Category Archives: Water and Shore

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)

Birds Uncover Illegal Fishing

Wandering albatross (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

As human population soars and fish populations plummet illegal fishing has ramped up in the world’s oceans. With 50% of the world’s fish population now gone, countries protect fish within their 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) but dishonest fishing vessels sneak in to capture endangered species and overfish what’s left.

Catching the perpetrators, or even knowing they’re out there, has been quite difficult despite the ability to track them by satellite. That’s because dishonest vessels turn off their Automatic Identification System (AIS) satellite transponders so they can’t be seen. The boats travel safely without AIS; they use radar to avoid collisions and find fish.

In 2017 Henri Weimerskirch and colleagues at Centre of Biological Studies ChizĂ© launched an innovative study to uncover the extent of illegal fishing. They equipped wandering albatrosses (Diomedea exulans) with radar detectors that transmit location data to satellites. The research team then matches albatross radar sightings to AIS satellite sightings. If there’s a radar ping but no AIS, the boat is operating illegally.

Wandering albatross east of Tasman Peninsula (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The research team expanded the study in 2019 by fitting 169 albatrosses from Crozet and two other islands with radar detectors (map below). From December 2018 to June 2019 the albatrosses encountered 353 ships, 37% of which had turned off their AIS.

Global Fishing Watch map highlighting Crozet Islands Exclusive Economic Zone (screenshot from

After a 6-month study with the large seabirds, the researchers estimate that more than one-third of vessels in the southern Indian Ocean are sailing undercover, confirming concerns about illegal or unreported fishing.

Seabird cops spy on sneaky fishing vessels

Armed with this new data, enforcement can now focus on the hotspots of illegal activity. Ideally it will lead to more arrests like the one pictured below in the North Pacific in 2008.

U.S. Coast Guard seizes a Chinese fishing vessel suspected of illegal large-scale high-seas drift net fishing 460 miles east of Hokkaido, Japan. Coast Guard photo taken by USCGC Munro. 11 Sep 2008 (photo by U.S. Coast Guard via Flickr)

Read more about the albatross project in Science Magazine: Seabird cops spy on sneaky fishing vessels.

See the full study at PNAS: Ocean sentinel albatrosses locate illegal vessels.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons and Flickr, map screenshot from Global Fishing Watch; click on the captions to see the originals)

The Flamingo’s Closest Relatives

American flamingos in CelestĂșn National Park, YucatĂĄn, Mexico (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Because they have long necks and long legs and stand around in shallow water you would think that flamingos are related to herons, but they’re not.

DNA sequencing has shown that the flamingos’ closest relatives are grebes.

Horned grebes in western PA, Feb 2014 (photo by Steve Gosser)

Read more about their amazing relationship in this vintage article:

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

At The Hot Springs

Male crested kingfisher, Hokkaido, Japan (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Kingfishers migrate in the fall to find open water where they can fish. This stunning bird lives year-round at the hot springs in the Kitami Hills of Hokkaido, Japan because the water doesn’t freeze.

Almost the size of a crow, the crested kingfisher (Megaceryle lugubris), is native to southern Asia from India to Japan.

Read more about him and see a photo of his mate here –> Crested kingfisher.

(photo from Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption to see the original)