Category Archives: Water and Shore

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

Rescuing Baby Flamingos

A rescued lesser flamingo chick in South Africa, Feb 2019 (photo courtesy the National Aviary)

When severe drought, high temperatures and failing infrastructure hit Kamfers Dam in Kimberley, South Africa, the lesser flamingo colony that nests there was forced to make a dreadful choice. The lake usually provides food and their island provides shelter but the water was gone. Incubating adults were dying of dehydration. If the colony stayed, all would die so they abandoned this year’s breeding attempt — eggs and chicks — to live and breed again.

Kamfers Dam is a privately owned dam just north of Kimberley, about halfway between Johannesburg and Cape Town, South Africa. The site was originally an ephemeral wetland but became a permanent lake thanks to runoff and treated wastewater from the town of Kimberley.

In 2006 people noticed that the lake attracted a Near Threatened species, lesser flamingos (Phoeniconaias minor), so they built an S-shaped breeding island for them (pin on map above). At the height of the breeding season it’s covered in tens of thousands of flamingos.

S-shaped island, lesser flamingo breeding colony at Kamfers Dam as seen from the air (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Kamfers Dam is one of only six lesser flamingo breeding sites in the world and an international birding hotspot … until this year.

Lesser flamingos at Kamfers Dam in 2008, a wet year (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

In January, because of severe drought and high evaporation, a large part of the lake went dry. The lake level could not be restored by the water treatment plant because of their own failing infrastructure.

The flamingos abandoned their desiccated colony, so people went out to rescue the chicks. Click here or on the screenshot below to see a video of the rescue posted by Saan Staan Kimberley on Facebook.

Video of Kamfers Dam flamingo rescue by Saam Staan Kimberley on Facebook

2,000 flamingo chicks and eggs, some in the process of hatching, were rescued by volunteers and taken to shelters around South Africa.

Rescuing a Kamfers Dam flamingo chick (screenshot from Saam Staan Kimberley on Facebook

Then the hard work began — three to four months of feeding and monitoring thousands of flamingo chicks, many of whom arrived in bad shape from dehydration and starvation. Added to that is the challenge of not allowing them to imprint on their human rescuers. South Africans made a worldwide plea for volunteers.

The National Aviary stepped up to help. Terry Grendzinski, Supervisor of Animal Collections and avian specialist, knows all about raising baby flamingos so she flew to the SANCCOB rescue center in Cape Town. In the photo below she feeds one of the rescued chicks while wearing pink sleeves and back gloves to mimic the appearance of the chick’s parents. Click here to watch a video of the feeding.

Terry Grendzinski feeding a rescued baby flamingo, Feb 2019 (photo courtesy the National Aviary)

So far, so good. The chicks are growing, preening and sunning in their enclosure (video below). Some are already standing on one leg!

Thanks to this massive rescue effort, this year’s lesser flamingo breeding season at Kamfers Dam will have a silver lining. You can donate here at the National Aviary to help these baby flamingos.

(credits: rescued chick at top, Terry G feeding a chick, and video of chicks in blue enclosure courtesy of National Aviary. Map of Kamfers Dam embedded from Google Maps. Video and screenshot of rescue at the dam from Saam Staan Kimberley on Facebook. Click on the captions to see the originals)

Imprinting Error

In 2011 crane watchers in Homer, Alaska noticed that a single Canada goose was convinced he was a sandhill crane. How did this happen? And can it be undone?

As described by Encyclopedia Britannica, imprinting is a form of learning in which a very young animal fixes its attention on the first object it sees, hears, or is touched by and thereafter follows that object.

Imprinting is especially important for nidifugous birds — species that walk away from the nest shortly after hatching — because they must immediately follow their mother in order to survive. They imprint by sight and the lesson lasts a lifetime. If the first thing they see is their mother or another member of their own species, life is good. If not, they grow up believing they are another species and will never find a mate.

Imprinting happens at different times for different species so wildlife centers use surrogacy techniques, described here at the Wildlife Center of Virginia, to insure that baby birds don’t imprint on humans. If they do they cannot be released in the wild.

Human imprinting is well known among cranes so caregivers in the Whooping Crane Recovery Program dress in crane costumes when in sight of the young birds.

Whooping crane costume worn by biologists (photo by Steve Hillebrand, USFWS)

Birds use filial imprinting but there are other forms. Studies have shown that we humans prefer the first computer software we use and then compare all new software to that first and favorite app. It’s a form of imprinting called Baby Duck Syndrome. “I don’t like this; it doesn’t work like Microsoft Word.” Quack! Quack!

As for the Canada goose in the video, observers speculated that the bird’s mother laid his egg in sandhill crane nest. When he hatched he saw a sandhill crane and imprinted on the wrong species. He’s the victim of an imprinting error.

(video by Nina Faust on YouTube. photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the original)

Watch a Nest in Bermuda

Screenshot from the Bermuda cahow cam at Cornell Lab

Nesting season began last month for this pair of Bermuda cahows when the female laid her single egg on 10 January 2019. The parents are now taking turns at incubation duty. They expect the egg to hatch in early March.

Watch them in their nest burrow at Cornell Lab’s Bermuda Cahow Cam.

And for a preview of things to come, here’s a video of last year’s activity.

(screenshot from the Bermuda cahow cam and a video of 2018 Bermuda cahow highlights, both from Cornell Lab of Ornithology)

Island Disappears In Rising Seas

Location of Dogger Bank (image from NASA via Wikimedia Commons)

Climate change is giving us extreme weather, melting glaciers and rising seas. It’s not the first time we humans lived through this but the last event was during the Stone Age and nobody wrote it down.

During the last Ice Age England was connected to Europe. As the glaciers receded people moved to the land between. Dogger Bank was the highest ground, about 100 feet above sea level.

100 feet sounds like a safe height, right? Nope. The glaciers kept melting. Dogger Bank disappeared 8,200 years ago.

Many islands face this fate in the 21st century including Tangier Island, Virginia (map below) and the island nations of Kiribati and the Maldives with 100,000 to 400,000 residents respectively.

Location of Tangier Island, Virginia, threatened by sea level rise, via Google maps
Sunset in the Maldives (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Like Dogger Bank they’re going underwater. Read more in this vintage article about Dogger Bank In the Age of Rising Seas.

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

Nesting Season Begins for Bermuda Cahow

Bermuda cahow returns from the sea for the 2019 nesting season (photo from the Bermuda Cahow Cam at Cornell Lab)

The nesting season began for this Bermuda cahow when she returned to her nest burrow on Wednesday 9 January 2019 at 11:55pm (almost midnight). By 1am she had laid her single egg. Click here for a video.

Cahows or Bermuda petrels (Pterodroma cahow) live on the open ocean and only come to land on dark nights during the nesting season, placing their nests in underground burrows on small inaccessible islands to protect them from predators. Humans used to be one of those predators. We ate them. By 1620 cahows were presumed extinct.

When cahows were rediscovered in 1951 there were only 18 nesting pairs on Earth, but thanks to the conservation efforts of David B. Wingate and the Cahow Recovery Project there are now more than 135. Most of them are on Nonsuch Island where many burrows are man-made to provide additional nesting sites. This burrow has a camera.

The pair that “owns” this burrow came back in November to refurbish the site, court and mate. In December they returned to the sea. Then on Wednesday the female returned to lay her egg and begin incubation. Her mate will arrive and take over incubation so she can go back to the ocean to eat.

Cahows are nocturnal so you’ll see them most active when it’s night in Bermuda. Watch their family life on the Bermuda Cahow Nestcam. Stay up to date on Twitter at @BermudaCahowCam.

(photo from the Bermuda Cahow Cam; click on the caption to see it “Live”)

Rainbows In The Swamp

Rainbow in the swamp, First Landing State Park, 23 Dec 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)

Last weekend in Virginia Beach I saw swamp rainbows for the first time.

I was birding at First Landing State Park, one of the last places in town that still has a bald cypress swamp, when I noticed that the water between the trees was colored red, orange, yellow, green, blue and purple. The rainbow colors moved as I walked.

Where I come from in western Pennsylvania, a rainbow on water is a bad thing. It means there’s oil on the water’s surface and it got there because people drilled and spilled. But these swamp rainbows are natural.

The water’s calm surface has a thin film of plant oils and pollen that reflects and refracts light. The resulting rainbows are seen better in winter because the sun is so low.

Last month someone else noticed the rainbows at First Landing and posted a photo on Reddit that went viral and was covered by the BBC.

Click here to see additional photos and read more about rainbows in the swamp.

(photo by Kate St. John)