Category Archives: Water and Shore

Right Now You Can Kayak in Death Valley

Kayaking on Lake Manly in Death Valley (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

26 February 2024

In case you missed it …

During the Ice Age, the Pleistocene 2.58 million to 11,700 years ago, there was a lake 600 feet deep in Death Valley where Badwater Basin stands today. Named Lake Manly(*) by geologists, it disappeared 10,000 years ago.

Badwater Basin is 282 feet below sea level so any water that reaches it can only evaporate yet the evaporation rate is so high that the basin is a salt pan. Occasionally — decades apart — there’s enough rain to make a shallow lake.

Badwater Basin in normal times, Dec 2018 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

In the past six months California has had two unusual rain events. On 20 August 2023 Hurricane Hilary dumped 2.2 inches and caused Lake Manly to re-form in place. (The deluge also closed the Death Valley National Park for two months.) Amazingly the lake persisted through the winter.

Lake Manly, Death Valley, December 2023 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

And then the Atmospheric River event of 4-7 February dumped 1.5 more inches of rain. Lake Manly grew to a depth of 1 to 2 feet so in mid-February the National Park Service opened it to kayaking.

video embedded from Associated Press on YouTube

The last time the lake formed, in 2005, it lasted only about a week. This time NPS estimates it’ll be gone — or at least too shallow for kayaks — by April.

So if you want to kayak in Death Valley, get out there now before Badwater Basin returns to normal.

Lake Manly typically looks like this in Badwater Basin, (photo from 2010 at Wikimedia Commons)

Read more here at ABC News: An ancient lake has reemerged at Death Valley National Park.

p.s. From Wikipedia: “The lake was named in honor of William Lewis Manly, who rescued immigrants from Death Valley in 1849.”

Seen This Week: Sky and Water

Sun pillar at sunrise, 11 January 2024, Pittsburgh (photo by Kate St. John)

13 January 2024

This week featured spectacular sun effects and high water.

On 11 January I captured this photo of a sun pillar at sunrise while Dave DiCello got an even better shot from the West End Bridge.

Friday’s sunrise was spectacular in a different way.

Spectacular sunrise on 12 January 2024, Pittsburgh (photo by Kate St. John)

Tuesday 9 January produced the classic Gleam at Sunset in which a day of thick cloud cover ended with a gap on the western horizon and 30 minutes of sun. Here’s what the gap looked like just after sunset from the roof deck of my building.

The Gleam at Sunset looking west, 9 January 2024, Pittsburgh (photo by Kate St. John)

Twenty minutes earlier I had viewed the gleam from below when it lit the tops of trees and buildings … like this.

The Gleam at Sunset lights a treetop, 9 January 2024, Pittsburgh (photo by Kate St. John)

Meanwhile we’re only 13 days into January and have already had 2.24 inches of precipitation — 1.06 inches above normal for the month. All that water ends up in the rivers so it’s no wonder that the Monongahela River was running high at Duck Hollow on 11 January.

Some trees are up to their ankles in water along the Monongahela River at Duck Hollow, 11 January 2024 (photo by Kate St. John)
High water on the Monongahela River at Duck Hollow, 11 January 2024 (photo by Kate St. John)

It was raining when I woke up this morning.

Will Pittsburgh Get Cold Enough for Rare Gulls Next Week?

Watching gulls at the Point, Pittsburgh, PA Jan 31, 2015 (photo by Tim Vechter)
Watching gulls at the Point, Pittsburgh, PA, 31 Jan 2015 (photo by Tim Vechter)

11 January 2024

Only a few days ago I was lamenting that we weren’t having a snowy winter, neither snow nor snowy owls. Well, be careful what you ask for! A few days of bitter cold are coming to Pittsburgh next week. If Lake Erie freezes, arctic gulls will fly south to find open water on the rivers. The photo above shows some cold and happy birders looking at rare gulls at the Point in January 2015.

So what are the chances this will happen next week?

As of this morning, the forecasted low temperature for dawn on Wednesday 17 January is 9°F. This map for next Monday sure looks like we’re in a “polar vortex.” Cold, right?

Low temperature forecast for Monday 15 January 2024 as of 11 Jan ( from the NWS)

But will it be cold long enough to freeze Lake Erie and send the gulls south? Probably not. The eastern Great Lakes ice map as of yesterday, 10 Jan 2024, shows nearly 100% open water (white).

Eastern Great Lakes Ice Chart as of 10 Jan 2024 (map from North American Ice Service)

There’s not even a hint of ice (blue) on most of Lake Erie and the Great Lakes ice-to-date graph for winter 2023-24 indicates that ice is at a near record low. There’s a lot of cooling off to do before the lakes will freeze.

So next week I’ll have to wear my Minnesota gear to go outdoors but it’s unlikely there will be any unusual birds out there. Will I want to go out in 9°F anyway? I’ll have to wait and see.

(credits are in the cations)

The Sea of Stars

Image embedded from photo by Mohamed Ahsan

29 December 2023

Yesterday I wrote about seeing stars in the sky. Today we’ll see stars in the sea in this video at Vaadhoo Island, Maldives.

video embedded from Wonder World on YouTube

You don’t have to travel as far as the Maldives to see bioluminescent waves but it is not a common phenomena and few places are as reliable as this one.

Read more about the Sea of Stars at

(credits are in the captions)

Wildlife in the Borderlands

Ringtail resting on a rock, Phoenix, AZ (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

14 December 2023

Watering holes are places of abundant wildlife in Arizona’s Sonoran desert as captured on this trail cam in the borderlands. One of the night visitors is a ringtail (Bassariscus astutus), a member of the raccoon family, shown above. (There are two embedded videos below; please wait for them to refresh.)

When water crosses political boundaries animals cross, too, back and forth from Arizona to Mexico. But now the Border Wall makes most of that impossible.

This vintage article explains.

UPDATE on 15 Dec: Here’s the Border Wall.

Chinstrap Penguins Nap For 4 Seconds … 10,000 Times a Day

Three chinstrap penguins, Orne Islands (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

4 December 2023

Lots of animals don’t sleep for long periods like we do but a new study has found a polar opposite in Antarctica (pun intended) where chinstrap penguins (Pygoscelis antarcticus) take 10,000 4-second naps each day during the breeding season. In this way they accrue 11 hours of daily sleep.

Adult chinstrap penguin with two chicks (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

For us, the micronaps would be a form of sleep torture since we cannot enter restorative deep sleep in such a short time. But the chinstrap penguins do.

Researchers led by Won Young Lee, a behavioral ecologist at the Korea Polar Research Institute, captured 14 penguins at the King Georges Island breeding colony and fitted them with data loggers to measure brain activity and accelerometers to record muscle movements and body positions. They also set up cameras to watch for closing eyes and drooping heads.

Partial range map of chinstrap penguin (map from Wikimedia Commons)

Brain waves showed the penguins experience slow wave (deep) sleep during those micro-naps. They nap while incubating or guarding their chicks and even while floating on the ocean.

Chinstrap penguin swimming at Deception Island (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

So now I’m looking at group photos of chinstrap penguins and, sure enough, in every photo some of the adults are sleeping. They’re getting their beauty rest 4 seconds at a time.

Read more in Science Magazine: This Antarctic penguin sleeps 11 hours a day—a few seconds at a time.

African Penguins Use Dots to Recognize Mates

African penguins at Boulders Beach, South Africa (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

26 November 2023

We humans recognize each other by face and can sometimes recognize individuals in other species as well. For instance, African penguins (Spheniscus demersus) have unique patterns of dots on their chests that zookeepers use to tell them apart. Psychologist Luigi Baciadonna wondered if the dots functioned the same way for the penguins themselves so he ran an experiment at Zoomarine Italia in Rome.

African penguins walking down a ramp at Boulders Beach, South Africa (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

In the experiment individual penguins were herded into a small corral with life-size portraits of two group members, at least one of which was his/her mate. African penguins like to hang out near their mates so if the visiting bird stared at the mate’s portrait and gravitated toward it, he/she was recognizing the mate. The experiment had three variations:

Test #1: Accurate photos: one of the mate, one of another member of the colony. Result: In this video of Test#1 a male penguin, Gerry, is presented with an image of his partner, Fiorella, on the left and one of group member Chicco on the right. Notice what he does.

(video from Science Direct: African penguins utilize their ventral dot patterns for individual recognition)

Test 2: Two photos of the mate: one accurate, one with dots digitally removed. Result: The birds spent more time looking at the mate photo with dots.

Test 3: Dots digitally removed from both photos: mate and another member of the group. Result: The birds no longer seemed to recognize their mate. There was no difference in how long they gazed at the mysteriously spotless portraits.

Quiz! Now that I know African penguins have unique chest dots I discovered that the penguin pictured below is also in a photo above. Which one is he?

African penguin at Boulders Beach, South Africa (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Visit the National Aviary in Pittsburgh to check out the African penguins’ dotted chests at Penguin Point.

Penguin Point exhibit at the National Aviary in Pittsburgh (photo from the National Aviary)

Read more about the study at Science Direct: African penguins utilize their ventral dot patterns for individual recognition

(credits are in the captions)

Can You Spot the Peregrine?

Stirring up the pigeons in Cleveland, 2017 (photo by Chad+Chris Saladin)

17 November 2023

Can you spot the peregrine?

When peregrines are hungry, the birds they’d like to eat flock tightly and move as fast as they can. The denser the flock the harder it is for the peregrine to pick out a solo bird to catch for dinner.

In the photo above pigeons are flying crosswise to avoid an oncoming peregrine. Can you spot the peregrine in the picture?

Dunlin (Calidris alpina) are masters of tight flocking and evasive maneuvers when threatened from the air. In the video below by Pacificnorthwestkate (@pnwkate) the dunlin move like a murmuration of starlings as a peregrine harasses them. Can you spot the peregrine?

embedded video by Pacificnorthwestkate on YouTube

Notice how the dunlin flock winks off and on in the video, dark at one moment then so white they disappear. In winter plumage dunlin have brown-gray backs and white bellies. The flock changes color as the birds turn in unison in the air.

Dunlin in winter plumage (photo from Wikimedia Common)

Last month I wrote about peregrines’ winter strategy for catching dunlin: Peregrines Are Just Tiring Them Out.

(credits are in the captions)

White Stork Transmitter Goes Roaming in Sudan

White stork flock in Africa (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

20 October 2023

Most people who find discarded bird tracking technology don’t know what they’re looking at and even when they do they don’t usually repurpose it. But every once in a while a transmitter goes roaming.

White storks (Ciconia ciconia) that breed in Poland migrate to eastern and southern Africa for the winter. For some, their final destination is the Blue Nile River valley, circled in yellow on the map below.

White stork migration paths (map from Wikimedia Commons) Blue Nile Valley in Sudan is circled in yellow

In April 2017 a white stork in Poland, nicknamed Kajtka, was tagged with a transmitter containing a mobile SIM card.

SIM card T–Mobile Poland (image from Wikimedia Commons)

That autumn she flew to the Blue Nile River valley in Sudan where she became mysteriously inactive. Eventually she stopped moving altogether and had either died or the transmitter fell off. Researchers couldn’t figure out what happened until they got the phone bill.

Questions were raised when Kajtka lingered in the area for more than eight weeks, only roaming around 25 km [15 miles] in various directions.

In 2018, the mystery was solved when EcoLogic Group received a phone bill for 10,000 Polish zloty, the equivalent of £2,064 [$2,500]. Someone had picked up the tracker in Sudan and taken the opportunity to make 20 hours of phone calls using the SIM card.

White Stork transmitter racks up massive phone bill

Fortunately for cash-starved bird research this sort of episode is rare.

If Kajtka had survived she would have joined her fellow white storks moving north in March, perhaps with a stopover in the Hula Valley shown below. Gorgeous!

video from The Wildlife Channel on YouTube

(credits are in the captions)

They Hear the Sound of Distant Waves

Wandering albatross at the Tasman Sea (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

17 October 2023

Like elephants, albatrosses can hear low frequency sounds below our range of hearing, a skill that’s very useful for their lifestyle.

Wandering albatrosses (Diomedea exulans) spend their lives making incredibly long journeys over the ocean. They are known to circumnavigate the Southern Ocean three times in one year, a distance of more than 75,000 miles (120,000 km).

Range map of wandering albatross (map from Wikimedia Commons)

To do this with the least amount of effort, they have the longest wingspan of any living bird — 8 to 12 feet (2.5 to 3.66m) — and use the wind to glide as much as possible.

The best gliding happens at updrafts over the water and the best updrafts are caused by large waves. So how do wandering albatrosses find those large waves? They hear them from very far away, possibly 1,000 miles.

According to Science Magazine, “Big waves produce a very low frequency sound, below 20 hertz, that can travel thousands of kilometers, particularly when they collide with long distance swells, such as when storms develop.”

Would an albatross approach or avoid these waves in the Southern Ocean?

video from Monthly Fails on YouTube

To figure out how the birds choose where to go, Samantha Patrick of University of Liverpool and her team tagged 89 albatrosses with GPS trackers at their breeding grounds on Crozet Island near Antarctica. When the birds returned a year later to breed again, researchers retrieved the tags and analyzed the data.

Geophysicists on the team combined the biologger recordings with infrasound monitoring data from Kerguelen Island in the Southern Ocean to build “soundscape” maps on the birds’ journeys. …

During their long-distance flights, the birds tended to change course whenever they encountered a loud infrasound, the team reports. The infrasounds often indicate wave turbulence, even storms—though it’s not yet clear how the birds make use of this information. The infrasound clearly impacted the birds’ behavior, although the scientists couldn’t identify a clear pattern of whether they avoided or aimed for these low frequencies.

Science Magazine: ‘Voice of the sea’ may help albatrosses catch the perfect wind

We don’t know yet if they avoid or approach turbulent areas but we know they hear them. More study needed!

Turbulent sea (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Read more in Science Magazine: ‘Voice of the sea’ may help albatrosses catch the perfect wind.

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