Archive for the 'Water and Shore' Category

Feb 09 2016

Yes, The Sea Is Rising

Published by under Water and Shore

Flooding at Annapolis city dock (photo by Amy McGovern)

The sea floods Annapolis city dock, 2012 (photo by Amy McGovern)

Last September I visited Annapolis, Maryland and walked past these memorial statues on dry ground.  Little did I know this scene is their fate in the future.

In 1950 Rachel Carson wrote in The Sea Around Us:

We live in an age of rising seas. All along the coasts of the United States a continuing rise of sea level has been perceptible on the tide gauges of the Coast and Geodetic Survey since 1930.

66 years later the ocean has risen enough to create frequent, even daily, challenges for coastal communities.  Nuisance floods that close streets and parks are the harbinger of things to come.

NOAA’s diagram shows why these floods have become more common.  (Click on the image to see the larger diagram.)

Excerpt from Nuisance Flooding Diagram. Click on this to see the original (diagram from NOAA)

Excerpt from Nuisance Flooding Diagram. Click on this image to see the original diagram from NOAA

In 1950, the elevation between the highest high tide and street level was many feet deep and provided headroom for a storm surge.  By 2010, the sea had risen so much that the headroom was gone.  In some places it takes only a slightly higher tide to flood the street.  To make matters worse, climate change is accelerating the rise as heat expands the water and massive ice sheets melt into the sea.

Some places are especially threatened.  Chesapeake Bay is rising faster than the open coast.  At Annapolis, Maryland the water is rising 3.51mm/year with just 0.29 meters of headroom.  In only 45 years they can expect daily floods at the city dock, shown above.  Baltimore is not far behind.

With the sea already engulfing islands and lapping at their toes, Maryland is assessing coastal areas and making plans.  As Baltimore Magazine writes, “The question really isn’t what will be lost anymore, but what we will decide to save.”

Sadly, Florida and North Carolina both experience frequent flooding but have forbidden state employees from talking about it. (Florida last year and North Carolina in 2012).  They’re losing precious time.

Yes, the sea is rising.  Time and tide wait for no man.


(photo of flooding at Annapolis city dock at the Kunta Kinte-Alex Haley Memorial, by Amy McGovern @ForsakenFotos, Creative Commons license via Flickr)

p.s. Read more about Maryland’s wet future and the expected loss of Blackwater NWR and Assateague Island in “The Sea Also Rises” in Baltimore Magazine. Click here for photos of nuisance flooding in Miami, Florida and North Carolina.

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Feb 05 2016

The Reddish Egret’s Water Ballet

February is the month when birds are at a low ebb in Pittsburgh and birders want to get out of town.  Many of us think of Florida.

Whether or not you’re heading south you’ll enjoy this video of heron life at Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge.  Filmed and narrated by Jo Alwood, it shows the reddish egret at his best — dancing his water ballet.


(YouTube video by Jo Alwood. Click here for her YouTube channel)

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Jan 26 2016

Death By Warm Water

Common Murres, Peruvian Boobies (photos from Wikimedia Commons)

Common Murres, Peruvian Boobies (photos from Wikimedia Commons)

These two species — common murres and Peruvian boobies — have something in common. Both have starved in record numbers in the Pacific Ocean recently.

Common murres (Uria aalge) have a circumpolar range in the North Atlantic and North Pacific while Peruvian boobies (Sula variegata) are native to the west coast of South America yet both seabirds are affected by the same problem: warm seawater.

In the southern Pacific, the failed trade winds of El Niño have ceased the upwelling of cool undercurrents and raised the sea surface temperature near South America.  A similar lack of wind has caused three warm Blobs to persist in the Northern Pacific.  Sea surface temperatures in these regions are running 2oF to 7oF warmer.  That small rise doesn’t sound like much but it’s enough to scare off cold water fish and even generate toxic algae blooms.  There’s a drop in nutrients, a drop in fish life, and that means starvation for seabirds.

Three "blobs" of warm surface water in the Northern Pacific, 1 Sept 2014 (image from NOAA via Wikimedia Commons)

Three “blobs” of warm surface water in the Northern Pacific, 1 Sept 2014 (image from NOAA via Wikimedia Commons)

In June 2014 Peruvian boobies were the first wildlife indication of a strong El Niño when thousands of dead and starving boobies washed ashore on the coasts of Peru and Chile.  Their cold water fishery had failed.  Some were so desperate they flew way out of range to the Galápagos and Panama.

That winter, November 2014 to January 2015, Cassin’s auklets (Ptychoramphus aleuticus) became a warm water casualty on the U.S. West Coast.  In their case the original Blob was to blame.

And now 100,000 dead common murres have washed ashore on the coast of Alaska, victims of warm water in the Gulf of Alaska.

Where will it end?  The El Niño may weaken this spring but who knows when The Blobs will change?

For cold-water sea life, it’s death by warm water.


(photos from Wikimedia Commons. Click on these links to see the original photos of common murres and Peruvian boobies)

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Dec 28 2015

In The Beavers’ County

Chopped! Raccoon Creek State Park, Dec 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

Chopped! at the Wetlands Trail, Raccoon Creek State Park, Dec 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

This month I hiked the Wetlands Trail at Raccoon Creek State Park in Beaver County where I found many small trees chopped down next to Traverse Creek lake.  Across the water, cut treetops and shrubs lay in a messy half-submerged brush pile against the opposite shore.

The stumps don’t show the straight-edge cut of human activity.  If you look closely you see tooth marks.  Big incisors were at work.


The remains of a stand of alders, Raccoon Creek State Park, Dec 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

The remains of alders, Raccoon Creek State Park, Dec 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

Beavers (Castor canadensis) are obviously here now, but that wasn’t always the case.

When Beaver County was named for the Beaver River in 1800, their namesake was already hard to find.  The North American beaver population was 100 to 400 million before Europeans arrived to trap them but 300 years of over-hunting took its toll.  According to the PA Game Commission, “the last few beavers known to naturally exist in Pennsylvania were killed in Elk, Cameron, and Centre counties between 1850 and 1865.”

Game laws and reintroduction programs have brought beavers back to 10% of their former population. Today there are 10 to 15 million beavers in North America.

In Pennsylvania one indication of the beavers’ success is the number of complaints they generate, mostly about flooding including plugged culverts and flooded roads.  A lot of complaints often means there are a lot of beavers.

Where were the most complaints in 2008 in southwestern Pennsylvania?

In Beaver County.


(photos by Kate St. John)

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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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