Archive for the 'Water and Shore' Category

Dec 07 2016

How Birds Keep The Arctic Cool

Little auks (Alle alle) at Svalbard breeding colony (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Little auks (Alle alle) at Svalbard breeding colony (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Here's amazing news:  Seabird colonies help keep the Arctic cool.

Seabirds gather on Arctic islands to breed during the summer.  Thousands of them nest close together and produce a lot of guano (bird poop).

Atmospheric scientists studying the Arctic noticed summertime bursts of ammonia-based particulate.  These tiny particles cause clouds to form because they gather moisture as they move through the air.  The clouds reflect sunlight and keep the land and water cool.

Where does the ammonia come from?  It wafts off the guano at the seabird colonies.

These findings were published on 15 November 2016 in Nature Communications.   Read the summary here at Science Daily.


(photo of little auks, Alle alle, at breeding colony on Svalbard by Alastair Rae from London, UK via Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original)


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Dec 05 2016

A Serrated Tongue

A Canada goose challenges the photographer (photo by David Amamoto)

Canada goose challenges the photographer (photo by David Amamoto)

Canada geese challenge their enemies by honking and rushing forward with head low, mouth open and tongue raised.  Normally we humans don't see this up close but a goose challenged David Amamoto and revealed its amazing tongue to the camera.

Since Canada geese don't have hands, their mouths are equipped with the tools they need for plucking grasses, sedges, grains and berries on land and in the water.

Their bills are serrated for cutting stems and threshing grain.  Their tongues have serrated edges for sieving water from each mouthful of underwater food.  The tongue's crosswise bumps help grip the vegetation.

Food doesn't get away from this serrated tongue.

Fortunately David escaped without being nipped.


(photo by David Amamoto)

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Nov 11 2016

Spring Tide In November

Spring tide Wimereux, France, Sept 2007 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Spring tide at Wimereux, France, Sept 2007 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Despite the fact that it's autumn we're going to have a spring tide next week.

In this case the word "spring" has nothing to do with the season.  Instead it means the ocean will be "springing up" in the highest high tide.

Spring tides occur a day or two after a full moon and are highest when the moon is closest to Earth at perigee.  On Monday the moon will be full and at its closest perigee since 1948.   Watch for nuisance flooding on Tuesday in low-lying coastal communities.

Perigee also makes the moon look larger, an effect called the supermoon.  Here are two photos of the full moon in 2007, perigee on the left on October 26, apogee (furthest) on the right on April 3.

Size comparison of full moon at perigee versus apogee (image from Wikimedia Commons)

Size comparison of full moon at perigee versus apogee (image from Wikimedia Commons)

The difference is about 30,000 miles.  Closer objects look larger.  (Duh!)

If you miss this supermoon you'll have to wait 18 years for it to be this close again.

Read more about November's supermoon and spring tide at


(images from Wikimedia Commons. Click on each one to see its original.)

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Nov 09 2016

Cleaning Up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch

Published by under Water and Shore

Pacific currents and garbage gyres map, NOAA Marine Debris Program

Per NOAA, this map is an oversimplification of ocean currents and areas of marine debris in the Pacific (NOAA Marine Debris Program)

Did you know that Earth's rotation and the continents cause wind and currents to circle the oceans?  This creates enormous slow-moving whirlpools called gyres.  Every hemisphere has a big one with smaller gyres inside it.

The North Pacific contains a convergence zone and two recirculation gyres, one in the west near Japan and a bigger one near California.  Surface debris naturally accumulates in the gyres and it doesn't leave. Watch how this happens below.

Before the 20th century marine debris was generally organic, but in the late 1980s NOAA found that the gyres accumulate stuff that never decomposes -- plastic garbage.  The amount of plastic is especially high in the Pacific. Thus was coined the term The Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

The garbage begins its journey when it washes off land, is jettisoned from boats, or floats away from shipwrecks.  Slowly, it migrates to the center where the concentration of plastic is intense because plastics don't decompose, they just break into ever smaller pieces that form a slurry below the surface.

The plastics are bad for fish, birds, and just about everything including small organisms that feed near the slurry and humans who eat fish.  It even kills baby albatrosses because they ingest it (sad video this: MIDWAY a Message from the Gyre).

What to do?  Creative minds came up with two solutions that, implemented together, may fix it:  One Big Thing and a Lots of Little Things.

One Big ThingCorral the junk and take it away.

Boyan Slat, the 22-year-old founder of the Ocean Cleanup Project, has designed a giant V-shaped boom to passively collect floating plastic garbage. Crowd-sourced funding financed a successful prototype off the coast of the Netherlands (Slat's homeland).  More tests will be deployed off the Dutch and Java coasts.

Meanwhile, to get a handle on where to deploy the North Pacific boom Ocean Cleanup conducted aerial surveys of the garbage patch and found out it's much bigger that we thought.  And it's growing.  Uh oh!

Lots of Little ThingsCreate less garbage by using less plastic.

Millions of plastic bits and pieces are in the Garbage Patch, amassed from the hands of millions of people who throw away plastic every day.  I'm one of them.

If we throw away less plastic, there will be less in the ocean.  If we don't buy disposable plastic there will be less to throw away.  That's why it makes sense to use durable shopping bags and reusable water bottles.

Every little bit helps. Here are 10 ways to reduce your plastic output including this surprise: No plastic straws.


(map from NOAA Marine Debris Program; video from NASA's Scientific Visualization Studio via Wikimedia Commons)

p.s. Did you know that we learned about ocean currents from a rubber duckies cargo accident?  Read about the 28,000 duckies lost at sea.

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Oct 21 2016

Mallards Come A’Courting

Even though mallards breed in the spring, they begin courting in September.  In some places 90% of them are paired by the time winter arrives.

Watch them on lakes, ponds, rivers, and in the video above to see these courtship actions(*).

Male courtship moves:

  • Swimming broadside to the female
  • Head sunk in shoulders: an introductory posture
  • Head-Shake: wagging the head from side to side
  • Head-Flick:  arching the neck to the tip of the bill. This ends in flicking the head.
  • Swimming-Shake (not sure I saw this in the video)
  • Several males simultaneously display with:
    • Grunt-Whistle: whistle, then grunt. (the video calls this spitting)
    • Head-Up-Tail-Up (This is my favorite!)
    • Down-Up: looks like bowing

Female courtship moves encourage the males:

  • Nod-swimming: bobs her head up/down
  • Steaming forward:  swims quickly with neck low to the water

Pairing up:

  • Male tries to lead female away by doing Turn-Back-of-Head in front of her.  If she likes him, it works.


Listen for these sounds:  When you hear the whistle, it's a male courtship sound.  Only the females say "Quack."


(*) The capitalized terms are from Birds of North America Online.

(video from YouTube via

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Sep 13 2016

Wettable Feathers

For a bird that eats fish for a living, what possible advantage could there be in having feathers that get waterlogged?

Water beads up on the plumage of ducks and loons but the feathers of double-crested cormorants (Phalacrocorax auritus) are "wettable" so they spend more than half their day out of the water loafing, preening and spreading their wings to dry as shown in the video above(*).

This wettability is not caused by a lack of oil on their feathers.  Instead it's the feathers' structure that allows them to get wet.

Combined with their solid, heavy bones, wettable feathers make cormorants less buoyant so it's easier to stay underwater and hunt for fish.

The proof is in the eating.  Ta dah!  He caught a large catfish.

Double-crested cormorantwith catfish, Everglades National Park (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Double-crested cormorant with fish, Everglades National Park (photo from Wikimedia Commons)


Watch for double-crested cormorant numbers to build in western Pennsylvania this fall as they migrate south for the winter.


p.s. *Note: The bird in the video has a white feather or debris on top of his beak. It's not a field mark.

(video from Cornell Lab of Ornithology, photo by R. Cammauf, National Park Service, via Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original.)

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Sep 09 2016

In Only Two Months

Baby birds grow so fast!  Two months ago this loon chick was only one day old at Acadia National Park in Maine.  By now he's as big as his parents and almost ready to migrate.

Every year I visit Acadia in early September (I'm there this week) but I arrive too late to see baby birds.  Claire Staples spent most of the summer in Maine and followed a family of loons at Beech Hill Pond.  Here's what the chicks looked like as they got older.

At five weeks old, on August 3, the chicks are not as big as their parents and are still quite downy.  They swim but they cannot fly.

Fluffy loon chick waves his foot at 5 weeks old, 3 Aug 2016 (photo by Claire Staples)

Fluffy loon chick waves his foot at 5 weeks old, 3 Aug 2016 (photo by Claire Staples)

At six weeks old they still depend on their parents for food.

Adult loon brings food for 6-week-old chicks, 10 Aug 2016 (photo by Claire Staples)

Adult loon brings food for 6-week-old chicks, 10 Aug 2016 (photo by Claire Staples)

One of them really likes to wave his foot.  This is how they stretch their legs.

Closeup of 6-week-old loon chicks, 10 Aug 2016 (photo by Claire Staples)

Closeup of 6-week-old loon chicks, 10 Aug 2016 (photo by Claire Staples)


On August 24 they were eight weeks old and had lost their down. Now they resemble their parents.

Loon chicks eight weeks old at Beech Hill Pond, Maine (photo by Claire Staples)

Loon chicks eight weeks old at Beech Hill Pond, Maine, 24 Aug 2016 (photo by Claire Staples)


The Acadia chick hatched two weeks later than Claire's loons so today he looks like the two in the photo above.

Soon the loons will leave the lakes to spend the winter along the coast.  They grow up in only two months.


(video by Ray Yeager on YouTube. Photos by Claire Staples)

p.s. On Wednesday I saw a loon adult and youngster on Jordan Pond.  Based on Claire's photos the youngster must have been six weeks old.

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Sep 05 2016

Last Day of Summer

Waves and ! at Ocean Beach (photo by Broken Inaglory via Wikimedia Commons)

Waves and marbled godwit at low tide. Ocean Beach, California (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

On this last day of summer, may you find a marbled godwit at the beach.

Happy Labor Day!


(photo by Brocken Inaglory via Wikimedia Commons.  Click on the image to see the original)

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Aug 24 2016

Which One of You Is Least?

Two "peeps" (photo by Mike Baird, Morro Bay, CA via Wikimedia Commons)

Two "peeps" (photo by Mike Baird via Wikimedia Commons)

Which one of you is a least sandpiper?  That's the question I ask all the "peeps" when I see them in the field.

This month I've been using the tips I wrote in Shorebird Practice on August 12 to find the answers. Here's how:

  • Which small shorebirds are possible here and now? In western Pennsylvania in August the likely suspects are least sandpipers, semipalmated sandpipers, and at sandy shores, sanderlings.  At muddy locations you might encounter the relatively rare Baird's sandpiper.  He's longer-winged than the other three.
  • Are you at a sandy beach?  If not, rule out sanderlings.  If yes, examine behavior and size. Sanderlings walk on sand, they chase the waves, and they're noticeably bigger than least and semipalmated.  Sanderlings also look whiter than the other two.
  • Size: Least and semipalmated are smaller than all the other species.
  • Legs:  If you can see colors and the birds legs aren't muddy you've hit the jackpot.  Least sandpipers are the only peeps with yellow or greenish legs.   If you cannot see leg color then ...
  • Posture while feeding:  Imagine a person knee-bending (least) versus extended out to reach something (semipalmated).
    • Least sandpipers crouch with bent legs and peck near their toes.  They look hunched.
    • Semipalmated sandpipers reach out with their bills to find food. They look stretched out and their tails may be cocked higher.
    • (Western and semipalmated postures are similar. Fortunately, there are no westerns here and now.)
  • Bills:  All are black.
    • Least sandpiper bills taper to a fine point with slight droop at the tip.
    • Semipalmated bills are shorter and straight, sometimes slightly blunt at the tip.
  • Micro-habitat: According to Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion:  "Any lone peep in marginal habitat is likely to be a Least (baked mud or tight watery leads flanked by rank tiny puddles)."  They say that leasts like edges.

So which one of the birds above is a least sandpiper?  It's a trick question.  Both are.  And yet they're standing up to their bellies in water to confound the "leasts liked edges" statement.  Notice their yellow legs.


p.s. Here are two extensive resources on identifying peeps:  ABA's in-depth identification of peeps and Peep identification at The Nutty Birder website.

(photo by Mike Baird from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original.)

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Aug 12 2016

Shorebird Practice

A photographer and shorebirds at the Mingan Archipelago, Quebec (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

A photographer and shorebirds at the Mingan Archipelago, Quebec (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

It's shorebird time and many of us are confused. In southwestern Pennsylvania we only see these birds on migration and a lot of them look alike.

I'm not good at shorebirds but I want to be better.  What to do? Practice!  Here are some tips I'm using this month, written down so I don't forget.  Maybe they'll help you, too.

Here's a quick summary:

  1. Prepare in advance.
  2. Take your time.
  3. For some brown/gray shorebirds, 3 field marks are all you need:
    1. Size compared to other birds,
    2. Beak shape, size and color,
    3. Leg length (relative to body) and color.

Still stumped? You'll have to read ...


Prepare in advance:

  • Choose a birding location with lots of shorebirds so you can compare sizes, shapes and behavior.
  • Before you go, narrow your choices to what's possible at that location at that time of year. Make a list. Highlight the common ones.  Bookmarks help.
  • Take field guides(*), a scope(+), a sun hat, and maybe a chair.  These birds stay put. So will you.

Methods in the field:

  • Take your time!  Study their behavior.  Quick impressions don't work.
  • Pick one bird to identify.  Learn it well then move on.
  • Don't focus on plumage yet unless the bird has really striking colors or patterns.  (Plumage is the least useful field mark on difficult shorebirds.)
  • Size: Compare to other shorebirds.  (ex: smaller than a killdeer?)
  • Silhouette:
    • Beak shape: Long or short? Straight or Curved up or down? Convex (bulged) or thin?  Sharp tip or blunt?
    • Legs: Long or short relative to the body?
    • Neck: Long? Short? "No-neck"?
    • Head: Big or little? Round or long?
    • Body: Chunky? Thin? Stubby? Long?
  • Color of beak and legs.  (Sometimes size, beak and legs are all you need)
  • Behavior:
    • Stands tall or always crouched?
    • In a tight flock or solo?
    • Does it stand in water? Or does it stay at the edge, hating to get its feet wet?
    • Does it peck daintily? Grab and go? Move its bill like a sewing machine needle?
    • Does it chase waves?  (field mark of a sanderling)
  • Now look at plumage (adults + juveniles this month).  Does it match your guess?
  • Can't make up your mind? Repeat the process.


If all else fails, hope for a peregrine or merlin to stir them up. Some species are impossible until they open their wings (willets, black-bellied plovers).  And it's always nice to see a falcon.


(photo from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original.)

p.s. Did I miss anything?  Do you have a tip for shorebird practice?  Please post it in a comment.

Footnotes:  Here are some great guides to use at home or while sitting in the field. These books are big and heavy.
(*) For plumage and field marks: The Sibley Guide to Birds, 2nd Edition.
(*) For detailed behavior of each species (No pictures): Pete Dunne's Essential Field Guide Companion

(+) Scope: If you have a really good camera it can out-perform a scope. Photos show the details frozen in time.

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