Category Archives: Water and Shore

A Limpkin Irruption?

Limpkin at Moraine State Park, 16 July 2023 (photo by Steve Gosser)

17 August 2023

After a limpkin was discovered yesterday afternoon in a small cove at Moraine State Park (first ever in Butler County!) western PA’s birding world spun on its axis and quickly went to find it. Many saw the bird yesterday including Steve Gosser who shared his photo above.

Limpkins (Aramus guarauna) are very, very rare this far north. Primarily from South America, these mussel and snail-eating wading birds have extended their range only to Florida where they live year round.

So what is a limpkin doing here? And not just “here.” A limpkin showed up at Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area last month and was still there last weekend. Two limpkins were in opposite corners of Ohio.

In fact, limpkins have been doing this crazy Northern Summer Visit thing for a long time but it appears they’ve ramped up since 2016. On 8 July 2023 Tim Healy posted a map of Limpkin Firsts in North America at the ABA Rare Bird Alert on Facebook. (The color descriptors are for the map.)
“Hot Limpkin Summer forever! Keep it going! Who’s next?
Green: home base
Blue: historical first records
Orange: 2016-2022 first records
Red: 2023 first records”

ABA Rare Bird Alert on Facebook: 8 July 2023, Tim Healy

This eBird map shows where they’ve been in 2023 up until 16 August. (I’ve marked the Butler County sighting as a red asterisk.)

eBird map of limpkin sightings in 2023 up until 16 August 2023

Is this an irruption of limpkins similar to the winter irruption of snowy owls? Maybe…

Young night-herons often do an out-of-range dispersal at the end of the breeding season when first-year birds explore to the north, then head home or die during their adventure. Perhaps limpkins are doing it, too. Perhaps they’ve had so much breeding success that there are extra limpkins to try it. (This family of 5 was photographed in Florida in 2014.)

Adult limpkin with 4 young, Winter Haven, Florida, 2014 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

It will take some research to know the answer. The limpkins aren’t saying.

(photos by Steve Gosser and from Wikimedia Commons, maps from Wikimedia and eBird)

Formal in Black and White

Black-necked stilt reflections (photo by Susan T Cook from Wikimedia Commons)

11 August 2023

As if they are wearing white tie and tails, black-necked stilts look formal in black and white. Their beauty is enhanced by reflections in their watery habitat.

Black-necked stilt. Reflecting. (photo by Susan T Cook via Wikimedia Commons)
Three black-necked stilts. Not six. (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The mothers look more casual when protecting their chicks. As you can tell by the sound track on this video, the chicks are adorable.

narrated video from Wild Wonders with Sushanta

Black-necked stilts (Himantopus mexicanus) are native only to the Americas, mostly South America. Check the map for their breeding zones to see their tiny chicks.

Black-necked stilt range map from Wikimedia Commons

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

In the Deep, a Plastic Bag Floats By

Coral community at Shostakovich Seamount (photo from NOAA Deep Sea Symphony project)

4 August 2023

Except for a few scientific probes, we humans know almost nothing about the deep sea, yet remote as it is it contains human evidence. Even in the deepest sea a plastic bag floats by.

Meanwhile, because the sea floor has no owner, mining companies are chomping at the bit to extract minerals from the deep sea in the absence of any rules to protect it. The companies claim the minerals to be used in electronics would mitigate climate change (really?) but what will the mining damage?

Last month the International Seabed Authority (ISA) met in Jamaica to discuss potential rules to allow deep sea mining. In the end they deferred the decision until next year. This video explains why the topic is so ‘hot’ right now and the potential dangers.

video embedded from China Global Television Network (CGTN) Europe

For a lengthy explanation see this 2021 video from the Economist: Mining the deep sea: the true cost to the planet.

(*) The deep sea floor has no “owner” because in international waters it is owned by all of us.

(photo from Wikimedia Commons, tweet and video embedded)

On Cape Cod It’s Always Shark Week

Great white shark, South Africa (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

30 July 2023

This may be the last day of Shark Week on the Discovery Channel but on Cape Cod it runs all year. A new study published this week in Marine Ecology Progress Series tagged and counted great white sharks (Carcharodon carcharias) off the coast of Cape Cod, Massachusetts and found that 800 individuals visited the area from 2015 to 2018. That means Cape Cod may have the highest density of white sharks in the world.

Fortunately all the sharks weren’t there at the same time. As lead author Megan Winton of the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy (AWSC) explains, great white sharks are highly migratory. Their population peaks on the Cape from July to November when the water is warm, as shown in this screenshot from AWSC’s logbook for 2022. Individual sharks spend a few hours or a few weeks in the area. (Click here to see AWSC’s shark data and download their shark app.)

AWSC white shark logbook by month for 2022 (screenshot from AWSC)

The sharks are attracted to the Cape by the abundance seals, one of their favorite foods. A Google Haul Out survey of southeastern Massachusetts estimated maximum counts of gray seals at 30,000 to 50,000 animals in 2012 to 2015. Harbor seals arrive in the fall and add to the seal population. No wonder sharks show up. Gray seals provide a lot of meat, weighing as much as 800 pounds.

Gray seals at Nantucket NWR (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Gray seals at a haul out in Nantucket NWR (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

During our recent trip to Cape Cod I saw lots of seals at Chatham Fish Pier. Several swam by the fishing boats but the vast majority were hauled out on a sand bar across the harbor. See that lumpy line of gray blobs? Those are gray seals.

Gray seals line the edge of the sand bar across from Chatham Fish Pier on Cape Cod, 12 July 2023 (photo by Richard St. John)
Gray seals line the edge of the sand bar across from Chatham Fish Pier on Cape Cod, 12 July 2023 (photo by Richard St. John)

While on the Cape I didn’t see any sharks but I did see a No Swimming shark sign at Race Point. I was looking for birds and, as it turns out, diving seabirds give the hint that a shark may be nearby. Both feed on schools of fish, the birds from above, the sharks from below.

The abundance of sharks and seals in Cape Cod’s waters is an environmental success story. Gray seals were almost extinct in U.S. waters by the mid 20th century because of bounty hunting in Maine and Massachusetts from the late 1800s to 1962. The seal population began to recover, slowly, when the bounties ended. Sharks made a comeback because of the seals.

Learn more in this ABC News interview with lead author Megan Winton of Atlantic White Shark Conservancy.

video embedded from ABC News on YouTube

p.s. Well, technically, it’s only Shark Week for 5 months on Cape Cod — mostly from July to November.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons and by Richard St. John, graph is a screenshot of AWSC’ logbook website; click on the links to see the originals)

They Are Rarer Than Polar Bears

Piping plover chick, Queens, NY (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

7 July 2023

This weekend I’m at Cape Cod where some of the beaches are cordoned off to protect piping plover nests and chicks.

Piping plovers are also protected in Queens by the NYC Plover Project, @NycPlover that tweeted 10 amazing facts about these cute endangered birds.

I have unspooled the thread below for those of you who don’t have Twitter access.

NYC Plover Project @NycPlover

Gateway Natl Rec Area and 9 others
from Queens, NY


1. Piping plover chicks must feed themselves from birth.

2. Once they hatch, chicks don’t have a home base or nest.

3. Both parents fiercely protect them but they must have undeterred access to the water’s edge to feed.

4. If they don’t, they will die.

5. Few plover chicks live long enough to fly.

6. Once they are able to fly – at about 1 month – they are over a significant hurdle but still face many threats.

7. Piping plovers are federally protected under the Endangered Species Act of 1973. They are also protected under New York State law as a NYS endangered species.

8. There are fewer piping plovers than polar bears on earth.

9. Multiple states including NY, NJ, MA, ME, IL, temporarily close beaches where plover chicks are present. This saves their young fragile lives.

10. As few as 6,000 piping plovers are left on the planet. A little inconvenience for us – for our day at the beach – can save their young lives. This is not a hard predicament. Let’s do it.


— Quoted from 3 July 2023 Tweet from NYC Plover Project @NycPlover

If you come upon a protected beach, please honor the barriers and keep your dogs away. These tiny birds depend on us.

UPDATE on 7 JULY 2023: Today I saw baby piping plovers in the protected zone at Sea Gull Beach in Yarmouth, MA. So cute!!

(click on the links to see the originals)

Long Term Success of Dune Grass Fails in Major Storms

Dune grass at Delaware Bay (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

28 June 2023

It’s time for summer vacation when we climb over grassy dunes to get to the beach.

Steps over the dune (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Beach grass planted on our sandy coasts stabilizes dunes and protects against storms. As the grass expands it holds down larger areas and provides more protection, but a new study published this month in Science Advances found that dune grass fails in major storms.

The same scientists that taught us the value of dune grass realized they’d never tested it for major storms. Rusty Feagin, a coastal ecologist at Texas A&M University, decided to simulate the effects of Hurricane Sandy (October 2012) so he teamed up with Oregon State University where they house the largest wave tank complex in the U.S. It’s longer than a football field (104 m).

The team set up two dunes, one planted in dune grass whose roots spent six months taking hold, the other a bare dune. “VD” = vegetated dune, “BD” = bare dune

Dunes built for simulated extreme storm event (from Science Advances: Does vegetation accelerate coastal dune erosion during extreme events?)

Then they pounded the dunes with a Hurricane Sandy simulation — 19 hours of punishing waves — stopping every half-hour to laser-scan the dunes.

On the bare dune the waves rolled straight up slope (“BD runup”) and removed sand but left the slope basically the same. On the vegetated dune the waves undercut the grass and caused a cliff, making the dune more vulnerable in future storms. (“VD runup” and yellow circle)

Here’s what the vegetated dune looked like near the end of the storm (from above and the cliff face).

Here’s a real life example of major storm damage to a grassy dune.

Cliff-like erosion at the edge of dune grass (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Feagin says we should still use dune grass, but change our expectations. Science Magazine explains:

Even if the plants cause dunes to erode in severe conditions, Feagin says, it’s still worth having them for protection from milder storms. “When that medium-small storm hits, [the dune] is going to do its job, but the giant [storm] every 10 years is gonna take it out.” And vegetated dunes have advantages over concrete walls for storm protection, because native plants can grow and spread. That means the plants can help dunes increase in size as they trap sand, and perhaps keep up with rising sea levels.

The take-home point of paper is “more about managing expectations” of vegetated dunes, Feagin says. They are not a panacea for coastal protection, he suggests — and land managers shouldn’t expect them to deliver permanent stability.

Read more about the dune grass experiment in Science Magazine: In a twist, beach grass could make dunes more vulnerable to storms. See the study itself in Science Advances.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons and Science Advances: Does vegetation accelerate coastal dune erosion during extreme events?, Creative Commons license)

Deep Sea Headlights

 Lights from the Hercules ROV, Mid-Atlantic Ridge, The Lost City Expedition, 2005 (photo from NOAA via Wikimedia Commons)

23 June 2023

While the media focused this week on the search for a missing tourist submersible that imploded on its way to the wreck of the Titanic, we saw underwater search footage illuminated by headlights. Beginning at the ocean’s twilight zone, 200-1000 meters below the surface, headlights are required because sunlight cannot reach that deep. In underwater darkness deep sea creatures use bioluminescence.

In 2005, for the first time, Japanese scientists filmed a Dana octopus squid (Taningia danae) and saw its “headlamps” or photophores on the tips of two tentacles, some of the largest such organs known to science and comparable in size to fists or lemons. It is so dark in this squid’s natural habitat, 240 to 940 meters below the surface, that scientists believe the lights are used to stun its prey.

Illustration of Dana octopus squid from Wikimedia Commons

In September 2015 NOAA’s ship Okeanos Explorer was roving the undersea world near Hawaii with a robotic submersible when two Taningia danae approached the robot and acted aggressively.

video embedded from Schurel Video on YouTube

Were the squid annoyed by the man-made headlights?

Maybe they thought the headlights were the signal of a competitor.

(photo and video credits are in the captions; click on the captions to see the originals)

Canada Geese Can’t Fly in July

Canada goose molting primaries in late June, Ohio (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

14 June 2023

Once a year, from late June until August, Canada geese spend six weeks molting all their wing feathers. This means they can’t fly in July, nor even in late June.

On a walk at Herr’s Island yesterday I saw many Canada geese swimming in the river and a few of their primary feathers — the “fingertip” feathers — scattered on shore. At first I wondered if a goose had been attacked and then I realized the feathers were a sign of their synchronous molt. Here’s a snapshot from a similar discovery made by Rebecca Johnson in 2020. (Click on the snapshot to see her video on YouTube.)

Molted Canada goose wing feather (snapshot from Rebecca Johnson’s UA Museums video on YouTube)

Even if you don’t see discarded wing feathers you can tell a Canada goose is molting because its white rump is visible above the dark tail. It’s really noticeable from above.

Canada goose seen from above in the midst of wing molt in July (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Canada goose in the midst of wing molt, late June, (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Sometimes you can see the pin feathers coming in. This marked up photo highlights the pin feathers and visible white rump.

Closeup of Canada goose molting with markup (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

In late June and July when they cannot fly Canada geese are safe only in water. You’ll see them feeding just a short walk from a large body of water and notably absent from landlocked places.

When they can fly again and their tails will look like this.

Canada goose in May in Chicago (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Canada goose in March in Illinois (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Have you noticed Canada geese avoiding people lately? They aren’t as bold when they can’t fly in late June and July.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons, wing feather snapshot from Rebecca Johnson’s UA Museums video on YouTube)

p.s. There’s a theory that this type of wing molt led to flightless birds in locations where threats were low. Read more about it at: Simultaneous wing molt as a catalyst for the evolution of flightlessness in birds.

This Week Saw a Sora

Sora at Schenley Park, 30 April 2023 (photo by Charity Kheshgi)

6 May 2023

This was the week the north wind blew and it rained until Friday. This week an American bittern and sora spent more than 7 days at pond-sized Panther Hollow Lake in Schenley Park. They were still there yesterday in sunshine.

After I saw the bittern in pouring rain last Friday the sora eluded me. On Sunday evening I drove to Schenley Park just before dusk and aaarrg! I left my binoculars at home! Too late to go get them I went down to the pond and hoped for a ‘naked eye’ sighting.

Soras (Porzana carolina) are in the rail family but aren’t nearly as “thin as a rail.” Instead they look plump but surprisingly small. They weigh as much as an American robin but have very short tails. Knowing what size to look for is key to finding one.

Standing silently at The Spot To See The Sora (birders’ pindrop) I watched the bird come out to feed at dusk among the reeds. Without binoculars he looked like this.

Lousy cellphone photo of a ‘naked eye’ a sora in Schenley Park, 30 April 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

Charity Kheshgi had better looks than I did.

Before I left I heard the sora vocalizing after he’d walked back into the reeds. The Merlin app refused to identify him. (“That bird can’t be here so I’m not telling you it is.”) My Merlin recording is too muddy to post but this is what the sora sounded like:

(photos by Charity Kheshgi)

Look for One Thing, Find Another

American bittern at Panther Hollow Lake, Schenley Park, 28 April 2023 (photo by Charity Kheshgi)

Sunday 30 April 2023

Early Friday morning in pouring rain, Adrian Fenton was at Schenley Park looking for two soras reported the day before on eBird. Soras (Porzana carolina) are unusual in the City of Pittsburgh so it was worth the trip to look for them, but try as he might Adrian could not find any soras. Instead he found something much better.

At 7:29am I was writing Friday’s blog when I got Adrian’s Rare Bird Alert that there was an American bittern (Botaurus lentiginosus) among the reeds at Panther Hollow Lake. This bird is rare indeed! I dropped everything, put on my rain gear, and drove 5 minutes to Schenley Park.

Upon arrival I caught up with Adrian and he showed me where the bittern was. Except that I could not see it at first. Its camouflage is so good that it took me a while to latch onto the bird. Thank you, Adrian, for your patience!

More birders arrived, some looking from above on Panther Hollow Bridge. Charity Kheshgi viewed from eye level, as I had, and captured some great images of this cryptic bird.

American bittern at Panther Hollow Lake, Schenley Park, 28 April 2023 (photo by Charity Kheshgi)
American bittern at Panther Hollow Lake, Schenley Park, 28 April 2023 (photo by Charity Kheshgi)

Charity noticed that the bittern made a vertical wiggle with its neck and took a video. You can hear the sound of red-winged blackbirds and the ka-thunk of cars overhead on the Panther Hollow Bridge in the background. The wiggle is typical American bittern behavior though I’m unable to find an explanation for it.

By the end of Friday, 29 people had reported the bittern in eBird(*) but many more than that stopped by for a look. Some of them missed it on Friday, including Steve Northrop who found a sora that hadn’t been seen all day! See his checklist with sora photo.

So Friday came full circle with a search for a sora that found a bittern and a search for a bittern that found a sora.

On Saturday the bittern and sora were still present with an ever changing crowd of birders, binoculars, cameras and scopes. The crowd did not disturb the birds as the best viewing was from (up the hill) gravel paths 40 feet from the nearest water. The bittern was visible for most of the day Saturday, but the sora remained elusive. Around 6:30pm both birds put in an appearance and Steve Northop was there to witness it. Ta Dah!

Look for one thing, find another.

UPDATE on Friday 5 May 2023: Both the bittern and sora were still present on Friday 5 May in bright sunshine. By that time they’d stayed in Schenley Park more than 7 days and had become celebrities. My estimate is that 200 people came to see them, many of us multiple times.

(photos and video by Charity Kheshgi)