Category Archives: Water and Shore

Seaside Nestcams To Watch This Winter

Here are two seaside bird cams to watch while we wait for Pittsburgh’s eagles and peregrines to lay eggs in the coming months.

Above, a northern royal albatross (Diomedea sanfordi) couple nests on camera at Taiaroa Head Nature Reserve in New Zealand. The pair have lots of combined experience — he’s 21 years old, she’s 25 — so they know their egg, laid in Nov 2019, is due to hatch at the end of this month (January 2020).

Since New Zealand is 18 hours ahead of Pittsburgh it’s best to watch from noon to midnight Eastern Time if you want to see the birds in daylight. This is a perfect schedule if want to kickback at the end of the day. See the northern royal albatrosses at their nest on Cornell Lab’s Royal Albatross bird cam.

Just one time zone ahead of Pittsburgh, the female Bermuda cahow (Pterodroma cahow) rejoined her mate at their nest on Nonesuch Island, Bermuda on 10 January 2020. Almost immediately she laid her single egg. Watch their reunion in this short video.

Bermuda cahows come to and fro at night so Cornell Lab’s Bermuda Petrels bird cam is best to watch at the end of the day .

In late February or early March the cahow’s egg is due to hatch. By then the Hays bald eagles will have eggs.

(videos from Cornell Lab bird cams)

In The End, The Sea Will Win

American oystercatcher in flight, New Jersey (photo by Tony Bruno)

Sunday, 12 January 2020

Tomorrow the New Jersey legislature will consider a bill that will either protect or destroy 15 acres of state park land where a neighboring golf course wants to build 3 golf holes. The showdown between those who love public parks and nature versus extremely rich developers is well described in the New York Times: Golf Club for the 1 Percent Wants to Seize a Migratory Bird Habitat.

I don’t know how the fight will play out in human terms but I’m sure of one thing. In the end the sea will win.

Caven Point Natural Area is a sandy peninsula on the Hudson River in Jersey City, NJ, a migratory bird stopover and nesting site so sensitive that the area is closed April through September to leave the birds in peace. American oystercatchers, shown above, are some of the cool birds you can see there.

Though it’s part of Liberty State Park, Caven Point Natural Area (yellow circle) is not contiguous to it.

Map of Liberty State Park (map from New Jersey State Parks)

Its adjacent neighbor is the very exclusive Liberty National Golf Club whose seawall borders the footpath to the site.

Hudson River Waterfront Walkway to Caven Point. Liberty National Golf Club seawall is on the right (photo by Bill Benson via Flickr Creative Commons license)

Liberty National Golf Club is one of the most exclusive golf courses in the US with an initiation fee of nearly half a million dollars. The course has breathtaking views of the Manhattan skyline which you may have seen on television last August when Liberty National hosted the PGA TOUR’s FedEx Cup Playoffs from August 6–11, 2019. This photo, uploaded by Redi-Rock International in 2015, gives you an idea of the view.

Scene from Liberty National Golf Club (photo by Redi-Rock International via Flickr Creative Commons license)

To us humans, Nature is the backdrop to the protests, letter writing, legislation and legal battles, but Nature will be the foreground in the years ahead. Climate change and sea level rise will engulf Caven Point and part of the existing golf course. It is already happening.

This map of the Caven Point area from NOAA’s Sea Level Rise Viewer shows red where the highest high tides inundate the land today. This doesn’t include the 5-foot wall of water that washed over the area during Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

Caven Point sea level at high high tide (map from NOAA Sea Level Rise Viewer)

If the ocean rises 3 feet, as predicted for this century, Caven Point will become an island, ponds on the existing golf course will overflow (green) and the end of Liberty National’s parking lot near the clubhouse will be underwater every day (green).

Inundation from 3-foot sea level rise (map from NOAA Sea Level Rise Viewer)

Even if it doesn’t rise three feet very soon …

“Nobody’s debating that sea-level rise is happening. It’s back to how much, how fast,” Helen Amanda Fricker, a glaciologist at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, told me. Even the most optimistic scientists have recently increased their low-end estimates, she said.

from The Atlantic, 4 January 2019

In the end, the sea will win. In the meantime, save the land for the birds.

UPDATE on 14 JAN 2020: The New Jersey legislature failed to act on the bill & it was the last day of the legislative session so the bill is dead unless reintroduced in the next session. See Despite gaining senate support, Liberty State Park Protection Act dead for now.

(photo of American oystercatcher by Tony Bruno. Caven Point walkway by Bill Benson on Flickr, Liberty National Golf Course by Redi-Rock International on Flickr, maps from New Jersey State Parks and NOAA Sea Level Viewer; click on the captions to see the originals)

Ball Ice On The Beach

Ice balls at Stroomi Beach, Tallinn, Estonia, Dec 2014 (photo form Wikimedia Commons)

On rare occasions, winter weather and the sea conspire to make ice balls that stack on the beach when they roll ashore. This ball ice, about the size of softballs, covered Stroomi Beach at the Baltic Sea in Estonia in December 2014.

Ball ice is so rare that it made the news last month in Alaska and Finland. Similar to hail, it forms in bays where the water is relatively calm and just cold enough to make ice. A “seed” of ice or grit starts the process, then wind and gentle waves keep turning the floating ball as it grows.

Sometimes two cool things happen at once. In this tweet from NWS APRFC, a field of ice balls in Alaska acquired pointy hats when snow or rime accumulated on one side.

The prettiest ball ice by far were the thousands of white balls covering a beach on Hailuoto Island, Finland in early November. Ranging in size from golf balls to soccer balls, they made international news in photos by Risto Matilla. Island resident Ritva Rundgren filmed them for her Mrs. Santa Claus Finland blog.

Read more about Finland’s ice eggs and see a video of ice balls at Lake Michigan in this article from ScienceAlert.

(photo from Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption to see the original. Video embedded from Mrs. Santa Claus Finland)

Luring Fish With His Cape

Black heron at Marievale Nature Reserve, South Africa (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

A black dome of feathers stands hunched in a marsh in Africa.

Odd as he looks, he’s ignored by the cattle egrets.

Black heron near cattle egrets at Marievale Nature Reserve, South Africa (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

When he raises his head you can see he’s a black heron (Egretta ardesiaca).

Black heron raises his head at Marievale Nature Reserve, South Africa (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

His cape lures the fish to the darkened water and cuts the glare so he can see below. This behavior is called canopy feeding.

Watch him in action in the tweet below.

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

What Do Diving Ducks Hear Underwater?

  • Long-tailed duck (photo by Steve Gosser)

Last summer a University of Delaware study found out what diving ducks can hear underwater. Why is this important? If we know what ducks can hear, we can save their lives.

Long-tailed ducks, common eiders and surf scoters eat crustaceans and mollusks that they pull from the ocean floor. Their populations are in steep decline, in part because hundreds of thousands of them die as bycatch in gillnets.

The diagram below shows a gillnet used for cod fishing in Newfoundland. Though no one fishes for cod anymore, gillnets are still used for other fish where ducks are diving.

Diagram of cod gillnet in Newfoundland, 1882 (image from Wikimedia Commons)
Drawing in the gillnet near Rakovníka (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Federal fishing laws solved the bycatch problem for dolphins and whales by requiring pingers to warn the mammals away. Fish can’t hear the pingers but dolphins can. Is there a sound that will work for ducks?

University of Delaware grad student Kate McGrew tested long-tailed ducks, common eiders and surf scoters and found out they can hear 1-3 kHz underwater.

Long-tailed ducks can hear 1 to 3 kHz (screenshot from NYTimes ScienceTake video)

Fish cannot hear above 2 kHz so there’s hope for the ducks.

This New York Times ScienceTake video shows how McGew trained the ducks.

Read more in this University of Delaware article: What do ducks hear?

(photos by Steve Gosser and Cris Hamilton)

This Seabird Relies on Algae

Dovekie at Spitzbergen, Svalbard (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Though this arctic seabird doesn’t eat algae it will starve if marine algae is not abundant. On Throw Back Thursday we’ll learn more with the help of two vintage articles.

About the size of a starling, the dovekie or little auk (Alle alle) breeds on islands in the high arctic including Greenland, Svalbard, and Franz Josef Land. Its population of 16-82 million birds spends the winter in the North Atlantic, occasionally as far south as Cape Hatteras. Learn more with a video in this article: Birds On Ice: Dovekie.

Dovekies eat small invertebrates and fish but the majority of their diet is made up of copepods. A single dovekie eats 60,000 of them per day. Quadrillions(*) fall prey to dovekies during the breeding season. So … What the heck is a copepod?

Copepod (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Here’s where the algae comes in.

Copepods eat microscopic marine algae called phytoplankton that contain chlorophyll and need sunlight to live and grow. In the high arctic, the summer sun makes phytoplankton bloom, as seen below in the Barents Sea. It takes quadrillions phytoplankton to feed billions of copepods to feed the dovekies.

Phytoplankton bloom in the Barents Sea (photo by NASA from Wikimedia Commons)

Phytoplankton is really tiny, so small that you need an electron microscope to see it. The Barents Sea bloom above is thought to be Emiliana huxleyi, shown below. The disks are made of calcium carbonate which is also the primary component of seashells. The calcium in phytoplankton makes its way up the food chain.

Phytoplankton Emiliana huxleyi, magnified (image from Wikimedia Commons)

Thus if phytoplankton is scarce, copepods are scarce and the dovekies starve. That’s how a seabird relies on algae.

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

(*) How many copepods? Here’s a back of the napkin calculation: Suppose there are 50 million dovekies, each one eating 60,000 copepods/day. Dovekies live in their breeding range for four to six months, so there have to be quadrillions of copepods available during that period. Dovekies aren’t the only animal that eats copepods. The numbers are staggering! (My original calculation had a power-of-10 problem. See Tom Brown’s correction.)

Schenley Park Helps Stop The Flood

These signs announcing the closure of Schenley Park’s Bridle Trail and some tree removals are actually good news. Here’s why.

Pittsburghers are among the 40 million people in the U.S. who use combined sewer systems that carry both rainwater and sewage. Built between the 1860s and 1920s the pipes dumped directly into our rivers until the 1950s when Allegheny County opened a sewage treatment plant. (Fortunately, Pittsburgh has been disinfecting drinking water since 1911.)

By now our sewers are over 100 years old and too small to handle heavy rain. In some places it takes only a 1/4 inch to cause a sewer overflow, sending toilet paper to the rivers. Meanwhile climate change has brought frequent heavy downpours that flood some valleys with sewage, including the neighborhood below Schenley Park.

That neighborhood, called The Run, is located at the base of Four Mile Run’s watershed where all the old sewers converge before reaching the Monongahela River (highlighted in red on the 3D map below).

3D map of Schenley Park and The Run from (notes in red by Kate St. John)

You’ve probably never visited The Run but you’ve seen it’s most famous building from the Parkway East, the onion domes of Andy Warhol’s family church, St. John Chrysostom Byzantine Catholic Church.

St. John Chrysostom Byzantine Catholic Church down in The Run (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The Run bears the brunt of heavy downpours when the sewers back up into basements and streets. The Greenfield Community Association’s website has video plus photos of a manhole spouting 20 feet under the Parkway bridge.

Sewage floods The Run, 28 Aug 2016 (photo by Justin Macey)

People are sometimes trapped by the floods in The Run. On 28 August 2016 a father and son had to crawl through the sunroof when their car was swamped on Saline Street. Click here for photos of the flood and rescue.

Father and son waiting for rescue, escaped through the sunroof of their flooded car, The Run, 28 Aug 2016 (photo by Justin Macey)

The less rainwater that enters the sewer system the better it is for The Run. Toward that end the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority (PGH2O) is working in Schenley Park for the next several months, building detention swales along Overlook Drive and the Bridle Trail to channel stormwater away from the sewer system.

When the project is done they’ll plant more trees than they removed.

Schenley Park will help stop the flood.

For more information, see Channeling The Energy of Fast Moving Rain

(photos of signs by Kate St. John, photos of flood by Justin Macey, maps from

What Made These Holes?

Pitted shell found at Chesapeake Bay, Virginia Beach, 28 Nov 2019 (photo by Kate St. John)

Last month I found this pitted shell at Chesapeake Bay in Virginia Beach and assumed the holes were made by sand and waves. But that can’t be true. If it was, most shells would look like this. So what happened here?

A Google search of shells with similar holes revealed the likely cause: a boring sponge.

Boring sponges make their homes by boring holes into the calcium carbonate shells and skeletons of animals like scallops, oysters and corals. Using chemicals, they etch into the shell and then mechanically wash away the tiny shell chips, slowly spreading holes within the skeleton or shell and sometimes across its surface. Eventually, these holes and tunnels can kill their host, but the sponge will continue to live there until the entire shell has eroded away.

from Smithsonian Magazine article about boring sponges: Drill Baby Drill

Cliona celata is a common boring sponge that lives on oyster reefs in Chesapeake Bay and around the world. It’s considered a major pest by Bay oyster harvesters. Here’s what it looks like underwater and in two closeups.

Underwater view of Cliona celata in France (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Boring sponge, Choptank River watershed, Eastern Shore of Maryland (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Closeup of boring sponge, Choptank River watershed, Maryland (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Interestingly, a 2013 study of scallops and boring sponges found that the sponges thrive in the warmer more acidic seawater that results from climate change. This spells bad news for oysters, corals and other shells.

In the future we’ll find more shells like this.

Shells on beach at Cayo Costa Island, FL, including one pitted by boring sponge (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

(first photo by Kate St. John, remaining photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)

A Murmuration Of Shorebirds

A murmuration of sandpipers, Washington state, Nov 2018 (screenshot from YouTube video)

When European starlings are frightened by an aerial predator they fly in tight formation in a giant shimmering blob called a murmuration. If you’ve never seen it, check out these two examples: Murmurations in Lorain by Chad+Chris Saladin and Murmuration a 2011 film on Vimeo.

Starlings aren’t the only ones who fly like this. Shorebirds are masters at staying in formation, flying high and low and sweeping between the waves when threatened from above.

In the video below, a shorebird flock flashes black and white at Ocean Shores, Washington in November 2018. Their backs are dark, their bellies are white, so they change color as they turn in the air.

The flock is doing this for a reason.

Watch a predator dive in at the 0:13 time mark. It looks like a peregrine falcon to me. 🙂

(screenshot from video by Peggy Dolane on YouTube)

p.s. Starlings and sandpipers have other similarities. Back in 2008 I mused about starlings as “Land”pipers.