Archive for the 'Water and Shore' Category

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)

2 responses so far

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.

No responses yet

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)

3 responses so far

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)

No responses yet

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)

One response so far

Apr 01 2015

Corals Tell The Climate Story, April 16

Coral reef at Palmyra Atoll (photo by Jim Maragos/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Coral reef at Palmyra Atoll (photo by Jim Maragos/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Knowing the Earth’s past climate is key to understanding the future but our records of the past are sketchy.  Paleoclimatologists turn to fossils for help.  In cold and temperate areas they analyze ice cores and ancient tree rings.  In the tropics corals tell the climate’s tale.

Obtaining a record of the warm oceans’ history is important because so much of Earth’s weather is controlled by conditions in the Tropics.  Think El Nino and La Nina, for starters.

In the tropical Pacific Dr. Kim Cobb examines live and fossil corals to assemble a climate record that now spans 7,000+ years.  Thanks to the University Honors College she’s coming to Pittsburgh on April 16.  Through video and photos, she’ll take the audience to her field sites to hear the corals tell their climate story.

Dr. Kim Cobb
Corals as Climate Communicators
April 16, 2015, 4:00 PM

Charity Randall Theatre (in the Stephen Foster Memorial Building)
4301 Forbes Ave

Here’s a quick video of Kim Cobb discussing climatology.  She describes herself on  Twitter as “40% Climate Scientist, 40% Mom and 20% Indian Jones.”  Her lecture on corals will not be a dry subject!


This lecture is free and open to the public but space is limited. Click here to read more about this University of Pittsburgh Honors College event and reserve your seat.


(photo of coral reef at Palmyra Atoll (a location where Kim Cobb works on corals) by Jim Maragos/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service via Wikimedia Commons. Video of Dr. Kim Cobb via

No responses yet

Mar 28 2015

Mixed Parentage

Redhead-Ring-necked Duck hybird, Duck Hollow, Pittsburgh, PA, 25 Mar 2015 (photo by Tom Moeller)

Redhead-Ring-necked hybrid duck at Duck Hollow, Pittsburgh, PA, 25 Mar 2015 (photo by Tom Moeller)

What duck is this?

Photographed by Tom Moeller on March 25 at Duck Hollow in Pittsburgh, this odd duck defies a single label.  Apparently one of his parents was a redhead, the other a ring-necked duck.

Here are the two species he resembles: male redhead on the left, male ring-necked duck on the right.

Two male ducks: Redhead and Ring-necked (photos by Chuck Tague)

Two male ducks: Redhead and Ring-necked (photos by Chuck Tague)

He has the head color, eye color and shoulder of a redhead and the head shape, bill color and body color (except for his non-white shoulder) of a ring-necked duck.

Depending on the light and the distance you might see a feature of either species and call him accordingly.  David Poortinga figured him out and told Tom what it was.

Here’s another look him.  He’s a redhead with a fancy bill and black back.  Or he’s a ring-necked duck with a red head.

Redhead-Ring-necked Duck hybird, Duck Hollow, Pittsburgh, PA, 25 Mar 2015 (photo by Tom Moeller)

Redhead-Ring-necked Duck hybrid, Duck Hollow, Pittsburgh, PA, 25 Mar 2015 (photo by Tom Moeller)

Ducks and geese hybridize a lot compared to other birds.  Duck hunters see these hybrids up close because they have the bird in hand so Ducks Unlimited explains:

“Waterfowl crossbreed more often than any other family of birds. Scientists have recorded more than 400 hybrid combinations among waterfowl species. Mallards crossbreed with nearly 50 other species, and wood ducks hybridize with a surprising 26 other species. Nearly 20 percent of waterfowl hybrid offspring are capable of reproducing.”

Mallards being the least picky, or the perhaps most promiscuous, breed with many species.  According to Ducks Unlimited their mates include northern pintails, black ducks, wigeon, shovelers, cinnamon teal, green-winged teal, and gadwalls.  Perhaps every dabbling duck is a mallard at heart.

Will the Odd Duck attract a mate this spring ?  If so, will she be a redhead or a ring-necked duck?  What will his offspring look like?

Yikes!  Talk about mixed parentage!


p.s. As of yesterday, March 27, the hybrid was still at Duck Hollow.

(photo of hybrid Redhead-Ring-necked Duck by Tom Moeller.  Composite photos of redhead and ring-necked ducks by Chuck Tague)

3 responses so far

Mar 16 2015

This Many!

Snow Geese take off from Middle Creek (photo by Kim Steininger)

How many snow geese are in this picture?  Imagine if it was your job to count them!

Snow goose migration got off to a slow start this spring because the lakes remained frozen in Pennsylvania.  In warm winters they start to arrive at Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area on the Lebanon-Lancaster County border in late February.  But that was out of the question this year.  The narrow north end of Chesapeake Bay was frozen in mid-February and there were 10-12 inches of ice on Middle Creek lake.  The geese stayed south.

The situation changed rapidly, though.  A week ago there were 100 snow geese at Middle Creek.  On Thursday March 12 there were suddenly 20,000.  On Friday there were 75,000 with more arriving throughout the day.  The count this morning is anyone’s guess.

Actually, the number of snow geese at Middle Creek is Jim Binder’s very educated estimate.  Jim has been the manager of Middle Creek WMA since 1997 and has decades of experience counting these birds.

The trick to counting is that snow geese always rest on the lake’s open water at night.  Jim comes out before dawn and counts them at first light before they leave for the day.  He knows the lake well and the numbers it can hold.  He’s so good at counting that he can tell the number by their sound.  The record is 180,000!

But Jim has to work fast. The flock wakes up and stretches its wings. Small groups leave in a leisurely fashion to feed in nearby fields but if something scares them — an airplane, a helicopter, or a bald eagle — the entire flock goes airborne at once with a roar.

When I want to see this spectacle I read Jim Binder’s snow goose count and arrive at Willow Point before dawn.  Kim Steininger took this photo on a day when there were 80,000 to 100,000 snow geese at Middle Creek.

How many snow geese do I hope for?  This many!


Note: Because the ice melted so late this year, snow goose migration is likely to be intense and over quickly.  The geese are running out of time to get home.

(photo by Kim Steininger)

No responses yet

Mar 11 2015

Bobble Buffleheads

Spring is finally here and the early birds are on their way north.  Among them are bufflehead ducks whose body shape and courtship behavior would earn them a different name if they needed one today.

Buffleheads (Bucephala albeola) are small black and white ducks that nest in tree cavities from western Quebec to Alaska.  Males are striking black and white, females mostly black, and they’re named buffleheads — “buffalo heads” — because the male’s head looks large and out of scale for his size.

Watch the video above and you’ll see three males “use their heads” to impress the lone female.  They are bobbing like crazy!  Apparently, the bigger the bob the better.

There’s even more going on.  Here’s a list of courtship displays quoted from Cornell’s Birds of North America Online.

  • Head-bobbing is the most common.
  • Fly-over and Land (not seen in the video):  The male flies over the female and lands close to her, skiing on water to show off his feet, raising his head feathers to show off his head.
  • Head-shake-forward:  After landing the male tosses his head forward and …
  • Wing-lift:  … and raises his wings high behind his head.
  • Leading and Following are done by established pairs.  “The male leads by swimming vigorously with the neck stretched upwards, sometimes pecking to the side, and the female usually responds by a Following Display, in which she swims or runs on the surface to catch up with the male, her neck extended, and vocalizes.”

So this lady has a mate (he’s Leading) but it doesn’t stop the other two guys from making a pass.  When one of them is particularly persistent she chases him away but he’s not convinced until her mate chases, too.

Buffleheads court while on migration so you’ll see this behavior on nearby lakes and rivers this month.

Do they make you think of buffaloes when you see their heads?

Nope.  If we had to name them today, we’d call them bobbleheads.


(video by winterwren3 on YouTube)

3 responses so far

Mar 10 2015

Ladies Make Do In A Pinch

Laysan albatross adults dance (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Out in the Pacific there are more female Laysan albatrosses than males.  The males will mate with the extra females but it takes two parents to raise the chick.  A single mom can’t raise her chick alone.  What’s a girl to do?

A long term study of Laysan albatrosses, published in 2008, shows that the extra females pair up in reciprocity agreements.

Albatrosses are such big birds that it takes a whole year for their solo chicks to mature and fledge.  Rearing the chick takes so long and is so labor intensive that female albatrosses lay one egg every other year.

Without a mate to help with nest duty the chick will die.  Researchers on Oahu, where the Laysan albatross population is 59% female, discovered that unrelated females on opposite fertility cycles pair up and raise each others’ chicks.  At the start, only one of them lays an egg and the pair incubates and raises the chick together.  When it’s egg-laying time again, the other female takes her turn.

Though their nesting success is lower than for male-female pairs, it works well enough that these girlfriends stay together for many years.

Ladies make do in a pinch.

Read more here at Science Daily.


p.s. Watch a Laysan albatross nestcam in Kauai, Hawaii on Cornell Lab’s website.  The chick is huge!

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

5 responses so far

« Prev - Next »

Bird Stories from OnQ