Archive for the 'Water and Shore' Category

Nov 22 2015

One Of These Is Not Like The Others

Published by under Water and Shore

At Lake Erie, a flock of gulls with an overseas visitor among them (photo by Steve Gosser)

At Lake Erie, a flock of gulls with an overseas visitor among them (photo by Steve Gosser)

All of these gulls are the same species … except one.

Steve Gosser posted this photo on Facebook last Wednesday and wrote, “One of these gulls is a little more special than the others, any guesses?”

His friends were quick to point out the odd gull and some even identified it, especially after Steve confirmed that it’s the one at the top right without white leading edges on his wings and without black wingtips.

What species is this special bird?

It’s pretty hard to tell with such a plain gray gull so Steve posted a second picture with the decisive clue.

A little gull flying with two Bonaparte's gulls (photo by Steve Gosser)

A little gull flying with two Bonaparte’s gulls (photo by Steve Gosser)

This gull has dark underwings!

He’s a little gull (Hydrocoloeus minutus), a native of Eurasia and rare in North America.  All About Birds writes:

The smallest gull in the world, the Little Gull is common across Eurasia. A few pairs have been nesting in North America since the 1960s, and the species is now a rare, but regular, visitor to the East Coast and the Great Lakes.

Steve photographed this one at Lake Erie.

Thanks, Steve, showing us what to look for!


(photos by Steve Gosser)

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Nov 12 2015

A Late Fall

Flock of ducks (photo by Brian Herman)

Flock of ducks (photo by Brian Herman)

It seems to me that fall is late this year.

The leaves were late to change color and stayed on the trees longer than expected, temperatures last week were 15 degrees above normal, and the ducks are late arriving from the north.  In my city neighborhood we haven’t had a really hard frost yet.

Have you noticed this, too?

A strong El Niño is warming the northern U.S. and southern Canada this fall.  Without ice forming on the northern lakes, waterfowl have no compelling reason to come south.  When do you think the big flocks will arrive?

For a good explanation of this year’s El Niño and the Winter 2015-2016 forecast, click here at The Weather Channel.


(photo by Brian Herman)

p.s. Here’s what the El Niño looks like in an image from There’s a big warm spot in the Pacific Ocean and another one off the coast of California.

Seas surface temperature anomaly, Oct 11 - Nov 7, 2015 (image from

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Nov 10 2015

The Odd Goose

Domestic goose and wild ancestor, the greylag goose (photos from Wikimedia Commons)

Domestic goose and wild ancestor, the greylag goose (photos from Wikimedia Commons)

We’ve all seen one … an all-white goose hanging out with the mallards and Canada geese.

Even if we’re unfamiliar with barnyard geese it doesn’t take long to find out the white ones are escaped domestic waterfowl that naturally prefer the places where people feed ducks.

Their scientific name is Anser anser domesticus, the same genus and species as their wild ancestor the greylag goose (above right).

Greylag geese (Anser anser) are mottled gray-brown with paler breasts and bellies, orange bills, and pink legs.  Native to Europe and Asia they were domesticated about 4,000 years ago for their meat and eggs.  In addition to food, they’re useful as Watch Geese because they’re quick to sound the alarm and chase off intruders.  How vigilant are they?  It’s said they saved Rome by warning of a night attack by the Gauls.

Selective breeding has given domestic geese bulky bodies and big butts but they aren’t always white and that causes identification problems.  Not only do some resemble their wild ancestors but geese freely hybridize.  When a barnyard goose mates with a Canada goose they produce some really odd offspring.  Click here for pictures of the many strange results.

If you find a gray-brown goose in western Pennsylvania your field guide will suggest the greater white-fronted goose but be careful before you decide that’s what you’ve found.

Greater white-fronted geese (detail from Crossley ID Guide for Eastern Birds)

Greater white-fronted geese (detail from Crossley ID Guide Eastern Birds via Wikimedia Commons)

Greater white-fronted geese (Anser albifrons) breed in the arctic tundra and winter west of the Mississippi and in Mexico.  They’re a rare bird in western Pennsylvania so check the field marks carefully.  Greater white-fronted geese have a “white front” (white forehead and base of bill), lots of black mottling on the belly, a smaller bill and are much less bulky.

Here’s the “white front” that gave them their name.  (I added the red arrow.)

Greater white-fronted goose (detail from the Crossley ID Guide Eastern Birds, arrow added to indicate white front)

Greater white-fronted goose (detail from the Crossley ID Guide Eastern Birds via Wikimedia Commons. Arrow added to indicate white front.)

Chances are the odd goose in Pittsburgh has domestic relatives but take a really good look at him.  You never know …


(photos from Wikimedia Commons. Click on these links to see the originals: wild greylag goose, domestic goose, greater white-fronted geese from the Crossley ID Guide Eastern Birds)

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Nov 08 2015

Neck And Legs Extended

Greater Flamingoes, Walvis Bay, Namibia (photo by Yathin S Krishnappa from Wikimedia Commons)

Greater Flamingoes, Walvis Bay, Namibia (photo by Yathin S Krishnappa from Wikimedia Commons)

You’ll never see these birds in the wild in Pennsylvania.

Flying with legs and necks extended these greater flamingos (Phoenicopterus roseus) — an adult and sub-adult — are at Walvis Bay in Namibia, Africa.

Pennsylvania does have a large native bird that flies this way with neck and legs extended.  It breeds in western PA and has been seen in Crawford County recently.

Can you guess the species?


(photo by Yathin S Krishnappa from Wikimedia Commons.Click on the image to see the original)

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Oct 07 2015

Through the Storm

Whimbrel (nicknamed Upinraaq) at the MacKenzie River, Canada. She winters in Brazil.

What happens to birds who migrate over the ocean during hurricane season?  Do they run into major storms?

Indeed they do.  Since 2007 when the Center for Conservation Biology began satellite-tracking whimbrels they’ve seen 9 of them fly through hurricanes or tropical storms.  All 9 birds survived!

This year when Upinraaq (above) launched from Newfoundland on her transoceanic journey, she had no idea she’d encounter Tropical Storm Erika.  By the time she hit Erika’s 46 mile per hour winds she’d already been flying non-stop for three days. Nonetheless she flew straight through the storm and made landfall at Suriname.

However, her destination is Brazil and she faces a big challenge in Suriname before she gets home.  Click here to read about her land-side challenge and the amazing feats of migrating whimbrels (one flew through Hurricane Irene!) at the CCB’s blog: Whimbrel Tracked Into Tropical Storm Erika.


(photo by Fletcher Smith linked from the Center for Conservation Biology. Click on the image to see the photo and read the story of Upinraaq.)

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Sep 22 2015

Undrinkable in Pennsylvania

Undrinkable: acid mine drainage (photo by Kate St. John)

Acid mine drainage in well water (photo by Kate St. John)

Two weeks in Maine where the water is clean re-opened my eyes to something I take for granted in Pennsylvania: some places have orange water.

Perhaps you’ve been to this restroom at the Route 528 boat launch in Moraine State Park.  The restroom is clean but the water is not.  “Notice. Non-potable water. Not for Drinking.”   The metallic smell and orange-stained sinks and toilets make you wonder, “If the water’s that bad, should I use it to wash my hands?”

Coal mining contaminated the ground water here(*).  The orange water is acid mine drainage.  When the coal was removed it exposed pyrite which, when exposed to water, turns into sulfuric acid and iron.  Bad water from old surface and underground mines flows into streams and wells in Pennsylvania’s coal regions.

95% of the acid mine drainage in the U.S. is right in here in western PA, West Virginia, southwestern Virginia, and far western Maryland.  Visitors are shocked by the orange water we’ve come to take for granted.  Pennsylvania has more than 3,000 miles of these polluted streams, a problem too huge for individuals to solve.

The good news is that Pennsylvania stepped in with coal mining laws in the 1960’s that prevent new water contamination and PA Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) can require clean up when an old mine is reopened.  Slowly, the worst water is being treated and improved.

That’s how part of the Conemaugh River turned from orange to clear in Somerset County in 2013.  See before and after pictures and read about the impressive change here on the Allegheny Front.


(photo by Kate St. John)

(*) There are other ways to expose pyrite.  During construction of Interstate-99, excavation and rock-handling on Bald Eagle Ridge exposed pyrite that polluted nearby ground water and Buffalo Run, a high quality stream.  Though the pyrite was known to be there, construction plans ignored it.  It took two years and $83 million to fix the mistake.

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Sep 18 2015

Like Plunging Arrows

Here’s a bird I see in Maine that we’ll never see in Pittsburgh.

Northern gannets (Sula bassana) nest in cliff colonies on both sides of the North Atlantic.  In the fall the Canadian population visits the Gulf of Maine on their way south for the winter.  The adults will spend October to April off the U.S. Atlantic coast while the juveniles may winter as far south as the Gulf coast.

Gannets are large seabirds (6.5 foot wingspan) that catch fish by plunge-diving from 30 to 130 feet above the sea.  When the fishing is good a huge flock gathers overhead, diving over and over again.  The video shows their amazing fishing technique, both in the air and underwater.

And, yes, these birds are moving fast.  They hit the water’s surface at 60 to 75 miles an hour!  Gannets can do this safely because they have no external nostrils and their faces and chests have air sacs that cushion their brains and bodies like bubble wrap.

Watch them plunge like arrows into the sea.


(video from the Smithsonian Channel on YouTube)

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Sep 17 2015

TBT: Flightless

Common eiders in flight (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Common eiders in flight (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Here’s something I’ve never seen:  Common eiders in flight.

I see common eiders every year when I visit in Maine in September but I’ve never seen them fly.

The reason why is in this Throw Back Thursday article from September 2012 –>  Flightless


(photo from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original)

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Sep 11 2015

The Haunting Call Of The Loon

Every year my husband and I spend a relaxing two weeks at Acadia National Park where we enjoy spectacular scenery, wildlife, and hiking trails. Now that we’re heading home I’ll share some of the highlights.  The best is a sound that I will certainly miss in Pittsburgh — the haunting call of the loon (Gavia immer).

In September common loons migrate through Canada and Maine from interior lakes to the sea. Each one migrates alone, independent of its mate and offspring.

One particular loon, distinctive because he was molting into winter plumage, often spent his evenings at the harbor.  Every morning I heard him make the tremolo call at dawn (click here to hear) but last Wednesday, when the fog came up just after rain, he made a haunting wail call that echoed among the mountains.

Watch the video above to learn what the wail means.

I wish I’d heard a call in response.


(video on YouTube from Cornell Lab of Ornithology)

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Sep 09 2015

Reluctant To Fly, Except In Migration

Sora (photo by Robert Greene, Jr)

Sora (photo by Robert Greene Jr)

Soras (Porzana carolina) are the most abundant rail in North America but they’re so elusive that we rarely see them fly.  When disturbed they prefer to walk deep into the marsh rather than go airborne.  If you happen to flush one it looks weak and labored in the air.

Though they appear to be fly poorly, soras migrate long distances.  They’re very cold sensitive so they have to leave before the weather turns.  Birds of North America says they become lethargic as the temperature approaches freezing so “most soras winter in areas that have a minimum January temperature above –1°C (30°F).”

From their breeding grounds in Canada and the northern/western U.S. to their wintering grounds in the southern U.S. and Central and South America, soras may fly up to 4,000 miles.  We don’t see them on migration because (presumably) they fly at night but they’re sometimes found resting on ships hundreds of miles offshore.  We know they cross the open ocean.  Some of them winter in Bermuda and the Caribbean.

This month soras are hanging out in wetlands en route on migration.  If you’re lucky enough to see one, think of its journey — reluctant to fly, except to escape the cold.


(photo by Robert Greene Jr)

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