Category Archives: Water and Shore

Scenes Of The Week

  • Red leaves at Duck Hollow, 29 Nov 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

5 December 2020

Here’s a visual portrait of the past week, from a warm day at Duck Hollow on 29 November, to snow on 1 December, and yesterday’s awesome sky at Moraine State Park.

(photos by John English and Kate St. John)

Giraffes and Gentoos Have Something in Common

Giraffes (southern) at Ezemvelo Nature Reserve, Gauteng, South Africa (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

What do giraffes and gentoo penguins have in common?

Though both were (or are) listed as a single species researchers say they should be four.

In 2016 DNA testing on giraffes revealed that the single species (Giraffa camelopardalis) is really four species. The proposed 2016 species split looked like this on the map …

Map of genetic subdivision in the giraffe based on mitochondrial DNA sequences (map from Wikimedia Commons)

… and is described as:

[Replace] Giraffa camelopardalis with four new ones: the southern giraffe (G. giraffa), found mainly in South Africa, Namibia and Botswana; the Masai giraffe (G. tippelskirchi) of Tanzania, Kenya and Zambia; the reticulated giraffe (G. reticulata) found mainly in Kenya, Somalia and southern Ethiopia; and the northern giraffe (G. camelopardalis), found in scattered groups in the central and eastern parts of the continent. The one remaining subspecies is the Nubian giraffe (G. camelopardalis camelopardalis) of Ethiopia and South Sudan. It is a distinct subspecies of the northern giraffe.

Scientific American, DNA Reveals Giraffes Are 4 Species–Not 1, 9 September 2016

This year a DNA study on gentoo penguins revealed that they should be split in four species, too.

Gentoo penguins (Pygoscelis papua) breed on Antarctica and islands in the southern hemisphere reaching as far as the Falklands, South Georgia and Kerguelen Island. Two populations are considered subspecies; they don’t intermingle. In 2012 the subspecies map looked like this:

Range of gentoo penguin showing subspecies as of 2012 (map from Wikimedia Commons)

The proposed split elevates both subspecies and adds two more!

The researchers suggest the two subspecies [P. p. ellsworthi and P. p. papua.] should be raised to species level and two new species created.

The four species we propose live in quite different latitudes – for example P. ellsworthi lives on the Antarctic continent whereas P. poncetii, P. taeniata, and P. papua live further north, where conditions are milder, and so it’s not that surprising that they have evolved to adapt to their different habitats.

Birdwatchers Daily, Split Gentoo Penguin into four species, researchers say, 4 Nov 2020

The split could be good news for the most vulnerable gentoo penguin populations since it would allow a focus on saving them.

Will the gentoo penguin officially split like the giraffe? We’ll have to wait and see.

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

p.s. Locations of the four species as described as follows at The Conversation blog: We suggest the designation of four species of gentoo penguin: Pygoscelis papua in the Falkland Islands, P. ellsworthi in the South Shetland Islands/Western Antarctic Peninsula, P. taeniata in Iles Kerguelen, and P. poncetii, in South Georgia.

Watch Royals Nest in New Zealand

Northern royal albatross, New Zealand (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

1 December 2020

Summer has returned to the southern hemisphere, the northern royal albatrosses are back at Taiaroa Head, and the Royal Cam is running. It’s time to watch the royals nest in New Zealand.

Northern royal albatrosses (Diomedea sanfordi) spend most of their lives wandering the southern Pacific but are loyal to their lifelong mates and their breeding location. They faithfully return to New Zealand every other year in October/November, to lay one egg and raise the chick. The commitment required of both parents takes nearly a year to complete. Then they take the next year off.

At Taiaroa Head, the royal’s only mainland breeding location, New Zealand’s Dept of Conservation reports (DOC) that as of 30 November there are 120 birds on site and 40 pairs have laid an egg.

Every year, DOC chooses a pair to follow on the Royal Cam. This year’s on-camera family is LGL (female) and LGK (male) whose fertile egg was laid on 7 November. At 12 and 11 years old, respectively, they have been together since 2017 and raised a chick named Karere two years ago.

Watch the Royal Family here at Cornell Lab’s Northern Royal Albatross birdcam. Learn more about them at DOC’s Meet the Royal Family webpage. Catch up on the latest news and videos at either website.

While it snows here in Pittsburgh, watch the royals nest in New Zealand.

(photo of northern royal albatross in flight from Wikimedia Commons, photo of LGK by Sharon Broni / DOC; click on the captions to see the originals)

Three Scoters

Surf scoters in fall (photo from Wikimedia Commons by Andy Reago and Chrissy McClarren)

30 November 2020

This fall has been surprisingly good for seeing scoters (Mellanitta) in the Pittsburgh area. Though they are sea ducks, all three North American species visited our inland rivers over the Thanksgiving weekend. Surf and black scoters were seen on the Ohio (Leetsdale Boat Launch) and white-winged on the Allegheny (East Deer Recreational Park).

Here’s a quick visual guide to the three species in case you encounter them. Males are black with flashy highlights. Females are brown with subtle markings.

Surf scoters (Melanitta perspicillata) have been the easiest to find this fall. I saw eight of them at the Head of Ohio on Halloween, all of them dull brown like those pictured above and at right below.

Field marks in The Sibley Guide are: “Heavy triangular bill distinctive, forming wedge-shaped head. Female shows two distinct pale patches on face, the forward patch tall and narrow.” Note the shape of the forward patch!

Surf scoters (portion of illustration from Crossley ID Guide to Eastern Birds via Wikimedia Commons)

White-winged scoters (Melanitta deglandi) aren’t as flashy but they’re the only ones with white wings (secondaries).

Field marks in The Sibley Guide are: “The largest scoter, with long bill and concave forehead. White secondaries unique and usually visible even on swimming birds. On female, compare shape of pale loral-patch with Surf Scoter.”

The forward patch on females (loral patch between eye and beak) is oval rather than tall and narrow as on the surf scoter. Compare indeed!

Female white-winged scoter (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The males have a distinctive white patch below their eyes as seen in this selection of views from the Crossley ID Guide to Eastern Birds.

White-winged scoters (portion of illustration from Crossley ID Guide to Eastern Birds via Wikimedia Commons)

Black scoter (Melanitta americana) females aren’t black. They have pale face patches like ruddy ducks but their heads and necks are a different shape.

Field marks in The Sibley Guide are: “The smallest most compact scoter, with relatively small bill and rounded head. Female has a pale cheek contrasting with dark crown. Throws head downward when exercising wings, a distinctive motion.”

As you can see in this excerpt from the Crossley ID Guide to Eastern Birds, the male is more colorful.

And finally, here’s an audio treat from the black scoter. During courtship the males sing a one-note song which I have never heard. I will have to go to Canada or Alaska in the spring to hear it.

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

Best Crest

Male hooded mergansers, crests down & up (photo by Steve Gosser)

27 November 2020:

Hooded mergansers (Lophodytes cucullatus) are twice named for their crests which they raise and lower at will. “Hooded” refers to the crest, of course. So does the Greek Lophodytes: lophos = crest + dutes = diver.

Females do the crest thing, too.

Female hooded mergansers, crests down & up (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

And in slow motion …

… it’s the best crest.

(photo at top by Steve Gosser. Female mergansers from Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption to see the original)

A Flurry of Red Knots

13 November 2020

When red knots come to the UK in autumn they gather in flocks much larger than I have ever seen in the U.S. — sometimes as many as 10,000 birds.

Red knots (Calidris canuta) have a disjoint breeding distribution that determines their choice of winter locations and migration routes. The rufa subspecies visits the eastern U.S. though for most of them the final winter destination is the southern tip of South America.

The islandica subspecies spends the winter in the UK and western Europe after breeding in Greenland and Ellesmere Island, Canada.

Now in non-breeding plumage they are no longer red. The British call them “knots.” The flocks are spectacular!

Next spring they will be red again and head back north.

Red knots in May (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

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

Like A Bonaparte’s

Black-headed gull at the Eiffel Tower (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

2 November 2020

November is a good time to see migrating gulls and waterfowl in southwestern Pennsylvania. Most are common but a few rare ones can fool you.

We always see Bonaparte’s gulls (Chroicocephalus philadelphia) at local lakes and rivers as they head south for the winter. Every once in a while there’s a rare look-alike, the back-headed gull (Chroicocephalus ridibundus). Originally from Europe, some now breed in maritime Canada and New England.

At top, a black-headed gull perches on the Eiffel Tower in Paris. In winter neither he nor the Bonaparte’s have black heads, however the amount of black-on-white varies.

Below, Geoff Malosh photographed a black-headed gull at Moraine State Park on 1 December 2017 (embedded from Macaulay Library). Notice that this gull has more black on its head than the gull at top.

As much as they look alike, the big difference between black-headed gulls and Bonaparte’s is the color of the bill. Black-headed gulls have red bills, Bonaparte’s have black as shown below.

Bonaparte’s gull in non-breeding plumage (photo by Bobby Greene)

One of these Bonaparte’s gulls is using his black bill. Check the color to know who he is.

Bonaparte’s gull in Florida, 2012 (photo by Chuck Tague)

In the meantime, keep an eye out for unusual birds in the Pittsburgh area. There were eight surf scoters (Melanitta perspicillata) at the head of the Ohio River on Saturday 31 October. The photo below is embedded from Amy Henrici’s checklist. Click on the image to see the original.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons, Geoff Malosh via Macaulay Library, Bobby Greene, Chuck Tague and Amy Henrici via Macaulay Library; click on the captions to see the originals)

Wonders of the Deep

The Nautilus Exploration Program of Ocean Exploration Trust (OET) explores the ocean using remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) launched from their research vessel, E/V Nautilus.

In early September 2019 the ROV was a mile below the surface near uninhabited Southwest Baker Island in the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument when they came upon an octopus, one of three species in the Cirroteuthidae family.

About 4.2 feet long, the octopus expanded and contracted its tentacles, flapped its Dumbo-like “ears” and transformed itself into a circus tent, perhaps in an effort to look big to the deep sea machine.

Like the crew we are all amazed by this wonder of the deep.

Read more about this encounter at the YouTube video. See more Nautilus explorations at

(video from EvNautilus on YouTube)

Dolphins Are Polite In Conversation

Bottlenose dolphin (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

20 October 2020

We know that dolphins are intelligent and that their whistles and clicks are a form of communication. It was only a matter of time before we figured out part of what they’re saying. For instance …

Dolphins say their own names using a “signature” whistle.

In 2016 we learned that mother dolphins name their babies by speaking a new signature whistle — the baby’s name — a few days before the calf is born and for two weeks after birth. The calf learns the name its mother gave it and later names itself with its own signature whistle.

Bottlenose dolphins, mother and baby (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Four years ago the Dolphins Plus research institute in Florida proved that dolphins talk to each other when cooperating on a task. Though they didn’t call this “speech,” the Karadag Nature Reserve in Ukraine later showed that dolphins speak in complete sentences of at least five words.

What amazed me most about that discovery is that each dolphin waited for the other one to complete its speech before responding. I’m impressed that dolphins are polite in conversation.

In my family we all talk at the same time. Though we don’t always hear what the other person is saying, we don’t get offended if someone speaks while we speak. It was many years before I realized the behavior is impolite and I still struggle to wait and listen.

I should take a lesson from dolphins.

Bottlenose dolphin (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

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

Up to 55 mph Non-Stop For 11 Days

Bar-tailed godwit (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

14 October 2020

Yesterday the news broke that a bar-tailed godwit fitted with a satellite tracking tag had flown non-stop over the Pacific Ocean from Alaska to New Zealand in 11 days. During his 7,500 mile trip he reached speeds of up to 55 miles an hour. He’s an amazing bird from an amazing subspecies.

Bar-tailed godwits (Limosa lapponica) breed in Scandinavia, Siberia and Alaska and spend the winter at shores from Europe to Africa, from southern Asia to New Zealand. Most travel over or near land (see map) but the Alaskan subspecies, Limosa lapponica baueri, flies down the center of the Pacific Ocean to New Zealand. According to Wikipedia, this subspecies makes “the longest known non-stop flight of any bird and the longest journey of any animal without feeding.”

Late last year the Pukorokoro Miranda Shorebird Centre in New Zealand satellite-tagged 20 bar-tailed godwits to find out where and when they go. Tracked by the Global Flyway Network, godwit 4BBRW left Alaska on 16 September and landed in New Zealand on 27 September.

Find out more and see his route at The Guardian link below.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons; 4BBRW map embedded from The Guardian article, complete route from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)

p.s. Next spring he’ll fatten up to return to Alaska on one of these red routes.

And he’ll look a lot fancier in breeding plumage.

Bar-tailed godwit in New Zealand in June, breeding plumage (photo from Wikimedia Commons)