Archive for the 'Water and Shore' Category

Dec 23 2015

Two Oceans, Four Hemispheres

Male red-necked phalarope in July (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Male red-necked phalarope in July, molting out of breeding plumage (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Here’s a bird whose migration takes him through four hemispheres and two oceans.

Thanks to a tiny tracking device placed on 10 male red-necked phalaropes on Fetlar Island, Scotland in 2012, the RSPB learned that these North Atlantic birds fly west and south to spend the winter in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Ecuador and Peru.

Their amazing route starts in the Northern and Eastern hemispheres and ends in the Southern and Western hemispheres.  They spend the winter at sea in the plankton-rich Humboldt Current.

Red-necked phalaropes (Phalaropus lobatus) are small birds with a circumpolar distribution.  The European group is thought to winter at the Arabian Sea but the Fetlar Island birds follow the same southward migration route as those from eastern North America, so it’s likely the Scottish phalaropes are related to that population.

Read more and see a video about their long migration here at BBC News.

And if you want to see a red-necked phalarope, your best chance is in the Bay of Fundy during spring or fall migration.  Two million have been counted there in the months of May and August(*).


(photo of male red-necked phalarope in San Jose, CA in the month of July from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original.)

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Dec 07 2015

The Golden Eye

Common goldeneye, female (photo by Francis C. Franklin via Wikimedia Commons)

Common goldeneye, female (photo ©Francis C. Franklin at Wikimedia Commons)

Even from afar, you can see how common goldeneyes (Bucephala clangula) earned their name.

Adult males have bright yellow eyes, females’ are pale yellow to white.  But their eyes aren’t always that color.

When they hatch, common goldeneye ducklings have gray-brown eyes that turn purple-blue, then blue, then green-blue as they age. By five months of age their eyes are a clear pale green-yellow.(*)

Francis C. Franklin took this exceptional photo of a female wintering in northwestern England.  Click here to see where Franklin found this beautiful duck.


(this Featured Picture at Wikimedia Commons is ©Francis C. Franklin, license CC-BY-SA-3.0. Click on the image to see the original.)

Common goldeneyes breed in the taiga of North America, Scandinavia and Russia. They’re found on both sides of the Atlantic.
(*) Eye color information quoted from All About Birds.

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Dec 05 2015

Mixed Up Duck?

Published by under Water and Shore

Juvenile male hooded merganser in April (photo by Dick Daniels via Wikimedia Commons)

Juvenile male hooded merganser in April (photo by Dick Daniels via Wikimedia Commons)

This bird looks like a hooded merganser but he’s not quite right.  His crest says “female plumage,” his neck and chest say “male.”

This is a yearling male changing into breeding plumage in April.  At one year old male hooded mergansers are part way to breeding plumage and look confusing, though the mergansers themselves know who’s who.

In late fall these young ducks are only six months old and look even more like females from a distance.

Don’t get mixed up by this duck.  Look closely at “female” hooded mergansers for clues to their identity.


(photo by Dick Daniels via Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original)

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Nov 27 2015

Buy A Stamp For The Birds

2015 U.S. Migratory Bird and Conservation Stamp (image linked from

Today, on Black Friday the biggest shopping day of the year, buy some habitat for the birds.

In Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s November eNewsletter I learned the back story about duck stamps.  They aren’t just for hunters and stamp collectors.  They’re for us birders, too.

One hundred years ago ducks were on their way to extinction in North America because of over-hunting and habitat loss.  New hunting laws stopped the slaughter but the birds still needed habitat so Ding Darling, chief of the U.S. Biological Survey, pushed for the Duck Stamp Act that requires waterfowl hunters to purchase and carry a duck stamp with their general game hunting license. Stamp-generated funds buy National Wildlife Refuge land.  Click here to read how ducks were saved by a stamp!

Cornell Lab gives us birders 8 great reasons to buy a duck stamp:  (I’ve paraphrased below.)

  1. It’s saving a lot of habitat.  Since 1934, over 6.5 million acres of wetland and grassland habitat have been saved as National Wildlife Refuges.
  2. It’s beautiful, collectible wildlife art.
  3. It’s a great use of funds. 98 cents of every dollar goes directly to land acquisition (and immediate related expenses) for the National Wildlife Refuge System.
  4. It’s more than just ducks. Refuge wetland habitat benefits shorebirds, herons, raptors, songbirds, reptiles, amphibians, fish, butterflies, native plants, and more.
  5. It’s grasslands, too. NWR refuges also protect grasslands for declining prairie-nesting birds: bobolinks, grasshopper sparrows, clay-colored sparrows, sedge wrens …
  6. A wildlife refuge where you go birding has benefited. Check the map here (scroll down).
  7. The annual stamp is your free pass to refuges that charge admission.
  8. Show that bird watchers care, too. We know that birds need habitat.  Let’s lend the birds a hand.

It’s easy to buy the 2015 stamp at many post offices, National Wildlife Refuge offices, and sporting-goods stores, as well as online from USPS and Amplex.

Buy a stamp for the birds!


(image of the 2015 Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation stamp from the U.S. Postal Service, linked from Click on the image to see the original and read about 8 Great Reasons to buy one.)

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Nov 22 2015

One Of These Is Not Like The Others

Published by under Water and Shore

At Lake Erie, a flock of gulls with an overseas visitor among them (photo by Steve Gosser)

At Lake Erie, a flock of gulls with an overseas visitor among them (photo by Steve Gosser)

All of these gulls are the same species … except one.

Steve Gosser posted this photo on Facebook last Wednesday and wrote, “One of these gulls is a little more special than the others, any guesses?”

His friends were quick to point out the odd gull and some even identified it, especially after Steve confirmed that it’s the one at the top right without white leading edges on his wings and without black wingtips.

What species is this special bird?

It’s pretty hard to tell with such a plain gray gull so Steve posted a second picture with the decisive clue.

A little gull flying with two Bonaparte's gulls (photo by Steve Gosser)

A little gull flying with two Bonaparte’s gulls (photo by Steve Gosser)

This gull has dark underwings!

He’s a little gull (Hydrocoloeus minutus), a native of Eurasia and rare in North America.  All About Birds writes:

The smallest gull in the world, the Little Gull is common across Eurasia. A few pairs have been nesting in North America since the 1960s, and the species is now a rare, but regular, visitor to the East Coast and the Great Lakes.

Steve photographed this one at Lake Erie.

Thanks, Steve, showing us what to look for!


(photos by Steve Gosser)

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Nov 12 2015

A Late Fall

Flock of ducks (photo by Brian Herman)

Flock of ducks (photo by Brian Herman)

It seems to me that fall is late this year.

The leaves were late to change color and stayed on the trees longer than expected, temperatures last week were 15 degrees above normal, and the ducks are late arriving from the north.  In my city neighborhood we haven’t had a really hard frost yet.

Have you noticed this, too?

A strong El Niño is warming the northern U.S. and southern Canada this fall.  Without ice forming on the northern lakes, waterfowl have no compelling reason to come south.  When do you think the big flocks will arrive?

For a good explanation of this year’s El Niño and the Winter 2015-2016 forecast, click here at The Weather Channel.


(photo by Brian Herman)

p.s. Here’s what the El Niño looks like in an image from There’s a big warm spot in the Pacific Ocean and another one off the coast of California.

Seas surface temperature anomaly, Oct 11 - Nov 7, 2015 (image from

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Nov 10 2015

The Odd Goose

Domestic goose and wild ancestor, the greylag goose (photos from Wikimedia Commons)

Domestic goose and wild ancestor, the greylag goose (photos from Wikimedia Commons)

We’ve all seen one … an all-white goose hanging out with the mallards and Canada geese.

Even if we’re unfamiliar with barnyard geese it doesn’t take long to find out the white ones are escaped domestic waterfowl that naturally prefer the places where people feed ducks.

Their scientific name is Anser anser domesticus, the same genus and species as their wild ancestor the greylag goose (above right).

Greylag geese (Anser anser) are mottled gray-brown with paler breasts and bellies, orange bills, and pink legs.  Native to Europe and Asia they were domesticated about 4,000 years ago for their meat and eggs.  In addition to food, they’re useful as Watch Geese because they’re quick to sound the alarm and chase off intruders.  How vigilant are they?  It’s said they saved Rome by warning of a night attack by the Gauls.

Selective breeding has given domestic geese bulky bodies and big butts but they aren’t always white and that causes identification problems.  Not only do some resemble their wild ancestors but geese freely hybridize.  When a barnyard goose mates with a Canada goose they produce some really odd offspring.  Click here for pictures of the many strange results.

If you find a gray-brown goose in western Pennsylvania your field guide will suggest the greater white-fronted goose but be careful before you decide that’s what you’ve found.

Greater white-fronted geese (detail from Crossley ID Guide for Eastern Birds)

Greater white-fronted geese (detail from Crossley ID Guide Eastern Birds via Wikimedia Commons)

Greater white-fronted geese (Anser albifrons) breed in the arctic tundra and winter west of the Mississippi and in Mexico.  They’re a rare bird in western Pennsylvania so check the field marks carefully.  Greater white-fronted geese have a “white front” (white forehead and base of bill), lots of black mottling on the belly, a smaller bill and are much less bulky.

Here’s the “white front” that gave them their name.  (I added the red arrow.)

Greater white-fronted goose (detail from the Crossley ID Guide Eastern Birds, arrow added to indicate white front)

Greater white-fronted goose (detail from the Crossley ID Guide Eastern Birds via Wikimedia Commons. Arrow added to indicate white front.)

Chances are the odd goose in Pittsburgh has domestic relatives but take a really good look at him.  You never know …


(photos from Wikimedia Commons. Click on these links to see the originals: wild greylag goose, domestic goose, greater white-fronted geese from the Crossley ID Guide Eastern Birds)

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Nov 08 2015

Neck And Legs Extended

Greater Flamingoes, Walvis Bay, Namibia (photo by Yathin S Krishnappa from Wikimedia Commons)

Greater Flamingoes, Walvis Bay, Namibia (photo by Yathin S Krishnappa from Wikimedia Commons)

You’ll never see these birds in the wild in Pennsylvania.

Flying with legs and necks extended these greater flamingos (Phoenicopterus roseus) — an adult and sub-adult — are at Walvis Bay in Namibia, Africa.

Pennsylvania does have a large native bird that flies this way with neck and legs extended.  It breeds in western PA and has been seen in Crawford County recently.

Can you guess the species?


(photo by Yathin S Krishnappa from Wikimedia Commons.Click on the image to see the original)

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Oct 07 2015

Through the Storm

Whimbrel (nicknamed Upinraaq) at the MacKenzie River, Canada. She winters in Brazil.

What happens to birds who migrate over the ocean during hurricane season?  Do they run into major storms?

Indeed they do.  Since 2007 when the Center for Conservation Biology began satellite-tracking whimbrels they’ve seen 9 of them fly through hurricanes or tropical storms.  All 9 birds survived!

This year when Upinraaq (above) launched from Newfoundland on her transoceanic journey, she had no idea she’d encounter Tropical Storm Erika.  By the time she hit Erika’s 46 mile per hour winds she’d already been flying non-stop for three days. Nonetheless she flew straight through the storm and made landfall at Suriname.

However, her destination is Brazil and she faces a big challenge in Suriname before she gets home.  Click here to read about her land-side challenge and the amazing feats of migrating whimbrels (one flew through Hurricane Irene!) at the CCB’s blog: Whimbrel Tracked Into Tropical Storm Erika.


(photo by Fletcher Smith linked from the Center for Conservation Biology. Click on the image to see the photo and read the story of Upinraaq.)

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Sep 22 2015

Undrinkable in Pennsylvania

Undrinkable: acid mine drainage (photo by Kate St. John)

Acid mine drainage in well water (photo by Kate St. John)

Two weeks in Maine where the water is clean re-opened my eyes to something I take for granted in Pennsylvania: some places have orange water.

Perhaps you’ve been to this restroom at the Route 528 boat launch in Moraine State Park.  The restroom is clean but the water is not.  “Notice. Non-potable water. Not for Drinking.”   The metallic smell and orange-stained sinks and toilets make you wonder, “If the water’s that bad, should I use it to wash my hands?”

Coal mining contaminated the ground water here(*).  The orange water is acid mine drainage.  When the coal was removed it exposed pyrite which, when exposed to water, turns into sulfuric acid and iron.  Bad water from old surface and underground mines flows into streams and wells in Pennsylvania’s coal regions.

95% of the acid mine drainage in the U.S. is right in here in western PA, West Virginia, southwestern Virginia, and far western Maryland.  Visitors are shocked by the orange water we’ve come to take for granted.  Pennsylvania has more than 3,000 miles of these polluted streams, a problem too huge for individuals to solve.

The good news is that Pennsylvania stepped in with coal mining laws in the 1960’s that prevent new water contamination and PA Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) can require clean up when an old mine is reopened.  Slowly, the worst water is being treated and improved.

That’s how part of the Conemaugh River turned from orange to clear in Somerset County in 2013.  See before and after pictures and read about the impressive change here on the Allegheny Front.


(photo by Kate St. John)

(*) There are other ways to expose pyrite.  During construction of Interstate-99, excavation and rock-handling on Bald Eagle Ridge exposed pyrite that polluted nearby ground water and Buffalo Run, a high quality stream.  Though the pyrite was known to be there, construction plans ignored it.  It took two years and $83 million to fix the mistake.

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