Category Archives: Water and Shore

Plastic in the Water is Smaller Than You Think

Plastic trash found along the Great Lakes shoreline (photo by Hannah Tizedes via MichiganSeaGrant on Flickr)

6 December 2021

We usually think of plastic in the water as the bags, bottles and other items that arrive in flood debris.

Plastic bottles float at the edge of a flood at Duck Hollow, Sep 2018 (photo by Kate Sr. John)

But if you take a microscopic look at our waterways, as PennEnvironment did last year, you’ll find a host of microplastics less than 5mm across (see 1 cm = 10 mm in photo below). These include:

Nurdles (white pellets at top) the tiny pre-production plastic pellets that are the first output of plastic making. They are transported in bulk to factories where they are melted down to become plastic products.

Microbeads, used in cosmetics, 1 mm or less.

Microbeads found at the Great Lakes shoreline (photo by Sherri A. “Sam” Mason via MichiganSeaGrant on Flickr)

Fragments and films and …

Plastic debris and films found in the Great Lakes (photo by Sherri A. “Sam” Mason via MichiganSeaGrant on Flickr)

Fibers, usually from clothing. 60% of our clothing is made of plastic such as polyester, nylon, acrylic. Every time we wash our clothes they shed microfibers into the water and air (dryer exhaust). I can’t help but add to the problem as polar fleece is my favorite winter clothing. Aaarrg!

Plastic fibers found in Great Lakes (photo by Sherri A. “Sam” Mason via MichiganSeaGrant on Flickr)

Microplastics are omnipresent in Pennsylvania’s waterways and we are unwittingly ingesting them. After a study released by PennEnvironment last March found microplastics in all 300 water samples taken from 53 PA waterways including seven in Allegheny County Michael Machosky wrote in NextPittsburgh “How bad is the plastics problem in PA? It’s like eating a credit card every week.”

Sadly Pittsburgh is about to add to the plastics problem in a major way. Soon the new Shell Cracker plant in Beaver County will produce more than a million tons of nurdles each year.

Those nurdles can quickly become an environmental disaster as seen on the shore of Sri Lanka after the X-Press Pearl container ship burned and sank in May 2021 and dumped up to 70-75 tons of nurdles into the Indian Ocean. Nurdles are still washing ashore six months later.

Plastic in the water is much smaller than you think.

(flood photo by Kate St. John, all others from MichiganSeaGrant on Flickr with credit noted in the captions; click on the captions to see the originals. Michigan Sea Grant monitors the health of the Great Lakes including microplastics in their waters. )

P.S. Accidentally eating plastic source article: Revealed: plastic ingestion by people could be equating to a credit card a week.

What Did We See on Halloween?

Duck Hollow in the rain (photo by Kaye St. John)

A treatise on a fleeting glimpse…

7 November 2021

Nine of us met in the rain at Duck Hollow on 31 October 2021 but it has taken me a week to write about it because I think we saw a very rare bird and we have no photo. (Bird photos in this article are from Wikimedia Commons.)

What did we see on Halloween? Here’s the story.

Around 8:50am a small Bonaparte’s size gull flew downriver and gave us long looks as it swept back and forth and upwards to fly over the Homestead Gray’s Bridge. We got long looks at its upper wing pattern, back, head and tail, but especially the upper wings. It did not fit any typical gull species. I had two thoughts: (1) It looked like an impossibly rare Sabine’s gull (2) but I’d expect a Bonaparte’s gull. What was it?

I polled the group and wrote down our descriptions on the spot. I looked at my Sibley app to compare Sabine’s and Bonaparte’s. KX Emm brought out a field guide and did the same. Later that day, still undecided, I sent the description below to three expert birders for a second opinion. Mike Fialkovich responded that an M would indicate Bonaparte’s. But a week later I am still struck by the parts of my description in boldface. A thin M would indeed be a Bonaparte’s. But would a fat M be a Sabine’s?

“The primaries were sharp black (no fuzzy edges). The leading edge of the wings was black [/dark] too. Trailing edge was a pure white triangle with nothing to break the whiteness & no trailing black edge on the wings. The white was stark. The black was like a fat M. There were no fuzzy borders on the black & white.
Its back looked gray to me.
The head/face was white with a dark eye and maybe a dark ear spot (not sure about ear).
The tail was white. I did not notice if the tail had a dark border nor whether it was notched. We were all busy looking at the wings.”

FIRST IMPRESSION: I have seen a Sabine’s gull (Xema sabini) once and have pored over their images in field guides for 7 years since I missed seeing an adult at Pymantuning in 2014. At all ages the Sabine’s gull’s back is like a semaphore, sharp and distinctive with a white triangle on the wings. Here’s an immature.

SECOND THOUGHTS: It can’t be a rare bird! It has to be a Bonaparte’s. However, immature Bonaparte’s (Chroicocephalus philadelphia) with a black M on the wings also have a black tailing edge and no white triangle. Except for the tail there are no crisp edges on an immature Bonaparte’s back.

1st winter Bonaparte’s gull (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

THIRD THOUGHTS: In KX Emm‘s field guide the Bonaparte’s and Little gull were side by side. We considered one of the illustrations as a possibility. It turned out to be an immature little gull (Hydrocoloeus minutus), also a rare bird. Immature little gulls have a white trailing edge but the pattern is not crisp and the white triangle is not stark.

Little Gull from Crossley ID Guide to Eastern Birds via Wikimedia Commons

FOURTH THOUGHT: As long as we’re considering rarities an immature black-legged kittiwake (Rissa tridactyla) fits the bill, too. It’s very similar but more rare in western PA than the Sabine’s. I did not notice a black collar on the bird we saw.

A NOTE ABOUT NOTICING: All immature gulls described above have black tips on their tails but I did not notice a black tail tip. I was too busy looking at the wings. Noticing is what makes this difficult.

So what did we see on Halloween?

I am very cautious about reporting rare birds but I have finally reported this one as a Sabine’s gull. What do you think?

Immature Sabine’s gull in Missouri (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

(Duck Hollow photo by Kate St. John. All bird photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)

Duck Hollow Outing, Sun Oct 31

Mallard (photo by Steve Gosser)

25 October 2021

Join me next Sunday for an outing at Duck Hollow by the Monongahela River. We’ll look for waterfowl and walk the nearby Lower Nine Mile Run Trail. Every week is colder now so this is my last scheduled outing for 2021.

When: Sunday 31 October 2021, 8:30a-10:30a.

Where: Meet at the Duck Hollow parking lot at the end of Old Browns Hill Road.

Dress for the weather and wear comfortable walking shoes. Bring binoculars, field guides and a birding scope — if you have them.

Visit the Events page before you come in case of changes or cancellations.

This outing is on Halloween. Will the ducks be in costume? Will they be wearing hats?

(mallard photo by Steve Gosser, crested pekin duck from Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption to see the original)

Disappearing In The Sand

Coquina clams, open shells, Corpus Christi (photo by Pinke via Creative Commons license)

31 August 2021

Coquina clams (Donax variabilis) are tiny saltwater molluscs found on sandy beaches from Virginia to Texas. Their variable colors are beautiful and at only 3/4 inch long they are just the right size for collecting. I usually find an empty half shell rather than two joined like butterfly wings (above).

Colors of coquina clams (photo by Florida Fish & Wildlife via Flickr Creative Commons license)

Since I only pay attention to empty shells I never thought about where they live and how they get there until I saw this video. Watch two coquina clams disappear in the sand.

(photos from Pinke via Flickr and Florida Fish & Wildlife on Flickr)

Oystercatchers Grow Up

American oystercatcher with chick (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

16 July 2021

Though American oystercatchers (Haematopus palliatus) breed on barrier beaches and shelly islands on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, few of us get to see it. The birds want peace and quiet far from humans when they raise a family.

@GetToKnowNature brings us this video of oystercatchers growing up, thanks to her long lens.

(photo from Wikimedia Commons, video from @GetToKnowNature)

Going Dry

Lake Mead bathtub ring, Feb 2017 (photo by Karen on Flickr Creative Commons license)

15 July 2021

This month a curious discovery in 2014 that predicted low water in the Colorado River and Lake Mead has come to alarming fruition. Lake Mead is going dry.

Lake Mead and Hoover Dam aerial view, May 2013 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The 20 year drought in the U.S. West is now severe, shown on the U.S. Drought Monitor map below.

Drought Monitor as of 8 July 2021 (image from U.S. Drought monitor,

Consequently the Colorado River is running very low and Lake Mead reached a crisis point last month. The Guardian reports:

In June [2021], the level of Lake Mead plunged below 1,075ft, a point that will trigger, for the first time, federally mandated cuts in water allocations next year. …

Should second tier cuts occur, Arizona will lose nearly a fifth of the water it gets from the Colorado River. Nevada’s first-round cut of 21,000 acre-ft (an acre-ft is an acre of water, one foot deep) is smaller, but its share is already diminutive due to an archaic allotment drawn up a century ago when the state was sparsely populated.

The Guardian: Severe drought threatens hoover dam reservoir and water for us west

The crisis is due to lack of precipitation but we learned in 2014 that loss of rain and snow is dwarfed by the depletion of groundwater.

Using nine years of NASA’s GRACE satellite data from the Colorado River Basin, UC Irvine and NASA scientists made an alarming discovery.  From December 2004 to November 2013 the watershed lost 53 million acre-feet of water, an amount almost twice the size of Lake Mead.  More than 75% of that loss was from groundwater.  No one knows how much water is underground but it’s going fast.

Outside My Window: Even Less Water Than We Thought

It’s a little spooky to see such a recent discovery come to pass so soon. Learn about the discovery in this vintage blog: Even Less Water Than We Thought.

Read about the current situation at: Severe Drought Threatens Hoover Dam Reservoir — and Water for U.S. West.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons, drought map from US Drought Monitor; click on the captions to see the originals)

How Shallow Is Lake Erie?

Sunset over Lake Erie at Presque Isle State Park (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

14 July 2021

In summer, folks in western Pennsylvania and northern Ohio flock to Lake Erie‘s shore to beat the heat. The water provides a respite but in July the western end is hotter than anywhere else in the Great Lakes. That’s because Lake Erie is shallow and shallow water is quick to take on the temperature of the surrounding air. So how shallow is Lake Erie?

Lake Erie is the fourth in line of the five Great Lakes and happens to be fourth largest by surface area — 9,940 square miles.

map of the Great Lakes (illustration from Wikimedia Commons)

But as you can see in this bathymetric map it is also the shallowest (blue is deep, red is shallow). Lake Erie’s average depth is only 62 feet with the deepest spot just 210 feet near Long Point, Ontario.

Great Lakes bathymetry map from Wikimedia Commons

It’s easier to see how shallow it is in this diagram from Michigan Sea Grant. Even Lake Ontario, the smallest by surface area, is 3.8 times deeper! (Lakes Michigan and Huron are superimposed on each other because they have the same pool level, 577 feet above sea level. Click here to see the complete diagram.)

Great Lakes System Profile (cropped diagram from Michigan Sea Grant via Flickr Creative Commons license)

Since the shallowest water is first to heat and first to freeze, the surface temperatures roughly match the lake depths. As of yesterday, 13 July 2021, the water at the western end of Lake Erie was close to 80 degrees F.

Great Lakes Surface Environmental Analysis, 12 July 2021 (map from Great Lakes Environmental Research Lab)

Fortunately the temperature has not yet spawned harmful algae blooms (HAB). If you’re going to the western end of Lake Erie this month, check the Lake Erie HAB forecast here before you go.

The lake is warm because it is so shallow. See the current temperature map here.

(photo and first two maps from Wikimedia Commons, Great Lakes system profile from Michigan Sea Grant, Great Lakes Suface Temperature from NOAA; click on the captions to see the originals)

Mallards in Eclipse

Male mallard in eclipse plumage, Colorado, July 2016 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

7 July 2021

In the middle of summer the male ducks disappear — or so it seems. The males are still present but they look like females because they’ve molted into eclipse plumage.

Let’s take a look at mallards to see how this works.

Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) replace all their feathers once a year but males and females do it at different times. Females molt while nesting (February–May); males molt after the breeding season (June–August).

The molt begins with a complete loss of remiges (wing flight feathers) that takes only a few days, rendering the bird flightless for 3-4 weeks. Fortunately males simultaneously replace their brightly colored body feathers with dull ones so they can hide in dense marshes. Eclipse plumage keeps them out of danger.

Here’s the transformation.

Male mallard gradually changing into eclipse plumage (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Notice that the male’s head becomes mottled green (below) and then dull brown (photo at top).

Male mallard, head color is changing during molt (photo from Wikimedia Commns)

Once the males have made this transition it’s a challenge to tell them apart from females but here’s a clue. Look at their bills. In the summer males have yellow or greenish-yellow bills while females have dull orange-ish bills.

Mallards bills: male in eclipse, female in summer (photos from Wikimedia Commons)

Eventually the male starts to molt back to his typical plumage. Partway there he looks like this.

Male mallard in eclipse in Illinois (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

And by November he’s back to his normal flashy self in time to court his springtime mate.

Male mallard in spring plumage including the curly tail (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

This summer when you see a mallard, look at the bill. Maybe he’s a male in eclipse.

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

Reprise of Grassland Birds

Dickcissel in Clarion County, June 2012 (photo by Robert Greene, Jr)

24 June 2021

In early summer Pittsburgh birders tire of searching among dense leaves so we travel to Clarion County’s recovered strip mines for grassland birds. Yesterday five of us drove 90 minutes to look for open country birds we’ve found there in the past.

Dickcissels (Spiza americana) are back again this year and easy to find singing on the wires at Concord Church Road. These rare nomads were a Life Bird for me in 2012. Read this vintage article, Dickcissels, for the reason why they to come to western Pennsylvania.

At Piney Tract (actually a grassland) we saw Henslow’s sparrows (Centronyx henslowii) …

Henslow’s sparrow, Clarion County, Summer 2011 (photo by Steve Gosser)

and heard them …

And we saw a grasshopper sparrow (Ammodramus savannarum) singing …

Grasshopper sparrow, June 2017 (photo by Steve Gosser)

… but I could not hear him because I’ve lost the upper frequencies. Can you hear the really loud trill of this grasshopper sparrow?

We also looked for upland sandpipers (Bartramia longicauda) but, alas, they were not there. Seven years ago I saw four of these Magical birds at Mt. Airy.

Interested in exploring the Clarion County’s grasslands? Check out two locations plus photos in this vintage article: In The Scrubby Fields.

(photos by Robert Greene, Jr and Steve Gosser)

Can’t Fly Right Now

Canada geese during flightless period in July (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

23 June 2021

Feathers wear out so birds molt to replace them. Most species molt their flight feathers one pair at a time, losing a matching feather on each side, so they can continue to fly. Not so with swans, geese and whistling ducks. They replace all their feathers shortly after the breeding season in a single annual synchronous molt. During the molt they cannot fly.

Though it seems crazy to lose the ability to fly these large heavy birds are safe on water and unsafe in flight if missing a few feathers. It works for them to lose these flight feathers all at once.

Canada goose flight feathers highlighted on the wing (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Geese rarely display their stubby wings but you can tell when they’re molting by looking at their tails. Most of the year their flight feathers cover their rumps (left). When molting (right) you can see a white rump patch.

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

Right now in Pittsburgh Canada geese are in their flightless period that lasts six weeks from mid-June to August. You’ll see them flock in or near large bodies of water, feeding on land and walking to the water to swim to safety. You might even notice they are absent from favorite feeding places, such as Flagstaff Hill, which don’t have bodies of water nearby. Such sites are unsafe when they cannot fly.

Have you seen any Canada geese flying lately? No. Because they can’t.

p.s. Goose mitigation plans do not harass geese during their flightless period. The best mitigation is done before they nest. For example, see the Allegheny Commons goose mitigation plan here.

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