Category Archives: Water and Shore

Eiders In Eclipse

Male common eider in eclipse plumage (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

28 September 2022

In September large, dark brown sea ducks swim in rafts off the coast of Maine. When they aren’t resting on the water they dive for mussels and crustaceans or walk up on the rocks to stand among the seaweed.

Common eiders on seaweed rocks (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

They vaguely resemble the lead field guide pictures for common eider (Somateria mollissima) but their current plumage is motley and variable. Right now common eiders are in eclipse.

Like many ducks and geese, eiders completely molt their tail and wing feathers after the breeding season, rendering them flightless for 3-4 weeks. Flight is restored in time for fall migration, but then they molt their body feathers. All told the process takes 4+ months.

To see eiders in all their glory watch them in breeding plumage from January to early June.

Male and female common eiders in breeding plumage (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

And you’ll see them fly.

Male common eider running to take off, April, East Sussex UK (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

(photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)

Lobster Off the Menu to Save Right Whales

Rescuers work to cut the lines from an entangled right whale, Feb 2014 (photo by Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, taken under NOAA permit 20556-01)

14 September 2022

A 6 September 2022 press release announced explosive news for the state of Maine: Lobster should be off the menu to save right whales.

Today the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program added more than a dozen fisheries, including the U.S. American lobster fishery, to its “Red List” of seafood because they currently pose risks to the survival of critically endangered North Atlantic right whales. Seafood Watch provides recommendations for seafood buyers based on sustainability criteria. … [Currently] more than 25,000 restaurants, stores, and distributors — including Whole Foods, Blue Apron, HelloFresh, Cheesecake Factory, Compass Group, and ARAMARK — have committed to using Seafood Watch ratings to guide purchasing and menu choices and to avoid red-listed seafood.

Press Release from Oceana.org

Mainers reacted angrily. Sadly this clash could have been avoided but instead it unfolded like a slow motion train wreck for at least 20 years. Here’s how we got to this point.

North American right whales (Eubalaena glacialis) are critically endangered with only about 340 remaining on Earth of which only 80 are female. The whales reproduce so slowly that more than one human-caused female death per year will send them to extinction.

Since at least 2001 NOAA Fisheries, which sets rules to protect fisheries and marine wildlife, has known that the second leading human cause of right whale deaths is from entanglement in vertical-hanging fishing gear including gillnets and the ropes of fish and lobster traps.

Illustration of gillnet (image from Wikimedia Commons)
Fishing ropes in Maine (photo by Susan Bell via Flickr Creative Commons license)

The ropes and lines become embedded in the skin. The gear snags more gear and prevents the whale from diving or surfacing completely. The whale dies.

To give you an idea of the threat to right whales read about the entangled mother “Snow Cone” and her calf last January of the coast of Florida.

Entangled right whale “Snow Cone” with her newborn calf, Jan 2022 (photo by Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, taken under NOAA permit 20556-01)

Whenever possible rescuers from the Coast Guard and Florida Fish and Wildlife sail out to cut the lines from entangled right whales (photos at top in 2014 and below in 2004) but a portion of rope usually remains with the whale because it’s embedded in a wound.

Right whale entangled in gear off the coast of Florida in 2004, Coast Guard to the rescue (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Meanwhile NOAA did not make rules for vertical-hanging gear to protect the whales, nor did the State of Maine. Eventually the procrastination caught up to NOAA. “In June, a court ruled that NOAA Fisheriesviolated both the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act by failing to quickly reduce impacts of lobster fishing gear on the North Atlantic right whale.” (The Guardian, 8 Sept 2022).

Seafood Watch’s lobster red list may prompt swift action as a shrimp red list did in 2015 for the Louisiana shrimp fishery.

I hope the impasse ends soon, though it doesn’t affect me personally. My husband is a Fish Frowner — no “fishy” smells at home — so I’ve rarely eaten seafood for 40+ years and, given the choice, I prefer shrimp to lobster. So glad the shrimp red list got solved.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons and via Flickr Creative Commons licensing; click on the captions to see the originals)

This! is Shorebird Migration

Semi-palmated sandpiper flock (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

19 August 2022

Check out this swirling flock of semi-palmated sandpipers on migration this week.

Is there a merlin out there?

(photo from Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption to see the original)

All The Avocets

Pied avocet (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

13 August 2022

Around the world there are four species of avocets, genus Recurvirostra.

The pied avocet (Recurvirostra avosetta), above, is native to half of Africa, central Asia to China, and parts of India and Southeast Asia.

The red-necked avocet (Recurvirostra novaehollandiae), below, is native to Australia.

Red-necked avocet, Australia (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The Andean avocet (Recurvirostra andina) is native to the Andes of South America.

And the American avocet (Recurvirostra americana) is native to North America, shown below in breeding and non-breeding plumage.

American avocet in April (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
American avocets in December (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Though they look a lot alike, none of them share a continent.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)

Red Knot Family Life

Red knot on northward migration in Sanibel, Florida (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

12 August 2022

Red knots (Calidris canutus) stop in the Lower 48 States on migration and for the winter.

Range map of red knot subspecies (map from Wikimedia Commons)

But they nest in the Arctic so we never see them raise their chicks.

Here’s a quick look at red knot family life.

Notice that there are bands on several of the birds. Red knots are often banded and studied because they are Near Threatened.

By the way, you may have seen a red knot in fall or winter but not recognized it. At that time of year they are not red!

Red knots in Ohio in September (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

(photos and map from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)

Scallops on the Move

Atlantic bay scallop shell (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

7 August 2022

Scallops travel by opening and closing their shells but the direction they move seems counterintuitive. They don’t lead with their hinges. Instead the open edge goes first as they use their eyes to guide themselves.

Scallops’ eyes look like bright beads at the shells’ front edge.

Slightly open live Atlantic bay scallop; eyes look like bright beads (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Watch scallops on the move in this Twitter movie.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)

Bird-Tag Tracks Beachcomber to London

Cata beach on Sanday, the Orkneys (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

27 June 2022

Solar-powered GPS tracking devices for birds can be so accurate that researchers can tell the bird’s location to within 100 meters. The devices keep transmitting even if they fall off, so when a beachcomber collected a discarded tag on a beach in Orkney it tracked him too.

Last winter researchers at University of Exeter attached GPS tracking devices to 32 Eurasian oystercatchers (Haematopus ostralegus) in County Dublin, Ireland to find out how the birds use the public lands. This spring one of the oystercatchers migrated to its breeding grounds on Sanday, Orkney Islands, Scotland. Its tag fell off on the beach on 7 April. The tracker kept transmitting.

Eurasian oystercatcher on the beach (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

At the end of May the tracker started moving again. It visited a campsite and a pizza shop, flew from Edinburgh to Heathrow and came to rest on a residential street in Ealing, London. Stuart Bearhop, Professor of Animal Ecology at the University of Exeter’s Centre for Ecology & Conservation, tweeted this plea for the tag’s return.

“The tags are worth around £1,000 each, so pretty pricey!” said PhD student Steph Trapp who is carrying out the research. “Any we can get back will be really valuable for increasing our sample size and the amount of data we can collect.” 

ITV news: London home unwittingly tracked by GPS bird tag left on remote Orkney beach

News spread quickly. A BBC Radio Five Live listener volunteered to leaflet the Ealing neighborhood. The beachcomber learned what he had collected and was happy to return the tag. Read how the Mystery of Orkney bird tag tracked to London is solved.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)

Fancy Faces

Male anhinga in breeding plumage (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

5 May 2022

Some birds change their feathers for the breeding season. Others change the color of their skin.

In the non-breeding season, June to December, the bare skin on anhingas’ (Anhinga anhinga) faces is an unremarkable yellowish-brown that blends with their plumage and beaks.

Female anhinga in non-breeding plumage (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

But beginning in January their bodies transition to breeding plumage and their faces turn bright turquoise. Even the normally dull, brown-necked females have resplendent blue-green around their eyes.

Watch their fancy faces in this video from South Carolina.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)

p.s. If you thought you saw this post on Wednesday morning and then it disappeared, you’re right. It was supposed to appear today.

This Year’s Bird Flu: How to Protect Birds

Domestic rooster (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

11 April 2022

Avian influenza, also called bird flu, is in the news lately because a highly contagious strain has made it to North America from Eurasia. Though not dangerous to humans, this year’s strain is easily caught by some bird species, most notably chickens. Here’s what it is and what we can do to protect birds.

What is this virus? As USDA explains, “Avian influenza is caused by an influenza type A virus which can infect poultry (such as chickens, turkeys, pheasants, quail, domestic ducks, geese, and guinea fowl) and wild birds (especially waterfowl).” Various strains are always in the wild but the low pathogenicity versions do not cause illness in wild birds or chickens. Every few years, however, a highly pathogenic (HPAI) strain surfaces that is extremely infectious, fatal to chickens, and rapidly spreads in domestic poultry.

This year’s HPAI strain has already devastated many poultry farms.

Which birds have died? USDA is tracking the virus and reports that millions of commercially raised chickens and turkeys have already died this year. As of 7 April 2022 the total death count was more than 24.2 million, the vast majority of which — more than 16 million — were Commercial Layer Chickens. That’s why the price of eggs has gone up. (See USDA commercial and backyard flock statistics here.)

If you are a poultry farmer, have backyard chickens, or have captive birds in a zoo or rehab facility you’ll want to heed USDA’s advice to protect your birds. Accordingly the Pittsburgh Zoo, the National Aviary, and HARP’s wild bird rehab facility in Verona are taking precautions. (See this Post-Gazette article.)

Should we worry about wild birds? Not so much. Wild birds maintain their own social distancing whereas domestic poultry live in crowded conditions on factory farms.

In addition, avian flu is primarily caught by ducks, geese, swans, chickens, wild turkeys, pheasants and quail. Some raptors catch it, though in low numbers. Songbirds are at low risk.

As of 7 April 2022, USDA testing of dead wild birds has found 637 cases in the U.S. 88% were water-related birds, notably mallards and snow geese. 11% were raptors. The highest raptor death toll was among black vultures who roost communally. (See USDA wild bird statistics here.)

Notice the order of magnitude here: 24.2 million poultry deaths versus 637 wild bird deaths.

Interestingly, the species most susceptible to avian influenza are closely related and stand alone in the the phylogenomic supertree below (pale green branch at bottom right) while those least susceptible are least related to ducks and chickens.

Phylogenomic supertree of birds, a clockwise spiral from oldest to newest (image from MDPI, July 2019)

Should you stop feeding wild birds? Audubon Society of Western PA says there is no need to stop feeding wild birds but as always you should clean your feeders every week. Here’s ASWP’s advice from their website.

Bird flu advice from Audubon Society of Western PA, April 2022

And finally, here are two quotes from the New York Times:

Nearly all the nine billion chickens raised and slaughtered in the United States each year can trace their lineage to a handful of breeds that have been manipulated to favor fast growth and plump breasts. The birds are also exceptionally vulnerable to outbreaks of disease. “They all have the same immune system, or lack of an immune system, so once a virus gets inside a barn, it’s going to spread like wildfire,” said Dr. Hansen, the public health veterinarian.

Andrew deCoriolis, the executive director of Farm Forward says: “Instead of asking how factory farms can prevent infections that originate in the environment, which is how they frame it now, we should be asking how they can prevent infections that originate on factory farms,” he said. “If we keep raising more and more animals in these conditions, we should expect the exact outcome we’re getting because that’s how the system is set up.”

New York Times: Avian Flu Spread in the U.S. Worries Poultry Industry, Feb 24, 2022

(photo from Wikimedia Commons, phlyogenomic supertree from MDPI, wild bird advice from ASWP; click on the captions to see the originals)

The Chase!

Bald eagle in pursuit (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

29 March 2022

Les Leighton had his camera set up at Canada’s Vancouver harbor when a drama played out in front of him. A gull zipped by with both a bald eagle and peregrine falcon pursuing it in flight. What was it about that gull that attracted two predators at the same time?

Watch the chase and notice the difference between the eagle’s and peregrine’s hunting techniques. Why did both of them give up?

The gull had a good day after all.

(video by Les Leighton “wetvideocamera” in Vancouver, BC, Canada)