Category Archives: Water and Shore

Wildlife in the Borderlands

Ringtail resting on a rock, Phoenix, AZ (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

14 December 2023

Watering holes are places of abundant wildlife in Arizona’s Sonoran desert as captured on this trail cam in the borderlands. One of the night visitors is a ringtail (Bassariscus astutus), a member of the raccoon family, shown above. (There are two embedded videos below; please wait for them to refresh.)

When water crosses political boundaries animals cross, too, back and forth from Arizona to Mexico. But now the Border Wall makes most of that impossible.

This vintage article explains.

UPDATE on 15 Dec: Here’s the Border Wall.

Chinstrap Penguins Nap For 4 Seconds … 10,000 Times a Day

Three chinstrap penguins, Orne Islands (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

4 December 2023

Lots of animals don’t sleep for long periods like we do but a new study has found a polar opposite in Antarctica (pun intended) where chinstrap penguins (Pygoscelis antarcticus) take 10,000 4-second naps each day during the breeding season. In this way they accrue 11 hours of daily sleep.

Adult chinstrap penguin with two chicks (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

For us, the micronaps would be a form of sleep torture since we cannot enter restorative deep sleep in such a short time. But the chinstrap penguins do.

Researchers led by Won Young Lee, a behavioral ecologist at the Korea Polar Research Institute, captured 14 penguins at the King Georges Island breeding colony and fitted them with data loggers to measure brain activity and accelerometers to record muscle movements and body positions. They also set up cameras to watch for closing eyes and drooping heads.

Partial range map of chinstrap penguin (map from Wikimedia Commons)

Brain waves showed the penguins experience slow wave (deep) sleep during those micro-naps. They nap while incubating or guarding their chicks and even while floating on the ocean.

Chinstrap penguin swimming at Deception Island (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

So now I’m looking at group photos of chinstrap penguins and, sure enough, in every photo some of the adults are sleeping. They’re getting their beauty rest 4 seconds at a time.

Read more in Science Magazine: This Antarctic penguin sleeps 11 hours a day—a few seconds at a time.

African Penguins Use Dots to Recognize Mates

African penguins at Boulders Beach, South Africa (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

26 November 2023

We humans recognize each other by face and can sometimes recognize individuals in other species as well. For instance, African penguins (Spheniscus demersus) have unique patterns of dots on their chests that zookeepers use to tell them apart. Psychologist Luigi Baciadonna wondered if the dots functioned the same way for the penguins themselves so he ran an experiment at Zoomarine Italia in Rome.

African penguins walking down a ramp at Boulders Beach, South Africa (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

In the experiment individual penguins were herded into a small corral with life-size portraits of two group members, at least one of which was his/her mate. African penguins like to hang out near their mates so if the visiting bird stared at the mate’s portrait and gravitated toward it, he/she was recognizing the mate. The experiment had three variations:

Test #1: Accurate photos: one of the mate, one of another member of the colony. Result: In this video of Test#1 a male penguin, Gerry, is presented with an image of his partner, Fiorella, on the left and one of group member Chicco on the right. Notice what he does.

(video from Science Direct: African penguins utilize their ventral dot patterns for individual recognition)

Test 2: Two photos of the mate: one accurate, one with dots digitally removed. Result: The birds spent more time looking at the mate photo with dots.

Test 3: Dots digitally removed from both photos: mate and another member of the group. Result: The birds no longer seemed to recognize their mate. There was no difference in how long they gazed at the mysteriously spotless portraits.

Quiz! Now that I know African penguins have unique chest dots I discovered that the penguin pictured below is also in a photo above. Which one is he?

African penguin at Boulders Beach, South Africa (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Visit the National Aviary in Pittsburgh to check out the African penguins’ dotted chests at Penguin Point.

Penguin Point exhibit at the National Aviary in Pittsburgh (photo from the National Aviary)

Read more about the study at Science Direct: African penguins utilize their ventral dot patterns for individual recognition

(credits are in the captions)

Can You Spot the Peregrine?

Stirring up the pigeons in Cleveland, 2017 (photo by Chad+Chris Saladin)

17 November 2023

Can you spot the peregrine?

When peregrines are hungry, the birds they’d like to eat flock tightly and move as fast as they can. The denser the flock the harder it is for the peregrine to pick out a solo bird to catch for dinner.

In the photo above pigeons are flying crosswise to avoid an oncoming peregrine. Can you spot the peregrine in the picture?

Dunlin (Calidris alpina) are masters of tight flocking and evasive maneuvers when threatened from the air. In the video below by Pacificnorthwestkate (@pnwkate) the dunlin move like a murmuration of starlings as a peregrine harasses them. Can you spot the peregrine?

embedded video by Pacificnorthwestkate on YouTube

Notice how the dunlin flock winks off and on in the video, dark at one moment then so white they disappear. In winter plumage dunlin have brown-gray backs and white bellies. The flock changes color as the birds turn in unison in the air.

Dunlin in winter plumage (photo from Wikimedia Common)

Last month I wrote about peregrines’ winter strategy for catching dunlin: Peregrines Are Just Tiring Them Out.

(credits are in the captions)

White Stork Transmitter Goes Roaming in Sudan

White stork flock in Africa (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

20 October 2023

Most people who find discarded bird tracking technology don’t know what they’re looking at and even when they do they don’t usually repurpose it. But every once in a while a transmitter goes roaming.

White storks (Ciconia ciconia) that breed in Poland migrate to eastern and southern Africa for the winter. For some, their final destination is the Blue Nile River valley, circled in yellow on the map below.

White stork migration paths (map from Wikimedia Commons) Blue Nile Valley in Sudan is circled in yellow

In April 2017 a white stork in Poland, nicknamed Kajtka, was tagged with a transmitter containing a mobile SIM card.

SIM card T–Mobile Poland (image from Wikimedia Commons)

That autumn she flew to the Blue Nile River valley in Sudan where she became mysteriously inactive. Eventually she stopped moving altogether and had either died or the transmitter fell off. Researchers couldn’t figure out what happened until they got the phone bill.

Questions were raised when Kajtka lingered in the area for more than eight weeks, only roaming around 25 km [15 miles] in various directions.

In 2018, the mystery was solved when EcoLogic Group received a phone bill for 10,000 Polish zloty, the equivalent of £2,064 [$2,500]. Someone had picked up the tracker in Sudan and taken the opportunity to make 20 hours of phone calls using the SIM card.

White Stork transmitter racks up massive phone bill

Fortunately for cash-starved bird research this sort of episode is rare.

If Kajtka had survived she would have joined her fellow white storks moving north in March, perhaps with a stopover in the Hula Valley shown below. Gorgeous!

video from The Wildlife Channel on YouTube

(credits are in the captions)

They Hear the Sound of Distant Waves

Wandering albatross at the Tasman Sea (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

17 October 2023

Like elephants, albatrosses can hear low frequency sounds below our range of hearing, a skill that’s very useful for their lifestyle.

Wandering albatrosses (Diomedea exulans) spend their lives making incredibly long journeys over the ocean. They are known to circumnavigate the Southern Ocean three times in one year, a distance of more than 75,000 miles (120,000 km).

Range map of wandering albatross (map from Wikimedia Commons)

To do this with the least amount of effort, they have the longest wingspan of any living bird — 8 to 12 feet (2.5 to 3.66m) — and use the wind to glide as much as possible.

The best gliding happens at updrafts over the water and the best updrafts are caused by large waves. So how do wandering albatrosses find those large waves? They hear them from very far away, possibly 1,000 miles.

According to Science Magazine, “Big waves produce a very low frequency sound, below 20 hertz, that can travel thousands of kilometers, particularly when they collide with long distance swells, such as when storms develop.”

Would an albatross approach or avoid these waves in the Southern Ocean?

video from Monthly Fails on YouTube

To figure out how the birds choose where to go, Samantha Patrick of University of Liverpool and her team tagged 89 albatrosses with GPS trackers at their breeding grounds on Crozet Island near Antarctica. When the birds returned a year later to breed again, researchers retrieved the tags and analyzed the data.

Geophysicists on the team combined the biologger recordings with infrasound monitoring data from Kerguelen Island in the Southern Ocean to build “soundscape” maps on the birds’ journeys. …

During their long-distance flights, the birds tended to change course whenever they encountered a loud infrasound, the team reports. The infrasounds often indicate wave turbulence, even storms—though it’s not yet clear how the birds make use of this information. The infrasound clearly impacted the birds’ behavior, although the scientists couldn’t identify a clear pattern of whether they avoided or aimed for these low frequencies.

Science Magazine: ‘Voice of the sea’ may help albatrosses catch the perfect wind

We don’t know yet if they avoid or approach turbulent areas but we know they hear them. More study needed!

Turbulent sea (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Read more in Science Magazine: ‘Voice of the sea’ may help albatrosses catch the perfect wind.

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

Why Does the Water Look Like Tea?

Tannin stained water in Miners River, Michigan (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

15 October 2023

“Some tea with your river, Sir?” asks the caption on the satellite photo below where Rupert Bay meets James Bay in Quebec, Canada. James Bay’s incoming tide is pushing Rupert Bay’s tea-colored water upstream.

“Some tea with your river, Sir?” James Bay tidal water meets tannin-stained Rupert Bay, Quebec (NASA satellite image from Wikimedia Commons)
Tea-colored water is good.

In woodland and wetland settings, tea-colored water indicates that natural plant and water processes are occurring.

Frequently, water in streams and rivers becomes tea-colored from naturally occurring tannins, a chemical found in many plants around the world. The tannins can leach out of plants and plant debris and into groundwater, lakes, rivers, and streams. Although they can make the water more acidic, it’s important to note, tannins are not harmful to fish and wildlife.

This process occurs in many waterways that run through wooded areas and wetlands with high levels of plant mass and organic matter. Because there is always water flowing through these areas, tannins leach out of plants into the water, making it appear tea-colored. Why is the Water Tea-colored?

Tannins leach from all kinds of plant debris, especially soaked bark, leaves and pine needles in the north woods. There are tannins in this magnified Woody Dicot Stem: Tannins in Early First Year Tilia. Its caption reads: “Many cells in the periderm, cortex and pith contain dark staining tannins.”

Woody Dicot Stem Tannins in Early First Year Tilia (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Leaves made these tannin stains on pavement.

Leaf stains on concrete in Chermside (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

There are tea-colored creeks in northeastern Pennsylvania such as this one in Monroe County.

Tobyhanna Creek, Monroe County, PA (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

And there are some special lakes on Florida’s Panhandle coast where the tea-colored water flows into the Gulf of Mexico. This video describes the dune lakes of Walton County.

Tannins are OK to drink though they may not taste good. In fact, it’s the tannins in tea leaves that make the beverage tea-colored.

Orange water deposits are bad.

Bright orange deposits are bad, even when the water is clear. In western Pennsylvania the orange color comes from abandoned coal mine drainage. Here the outflow of a polluted culverted stream dumps into Chartiers Creek near Bridgeville. Yuk!

Inflow of abandoned mine drainage into Chartiers Creek near Bridgeville (photo by Kate St. John)

Blacklick Creek in Cambria County, PA is another example.

Blacklick Creek is orange from abandoned mine drainage, 2007 (photo by Kordite via Flickr Creative Commons license)

Don’t worry if the water is tea-colored.

Do worry if you see bright orange deposits. In western PA our orange creeks and streams are a case of Water Everywhere, But Not a Drop to Drink.

(credits are in the captions; click the links to see the originals)

p.s. GEOGRAPHY! Though far inland, James Bay is tidal because it is the southern tip of Hudson Bay which connects to the Atlantic Ocean. This watershed map shows Hudson Bay watershed in green. Note the tiny red circle I added for the location of Rupert Bay.

Primary drainage basins in Canada (map from Wikimedia Commons)

Peregrines Are Just Tiring Them Out

Peregrine falcon looking for a meal (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

13 October 2023

When peregrine falcons migrate down the Pacific Coast in autumn they often pause at Canada’s Fraser River Delta to hunt shorebirds. Pacificnorthwestkate (@pnwkate) filmed one working a sandpiper flock at Roberts Bank.

Peregrines on the hunt hope to separate a single bird from the crowd because they cannot catch anything in such a tight flock. When a lone bird can’t keep up it becomes the peregrine’s dinner.

Flock of dunlin (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Dunlin flocking behavior on the Pacific Coast changed after the peregrine population recovered in the 1990s. A study at the Fraser River Delta in 2009 found that dunlin quickly learned it was unsafe to roost at high tide during the day because peregrines were on patrol. Instead they began to spend high tide flocking over the open ocean, flying continuously for three to five hours.

A new study, published this month in, looked at the interaction from the peregrines’ perspective and found that the falcons haze the dunlin flocks to keep them moving. Peregrine hunting success improved at the end of those 3-5 hours of continuous flying because the dunlin had to stop for a rest.

The hunting data showed that dunlins were at greatest risk of predation just before and just after high tide, and spent most of the riskiest period flocking. However, there was a sharp increase in kills two hours after high tide, because the dunlins were not flocking despite elevated risk. [They were resting.] Peregrine falcons set off false alarms to make prey easier to catch, study finds

So the dunlin changed their behavior to avoid peregrine predation and the peregrines changed their behavior to wear out the dunlin. Peregrines have more stamina that dunlin.

Read more about the peregrines’ hunting strategy at Peregrine falcons set off false alarms to make prey easier to catch, study finds.

(credits and links are in the captions)

Flying With The Birds

Ultralight leads whooping cranes on migration (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

15 September 2023

For nearly 30 years ultralights have been used to establish safe migration routes for endangered geese and cranes as they are reintroduced to the wild.

In 1993 ultralight pioneer Bill Lishman, along with Joe Duff, conducted the first ever human-led bird migration by guiding a small flock of young Canada geese from Ontario to Virginia. His experiment proved that young geese imprinted on an ultralight will follow the aircraft and learn the migration route. After leading the birds just once, in one direction, the geese knew the route and returned on their own in the spring.

Christian “Birdman” Moullec was the first to do it in Europe when he guided lesser white-fronted geese (Anser erythropus) from their future breeding grounds in Sweden to new wintering grounds in Germany in 1999. He has since led red-breasted geese (Branta ruficollis) and many other species.

Red-breasted goose and lesser white-fronted goose (photos from Wikimedia Commons)

Nowadays, to raise money for his conservation efforts, Christian Moullec offers tourists ultralight flights with the birds.

Learn what it’s like to take one of his flights in: A Man, a Tiny Aircraft, and a Flock of Geese: Flying Among Birds in France. See the magic in this video from National Geographic.

video embedded from National Geographic on YouTube

Visit Moullec’s website at Fly With Birds.

(credits are in the captions)

Thousands Glide To Africa

White stork in flight (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

6 September 2023

The migration spectacle at the Strait of Gibraltar is still underway as thousands of birds stretch their wings and fly to Africa. They can see their goal from the European side but sometimes the wind is a brutal wall that prevents their crossing. On 4 September the wind was right and they didn’t have to flap. Thousands glided south to Morocco.

Among the flocks were hundreds of white storks (Ciconia ciconia), seen in this tweet from Inglorious Bustards.

The storks making the crossing had nested in Western Europe and are heading for Sub-Saharan Africa for the winter.

Range map and flyways of the white stork (map from Wikimedia Commons)

Fifty years ago white storks were extinct in most of Western Europe and this spectacle at the Straits died with the absent birds. Reintroduction programs in the late 20th century brought them back to a growing population of now 224,000 to 247,000 European white storks.

For those who lived through the lean years, their tears at the Straits are tears of joy.

(credits are in the captions including links to the sources)