California Dreaming Part IIIB – The San Diego Zoo – The Birds

My previous post was originally intended to cover our day at the San Diego Zoo including both the mammals and the birds seen, but it got so long with just the fabulous mammals that I decided to do this separate post for the birds we saw.  Have to repeat again that the Zoo was fantastic in every way (except for the signage and map).  Great collection, great docents, great exhibits and great maintenance and even great food.  Highly recommended for everyone.

There are many bird aviaries at the Zoo and a number of other bird exhibits.  We visited many but not all barely scratching the surface and foregoing some of the more spectacular species and exhibits.  We simply ran out of time.  Someday I hope to return to see the birds missed – including some of the birds that were probably in the aviaries we did visit – but just as in birding in the field – and especially in rain forests for example, you just do not see everything that is there.  A spectacular exhibit is immediately seen by visitors near the entry.  Pretty hard not to see and enjoy a flock of  Caribbean Flamingos in a pool close by.

Caribbean Flamingos


In the same pool there were Pelicans, Great Egrets (that are probably local and not part of the collection, Beautiful White Faced Whistling Ducks and Pelicans.  I saw huge numbers of both Greater and Lesser Flamingos in Africa in 2007 and an American Flamingo on Sugarloaf Key in Florida almost 40 years ago.  I will be revisiting the Keys in April and would very much love to see and photograph one there again.  Cannot imagine a better photo than here at the Zoo, however.

Great White Pelican – another African species and one that I saw on that trip to Kenya in 2007.


White Faced Whistling Duck – also seen in Kenya in 2007.


In no particular order, I am going to include photos and nominal comments on my favorites among the dozens of birds that we saw.  Going to start with my absolute favorite bird on my world life list so far – the Secretarybird.   I was fortunate to see a few on that Kenya trip in 2007 and then some more at Kruger Park in South Africa in 2014.  On that first Africa trip it was one of three “must see” birds. The other two were African Hoopoe and Bateleur Eagle – successful for all of them.  In South Africa we saw one Secretarybird catch a snake – they are raptors.

Secretarybird – I was thrilled at how well these photos turned out.  The bird was literally a few feet away – almost too close to focus with the telephoto lens – and behind thick glass.  We had an interesting talk with one of the docents as to the derivation of the Secretarybird’s name.  The theory I had heard before is that it came from the feathers jutting out behind the bird’s head reminiscent of the quill pens that 19th Century secretaries on the streets of England tucked behind their ears, while its grey and black body was reminiscent of their tailcoats. The docent said it may more likely be that the name derives from the Arabic ‘saqr-et-tair’, or ‘hunter bird’.  Either way – a truly spectacular animal.



Another spectacular bird not in an aviary was the American Condor.  San Diego Zoo participates in a breeding program to recover this highly endangered species.  The 23 remaining birds in the wild were captured by 1987, and it was feared this largest of North American birds might become extinct.  Today there are more than 435 Condors, more than half of which are flying free in the wild.  Our program speaker at the Washington Ornithological Society meeting last night, Tate Mason of the Peregrine Fund, said that the biggest threat is the use of lead bullets which the Condors ingest from dead game as they scavenge their huge areas.  If copper could be used in place of lead, it is expected that thousands of Condors could survive throughout their former range that would include my State of Washington.  I have seen the closely related Andean Condor and would love someday to see an American Condor and how great if it were in Washington.

American Condor


There are at least five aviaries at the Zoo – maybe seven.  We only visited three and all were terrific with exotic birds flying free.  Some were birds that I had seen in the wild in Africa or Australia or South America.  Others were new to me and in most cases the views of the ones I had seen elsewhere were much better here with the limited even though large area of the aviaries.

Cock of the Rock – I had a fleeting view of one in Peru and the ones here at the Zoo were much much cooperative and photogenic.  Another spectacular South American species.


I remember my first Golden Breasted and Superb Starlings from my Africa trip – how different from the relatively plain bird that so often is a junk bird on my trips or at feeders in the U.S.  The Golden Breasted is pictured below.  Just as noisy and intrusive but so much prettier than our imported Eurasian Starling pests, the Metallic Starlings in one aviary fed voraciously as they posed on a feeding platform. I had seen similar groups in their native Australia.

Golden Breasted Starling


Metallic Starlings


Anyone visiting Central or South America cannot help but being impressed by the various large billed Toucans and closely related Aracaris.  The Toco Toucan and Curl Crested Aracari were both familiar to me from Brazil.  The former was an unavoidable begging pest at several outdoor meals. I wonder if Toucans really do like Fruit Loops?

Toco Toucan


Curl Crested Aracari


Another well remembered bird was the Crested Oropendola seen on a fabulous trip to Trinidad in  1978 – my first international birding experience – and where I also saw another of the striking San Diego aviary birds – a Yellow Rumped Cacique.

Crested Oropendola


Yellow Rumped Cacique


Another spiffy yellow and black bird posing for us in one of the aviaries was the Black Naped Oriole. I had seen a single one at the Kanha Tiger Preserve in India in 2011.


Some of the most spectacular birds in the aviaries were the pigeons and doves.  We particularly liked the very showy Victoria Crowned Pigeon that almost stepped on our toes.  It is found only on New Guinea a place I someday hope to visit.

Victoria Crowned Pigeon


Probably the most colorful pigeon was the Nicobar Pigeon.  It is a native of islands east of India and onto the Malay Peninsula – an area it would be great to visit someday.  The first picture is of the whole bird and the second zooms in on the incredibly colored back.

nicobar-pigeon    nicobar-pigeon-back

Another spectacular pigeon did not seem to be a pigeon at all – looking more like a pheasant.  Not surprising since it is the Pheasant Pigeon, another bird found only in New Guinea.

Pheasant Pigeon


I had not seen any of those species, but I had seen and actually remembered the Wonga Pigeon from Australia which would have seemed a lot more exotic if it were not for those others.

Wonga Pigeon


The last of my featured pigeons/doves are two that are “green”, the Green Imperial Pigeon found in South Asia and the beautiful and smaller Emerald Dove.  The last name was familiar to me but I checked my world list and found that I had been thinking of the Emerald Spotted Wood Dove which I had seen in Africa and may well have been at the Zoo as well but not seen by us.

Green Imperial Pigeon


Emerald Dove


Looking at this last picture again reminded me of the observation that most if not all of the birds in the Zoo are banded.  So if any birders out there come up with one of these exotics – sorry just an escapee and not countable.

I don’t know if there was a separate exhibit of pheasants or their relatives at the Zoo but I am sure there were many on display somewhere.  We only saw one – the Madagascar Partridge – a very plain but handsome little bird.  On a return trip I will search for more.

Madagascar Partridge


There were smaller birds as well – some familiar and some new to me.  One familiar bird was the White Breasted Wood Swallow from Australia – small flock was perched together on a wire as our North American swallows often do.

White Breasted Wood Swallow


Another familiar bird was the Black Throated Laughing-thrush.   I had forgotten where I had seen the bird but upon checking my Ebird records I found it was a species I had seen at the marvelous Mai Po Nature Preserve outside of Hong Kong on Christmas Day 1977. That brought back great memories of that wonderful place – so close to the crowded city that epitomized density and commerce but had fabulous birds reminiscent of the Everglades.  On that one incredible day I saw 81 species that included large waders, shorebirds, raptors and a large number of very diverse passerines.

Black Throated Laughing-thrush


Two other birds I had seen elsewhere were the Gouldian Finch which is endemic to Australia and the Blue Naped Mousebird – one of the 500+ species I had seen on my three week trip to Kenya.

Gouldian Finches

Blue Naped Mousebird


Two smaller birds I had not seen elsewhere were the Collared Finchbill and the Bali Myna – both striking birds – and respectively from China/Taiwan/Vietnam and of course Bali.

Collared Finchbill


Bali Myna


I will end the parade of pictures with one of the only shorebird I noted in any of the aviaries but I probably missed others and expect there were others in other aviaries or exhibits at the Zoo.  It is the Egyptian Plover which is also sometimes called the Crocodile Bird for the probably apocryphal story that they supposedly go into the open mouths of crocodiles and remove rotting meat.  There is no anecdotal or photographic evidence of this but they do inhabit banks of rivers where crocodiles abound in sub-Saharan Africa.

Egyptian Plover


I don’t know how many of the almost 10,000 species of birds in the world can be found at the San Diego Zoo.  They have birds from every continent (except Antarctica I believe) and the collection includes many rarities and definitely many beauties. The Zoo is a major participant in breeding and conservation programs and is a wonderful resource for those reasons in addition to its important role in education and exhibition.

As I said earlier, we did not visit all of the bird exhibits.  We did not see the Cassowaries, Kiwis, Hummingbirds or Birds of Paradise, nor the Steller’s Sea Eagle or Harpy Eagle.  Guess I will have to come back – and what a pleasure that will be.

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