Category Archives: Water and Shore

Arctic Terns Have Short Legs

Arctic tern (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Alaska Birding with PIB: Birding Anchorage to Denali 14 June 2019

The first time I saw an Arctic tern was on a bird outing at Cape May, New Jersey in May 2004. It was the only Arctic tern perched in a big flock of common terns. How to pick it out of the crowd? “Look for the tern with the short legs.”

Arctic, common and Forster’s terns are in the same genus so it’s a challenge to identify them, especially since we don’t get any practice with Arctic terns in Pittsburgh.

In Alaska, terns are simpler. There are only four species: Common tern is very rare. Caspian tern is the only one with a big carrot-red bill. Arctic terns are everywhere and Aleutian terns look different.

Famous for their long distance Arctic to Antarctic migration, Arctic terns (Sterna paradisaea) are pale gray and white with uniformly silver gray upper wings, small round heads, short dark red bills, and short red legs. In the breeding season they have very long white tail streamers.

Arctic tern in flight (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

When they’re breeding Arctic terns are quite vocal. If you get too close to a nest they shout and dive bomb you. How close is too close? On the tundra where they nest alone, you may not know there’s a nest until you’re under attack.

Arctic tern in flight (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Aleutian terns (Onychoprion aleuticus) are uncommon and local but easy to identify because they’re dark gray with white tails, white foreheads, black legs, black bills, and white edging on their wings. There’s no mistaking who they are when they’re standing.

Aleutian terns pair (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

You can see the Aleutians’ white foreheads in flight.

Aleutian tern in flight (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Even though it’s not a useful field mark in Alaska, Arctic terns are still the ones with the short legs.

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

Make Way For Ducklings

On the morning after her eggs hatch, the mother mallard leads her ducklings to water where they’ll be safe. Unfortunately in the city there are unexpected hazards on the way.

Sometimes she walks over grates that are too open for her ducklings and they all fall in. In Phoenix, Arizona the Fire Department rescues ducklings at least once a year.

When her family is reunited Mother Mallard leads them away.

Mother mallard leads her ducklings after rescue, 1 July 2006 (photo by Starbuck Powersurge on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

p.s. Notice that she’s fanning her tail to show white feathers. Perhaps her ducklings cue on that signal.

(video by Woodside Homes Arizona on YouTube. photo by Starbuck Powersurge on Flickr, Creative Commons license

When Puffins Become Photographers

Happy news for a Happy Friday.

This amazing video posted on Twitter by @bryony6912 was filmed at Skokholm Island UK, Britain’s first bird observatory and the densest Manx shearwater colony on Earth. There are lots of other seabirds there including Atlantic puffins.

When puffins become photographers. 🙂

Mallard Moms Are On The Nest

Only two weeks ago the mallard flock at Duck Hollow was large and busy with males and females feeding in pairs. Back then the flock was usually 20+ birds but now it’s half that size and mostly male. The females are missing. They’re on the nest.

Female mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) nest on the ground laying one egg per day until the clutch is complete, about 10 eggs.

Though she doesn’t build the nest the mother mallard pulls nearby vegetation toward her body to line the nest bowl. When she begins incubation she plucks down from her breast to surround the eggs and cover them while she’s gone. The eggs hatch in 28 days.

Only the females incubate eggs while the males watch from afar. Except for a recess in early morning and late afternoon, female mallards are hidden all day — if they’ve chosen a good nest site.

In urban settings the ladies choose some creative places, as in the video above and this photo under a stairway in Madison, Wisconsin.

Mallard nesting under a stairway in Madison, Wisconsin (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Three days before they hatch the mallard chicks call back and forth with their mother from inside the eggs. On hatch day all of them emerge within 6-10 hours. Next morning their mother leads them to water for their first swim. See all of this in Ian Oland’s video, above.

So don’t be surprised when you don’t see female mallards at Duck Hollow in early April. Right now the mother mallards are on the nest.

(video by Ian Oland on YouTube. photo from Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption to see the original)

Golden Camouflage

European golden plover in Iceland (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The world’s three species of golden plovers — European (Pluvialis apricaria), American (P. dominica) and Pacific (P. fulva) — are so stunning in golden breeding plumage that they stand out when we look at them. How do these ground-nesting birds avoid predation when they look so obvious?

They’re wearing golden camouflage.

Above, a European golden plover is easy to see from the side, but blends into the background in the photo below, matching the tundra.

European golden plover blends into the background (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Speckled golden plumage hides them while they’re incubating. (American golden plover below)

American golden plover matches the ground (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

And their chicks are perfectly camouflaged to match the tundra habitat. Can you find the chick in the photo below?

Who knew that gold can look like moss?

(photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals. Embedded tweet from @CrowsAndCompany)

Where Are They Going?

Lesser black-backed gull (photo by Marek Szczepanek via Wikimedia Commons)

5 April 2019

In late March more than 440 lesser black-backed gulls congregated in a damp field in northeastern Pennsylvania — an exciting find because they used to be very rare in North America. Why are they here and where are they going? The Pennsylvania Game Commission is using satellite telemetry to find out.

Lesser black-backed gulls (Larus fuscus) are an Old World species that breeds in Iceland, northern Europe, Russia and Kazakhstan and spends the winter in Europe, Africa and coastal Asia. They were never seen in North America until one showed up in New Jersey in 1934. Slowly their wintertime numbers increased until they’re now considered non-regular winter visitors to North America’s Atlantic and Gulf Coasts. See the map below.

Range map of the lesser black-backed gull (image from Wikimedia Commons)

They still don’t breed in North America in numbers that count on that map. However, they might be thinking about it.

In 2007 a single lesser black-backed gull began breeding on Appledore Island Maine, paired with a female herring gull because there were no other lesser black-backed gulls around. (Lesser black-backed and herring gulls are closely related.)

Meanwhile their migration numbers through Pennsylvania are high enough that ornithologists began to wonder if lesser black-backed gulls are bothering to cross the Atlantic to breed. Are they going to Iceland? We would know that answer if we knew where the Pennsylvania flock was going.

Last spring the PA Game Commission attached satellite transmitters to nine adult gulls when they stopped over in Pennsylvania. The map of the gulls’ movements tells an interesting tale.

Screenshot of 9 lesser black-backed gulls’ movements in North America (map from PGC telemetry study)

The satellite-tagged gulls don’t go to Europe. They stay in North America. Based on their sedentary lifestyle in June they seem to be breeding in Greenland and northeastern Canada.

Screenshot of 9 lesser black-backed gulls’ movements in North America (map from PGC telemetry study)

Click here for the interactive Lesser Black-Backed Gull Telemetry map that zooms in and follows the gulls’ paths. (There’s more about the study here.)

Is there a breeding population of lesser black-backed gulls in North America now? This year we’ll watch again to find out where they’re going.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons, maps from PA Game Commission’s Lesser Black-backed Gull telemetry project; click on the captions to see the originals)

When Will The Bonnies Arrive?

Bonaparte’s gulls, Palo Alto Baylands, Dec 2012 (photo by Elka Lange via Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Some years spring migration is early. Some years it’s late. March is the time for ducks, blackbirds, phoebes, and gulls. I’m waiting for Bonaparte’s gulls (Chroicocephalus philadelphia) to arrive.

Bonaparte’s gulls pass through Pittsburgh from late March through April. Seven years ago I wrote about their sudden appearance on 21 March 2012 on the Ohio River and at North Park.

Read about their arrival — and their unusual nest location — in this vintage article: Bonnies On The Move.

When will the “bonnies” arrive? It’s time to check the rivers. 🙂

(photo by Elka Lange on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

A 26-Foot Wall Of Water

In Hilo, Hawaii there’s a palm tree in the city’s bayside park with metal rings on its trunk. Each ring is marked with a year and the height in feet. The highest one (arrow on my photo above) says “26 feet, 1946.” It memorializes a tsunami that spawned the Pacific Tsunami Warning System.

Tsunamis, sometimes called tidal waves, are seismic sea waves caused by earthquakes, underwater landslides or explosions. They happen when the ocean is abruptly displaced, as shown in this tsunami animation.

In the wee hours of 1 April 1946 a massive underwater earthquake struck offshore in the Aleutians near Unimak Island, Alaska. It was so massive that it created a 114-foot wave that swept away Unimak’s new lighthouse. The rest of it raced across the Pacific Ocean at 500 miles per hour and hit Hilo five hours later around 7am.

Hilo had no idea the tsunami was coming. Some people were mesmerized as the bay sucked loudly out to sea and exposed floundering fish. When the water returned in five surging waves, the highest was a 26 foot wall of water. Everyone ran away. 159 people died. The town was destroyed. (Note the wave in the background of this photo taken as the tsunami arrived in 1946.)

People run from tsunami in Hilo, Hawai’i, 1 April 1946 ( photo via Wikimedia Commons)

The palm tree was there when it happened. The 26-foot marker shows the debris line left by the 1946 tsunami plus three other large tsunamis that passed the tree: 15 feet in 1960, 12 feet in 1952 and 8 feet in 1957. This video from September 2018 explains the markers (starting at the 1:19 timemark with the narrator’s face).

The following video shows After and Before photos taken in 2010 and taken at the moment the tsunami hit the trees.

Ultimately, the disaster had a positive outcome. By 1949 the U.S. had installed a warning system, now called the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center, to detect earthquakes and warn of potential tsunamis. Throughout Hawaii you’ll see signs and sirens to tell you where to evacuate and when to leave.

Tsunami evacuation signs and sirens in Hawaii (images from Hawaii Emergency Management)

It was a terrifying 26-foot wall of water but it led to a safer future.

(photo credits: palm tree by Kate St. John, 1946 photo from Wikimedia Commons, videos by Aaron and by the Center for the Study of Active Volcanoes, Warning sign and siren from Hawaii Emergency Management)

The Largest Albatross Colony On Earth

Laysan albatross in flight (photo by Bettina Arrigoni on Flickr)

If you want to see a Laysan albatross (Phoebastria immutabilis) Hawaii is the place to be. 99.7% of the species nests on the Hawaiian island chain. Midway Atoll holds the largest albatross colony on earth.

Most of the world’s 22 albatross species live on the southern oceans but the Laysan albatross is one of three that occurs exclusively in the northern hemisphere. Compared to most, the Laysan is relatively small. The wandering albatross has a wingspan of nearly 10 feet. The Laysan’s wingspan is 6.4 to 6.6 feet, about the size of a bald eagle.

Albatrosses spend their lives roaming the open ocean feeding on squid and fish near the surface of the waves. They are built to soar, but they don’t fly high. Their long wingspan allows them to soar dynamically near the ocean surface with a minimum of effort. In this way they fly 10,000 miles a year.

Albatrosses only visit land to nest. When not nesting, the Laysan albatross covers the range shown below, leaving Hawaii for Mexico, California, Alaska, Kamchatka, Japan, and the Phillipines.

Range of Laysan albatross (map from Wikimedia Commons)

Named in 1893 for Laysan Island, where the species was first collected, their favorite nesting site is at Midway Atoll, a group of three islands near the northwestern edge of the island chain.

Map of Midway Atoll from 2012 USGS report on sea level rise

Midway is home to nearly a million Laysan albatrosses including the oldest wild bird on earth, a female named Wisdom.

Wisdom was banded as an adult at Midway in 1956. Since her species cannot breed until it’s five years old and usually delays breeding until age seven or eight, Wisdom is at least 68 years old now, possibly older than 70. Though not on a webcam this year, her fame spread in the past when her nest was visible online.

Most Laysan albatrosses breed every other year but Wisdom returns to Midway annually to court with her mate Akeakamai, lay her single egg, and take turns incubating the egg and raising their chick. This season she laid her egg around 29 November 2018.

Wisdom with her egg, 4 Dec 2018 (photo by Madalyn Riley / USFWS Pacific on Flickr)

Akeakamai was on duty when the chick hatched on 3 Feb 2019.

Wisdom’s mate Akeakamai with their newly hatched chick, 3 Feb 2019 (photo by Bob Peyton / USFWS Pacific on Flickr)

It takes two adults eight months to raise a Laysan albatross chick. They mate for life but when there’s a shortage of males two females will team up to raise one chick per year. Read about this unusual solution at: Ladies Make Do in a Pinch.

Laysan albatrosses typically live 40 years but their delayed breeding age and single chick in 1-2 years means it takes at least 10 years for a Laysan albatross pair to replace themselves.

This slow reproduction rate makes them vulnerable to catastrophe. Not only are the birds threatened by longline fishing hooks and floating plastic on the ocean, but with 99.7% of the world’s population nesting on the Hawaiian islands they’re vulnerable if a disaster befalls their homeland. Tsunamis can devastate a single year’s colony, as one did in March 2011, but climate change will be the worst. Climate-induced sea level rise will submerge much of the largest albatross colony on earth.

Our tour won’t be visiting Midway but we’ll see Laysan albatrosses today at Kileauea Point on the island of Kauai.

(photo credits: Albatross in flight by Bettina Arrigoni on Flickr with Creative Commons license. Range map from Wikimedia Commons. Midway Atoll map from USGS. Wisdom and Akeakamai photos from USFWS Pacific on Flickr. Click on the captions to see the originals)

Tour Day 3: Travel from Oahu to Kauai and its north shore refuges, Kileauea Point

Today I See Fairies

White terns at Midway Atoll Hawaii (photo by Forest and Kim Starr via Wikimedia Commons)

Completely white with large black eyes, white terns have fascinated me since I first learned of their existence in 2010. At the time I never thought I’d see one but today I’m in Hawaii where they’re the official bird of Honolulu. They nest in Kapiolani Park near our hotel.

White terns (Gygis alba) are immaculate white seabirds with long blue-black beaks and a buoyant erratic flight. They live in the tropical Pacific, Indian and south Atlantic Oceans where their wide range and physical characteristics give them many names including common fairy terns, angel terns and manu-o-Ku in Hawaii. Surprisingly, Gygis alba are more closely related to noddies than to terns so they’re technically white noddies.

White tern in flight, Midway Atoll Hawaii (photo by Forest and Kim Starr via Wikimedia Commons)

White terns first caught my attention when I learned about their nesting strategy. They’re at the extreme end of Birds That Don’t Build Nests. The female lays her single egg on a thin bare tree branch without any nesting material.

White tern nest on a branch (photo by Forest and Kim Starr via Wikimedia Commons)

She tries to place it in a fork or natural depression but the egg is always in danger of blowing away. If it does, she quickly cycles and lays another one.

White tern incubating egg on a branch (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

If it hatches, the chick is equipped with long claws and strong webbed feet to hang on in the wind. In this way white terns can raise up to three chicks per year.

White tern chick on a branch (photo by Forest and Kim Starr via Wikimedia Commons)

Today our tour will spend time in Kapiolani Park so I’m sure to see white terns. For the first time in my life I’ll see fairies.

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

Tour Day 2: Kapiolani Park and Oahu island