Archive for the 'Water and Shore' Category

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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Jul 14 2015

Find The Whimbrel

Whimbrel with eggs (photo by Dr. Matthew Perry, USGS)

Whimbrel with eggs at Churchill, Manitoba, Canada (photo by Dr. Matthew Perry, USGS)

Can you see the whimbrel and four eggs?

These ground-nesting shorebirds have natural camouflage but I’ll bet you can see the one above because the eggs have shadows and the bird’s mouth is open.  If you were holding the camera you’d hear the whimbrel shouting like this.

Whimbrels (Numenius phaeopus) nest in the northern tundra around the world.  In North America they lay eggs in the first week of June that hatch in the first week of July.  Mom stays with the family 3-14 days after the chicks hatch.  Then she leaves on migration while dad stays with the kids until they fledge in August.  The kids don’t leave until September.  This means that some sort of whimbrel is on the move in North America from July through September.

Successful mothers and birds whose nests have failed arrive on northern coasts in July on the first stage of their long migration.  Mary Birdsong saw this one yesterday at Presque Isle on Lake Erie’s shore (video below).

Their early stops are only way stations where the whimbrels fatten up for their transoceanic trips.  Some North American whimbrels fly non-stop 2,500 miles to South America.  (Others save time by wintering on the southern U.S. coast.)

Asian whimbrels spend the winter as far south as Australia. Here’s a group in Singapore.

Whimbrels wintering in Singapore (photo by Lip Kee via Wikimedia Commons)

Whimbrels wintering in Singapore (photo by Lip Kee via Wikimedia Commons)

But on migration they travel alone.

This month, if you’re lucky, you might see a whimbrel on the shore.  You’ll see it when its long down-curved bill stands out. Woo hoo!


(photo of whimbrel at nest by Dr. Matthew Perry, USGS. Video of whimbrel at Presque Isle State Park 13 July 2015 by Mary Birdsong. Photo of whimbrels in Singapore by Lip Kee via Wikimedia Commons.)


p.s. I often go to Conneaut Harbor, Ohio to find shorebirds but the sandspit is inundated right now because the harbor water level is 20 inches higher than normal.  See this message at OhioBirds.

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Jul 12 2015

Wall Of Water

Published by under Water and Shore

Wall of water in the Youghiogheny River at Ohiopyle, 1 July 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

Wall of water in the Youghiogheny River at Ohiopyle, 1 July 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

Lots of rain means a lot of water, especially in the Youghiogheny River at Ohiopyle.

When I visited Fern Cliff Peninsula on July 1, I was astonished at the river’s height and roar.  The site is downstream of two dams — Deep Creek and Confluence — yet the river made walls of water just above the falls.

Here’s what it looked like on July 1 after a very wet June.

For perspective: the wall of water is on the woman's right, Youghiogheny River, 1 July 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

For perspective the closeup below is on the woman’s right.  Youghiogheny River atOhiopyle, 1 July 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

Wall of water in the Youghiogheny River at Ohiopyle, 1 July 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

Wall of water in the Youghiogheny River at Ohiopyle, 1 July 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

Trees that had been on islands stood alone, fighting the river’s relentless pull.

A tree that had been on an island stands alone, 1 July 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

A view from the other side: A tree fights the river alone, 1 July 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

And this Joe-pye weed and a patch of grass are all that’s left of a ledge.

Joe-pye weed as an island (photo by Kate St. John)

Joe-pye weed as an island (photo by Kate St. John)

Despite the high water, rubber-raft whitewater trips were operating just below the falls.

You couldn’t pay me to ride these waves.


(photos by Kate St. John)

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May 23 2015

Best Bird This Week

American white pelican in breeding plumage (photo by Pat Gaines)

American white pelican in breeding plumage (photo by Pat Gaines)

Normally when I visit Magee Marsh in May the Best Bird is a warbler, but not this year.

I struck out on two Life Bird warblers — the Kirtland’s at Oak Openings and the Connecticut warbler at the Estuary Trail — and that took the wind out of my sails.  However, on my last day in northwestern Ohio I visited East Harbor State Park and found three white pelicans in Middle Harbor.

American white pelicans spend the winter in California, the Gulf states, Mexico and Central America. Those who breed in the prairie potholes and lake regions of central and western North America rarely stop at Lake Erie on migration, but these three apparently spent the night at Middle Harbor.  They were preening before continuing their journey.

In early breeding plumage they have bright orange bills with a laterally flattened “horn” on top.  This looks odd to us but sexy to other white pelicans.

American white pelicans migrate during the day because they need thermals for lift.  By 10:00am the air had heated up and the three pelicans circled up and headed northwest.

They were my Best Bird this week — other than peregrine falcons, of course.


(photo by Pat Gaines)

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May 03 2015

Graceful Tern

Caspian tern diving, Scranton Flats on the Cuyahoga River

A Caspian tern dives gracefully into the Cuyahoga River at Scranton Flats (photo by Chad+Chris Saladin)



(photo by Chad+Chris Saladin)

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