for a mile or more out into the sea; the deep blue ocean with its cooling breezes made a pleasing contrast to the glaring white sands which reflected the heat of the midday sun; scattered about on the sandy plain around me were the little hollows containing the eggs of the least tern, almost invisible among the pebbles, hits of shells, and small stones, which they resembled so closely; and overhead the air was full of the graceful, flitting forms of this little "sea swallow," darting down at me, with sharp cries of anxiety, or soaring far aloft until they were lost to sight in the ethereal blue of a cloudless sky. Such a picture as this was a common sight, in those days, anywhere along the Atlantic coast from Massachusetts to Florida, where the least tern was widely distributed and very abundant in all suitable localities. But its graceful form and delicate plumage was so much in demand for the millinery trade that it was practically extirpated in nearly all places where it was easily accessible, leaving only a delightful memory of a joy that had passed. It was never particularly shy and was easily killed on its breeding grounds, its social and sympathetic habits making it a simple matter to practically annihilate a whole colony in a single season.

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Black Tern
Lesson Plan

Food

Fish

Feeding Techniques

Diving into the water

Habitat

Water habitats

Plumage

The male and the female have the same plumage.

Distribution

Throughout the United States

Breeding

Breeds in loose colonies, sometimes with Forster's Terns. Builds nest in marsh.

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Notes from A.C. Bent

Food - The black tern is credited with eating minnows or other small fry, but I believe that it rarely does so execpt when associated with other terns on the coast. Mr. William Brewster (1878) says of their feeding habits in Massachusetts:

They associated most commonly with the Wilson's and roseate terns, and procurred their food in the same way, hovering over the schools of bluefish and pouncing upon the small fry which these voracious creatures drove to the surface. The stomachs of all the specimens which were dissected contained the macerated remains of small fishes only. In no case were any insects disected.

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Black Skimmer
Lesson Plan

Food

Mostly fish

Feeding Techniques

Flies low over the water and skims the water with the lower part of its beak which it uses to grab fish and other small animals off the surface of the water.

Habitat

Generally along coastal waterways.

Plumage

The male and the female have the same plumage.

Distribution

Southeastern coast and moving up the Pacific coastline.

Breeding

Colonial breeder

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Notes from A.C. Bent

Food: The food of the black skimmer consists mainly of small fish, and to some extent shrimps and other small crustaceans. It feeds largely on the wing by skimming close to the smooth water, cutting with its long, rigid lower mandible the surface, from which it scoops into the small mouth the animal food to be found there. The upper mandible, which is movable, can plainly be seen to close down upon any morsel of food which is picked up.That it feeds largely at night everyone knows who has lain at anchor among the shoals of the South Atlantic coast and seen the shadowy forms flitting by in the gloom, but it does not do so exclusively, as has been stated. I have frequently seen it feeding in broad daylight, and think that it is more influenced by the tides than by anything else, for these at certain stages make its food more accessible. It is never seen to dive for its food, and its bill is not adapted for picking it up on the shore. 

Mr. Arthur seems to have discovered another method of feeding, about which he writes me: According to my observations the birds seek shallow water of not over 3 inches depth and pick up minnows and other small fish by a direct forward movement of the head and bill, in no way differing from a chick picking up a worm on dry land. Skimmers I have had in captivity, where fish was thrown to them on a hard surface, were compelled to turn their heads sideways to pick up the fish; but the skimmers I had under observation were working on a soft mud bottom, and I did not observe a single instance of the head being turned sideways to pick up the food. It was very noticeable at this time that while some of the birds were fishing in the shallow water other skimmers would come skimming over the water in the characteristic manner, but when they came to a stop they, too, began wading around and fishing in the manner I have just described.

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Razorbill
Lesson Plan

Food

Audubon (1840) says:

The food of the razor-billed auk consists of shrimps, various other marine animals and small ashes, as well as roe.

Feeding Techniques

It obtains much of its food, such as small herring and surface swimming crustacea and other marine life, on or near the surface, by swimming about on the ocean, often many miles from land, and dipping its head under occasionally. But it must also be capable of diving to great depths to obtain the various small mollusks on which it feeds.

Habitat

Ocean and coast

Plumage

The male and the female have the same plumage.

Distribution

Northeast Atlantic coast

Breeding

Nests in burrows.

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Brunnich's Murre is a former name of the Thick-billed Murre.

Notes from A.C. Bent

Behavior: While on Bird Rock, where I could easily compare all three species in flight, I learned to recognize the two murres and the razorbills by their shapes and attitudes on the wing. The razorbill is the shortest and most thick set of the three; it holds itself very compactly, with the head well drawn in and the bill pointing straight forward; the head, body, and tail are all in a straight line. The common murre on the other hand, carries its long neck and head outstretched, but dropped somewhat below the level of the body. The Brunnich's murre is intermediate between the two, in this respect. All three of these species sway from side to side in flight, showing white breasts and black backs alternately. Their flight is swift and direct, accomplished by very rapid wing strokes. Doctor Townsend (1907) has noted that, as the razorbills "fly away, they show white on either side of a black median line, while the puffin shows a continuous black back." Morris (1903) gives, a quotation from Meyer, regarding their behavior while migrating, as follows:

During these migrations an interesting circumstance may be observed, namely, that when the several divisions or groups of a flock descend upon the sea to rest themselves, the parties that are behind alight some distance in advance of those that first settled, so that when the first-arrived parties have recruited their strength and taken wing again, the later-arrived groups having alighted so much In advance, have had time to rest themselves also, and are prepared in their turn to follow in the train of their former leaders as soon as these have passed over.

The razor-billed auk swims lightly and swiftly on the surface, with its head retracted and its tail pointed upward. It dives quickly and strongly, partially opening its wings as it plunges forward and downward. Like all of the Alcidae, it uses its wings freely in "flying" under water, making great speed with the wings only half extended. Mr. Edmund Selous (1905), who has had excellent opportunities for studying this, says:

Razorbilis also dive briskly, opening the wings *** . One remarks then that the wings are moved both together: flapped or beaten: so that the bird really flies through the water. In flight, however, they are spread straight out without a bend in them, whereas here they are all the while flexed at the joint, wing raised from and brought downward again toward the sides in the same position in which they repose against them when closed.

It can dive to great depths, swim for long distances, and remain under water for .a long time.

The vocal performances of the razor-billed auk are not elaborate. On its breeding grounds it indulges in occasional hoarse guttural notes or low croaking sounds, which are not audible at any considerable distance. During its courtship, which has apparently never been described, it may have a more varied or interesting vocabulary. Morris (1903) says "the note is likened to the syllables 'arr' and 'odd,' also to 'hurr-ray."'

Although the razor-billed auk is said to be of a quarrelsome disposition, I saw no evidence of it on Bird Rock, where it associates on friendly terms with the murres and puffins, sitting in little mixed groups close together on their favorite rocks. It has few enemies, though it is preyed upon by the large falcons to some extent. Its habit of nesting in inaccessible crevices on high cliffs, has protected its eggs from the gulls and has saved it from total extermination by egg hunters. Its eggs were gathered in large quantities. with the eggs of the murres, when it was abundant, but now the eggs of the razorbill are too scarce and too hard to get to make it pay to collect them. Nuttall (1834) refers to this as follows:

Its flesh is quite palatable, although very dark, and much eaten by the Greenlanders, according to Cranz, forming their chief subsistence during the months of February and March. These birds are killed with missiles, chased, and driven ashore in canoes, or taken in nets made of split whalebone. Their skins are also used for clothing. The eggs are everywhere accounted a delicacy, and the feathers of the breast are extremely fine, warm, and elastic. For the sake of this handful of feathers, according to Audubon, thousands of these birds are killed in Labrador, and their bodies strewed on the shore.

Birds in the Classroom
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Name

Common Murre
Lesson Plan

Food

Small fish

Feeding Techniques

Swims underwater to catch fish

Habitat

Ocean

Plumage

The male and the female have the same plumage. adult breeding and non-breeding plumage

Distribution

Primarily on the Pacific coast, but also found in the northeast coastal waters.

Breeding

Colonial breeding usually on a island close to shore

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Notes from A.C. Bent

As soon as the young murre reaches the water it swims away with its parents, often to a long distance from its birthplace. Prof. Leverett M. Loomis (1895) says that at Monterey - young birds, unable to fly and under the care of adults, appeared early in August, probably from a rookery somewhere in the vicinity of Point Santa Cruz. These young birds were expert divers. When an adult and its charge were approached the young bird would dive first. If the two became separated the old one would call loudly and as soon as the young responded the old bird would dive, coming to the surface at the spot where the young one had taken refuge.

Mr. Andrew Halkett (1898) saw a murre "one day when hundreds of miles from land, on the surface of the waves with her brood, which consisted of a single young one."

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Name

Pigeon Guillemot
Lesson Plan

Food

Fish, mollusks, crustacea, and other marine animals

Feeding Techniques

Dives from the surface, underwater to hunt for food

Habitat

Oceanic

Plumage

The male and the female have the same plumage. adults have breeding and non-breeding plumage

Distribution

Pacific coastal waters

Breeding

Nests in cavity, burrow

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Notes from A.C. Bent

The "sea pigeons," or pigeon guillemots, are among the most interesting of the birds. They are lovers of the sea and prefer the rocks near the surf, when not incubating their eggs. We were fortunate in discovering a rookery of these birds, and had it not been late for fresh eggs, a splendid series could have been secured. The hill, at the summit of which is the lighthouse, is very steep, and the cliffs at the top are more or less honeycombed with burrows in which the puffins and auklets nest. Farther down is a stretch of loose, shifting chips of rock, while near the bottom are numerous boulders, some of gigantic proportions, under and between which are cavities in which the guillemots nest. As one approaches this rookery many of the birds are seen sitting upright, softly "whistling," but upon close approach those on the rocks take wing, while their mates flutter from among the rocks and join them. Then, by a careful search of promising-looking cavities, one may secure a nice series.

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Name

Black Guillemot
Lesson Plan

Food

Fish, mollusks, crustacea, and other marine animals

Feeding Techniques

Dives from the surface, underwater to hunt for food

Habitat

Oceanic

Plumage

The male and the female have the same plumage. adults have breeding and non-breeding plumage

Distribution

Northeastern coastal waters

Breeding

Nests in cavity, burrow

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Notes from A.C. Bent

The picturesque coast of Maine is deeply cut by numerous rockbound bays and harbors, protected by rugged promontories, and dotted with many attractive islands, where forests of pointed firs and spruces grow almost down to the water's edge. It well deserves its popularity, for I can not imagine more delightful coast for a summer cruise. Not the least of its attractions is this beautiful little "sea pigeon," so common about all the rocky islands and harbors, where it skims away in front of us in a wide circle, flying close to the water, with its trim, little, black body swiftly propelled by the rapid movements of its wings, the white wing patches flashing in the sunlight and the bright red feet showing behind. It is interesting to watch it as it rises from the water ahead of the boat, flying forward at first until well ahead of us, then swinging in a long curve to one side, and finally dropping into the water again far astern; every bird seems to fly in exactly the same course, almost never flying straight away to one side, as other birds do. It is a handsome bird when held in the hand; its compact form, its velvet black plumage, glistening with a greenish luster, and its brilliant red feet and mouth make a rich and pleasing combination.

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Name

Rhinocerous Auklet
Lesson Plan

Food

Fish, mollusks, crustacea, and other marine animals

Feeding Techniques

Dives from the surface, underwater to hunt for food

Habitat

Oceanic

Plumage

The male and the female have the same plumage. , adults have breeding and non-breeding plumage

Distribution

Pacific coastal waters

Breeding

Nests in burrow

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Notes from A.C. Bent

This curious auklet, the largest of its group, is a bird of our more northern Pacific coast; it is not so well known, as its abundance at certain points should justify, because of its nocturnal habits on its breeding grounds; like the petrels it is seldom seen by daylight except when unearthed in its nesting burrow. It is essentially a bird of the open sea, seldom entering the straits and inside passages and never coming onto the land except to breed, coming and going during the hours of darkness.

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Name

Ancient Murrelet
Lesson Plan

Food

Crustaceans, fish

Feeding Techniques

Dives from the surface of the water to pursue prey

Habitat

Costal waters

Plumage

The male and the female have the same plumage.

Distribution

Coastal waters off the Pacific coast from California to Alaska

Breeding

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Peale's Falcon - This is a sub-species of the Peregrine Falcon. Today it would be referred to as Peregrine Falcon (Peale).

Notes from A.C. Bent

Nesting: The ancient murrelets arrive on their breeding grounds about the first of June, but do not mate or begin breeding immediately. We saw them swimming about in small flocks, apparently unmated, up to June 20, though the first eggs were seen at Atka Island on June 13. Mr. Chase Littlejohn, who spent the spring and summer of 1894 on different islands south of the Alaska Peninsula, furnished Major Bendire (1895) with some very full and interesting notes on the breeding habits of this species on Sanak Island. I can not do better than quote practically all he has to say on the subject, as follows:

By June 2 their nesting grounds were reached, but no birds were to be found, and to one unacquainted with their habits there was no sign of their having yet arrived. Nevertheless, we land, pitch our tent, and wait until the close of that long twilight which is only found in the far North, and just as it merges into night we see a batlike form flit by, and presently from somewhere in the gloom comes an abrupt and startling kroo-kroo-coo, which is at once answered with a like call, or with a nerve-destroying kwcc-ke-kc-ke, in a very high, shrill key, the call note of Leach's petrel (Oceanadrorna leucorhoe). Presently we hear a whir of wings in different directions, then more voices, pitched in various keys, and before we are scarcely aware of it, both heaven and earth seem to vibrate with rumbling noises and whir of wings.

As we step out of our tent, perfectly astonished at this sudden change, and move to the foot of a small knoll near by, listening to this violent outburst of noices, a muffled sound comes right from under our feet. We stoop and discover a small burrow in the earth, and from it come the cooing love notes of a petrel, k-r-r-r, k-r-r-r, and this is its home. Just from a somewhat larger burrow, only a few feet to our right, comes another sound, and moving cautiously in this direction we listen to the love notes of Cassin's auklet, which reminds one of the sounds produced by a squeaky bucksaw while passing through a hard knot, somewhat like kwee-kew, kwee-kew, which, fortunately, lasts only for three or four hours each night. These noises, coming as they do from hundreds of auklets and thousands of petrels, become almost distracting and banish sleep most effectually for the first few nights on the Island.

These, then, are some of our murrelets' neighbors; but where is he? We listen in vain for some note of his, but hear none. As we walk on a little distance among the tall grass of last year's growth we notice a small dark object flapping about, and after a short chase we manage to capture it and discover our "old man," but fail to locate his nest, one of the main objects of our long and tedious voyage, and we did not succeed in finding one containing eggs until the 11th of June. This was principally because they had not commenced to lay sooner, and partly, also, because we did not then look in the places: under rank matted grass: which are mostly preferred by this murrelet for nesting sites.

We remained on this desolate, wind-swept island from May 29 until June 12. Our days were spent in hunting, preparing skins and eggs, but time passed slowly. At first we looked forward to night in order to renew our acquaintance with our feathered neighbors, but after losing about a week's sleep, owing to their squeaking, I, at least, felt like choking the whole lot; and as if not satisfied with the constant babble of their neighbors, the murrelets took especial delight in alighting at the foot of our A-shaped tent, toenailing it up to the ridgepole, resting there a moment, and then sliding down on the other side. This exercise seems to amuse them, and it certainly did us, until the novelty wore off, as it was not conducive to a restful sleep, and finally, tiring of this, and finding but few murrelets' eggs, we broke camp and started for the mainland, and did not return to the island again until June 23.

In a short time after the first birds arrive on their breeding grounds, and before one has time to realize it, the entire surface of certain favorite islands is literally alive with murrelets and auklet, in the proportion of about two of the latter to one of the former, as well as of both Leach's and fork-tailed petrels (Oceanodroma furcata), the first greatly outnumbering the last. When one walks obout at this time, the murrelets and auklets become frightened, running, flopping, and flying about in such numbers that one has to be careful where he steps, lest they be crushed under food. If it is windy, and it usually is, they are on the wing at once as soon as disturbed, and quickly out of sight, but when a calm prevails they have to flop to the side of a steep bank where they can jump off, and thereby gain sufficient headway to keep on the wing, and then in their frantic efforts to be off, they become bewildered and are just as apt to fly in one's face, or against the cliffs, as anywhere; although they usually strike with great force when fairly started, I have never seen one killed or even stunned. They no sooner touch the earth, than they are flopping off again at a great rate.

It is a difficult matter to calculate the numbers that visit this small island annually, but they certainly number several thousands and if left unmolested by man the island would soon become too small to accommodate their natural increase, but such is by no means the case. The native Aleuts know, almost to a day, when the first ones will arrive, and are there to meet them, invading the island armed with stout clubs, and every bird, anklet or murrelet, that is overtaken is promptly clubbed to death and thrown into a sack carried for this purpose. At each of these raids hundreds of these birds are killed, and as they are made frequently and throughout the entire season, it is astonishing that any remain. But this is not all; as soon as day dawns, the entire crew sets out to make a systematic search for eggs, which are well flavored and good eating, each one striving to get more than his mates; and as it makes no difference to a native whether they are fresh or on the point of hatching, everything goes. Fortunately it is impossible to find all the nests, or kill all the birds, so enough remain to stock the island again another season.

By no means every island in this vicinity is occupied by murrelets. Within 400 yards of the one of which I write is another of about the same size and topography, but strange to say, no murrelets are found on it, although there are two or three small colonies of auklet, the remainder of the island being given over to Leach's petrels. Again, on two other small islands, also near together, each containing about a couple of acres, and in every way alike, one is given over entirely to auklet, while on the other the murrelets have almost complete controL These facts cause me to believe that the birds always return to the island on which they have been reared.

On June 23 our party returned to the island on which we first landed, and found to our great satisfaction that the murrelets' eggs were more plentiful than on our former visit, and a few of them were taken. We also soon discovered that they were not especially particular in the selection of a nesting site. An abandoned burrow of Cassin's auklet, a dark crevice in cliffs, under large broken rocks which had fallen from the latter, or under large tussocks of rank grass, with which the higher portion of the island was covered, would answer equally well. Under these almost solid bunches (the grass remaining from several previous years), the murrelets would force their way, leaving only a slight hole in the mass, which usually was very hard to detect. After once gaining an entrance into this matted vegetation and working their way in for 2 or 3 feet, a shallow cavity about 5 inches in diameter and 2 or 8 inches deep, was scratched out and this was nicely lined with blades of dry grass of last year's growth, carried in from the outside, making a very neat and snug home, in which the two beautiful eggs comprising a set, were deposited. Some of their nests were found fully 200 yards from the water. In the other situations mentioned little and often no nest is made, and the eggs are deposited on the bare rocks, in the soft sand, or on the wet, muddy soil. I even took several sets on the bare ice at the bottom of some aukiet's burrow, the ground being still frozen, immediately beneath the grass and moss on July 3, when I left the island.

The setting bird will sometimes leave the nest when danger threatens, but it will frequently allow itself to be taken from the eggs, and when brought to light it will screech, scratch, and bite with vigor. When released they can not fly unless thrown into the air, and will then often fall back to earth. One evening, just at dusk, I was crouched in the grass waiting for a shot at a Peale's falcon (Falco peregrine pealei), who made regular trips to the island to prey on the auklet and murrelets, when I heard a very low but rather shrill whistle. Turning my attention to the spot from which it seemed to come, I listened; presently I heard it again, but was still unable to locate the bird, which I afterwards found to be a murrelet. Subsequent observations proved that this was a call note uttered just about the time the setting bird expected the return of its mate, and was evidently uttered to attract his or her attention, for as far as my observations went, they, like the auklets, exchange places nightly, and while one attends to the home cares, the other is usually in number of miles out at sea on the feeding grounds. This call note is the only one I could attribute to this species while on land, and so ventriloqual are their powers, that in only two instances did I succeed in locating the nest from the sound. While out at sea, the ancient murrelet utters a peculiar piping whistle entirely different from the one uttered while on the nest.

Two eggs are laid to a set, the second is deposited after an interval of two or three days, and frequently three or four days elapse before incubation begins. Occasionally two birds will occupy the same nest; at least I have found three and four eggs in one, and I have also found one in the nest of a red-breasted merganser (Merganser serrator). During the day, while the breeding season is on, a very few birds may be seen near land, but offshore they will be met with in small flocks of from 6 to 8, and occasionally a flock of 100 or more can be seen.

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Name

Atlantic Puffin
Lesson Plan

Food

Fish

Feeding Techniques

Dives from the surface, underwater to hunt for food

Habitat

Oceanic

Plumage

The male and the female have the same plumage. adults have breeding and non-breeding plumage

Distribution

North Alantic Ocean

Breeding

Breeds in colony; uses burrows

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

The excerpt on the Atlantic Puffin was written by Charles Wendell Townsend.

Notes from A.C. Bent

The puffin is a curious mixture of the solemn and the comical. Its short stocky form and abbreviated neck, ornamented with a black collar, its serious owl-like face and extraordinarily large and brilliantly colored bill, suggestive of the false nose of a masquerader, its vivid orange red feet and legs all combine to produce such a grotesque effect that one is brought almost to laughter on seeing these birds walking about near at hand. The parrot like appearance of the bill has earned the name of "parroquet," or "sea parrot," by which it is known in Labrador and Newfoundland. Besides being grotesque it is singularly confiding or stupid, and it is this, it seems to me, that is leading rapidly but surely to its downfall and final extinction, unless refuges are created and respected where it can breed undisturbed. At the present time the most southerly breeding station is Matinicus Rock off the middle coast of Maine. Here only two pairs are left. The only other breeding place left on the coast of the United States is at Machias Seal Island. Here in 1904, according to Dutcher (1904), there was a colony of 300 of these birds. It is probable that the coast of Maine was formerly the resort of large numbers of this species. According to Knight (1908) a few pairs probably bred on Seal Island not far from Matinicus as recently as 1888. Audubon (1840), who visited the Bay of Fundy in 1833, says it bred commonly on the islands in the bay "although not one perhaps now for a hundred that bred there 20 years ago." Now, they are nearly if not entirely extirpated. Macoun (1909) gives only one breeding locality for Nova Scotia, namely, Seal Island, Yarmouth County; but it is probable that a century ago the coast swarmed with these interesting birds. Along the Newfoundland coast the puffin is still to be found breeding, but in much diminished numbers. At Bryon Island in the Magdalen group and at Bird Rock puffins still breed, as well as at Wreck Bay, Anticosti, and elsewhere on this island. On the Labrador coast their numbers are rapidly diminishing. The westernmost of the Mingan Islands where auks, murres, gannets, and puffins formerly bred in great numbers, and which bear the name of the Parroquet Islands, are now almost devoid of bird life. The gannets have ceased to nest there and the puffins are almost wiped out. In 1906 we saw no puffins near these islands, and in 1909 only two were to be seen. Near the eastern end of the Mingan group of islands is Bald Island. Here in 1906 we found about 150 pairs of puffins. At Wolf Island, near Cape Whittle, in 1884 Frazer found a colony of about a thousand puffins. Still farther to the east is the famous Parroquet Island near Bradore. Audubon (1840) visited this island in 1833. He says:

As we rowed toward it, although we found the water literally covered with thousands of these birds, the number that flew over and around the green island seemed much greater, In so much that one might have imagined half the puffins in the world had assembled there.

In 1906 Townsend and Allen (1907) passed near this island and say of these puffins:

There were at least 500 of them, perhaps many more.

In 1860 Coues (1861) thus describes the island at the mouth of Hamilton Inlet on the eastern Labrador coast:

The Parrakeet Islands are three in number, lying along the western shore of Esquimau Bay, just at its mouth. The one I visited is the innermost, as well as the largest, though the others are equally crammed with birds. It is about a mile in circumference. As we rounded the island close to the shore they came tumbling out of their holes by hundreds and, with the thousands we disturbed from the surface of the water, soon made a perfect cloud above and around us, no longer flying In flocks, but forming one dense continuous mass.

He also records them in numbers in the bay near Rigolet. Forty six years later, in 1906, Townsend and Allen saw only 13 puffins on a steamer trip from Battle Harbor to Nain, stopping at Rigolet, and only 43 on the return trip. Six years later, in 1912, Bent (1913) "did not see a single puffin north of the Straits." He spent nearly two months between Battle Harbor and Cape Mugford. When shot at on their breeding grounds the survivors continue to fly by close at hand, offering the gunner tempting shots. Both Audubon and Coues seem to have yielded to this temptation and shot great numbers of puffins. What can be expected of the ignorant and ruthless? The story is everywhere the same: a rapid diminution in the numbers of this picturesque and interesting bird.

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Name

Tufted Puffin
Lesson Plan

Food

Fish

Feeding Techniques

Dives from the surface, underwater to hunt for food

Habitat

Oceanic

Plumage

The male and the female have the same plumage. adults have breeding and non-breeding plumage

Distribution

The Pacific coast

Breeding

Breeds in colony; uses burrows

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Notes from A.C. Bent

The nesting habits of this puffin in the great bird reservations on the coast of Washington have been well described by Messrs. William Leon Dawson and Lynds Jones. The largest colony on this coast seems to be on Carroll Islet where in 1907 Mr. Dawson (1908) estimated that there were 10,000 tufted puffins nesting. In 1905 Mr. Dawson estimated the puffins on this island at 5,000, showing a decided increase in two years under protection. This island is a "high, rounded mass of sandstone, tree crowned, and with sides chiefly precipitous. The crest is covered also with a dense growth of elderberry, salmon berry, or salal bush, while the upper slopes are covered with luxuriant grasses." Professor Jones (1908) says of the nesting of the tufted puffin here:

The only places where this species was not present and nesting were the rock precipices and the forested area, except, of course, the ledges, which were wholly occupied by murres and cormorants. Even the fringe of dense brush contained many nests. It is well known that the typical nesting habit of these birds is to find or make a burrow, usually among the rocks. The most of such burrows observed seemed to have been cleared of debris by the birds and some of them had clearly been made by the birds without much, if any, natural cavity, to mark the beginning. An occasional burrow was so shallow that the bird or egg could be seen but most of them extended a number of feet into the ground. In walking over a turf-covered, steep slope one needed to be careful not to break through these burrows and take a headlong tumble. In climbing such a steep slope the mouths of the burrows afford a comfortable foothold. In descending such a slope rapidly you are more than likely to have the leg bearing the most strain bumped just behind the knee by a frightened bird as it rushes headlong from its nest. One of our pleasant surprises with these birds was the finding of some nests beneath the thickly matted salal bushes, but without the semblance of a burrow. Clearly the birds considered the bushes a sufficient protection from marauding enemies, and were content to simply arrange their nest material upon the ground.

Birds in the Classroom
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Name

Lesson Plan

Food

Feeding Techniques

Habitat

Plumage

Distribution

Breeding

About the Notes from A.C. Bent

Notes from A.C. Bent