Archive for September, 2009

Sep 04 2009


Published by under Travel,Water and Shore

Northern Gannet diving for fish (photo by Kim Steininger)

The cool thing about going to Maine is that I get to see birds I would never see at home.  This northern gannet is a perfect example.  There's no way this huge sea bird with a six and a half foot wingspan would be found taking a nose dive in the Monongahela River.  He needs deep saltwater for his livelihood.

I've seen northern gannets from the shores of Virginia and Florida in the winter but they're far away and look like tiny arrowheads.  To get a closeup like this and to see a host of birds who never come near shore, I have to travel far off the coast on a pelagic tour.

Maine Audubon has an annual pelagic tour in October that goes 40 miles off the coast of Bar Harbor, but I'll be in Pittsburgh then.  What to do?  A Maine birder gave me a tip:  You can see pelagic birds on the Whale Watch.  The goals of these two boat trips are different but the whale watch looks for whales up to 20 miles offshore and pelagic birds are often in the vicinity of whales because both are looking for food-filled patches of ocean.  He also said that if you can pick any day to make the trip, go when the wind is light - otherwise the wave action hides the loafing birds. 

So I went on the whale watch Wednesday morning when the waves were less than a foot high.  The weather was great and I met another birder, Andy Block, who leads birding tours to Costa Rica for Tico Tours.  For a landlubber like me sea birds are often confusing so I was really glad Andy was there to tell me what they were: 

I do enjoy these trips!  And now you see why I was thinking about waves this week.

p.s.  I nearly forgot to mention we did see a whale - one finback - plus harbor seals and harbor porpoises.

(photo by Kim Steininger.  Click on the photo to read Kim's blog describing how she captured it.)

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Sep 02 2009

Waves Kill

Published by under Travel,Water and Shore

Waves crashing at Acadia National Park (poor photo by Kate St. John)

Waves crashing at Acadia National Park (a grainy photo by Kate St. John)

September 2, 2009:

This is no news to people who live by the sea but to those who are landlocked or work indoors the ocean looks powerful but benign when you're standing on high ground.

Though it's been 10 days since it happened, all the talk among the tourists at Acadia National Park is about the killer wave from Hurricane Bill on August 23, 2009 which swept over spectators near Thunder Hole, injuring more than a dozen people, dragging three into the sea and killing one of them, a seven-year-old girl.

My grainy photo above doesn't show the horror of that moment.  Paul Colby of Belfast, Maine was there and captured the aftermath of the wave with people crouching and trying to get back to dry land. More spectators had been sitting on the rocks where the foam was churning, but they're gone. Click here for Paul's photo and here for the article in the Bangor Daily News.

Tropical Storm Danny was threatening the coast with similar weather when we arrived in New England on Saturday.  We spent a very wet, windy, gray day in New Hampshire and have had beautiful weather ever since.  We've had no desire to look at waves.  We hear they're only 1-2 feet high today.  Good!


(photo by Kate St. John, taken in 2010)

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Sep 01 2009

Confusing Fall Warblers

Published by under Songbirds

Female Yellow Warbler (photo by Chuck Tague)From the moment I became a birder there was a section of the field guide that gave me the shivers.

In my Peterson Field Guide to Birds there were four pages labeled Confusing Fall Warblers.  I studied those pages many times but it was hopeless.  The birds in the pictures were females or juveniles.  Some had wing bars, some did not.  Much as I tried I couldn't identify those tiny, olive-green and yellow birds.

For many years I was cowed.  Finally I bought a field guide that didn't have those four pages and avoided the problem by ignoring it.

Years later I'm surprised to discover I can identify many fall warblers though I didn't work at learning them.  Instead I spent May after May looking at spring warblers.  I got used to identifying the adults, noticing their body shapes, bill sizes and whether they had eye stripes, wings bars or beady eyes.

Eventually I realized that young warblers have the same traits.  A long, thin-bodied warbler is still long and thin-bodied whether it's young or old.  An adult warbler who feeds by poking under bark will have babies who do the same.  A warbler with a beady black eye, like this female yellow warbler, has a beady black eye at every age.

I'm still confused by many fall warblers - and a couple of spring ones too - but I enjoy them more since I gave up trying so hard.


(photo of a female yellow warbler by Chuck Tague)

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