Category Archives: Water and Shore

Quiz: Identify Them in Flight

Waterbirds in flight, Florida 2013 (photo by Don Weiss)
Waterbirds in flight, Florida 2013 (photo by Don Weiss)

Can you identify these birds in flight?

Hints:

  • Don Weiss took the photo at Merritt Island, Florida.
  • I see 6 species.   Do you see more?
  • The pink ones are my favorite.
  • I see wood storks.  (But I'm wrong!  They are white pelicans.)

 

(photo by Don Weiss)

The Answer ... or at least part of the answer ...

Annotated birds in flight (photo by Don Weiss)
Annotated birds in flight (photo by Don Weiss)

  1. Glossy ibis
  2. White pelican --> white tail & black doesn't extend all the way to the body
  3. Common tern?  (Certainly a tern)
  4. Snowy egret (kc saw yellow feet)
  5. Great egret
  6. Roseate spoonbill
  7. White ibis

Any others?

At Cape Cod: Before and During the Storm

Before the storm: Icy blue ocean at West Dennis Beach, Mass. 3 Jan 2018 (photo by Barb Lambdin)
Before the storm: Icy blue ocean at West Dennis Beach, Mass. 3 Jan 2018 (photo by Barb Lambdin)

On the day before the "bomb cyclone" hit Massachusetts my sister-in-law, Barb Lambdin, sent me two photos of the frozen ocean at West Dennis Beach, Cape Cod.   Intrigued by the coming storm, I asked her to take more photos when it hit.

The photo locations are part of the story:

  1. Before the storm: West Dennis Beach on the ocean side.
  2. During the storm: Corporation Beach in the protected middle of the bay shore.

Map of Massachusetts showing 1: oceanside photos at West Dennis Beach, 2: bayside photos at Corporation Beach (from Wikimedia Commons, annotated)
Map of Massachusetts. 1: oceanside photos at West Dennis Beach, 2: bayside photos at Corporation Beach

 

BEFORE THE STORM:

Above, the ocean was so calm on 3 January 2018 that ice had formed in flat sheets and blue-green water ponded on top.

The waves were small and slushy (below).  Barb calls them Frozen Margarita waves.

Before the storm, slushy waves at W Dennis Beach, MA 3 Jan 2018 (photo by Barb Lambdin)
Before the storm, slushy waves at W Dennis Beach, MA 3 Jan 2018 (photo by Barb Lambdin)

 

DURING THE STORM:

On 4 January it was too windy and dangerous on the ocean side so Barb went to the bay side at Corporation Beach.  The two photos below were taken at high tide.

Keep in mind that this is the calm side of Cape Cod yet the waves are high and about to flood the parking lot.  I have never seen waves break at Corporation Beach!

During the storm: Corporation Beach at high tide, Dennis,Mass. 4 Jan 2018 (photo by Barb Lambdin)
During the storm: Corporation Beach at high tide. Dennis, MA 4 Jan 2018 (photo by Barb Lambdin)

This high tide set a record at Boston, 60 miles north across the bay.

During the storm: Corporation Beach at high tide, Dennis,Mass. 4 Jan 2018 (photo by Barb Lambdin)
During the storm: Corporation Beach at high tide. Dennis, MA 4 Jan 2018 (photo by Barb Lambdin)

For more information and cool graphics see The 10 best images of this week's historic bomb cyclone in the Washington Post.

Is this the worst nor'easter we'll see this winter? Who knows.

p.s. Why is it so cold?

Actually it's extremely cold in the eastern U.S. but very warm in the West (click here for Departure From Normal Temperature graphic).

Four years ago we experienced the Polar Vortex of 2014 when the jet stream wobbled southward. It's happening again. And it's a feature of climate change.

Learn more at CBCnews: Why has it been so cold? Here's what science says.

 

(photos by Barb Lambdin. Massachusetts map from Wikimedia Commons. Temperature map from the National Weather Service; click on the images to see the originals)

Penguin Egg May Hatch Today!

Penguins Sidney and Bette wait for their eggs to hatch at the National Aviary, 14 Dec 2017 (screenshot from African Penguin Nestcam)
Penguins Sidney and Bette wait for their eggs to hatch at the National Aviary, 14 Dec 2017 (screenshot from African Penguin Nestcam)

Sidney and Bette are "expecting." Today may be the day.

Sidney and Bette are African penguins (Spheniscus demersus), members of a critically endangered species that lives in a colony at the National Aviary in Pittsburgh.  The birds nest in burrows or under bushes so the Aviary has provided a special cubbyhole for the pair that's equipped with a nestcam so we all can watch.

Here's the action up to now, described by the National Aviary:

Penguin parents, Sidney and Bette, laid two eggs on November 7th and 11th. The first egg is expected to hatch between December 14 and 18, and the second egg is expected to hatch between December 18 and 22. If all goes well, the chicks will eventually join the National Aviary's current colony of 20 African Penguins. This is the fourth set of chicks for Sidney and Bette who have had 6 chicks together at the National Aviary (not including these two)!

It's quite a privilege to watch African penguins nesting.  There used to be 4 million of them in 1800 but now there are less than 25,000 pairs in the wild.  When these eggs hatch they'll be a significant addition to the population.

Click here or on the screenshot above to watch the African Penguin Nestcam at the National Aviary.

Will today be the day?  Only Sidney and Bette know for sure.

 

UPDATE on Dec 17: First egg hatched on Sat December 16.  One more egg to go.

UPDATE on Dec 20: Second egg hatched today. Two cute penguin chicks!

(screenshot from the African Penguin nestcam at the National Aviary)

Which Glaciers Will Flood Your City?

Map of glacial contribution to sea level rise in Miami (screenshot from NASA JPL)
Map of glacial contribution to sea level rise in Miami (screenshot from NASA JPL, pink circle added to highlight Miami)

Though the ocean will never flood Pittsburgh, I'm still fascinated by the rising sea. (*)

Back in October I wrote about sea level fingerprints, the pattern of tiny elevation changes in sea level caused by uneven gravitational forces around the globe.  The highest ocean peaks are in the tropics, the deepest valleys are near melting glaciers.  As the land loses mass (ice) its gravitational pull decreases and it stops hugging the ocean to its shore.  The water has to go somewhere so it goes to the tropics.

This means that glacial melt affects sea level rise in two ways:  (1) It adds water to the ocean that used to be sequestered on land and (2) it alters the sea level fingerprint, lowering the ocean nearby and raising it far away.

If you do the complicated math, you can find out how individual melting glaciers will affect sea level at specific locations.

Last month, scientists at NASA Jet Propulsion Lab did just that when they published a paper in Science Advances and an online tool that illustrates how glaciers will affect 293 coastal cities.  Let's take a look at Miami.

Almost half the sea level rise in Miami will be caused by glaciers (47.4% of total sea level rise) and almost half of that will be Greenland's fault (20% of total sea level rise). That's why Greenland is so red in the screenshot above.

The next highest glacial contributor in Miami will be Antarctica (12% of total sea level rise).  In the screenshot below you can see that South American glaciers help, too.

Map of Antarctic and South American glacial contribution to sea level rise in Miami (screenshot from NASA JPL)
Map of Antarctic and South American glacial contribution to sea level rise in Miami (screenshot from NASA JPL)

In fact, the entire northern hemisphere is endangered by Antarctica's melting ice because it's so far away.  Ironically the safest place to be is right next to a melting glacier.  Sea level will go down at those sites.

See the maps for yourself and try the online tool at NASA JPL.  Read more about it at These are the melting glaciers that might someday drown your city, according to NASA in the Washington Post.

 

(*) Pittsburgh's Point is 711 feet above sea level. My immediate family lives 10 to 25 feet above sea level in Virginia and Florida.

(screenshots of glacial contribution to sea level rise in Miami from the online tool at NASA Jet Propulsion Lab.  On the first screenshot I added a pink circle to highlight Miami. Click on the images to use the online tool.)

Needles In A Haystack

California gull among ring-billed gulls, Moraine State Park, 3 December 2017 (photo by Geoff Malosh)
California gull among ring-billed gulls, Moraine State Park, 3 December 2017 (photo by Geoff Malosh)

"One of these things is not like the others.  One of these things doesn't belong."

This little chant from Sesame Street is a reminder that large flocks of ring-billed gulls can contain one or two rare birds.  You just have to look for them.

On Sunday afternoon December 3, Geoff Malosh was taking photographs of a black-headed gull (Rare Bird #1) among a flock of 500 ring-billed gulls at Moraine State Park.   When he looked at the birds on a nearby roof he found a California gull among them.  Rare Bird #2!

As the name implies, California gulls (Larus californicus) are common in California but not here.  They breed from Great Slave Lake in Canada to the Great Plains and the Great Basin, and spend the winter on the West Coast, especially in California.  They rarely travel east of the Mississippi so this bird is a great find for Butler County, Pennsylvania.

How did Geoff know the bird was a California gull?   His eBird description has all the details.  Here's a quick summary:

The California gull has a dark iris (ring-billed adults have yellow eyes), a red-orange spot on its lower mandible behind the black ring (missing on ring-billed), and is slightly larger and darker than the ring-billed gulls.

California gull among ring-billed gulls, Moraine State Park, 3 December 2017 (photo by Geoff Malosh)
California gull among ring-billed gulls, Moraine State Park, 3 December 2017 (photo by Geoff Malosh)

The eye and bill colors are diagnostic.  Here's a closer look.

California gull, Moraine State Park, 3 December 2017 (photo by Geoff Malosh)
California gull, Moraine State Park, 3 December 2017 (photo by Geoff Malosh)

If Geoff hadn't traveled to see Rare Bird #1 he wouldn't have found Rare Bird #2.

Here's the black-headed gull that sparked Geoff's trip, beautiful in its own right.

Black-headed gull, Moraine State Park, 3 Dec 2017 (photo by Geoff Malosh)
Black-headed gull, Moraine State Park, 3 Dec 2017 (photo by Geoff Malosh)

 

Would I have identified the California gull if I'd been birding alone?  I wish my answer was "yes," but I forget to look closely at gulls.  I probably would have called this one a lesser black-backed gull and stopped looking.

"One of these things is not like the others.  One of these things doesn't belong."

When it comes to gulls you have to look for needles in the haystack.

 

(photos by Geoff Malosh)

Paired Up Already

Gadwall female and male (photo by Walter Siegmund via Wikimedia Commons)
Gadwall female and male (photo by Walter Siegmund via Wikimedia Commons)

Male ducks are easy to identify because of their bright plumage but females are difficult because they're camouflaged for nesting.  Female gadwalls are really hard to figure out; they look like female mallards.  If only they'd hang out with their mates the problem would be solved.

And by November it is.  Unlike most ducks, gadwalls pair up in autumn.  By November 97% of the females are swimming close to a male.

The males are much easier to figure out.  From a distance they look boring brown with black butts but a closer look reveals their beauty.  The male's back has gray and russet tones, his chest is marbled, and his sides sport a tiny zigzag pattern.

Male gadwall (photo by Walter Siegmund via Wikimedia Commons)
Male gadwall (photo by Walter Siegmund via Wikimedia Commons)

Female gadwalls and mallards look alike except for this: The gadwalls have thinner darker bills, a square head shape, and a white speculum on each wing.  (Click here to see the iridescent blue speculum on a female mallard.)

Female gadwall (photo by Walter Siegmund via Wikimedia Commons)
Female gadwall (photo by Walter Siegmund via Wikimedia Commons)

 

If you see a confusing female duck alone it might be a mallard, but not for long.  90% of female mallards have a mate by November.

Mallard pair in Oregon (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Mallard pair in Oregon (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Both species are paired up already.

 

(photo credits: gadwalls by Walter Siegmund via Wikimedia Commons. mallard pair by M. O. Stevens via Wikimedia Commons; click on the images to see the originals)

When Green Is Not Good

Peak Microcystis bloom, Lake Erie on September 19, 2017. Sample taken directly from the lake. (photo by NOAA GLERL)
Peak Microcystis bloom, Lake Erie, September 19, 2017. Sample taken directly from the lake. (photo by NOAA GLERL)

There's something wrong with Lake Erie.  Every summer when the water heats up it turns a thick soupy green, especially at the western end from Toledo to Sandusky and Point Pelee, Ontario.

The waves look like this or even worse.

Algal bloom on Lake Erie at Point Pelee (photo by NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Lab)
Algal bloom on Lake Erie at Point Pelee, June 2011 (photo by NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Lab)

The green is not good.  It's caused by Microcystis algae which produces toxins that kill fish and harm humans. The algal bloom was so bad in 2014 that the Toledo Water Authority told their 500,000 customers not to drink the water and not to wash dishes with it.

The bloom reaches it peak in autumn.  You can see the green muck from outer space in this satellite photo from September.

Lake Erie harmful algal blooms, Sept 2017 (satellite photo via NOAA GLERL on Flickr)
Lake Erie harmful algal blooms, Sept 2017 (satellite photo via NOAA GLERL on Flickr)

The algal blooms are triggered by warm water containing excessive nutrients:  nitrogen from sewage and/or phosphates from fertilizer.  In this century the water is warmer and it contains a lot of phosphorus flushed into the lake by heavy rain.  Cleveland.com explains that "The Maumee River contributes half of all phosphorus in the lake, with about 85 percent of it from fertilizer runoff."  (The Maumee enters the lake at Toldeo.)

We know how to fix this problem.  We've done it before.

Back in 1969 Lake Erie was plagued by pollution, toxic algal blooms and dead fish. One of its tributaries, the Cuyahoga River, caught fire in Cleveland.  Thanks to the Clean Water Act and the EPA established by President Nixon, Lake Erie was cleaned up quickly and stayed that way for 30 years.

Now the lake is in trouble again.  Michigan has already declared the lake impaired but Ohio officials are hesitating to do so because "they don't want to scare away swimmers and boaters."  Meanwhile people see and smell the algae and they're already staying away.

This 2013 video from KQED tells the story.

 

(photos by NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Lab on Flickr; video by KQED on YouTube)

Tundra Swans Overhead

Tundra swans in flight (photo by Steve Gosser)
Tundra swans in flight (photo by Steve Gosser)

This week's cold weather bought winds from the north and flocks of tundra swans over western Pennsylvania.  We usually hear them first, rush out to see them fly ... and then they're gone.

Where did they come from?  Where are they going?

Most of "our" tundra swans breed in the north central territory of Canada (Nunavut) and north of Hudson Bay.  This map from Xeno Canto shows their path in North America.  (Breeding range is pink.  Migration corridors are greenish yellow.  Wintering sites are blue.  I've added a purple dot for our location in western Pennsylvania.)

Map of Tundra Swan breeding, migration and wintering in North America (from Xeno Canto with location of recordings)
Map of Tundra Swan breeding, migration and wintering in North America (from Xeno Canto with location of recordings)

In late September tundra swan families assemble into flocks.  Then "our" swans move south through Canada's prairies, arriving in North Dakota and the upper Mississippi River valley in early October where they eat and wait until winter hits.

On winter's first blast they fly southeast to Chesapeake Bay and eastern North Carolina, passing over Pennsylvania on their way.

Tundra swans typically fly 30 miles per hour but on a strong northwest wind they can clock 100 mph and fly non-stop for 1,000 miles.

Most flocks don't stop in western Pennsylvania but they take a break here if the "kids" get tired.  That's what happened on Tuesday at Crooked Creek Lake.

Marge Van Tassel and a group of volunteers heard the swans coming and drove to a good vantage point to watch them come in.  Marge's photo shows them descending to the lake like large beautiful snowflakes.

Tundra swans landing at Crooked Creek, 7 Nov 2017 (photo by Marge Van Tassel)
Tundra swans landing at Crooked Creek, 7 Nov 2017 (photo by Marge Van Tassel)

 

Listen for their sound overhead and you may see tundra swans, too.

 

(photo credits:  flock in flight by Steve Gosser, flock landing by Marge Van Tassel, map and audio clip recorded in Michigan by Allen T. Chartier, #XC11851 from Xeno Canto)

Small Ducks Stop By For a Visit

Bufflehead female with two males (photo by Steve Gosser)
Buffleheads, female with two males (photo by Steve Gosser)

It's early November, the wind's from the north, and it's time for waterfowl. Here are two small ducks who stop in southwestern Pennsylvania on their way south.

Buffleheads and ruddy ducks hang out together in the winter, perhaps because they dive for the same food:  aquatic insects and crustaceans (crabs, crayfish, etc).  Buffleheads add mollusks to their diet (small mussels, clams, etc).  Ruddy ducks add plants and zooplankton.

Buffleheads (Bucephala albeola) are black and white with compact bodies and stubby bills.  Only 13.5 inches long, they fly fast and land abruptly.  They're actually the same size as a pied-billed grebe(*) but bufflehead males look larger because their round white-topped heads stand out.

Male bufflehead (photo by Steve Gosser)
Male bufflehead (photo by Steve Gosser)

Identifying female buffleheads is tricky, though, because their black heads have a white splash on the cheek that resembles -- at long distance -- a male hooded merganser or a female ruddy duck.

The best clue to a female bufflehead is that she's close to the males, as you can see in Steve Gosser's photo at top.

While buffleheads look like large ducklings, ruddy ducks (Oxyura jamaicensis) are shaped like bathtub toys(*).  At only 15 inches long they have big heads, thick necks and large slightly upturned bills.  Just like rubber duckies they often cock their tails, especially when asleep.

Ruddy duck (photo by Steve Gosser)
Ruddy duck swimming (photo by Steve Gosser)

In November ruddies are less "ruddy" than in the breeding season but the male retains his white cheek.

Ruddy duck male, late non-breeding plumage (photo by Steve Gosser)
Ruddy duck male, late non-breeding plumage (photo by Steve Gosser)

Females and juveniles have off white cheeks with a faint brown line.

Female ruddy duck (photo by Steve Gosser)
Female ruddy duck (photo by Steve Gosser)

 

Though buffleheads winter as close to us as Ohio, neither species stays in Pittsburgh for the season.  Stop by our rivers and lakes to see these ducks before they leave.

 

(photos by Steve Gosser)
(*) Descriptions adapted from Pete Dunne's Essential Field Guide Companion, an excellent resource for birding.