Category Archives: Water and Shore

Close Encounters With Puffins

Puffin carrying fish to its nest burrow, June 2021, Skomer Island, Wales (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

14 June 2024

Six years ago when I traveled to Newfoundland to see Atlantic puffins (Fratercula arctica) we watched from a boat as puffins flew over us, dove next to us, and landed near their burrows at Witless Bay. I knew they were not large birds but I was not close enough to judge their size.

Carl Bovis filmed one at Skomer Island, Wales where there are over 42,000 nesting pairs from April to July: “To cheer everyone up, here’s a little Puffin going for a little walk.”

(embedded video by Carl Bovis on YouTube)

Imagine a puffin at your feet …

… or even closer.

embedded from RM Videos on YouTube

I wish I knew where this RM Video it was filmed!

Next on the Agenda: Molting

Canada goose molting in late June (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

13 June 2024

As soon as the breeding season is over adult birds molt to change out their old feathers. During this period many birds look ragged. We’ll see a few bald cardinals and blue jays who’ve molted all their head feathers at once. Peregrines will seem lazy while they molt in July and August. Canada geese won’t be able to fly.

This week at Duck Hollow I noticed that Canada geese are already molting. Their white rumps are showing, which indicates they’ve lost all their flight feathers.

Not-molting vs. molting appearance in Canada geese (photos from Wikimedia Commons)

At the end of this month Pitt’s peregrines will be molting too. We might see a peregrine feather on the falconcam.

Peregrine falcon tail feather (photo from Shutterstock in 2013)

Learn more about molting in this vintage article.

Have You Seen Any Female Mallards Lately?

Female mallard (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

14 May 2024

When I visit Duck Hollow I expect to see a lot of mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) but that hasn’t been the case lately. Over the winter their numbers were high — anywhere from 10 to 30 — but since late March the count has dropped to 4-7 and all but one is male. Where are the female mallards?

Mallards pair up in autumn in Pennsylvania but don’t begin nesting until mid-April or early May. The burden of nesting rests on the female. She chooses the site, makes the nest, lays the eggs, does all the incubation and is the only parent that cares for the chicks.

As she searches for a nest site she engages in Persistent Quacking. (Did you know that only females make the Quack sound?) Scientists believe she’s very vocal in order to attract nearby predators. If a predator shows up at a potential site, she knows that place is unsafe and moves on.

Birds of the World notes that “Urban Mallards use a variety of additional cover types, including evergreens, ornamental shrubs, vines, gardens, woodpiles, and artificial structures such as docks, boats and buildings.”

Female mallard nests in urban planter (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Having chosen a densely covered site on the ground near water, she scrapes a depression and pulls in nearby material for the nest. Then she lays one egg per day, as many as 13. She adds her own down or breast feathers to cover the eggs when she takes a break. You can see feathers surrounding her on the nest below.

Female mallard nests by a building (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

After 28 days the eggs hatch.

The first egg laid is first to hatch and others usually follow within 6–10 hours. Most of the eggs hatch during the day (as per Birds of the World).  The next morning their mother leads the chicks to water. It’s the safest place to be until they can fly.

Female mallard with chicks (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

This month the males at Duck Hollow are hanging around near the females but won’t take an active role. They look like bachelor groups but they aren’t bachelors.

Have you seen any female mallards lately?

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

Seen This Week: Ducks, a Swan and Leaf Out

Blue-winged teal, Moraine State Park, 27 March 2024 (photo by Charity Kheshgi)

30 March 2024

A Wednesday trip to Moraine State Park was cold and gray but quite worthwhile. We saw 300(!) red-breasted mergansers, many ring-necked ducks, blue-winged teal and a rare bird — a trumpeter swan. Charity Kheshgi’s photos show off the teal and swan.

Trumpeter swan, Moraine State Park, 27 March 2024 (photo by Charity Kheshgi)

Trumpeter swans (Cygnus buccinator) are “the heaviest living bird native to North America and the largest extant species of waterfowl.” They were nearly extinct in 1933 — only 70 remained in the wild — but several thousand were then found in Alaska. “Careful re-introductions by wildlife agencies and the Trumpeter Swan Society gradually restored the North American wild population to over 46,000 birds by 2010.” The trumpeter at Moraine is one of their descendants. (quotes from Wikipedia)

Spring is 20 days early in Pittsburgh this year. To prove it the yellow buckeye trees were in near-full-leaf on Thursday 28 March in Schenley Park.

Yellow buckeye leaves open and green, Schenley Park, 28 March 2024 (photo by Kate St. John)

They are 8 days later than the astoundingly early spring of March 2012. Click here to read about that year.

Comparing two springs, yellow buckeyes’ early leaf-out, Schenley, March 2012 and 2024 (photos by Kate St. John)

Early spring is the hungriest time of year for deer in Pennsylvania because they’ve already eaten all the easy-to-reach food. When the deer population is greater than the area’s carrying capacity they seek out food in unusual places. Thus I was amazed but not surprised to see a deer browsing the bushes next to our highrise at 5:30am. There is nothing to eat down there. There is nothing to eat anywhere near here.

A deer browses at a highrise in Pittsburgh, 5:30am 24 March 2024 (photo by Kate St. John)

Anhinga Shows How To Catch and Eat

Anhinga swallows a fish (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

29 March 2024

Unlike herons, anhingas spear their prey but this means they can’t open their beaks to swallow. This video shows what they do to solve the problem.

p.s. There’s a bird in Africa that looks like an anhinga (Anhinga anhinga). Closely related, the Anhinga rufa is the “African darter.”

Anhinga and African darter photos from Wikimedia Commons

No Amount of Money Can Stop The Ocean

Protective dune washed away at Salisbury Beach, MA as seen 10 March 2024 (photo embedded from Salisbury Beach Citizens For Change on Facebook)

26 March 2024

A decades-old problem became acute his winter. After high winds and a historic high tide damaged 20+ beachfront homes in January at Salisbury Beach, Massachusetts, the residents took up a collection to build a protective dune. It took five weeks, 14,000 tons of sand and more than half a million dollars to build the dune to protect the homes. Three days later it was gone.

Completion of the dune project in early March brought high hopes to Salisbury Beach.

Facebook post by Salisbury Citizens for Change after the dune was completed on 6 March 2024

But in the next three days a natural occurrence, an astronomical high tide, washed it all away.

video embedded from WCVB Channel 5, Boston

The temporary dune did it’s job — no homes were damaged in March — but the idea of spending half million dollars after every storm is out of the question. So the town is regrouping and weighing options.

You might be wondering: Why don’t they just build a seawall?

Seawalls just move the problem a few hundred feet down the beach so they are generally not allowed in Massachusetts (see special exception in yellow).

screenshot from Questions and Answers on Purchasing Coastal Real Estate in Massachusetts at

Also, a seawall will remove the beach entirely as shown in this diagram. If Salisbury Beach builds a seawall they will have no beach at all, just a wall with a sheer drop to the ocean. Understandably, the homeowners want a beach.

Diagram by USACE via Questions and Answers on Purchasing Coastal Real Estate in Massachusetts

The ocean takes land slowly … and then all at once. No amount of money can stop it.

(credits are in the captions)

Yesterday at Duck Hollow

Pied-billed grebe at Duck Hollow, 21 and 24 March 2024 (photo by Charity Kheshgi)

25 March 2024

Yesterday at Duck Hollow it was brilliantly sunny and *cold.* Though the temperature was 27°F the light wind made it feel like 17°F. Brrrr!

Charity Kheshgi and I scouted on Thursday and found a pied-billed grebe near shore who was still present in the same zone on Sunday. Alas, the seven horned grebes we saw on Thursday were long gone.

Despite the cold and (shall I say “stabbing”?) sunlight we had a good time and saw 32 species. Our checklist is here and printed below.

Duck Hollow outing, 24 March 2024 (photo by Kate St. John)

My next outing will be sooner than usual, just three weeks from now in Schenley Park on Sunday 14 April at 8:30am. Stay tuned.

Duck Hollow, Allegheny, Pennsylvania, US
Mar 24, 2024 8:30 AM – 10:00 AM

Canada Goose (Branta canadensis) 11
Wood Duck (Aix sponsa) 1 bird. Only one person saw it.
Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) 4
Hooded Merganser (Lophodytes cucullatus) 2 A very distant pair. The male’s crest was raised and he was flinging back his head in courtship display
Common Merganser (Mergus merganser) 1
Pied-billed Grebe (Podilymbus podiceps) 1
Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura) 4
Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus) 1
Herring Gull (Larus argentatus) 2
Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) 1
Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura) 8
Cooper’s Hawk (Accipiter cooperii) 1
Belted Kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon) 1
Downy Woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens) 2
Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus) 2
Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe) 1
Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata) 2
Carolina Chickadee (Poecile carolinensis) 3
Tufted Titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor) 2
Golden-crowned Kinglet (Regulus satrapa) 2
Carolina Wren (Thryothorus ludovicianus) 5
Northern Mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos) 2
American Robin (Turdus migratorius) 7
House Finch (Haemorhous mexicanus) 4
American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis) 7
Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis) 1
White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis) 1
Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) 7
Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) 17
Brown-headed Cowbird (Molothrus ater) 3
Common Grackle (Quiscalus quiscula) 1
Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) 16

(photos by Charity Kheshgi and Kate St. John)

How Do They Protect Their Babies?

African jacana (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

8 March 2024

How does a bird that nests on lily pads protect its tiny chicks when they are too small to jump from pad to pad?

African jacana chick (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

You would think that mother birds would be the protectors but in the social structure of African jacanas (Actophilornis africanus) the females can have multiple mates and never settle down, so it’s up to the fathers to build the nest, hatch the eggs and protect their kids.

Watch how this dad protects his young.

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.