Category Archives: Water and Shore

Piping Plovers Dance For Love

Piping plover at West Meadow Beach, NY (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

7 July 2020

For such a tiny shorebird, male piping plovers (Charadrius melodus) have an elaborate courtship dance. The best part of it — the “tattoo” — was tweeted last Friday by the Ontario Piping Plover Conservation Program.

There’s more to the dance than that. In the run-up to copulation the male

  • Calls to his mate while scraping a nest in the sand, tossing away twigs and debris.
  • Approaches her in a low gliding crouch with his head below the horizontal.
  • Pauses near her, raises his head up high and beats a tattoo with his feet, faster and faster, closer and closer.
  • When he’s ready he mounts, still moving his feet up and down while on her back. He may stay in this position without copulating for more than a minute.
  • After or during copulation he may grab her by the nape of the neck. Though this looks vicious she doesn’t seem to mind.
  • And then they walk away and preen.

You can see all of these behaviors in this longer video from Montrose Beach, Illinois.

If all goes well, the dance results in some very cute baby birds.

Piping plover chick at West Meadow Beach, NY (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

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

Loons Have Unexpected Relatives

Common loon family, 2009 (photo by Kim Steininger)

1 July 2020:

If like me you owned a field guide at the turn of the century you remember that loons were the first bird in the book. Ornithologists placed them there because they thought loons were the oldest evolved bird in North America but DNA sequencing changed all that. In 2020 loons are near the middle of the tree and they have unexpected relatives.

In this July 2019 phylogenetic supertree I’ve circled loons and their relatives in blue. Notice that they aren’t related to ducks at all. Ducks are related to chickens.

Phylogenomic supertree of birds, a clockwise spiral from oldest to newest, circle and text added (image from MDPI, July 2019)

Here’s a closer look at the blue section showing that loons (Gaviiformes) stand alone after they split from a common ancestor of penguins, tubenoses, storks, cormorants and pelicans.

Here some of the loons’ unexpected relatives.

Penguins (Sphenisciformes) include king penguins (Aptenodytes patagonicus).

King penguins at Salisbury Plain (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Tubenoses (Procellariiformes) include the wandering albatross (Diomedea exulans).

Storks (Ciconiiformes) include the white stork (Ciconia ciconia) that nests on roofs in Europe.

White storks on nest, Germany (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Cormorants and allies (Suliformes) include the northern gannet (Morus bassanus) and the double-crested cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus).

Northern gannet, Bonaventure Island, Canada (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Double-crested cormorants visit Pittsburgh in the non-breeding season.

A double-crested cormorant with ring-billed gulls, Duck Hollow, Pittsburgh January 2020 (photo by Jim McCollum)

Pelicans (Pelicaniformes) include the brown pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis) we see at the beach and in flight along the coast.

Brown pelicans, one with mouth open, North Carolina (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Brown pelican in flight, California (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

So when you see a loon on a northern lake this summer, remember his unexpected relatives.

(photos by Kim Steininger, Jim McCollum and from Wikimedia Commons. Phylogentic supertree from MDPI, July 2019)

Hover and Perch

Pied kingfisher, composite of one diving (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The pied kingfisher (Ceryle rudis), native to Africa and Asia, is nearly as big as our belted kingfisher but he has a unique trait. He’s the largest bird able to hover in place without help from the wind.

The image above is a composite of three photos: a single pied kingfisher diving for the water. The video below (which is missing audio in the middle) shows a parent hovering and his daughter working on her dive.

When pied kingfishers aren’t hovering they hunt from a perch.

Two pied kingfishers watching for fish (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Sometimes the perch can swim.

Pied kingfisher perched on a hippopotamus (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

(photos from Wikimedia Commons; video from Love Nature on YouTube)

Baby Birds Jump Into Life

Merganser chick contemplates his launch (screenshot from PBS NATURE video)

Across Pennsylvania breeding birds are hatching eggs and feeding young. As the nestlings grow the nests become crowded, a sure sign that the babies will leave soon.

Baby birds in hollow trees have an amazing way of leaving the nest: they climb up the inside of the hole and jump! This is true of chickadees, screech-owls, woodpeckers and wood ducks. But ducklings have no flight feathers and they jump away. That’s OK, they’re built for it.

This 3.5 minute PBS NATURE video shows a family of common mergansers (Mergus merganser) taking the plunge.

Though the video doesn’t show it, the ducklings waddle to the water where their mother calls and waits for them.

(screenshot and video from PBS NATURE)

Great Blue Herons Are Nesting

Great blue heron at Allegheny Islands rookery, 22 March 2020 (photo by Jim McCollum)

Great blue herons nest colonially near creeks, rivers, lakes and wetlands. As soon as they return to Pennsylvania they gather at their rookeries, usually located in sycamores. We have at least three rookeries in or near Allegheny County.

Northeast of Pittsburgh: On 22 March Jim McCollum went to Barking Slopes to see the island rookery above Lock and Dam #3 on the Allegheny River. This island is so close to the dam that it’s inaccessible but the rookery is visible after a mile-long hike at Barking Slopes. A much easier place to view it is on the Cheswick side of the river from the Harmar House parking lot on Freeport Road. There are more than 40 nests at this site.

Great blue heron rookery at Allegheny Islands as seen from Barking Slopes, 22 March 2020 (photo by Jim McCollum)

Northwest of Pittsburgh: On 6 April, Dick Rhoton and his wife visited a rookery near Sewickley, PA, described below with photos.

Last Monday Nellie and I made our almost yearly trip to see what was happening with the blue herons rookery north on the red belt from 65 (just past Sewickley (turn at the high tension wires and go until you see the cement plant on the left and the asphalt plant on the right- park here and then walk up the road for 1/4 mile or so). 

This year we counted 30 to 35 nests east of the road and almost all were occupied with sitting herons. 

— email from Dick Rhoton , 8 April 2020
Heron rookery near Sewickley, PA, 6 Apr 2020 (photo by Dick Rhoton)
Heron rookery near Sewickley, PA, 6 Apr 2020 (photo by Dick Rhoton)

South of Pittsburgh: There’s an easy-to-see rookery above a wetland between I-79 and the parking lot to the left of DDI headquarters on Washington Pike in Bridgeville, PA. Donna Foyle reports that at least 21 nests are visible from the I-79 edge of the parking lot.

If you decide to view a rookery remember to stand 6-feet away from other folks you encounter and, per Governor Wolf’s stay-at-home COVID-19 outdoor guidance, please limit your trip to a 15 minute drive from home. To make that possible, I’ve described locations in three directions.

p.s. The COVID-19 shutdown gives us an unparalleled opportunity to document spring in our own neighborhoods. In a “normal” spring I’d be traveling all over the place and ignoring the wonders of home. Instead I’m seeing changes in Schenley Park and visiting nearby hotspots such as Duck Hollow. This is a great time to keep a Nature Journal!

(photos by Jim McCollum and Dick Rhoton)

Like Angels

Bridled common murre in flight (photo by Andreas Trepte, via Wikimedia Commons)

The beautiful Twitter video below from @Finnmarkbirding has happy news from the Varanger Peninsula in Finnmark county, Norway.

This week guillemots (we call them common murres, Uria aalge) and puffins (Fratercula arctica) are returning to Hornøya bird cliff in Vardø, Norway.

In slow motion they look like angels.

(photo by Andreas Trepte, via Wikimedia Commons; embedded Tweet by @Finnmarkbirding)

p.s. Common murres in the Norwegian Arctic often have “bridled” eye marks, shown above, and are called bridled guillemots.

The Flamingo’s Smile

Closeup of American flamingo head (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Flamingos’ beaks are quite unusual. Their lower mandibles are larger and stronger than their upper ones and their smiles are upside down.

Their lower jaws are fixed to their heads and their upper jaws move freely. When they open their mouths the top beak moves up like an opening clam shell. This is opposite to us humans. We drop our jaws to open our mouths and take in food.

An American flamingo opens its beak (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

However, flamingos eat with their heads upside down. In this position they drop their (upper) jaws to open their mouths just like we do. When they’re feeding their smiles are right side up.

Illustration of American flamingo head, flipped into feeding position (image from Wikimedia Commons)

Their beaks are designed to catch what they eat. From small crustaceans, mollusks and insects to tiny single-celled plants, their food is suspended in water which they capture by filter feeding, a technique they share with baleen whales and oysters.

Flamingos take water into their mouths and strain it out through the filtering mechanisms in and on the edges their beaks (see illustrations above). When flamingos are feeding rapidly they pump their tongues to suck water in and squish it out. This video from the Galapagos shows how they do it.

That’s why the flamingo’s smile is upside down.

For more information, see this Stanford University article: Flamingo Feeding.

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

Which Stork Brings Babies?

For a week the blog has been All Peregrines All The Time. It’s time now for something completely different.

When I wrote about the Marabou stork (below) in A Face That’s Hard To Love, Nan asked, “Why would something so ugly be associated with delivering babies?”

Marabou stork closeup (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Well, the ugly Marabou stork is not the baby-delivery bird.

There are 20 members in the stork family, only one of which is famous in the baby fable. Can you guess which one it is from this list of five? Leave a comment with your answer.

1. Wood stork (Mycteria americana) is found year round in South America, Central America and Florida.

Wood stork (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

2. African openbill (Anastomus lamelligerus) is native to Sub-Saharan Africa.

African openbill (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

3. Saddle-billed stork (Ephippiorhynchus senegalensis) from Africa is closely related to the black-necked stork of Asia and Australia.

Saddle-billed stork in flight (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

4. White stork (Ciconia ciconia) is found in Europe, Africa and Asia.

White storks at their nest (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

5. Jabiru (Jabiru mycteria) is native to Central and South America. Sometimes it visits Texas. (Yoga fans, notice that this stork is doing the Tree Pose.)

Jabiru (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Can you guess which stork “brings babies”? If you’re stumped or you’d like to know more, find the answer in this vintage article:

A Face That’s Hard To Love

Marabou stork closeup (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The Marabou stork (Leptoptilos crumeniferus) can’t help it, he’s ugly. His face is hard to love.

When he’s amorous, or hot, or in a bad mood he inflates his fleshy throat sac which intimidates the other storks. It’s ugly, too.

Maribou stork with throat sac inflated (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Find out more about him in this vintage article …

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

What’s Beyond Flamingos?

American flamingos and horned grebes (photos from Wikimedia Commons and Steve Gosser)

A couple of weeks ago we learned the amazing fact that grebes are the flamingo’s closest relatives. The next related bird, beyond flamingos, is amazing too. The sandgrouse (Pteroclidae) looks like a pigeon!

Chestnut-bellied sandgrouse, female and male (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Sandgrouse (Pteroclidae) are seed-eating birds native to Africa and Asia that are famous for carrying water in their specialized belly feathers. The male sandgrouse flies as much as 18 miles from his nest to a watering hole where he soaks his belly in water.  He then flies back to the nest where his young squeeze his belly feathers to get a drink.

The sandgrouse is nothing like a flamingo or grebe but he’s descended from the same extinct ancestor that spawned flamingos, grebes, sandgrouse, mesites and doves. The pink circle around the number 95 in the phylogenomic supertree shows where the birds diversified. (“95” is that ancestor.)

Phylogenomic supertree of birds from oldest to newest (image by Rebecca T Kimball et al, MDPI, July 2019)

Who’s related to the sandgrouse? An extinct ancestor at “85” in the supertree spawned sandgrouse, mesites and doves (Columbidae).

This is the sandgrouse’s city kin. He’s also related to flamingos. 🙂

Feral rock pigeon (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

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