Category Archives: Water and Shore

Rescuing Baby Flamingos

A rescued lesser flamingo chick in South Africa, Feb 2019 (photo courtesy the National Aviary)

When severe drought, high temperatures and failing infrastructure hit Kamfers Dam in Kimberley, South Africa, the lesser flamingo colony that nests there was forced to make a dreadful choice. The lake usually provides food and their island provides shelter but the water was gone. Incubating adults were dying of dehydration. If the colony stayed, all would die so they abandoned this year’s breeding attempt — eggs and chicks — to live and breed again.

Kamfers Dam is a privately owned dam just north of Kimberley, about halfway between Johannesburg and Cape Town, South Africa. The site was originally an ephemeral wetland but became a permanent lake thanks to runoff and treated wastewater from the town of Kimberley.

In 2006 people noticed that the lake attracted a Near Threatened species, lesser flamingos (Phoeniconaias minor), so they built an S-shaped breeding island for them (pin on map above). At the height of the breeding season it’s covered in tens of thousands of flamingos.

S-shaped island, lesser flamingo breeding colony at Kamfers Dam as seen from the air (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Kamfers Dam is one of only six lesser flamingo breeding sites in the world and an international birding hotspot … until this year.

Lesser flamingos at Kamfers Dam in 2008, a wet year (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

In January, because of severe drought and high evaporation, a large part of the lake went dry. The lake level could not be restored by the water treatment plant because of their own failing infrastructure.

The flamingos abandoned their desiccated colony, so people went out to rescue the chicks. Click here or on the screenshot below to see a video of the rescue posted by Saan Staan Kimberley on Facebook.

Video of Kamfers Dam flamingo rescue by Saam Staan Kimberley on Facebook

2,000 flamingo chicks and eggs, some in the process of hatching, were rescued by volunteers and taken to shelters around South Africa.

Rescuing a Kamfers Dam flamingo chick (screenshot from Saam Staan Kimberley on Facebook

Then the hard work began — three to four months of feeding and monitoring thousands of flamingo chicks, many of whom arrived in bad shape from dehydration and starvation. Added to that is the challenge of not allowing them to imprint on their human rescuers. South Africans made a worldwide plea for volunteers.

The National Aviary stepped up to help. Terry Grendzinski, Supervisor of Animal Collections and avian specialist, knows all about raising baby flamingos so she flew to the SANCCOB rescue center in Cape Town. In the photo below she feeds one of the rescued chicks while wearing pink sleeves and back gloves to mimic the appearance of the chick’s parents. Click here to watch a video of the feeding.

So far, so good. The chicks are growing, preening and sunning in their enclosure (video below). Some are already standing on one leg!

Thanks to this massive rescue effort, this year’s lesser flamingo breeding season at Kamfers Dam will have a silver lining. You can donate here at the National Aviary to help these baby flamingos.

(credits: rescued chick at top, Terry G feeding a chick, and video of chicks in blue enclosure courtesy of National Aviary. Map of Kamfers Dam embedded from Google Maps. Video and screenshot of rescue at the dam from Saam Staan Kimberley on Facebook. Click on the captions to see the originals)

Imprinting Error

In 2011 crane watchers in Homer, Alaska noticed that a single Canada goose was convinced he was a sandhill crane. How did this happen? And can it be undone?

As described by Encyclopedia Britannica, imprinting is a form of learning in which a very young animal fixes its attention on the first object it sees, hears, or is touched by and thereafter follows that object.

Imprinting is especially important for nidifugous birds — species that walk away from the nest shortly after hatching — because they must immediately follow their mother in order to survive. They imprint by sight and the lesson lasts a lifetime. If the first thing they see is their mother or another member of their own species, life is good. If not, they grow up believing they are another species and will never find a mate.

Imprinting happens at different times for different species so wildlife centers use surrogacy techniques, described here at the Wildlife Center of Virginia, to insure that baby birds don’t imprint on humans. If they do they cannot be released in the wild.

Human imprinting is well known among cranes so caregivers in the Whooping Crane Recovery Program dress in crane costumes when in sight of the young birds.

Whooping crane costume worn by biologists (photo by Steve Hillebrand, USFWS)

Birds use filial imprinting but there are other forms. Studies have shown that we humans prefer the first computer software we use and then compare all new software to that first and favorite app. It’s a form of imprinting called Baby Duck Syndrome. “I don’t like this; it doesn’t work like Microsoft Word.” Quack! Quack!

As for the Canada goose in the video, observers speculated that the bird’s mother laid his egg in sandhill crane nest. When he hatched he saw a sandhill crane and imprinted on the wrong species. He’s the victim of an imprinting error.

(video by Nina Faust on YouTube. photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the original)

Watch a Nest in Bermuda

Screenshot from the Bermuda cahow cam at Cornell Lab

Nesting season began last month for this pair of Bermuda cahows when the female laid her single egg on 10 January 2019. The parents are now taking turns at incubation duty. They expect the egg to hatch in early March.

Watch them in their nest burrow at Cornell Lab’s Bermuda Cahow Cam.

And for a preview of things to come, here’s a video of last year’s activity.

(screenshot from the Bermuda cahow cam and a video of 2018 Bermuda cahow highlights, both from Cornell Lab of Ornithology)

Island Disappears In Rising Seas

Location of Dogger Bank (image from NASA via Wikimedia Commons)

Climate change is giving us extreme weather, melting glaciers and rising seas. It’s not the first time we humans lived through this but the last event was during the Stone Age and nobody wrote it down.

During the last Ice Age England was connected to Europe. As the glaciers receded people moved to the land between. Dogger Bank was the highest ground, about 100 feet above sea level.

100 feet sounds like a safe height, right? Nope. The glaciers kept melting. Dogger Bank disappeared 8,200 years ago.

Many islands face this fate in the 21st century including Tangier Island, Virginia (map below) and the island nations of Kiribati and the Maldives with 100,000 to 400,000 residents respectively.

Location of Tangier Island, Virginia, threatened by sea level rise, via Google maps
Sunset in the Maldives (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Like Dogger Bank they’re going underwater. Read more in this vintage article about Dogger Bank In the Age of Rising Seas.

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

Nesting Season Begins for Bermuda Cahow

Bermuda cahow returns from the sea for the 2019 nesting season (photo from the Bermuda Cahow Cam at Cornell Lab)

The nesting season began for this Bermuda cahow when she returned to her nest burrow on Wednesday 9 January 2019 at 11:55pm (almost midnight). By 1am she had laid her single egg. Click here for a video.

Cahows or Bermuda petrels (Pterodroma cahow) live on the open ocean and only come to land on dark nights during the nesting season, placing their nests in underground burrows on small inaccessible islands to protect them from predators. Humans used to be one of those predators. We ate them. By 1620 cahows were presumed extinct.

When cahows were rediscovered in 1951 there were only 18 nesting pairs on Earth, but thanks to the conservation efforts of David B. Wingate and the Cahow Recovery Project there are now more than 135. Most of them are on Nonsuch Island where many burrows are man-made to provide additional nesting sites. This burrow has a camera.

The pair that “owns” this burrow came back in November to refurbish the site, court and mate. In December they returned to the sea. Then on Wednesday the female returned to lay her egg and begin incubation. Her mate will arrive and take over incubation so she can go back to the ocean to eat.

Cahows are nocturnal so you’ll see them most active when it’s night in Bermuda. Watch their family life on the Bermuda Cahow Nestcam. Stay up to date on Twitter at @BermudaCahowCam.

(photo from the Bermuda Cahow Cam; click on the caption to see it “Live”)

Rainbows In The Swamp

Rainbow in the swamp, First Landing State Park, 23 Dec 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)

Last weekend in Virginia Beach I saw swamp rainbows for the first time.

I was birding at First Landing State Park, one of the last places in town that still has a bald cypress swamp, when I noticed that the water between the trees was colored red, orange, yellow, green, blue and purple. The rainbow colors moved as I walked.

Where I come from in western Pennsylvania, a rainbow on water is a bad thing. It means there’s oil on the water’s surface and it got there because people drilled and spilled. But these swamp rainbows are natural.

The water’s calm surface has a thin film of plant oils and pollen that reflects and refracts light. The resulting rainbows are seen better in winter because the sun is so low.

Last month someone else noticed the rainbows at First Landing and posted a photo on Reddit that went viral and was covered by the BBC.

Click here to see additional photos and read more about rainbows in the swamp.

(photo by Kate St. John)

Harlequins Warn of Mercury

Male harlequin duck (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Some birds are canaries in the coal mine, telling us that something’s gone wrong long before we notice it.  Harlequin ducks (Histrionicus histrionicus) are performing that service in Alaska.

A 2017 study by the Biodiversity Research Institute looked for mercury in Alaska’s coastal waters by testing blood samples and molted feathers from harlequin ducks at Kodiak and Unalaska Islands. Blood samples were used because they indicate recently consumed mercury. Molted feathers show mercury when the feathers were formed a year before. 

The study found mercury in harlequins from both locations but those at Unalaska, midway in the Aleutian chain, had eight times more than those at Kodiak, nestled in the Gulf of Alaska. The study then tested the ducks’ main food at Unalaska — blue mussels — and found it there, too.

This is important news for Aleutian residents because they eat lots of seafood.  It also matters to the rest of us since Unalaska’s main port, Dutch Harbor, is the largest fisheries port in the U.S. by volume caught.  

Mercury apparently increases westward in the Aleutian chain. A 2014 study found mercury in fish above the human consumption limit at the western island of Agattu.

Where is the mercury coming from?  In the continental U.S. airborne mercury comes from coal-fired power plants and is regulated and reduced by the EPA.  It can also come from active volcanoes, obviously out of our control.

At this point scientists don’t know where the mercury is coming from, but China’s coal-fired industries are a good bet.  The prevailing wind in the Aleutian Islands originates in Asia more than six months of the year.

Winds over water in the Pacific and Bering Sea, 10 Dec 2018 (screenshot from earth “visualization of global weather conditions, forecast updated every three hours.” )

Unfortunately Alaskans can’t prevent mercury pollution that reaches them from Asia.  Meanwhile the harlequins warn of danger.

(photo of harlequin duck from Wikimedia Commons, screenshot of global winds from earth visualization website; click on the caption links to see the originals)

The Inaccessible Rail

Inaccessible Island rail (photo by Brian Gratwicke via Wikimedia Commons)

If you’ve ever gone looking for rails, you know they are usually inaccessible. They live in tall dense marsh grass and won’t come out for anything except the sound of another rail — and then only in the breeding season.

But there is in fact a truly inaccessible rail.  The Inaccessible Island rail (Atlantisia rogersi) is the smallest flightless bird in the world, extremely rare, and vulnerable to extinction.  He lives only on Inaccessible Island.

He made news in October because he cannot fly yet new DNA studies show that his ancestors, related to black rails, did fly more than 2,300 miles from South America over the South Atlantic Ocean to Inaccessible Island.  They arrived 1.5 million years ago.

This was a surprise because the island, which is in the Tristan de Cunha archipelago, is closer to Africa than to South America as shown below. (Click on the map or its caption to explore it on Google Maps.)

Location of Inaccessible Island on the globe (screenshot from Google Maps)

The island is called Inaccessible because it is.  It’s almost impossible to land on the narrow beach — most attempts fail — and the cliffs are so steep that the top is inaccessible.

Panorama of Inaccessible Island (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The island’s walls dwarf the people exploring the beach, below. 

Inaccessible Island beach, people in the distance (photo by Brian Gratwicke via Wikimedia Commons) 

Fortunately this tour group got lucky. They were able to land and they found the rail. A member of the group, Brian Gratwicke, took these photos.

Read more about the origins of the Inaccessible Island Rail in this article from Researchgate.

(photos by Brian Gratwicke via Wikimedia Commons; map screenshot from Google maps; click on the captions to see the originals)

Who’s Faster In Level Flight?

Peregrine falcon “Buckeye” (Chad+Chris Saladin) and Red-breasted merganser (Steve Gosser)

Peregrine falcons are nicknamed “duck hawks” because ducks are one of their favorite foods.  For comparison, here’s a peregrine falcon and a red-breasted merganser.  Obviously the peregrine is more powerful.

Now imagine the peregrine is chasing the red-breasted merganser over Lake Erie.  If these two birds are traveling as fast as they can go in level flight, who would win?

In level flight (not in a dive) the red-breasted merganser is faster! 

Learn how fast these birds can go in this vintage blog post: Talk About Speed

(photo credits: peregrine falcon by Chad+Chris Saladin, red-breasted merganser by Steve Gosser)