Archive for the 'Water and Shore' Category

Jan 12 2014

Let’s Get Tropical

Amazon kingfisher, Costa Rica (photo by Charlie Hickey)

Tired of the weather yo-yo?  Let’s get tropical.

Here’s a southern hemisphere bird that ranges from Mexico to Argentina.  She closely resembles the belted kingfisher, is virtually the same size, and has the same hunting habits.

But she’s green.  Her genus is Chloroceryle whereas the belted kingfisher’s genus is Megaceryle.

Amazon kingfishers (Chloroceryle amazona) are sexually dimorphic and follow the dimorphism of most birds — the male is more colorful than the female.  This one is female.  The males have rust color on their breasts. Click here to see a male Amazon kingfisher.

Belted kingfishers are backwards — the males are less colorful while the females have rust color on their breasts.  Click here to see a male, and here for a female.

This Amazon kingfisher was perched over water during Charlie Hickey’s fall trip to Costa Rica.  Click on his photo for a closer view of this tropical bird.

 

(photo by Charlie Hickey)

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Dec 07 2013

46,600 Birds!

Red-breasted mergansers in flight (photo by LGooch on Flickr, Creative Commons License)

Yesterday Jerry McWilliams reported a single-day record of red-breasted mergansers at Presque Isle State Park: 46,600 birds!

Every fall Jerry conducts a daily waterbird count for several hours at Sunset Point.  On Friday he and Roger Donn watched “huge flocks [of red-breasted mergansers] flying in off the lake and concentrating north of Gull Point, later moving west in groups of 100 to 300 birds for the entire morning.”

Where did these birds come from and where are they going?   Red-breasted mergansers breed along the ocean and lake shores of tundra and boreal forests.  They spend the winter at the coast from Canada to Mexico or at the Great Lakes.  The birds Jerry is counting at Lake Erie have reached their final winter destination unless the lake freezes over.  If that happens they’ll move on.

How is Jerry McWilliams sure of these numbers?  For you and me the count would be quite a challenge but not for him.  Jerry’s an expert at identifying and counting birds.  He know the shapes of waterbirds, their flying style and habits.  Color hardly matters.   He uses a scope and estimates in groups.   I watched him do it for a brief time last weekend when I visited Presque Isle.  There were only 7,858 red-breasted mergansers that day and I thought that was a lot!

If you’re at Presque Isle looking for snowy owls, stop by Sunset Point and you can watch, too.

Read the count details for Friday December 6 are at this link on PABIRDS.

(photo of red-breasted mergansers in flight by lgooch on Flickr via Creative Commons License.  Click on the image to see the original)

 

p.s. This is more than twice the number of crows we’ve ever counted in Pittsburgh in the winter.

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Nov 29 2013

Happy Birthday, Surtsey (Belated)

Island of Surtsey, 1999 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Fifty years and fifteen days ago, the island of Surtsey emerged from the sea off the southern coast of Iceland.

On November 14, 1963 the cook on the trawler Ísleifur II saw smoke on the water.  The captain motored over to see if it was a ship on fire or a volcano (in Iceland you know to include “volcano” on your list) and yes, it was a volcano.

From a spot of smoke it grew quickly into an island.  Here it is erupting in 1963.

Island of Surtsey erupting (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Named for a Norse fire giant, Surtsey continued to erupt for the next three and a half years until it grew even larger than it is today.  The island is literally losing ground.  It was 1 square mile at its maximum; now it’s only half.   The ocean immediately took away the loose rocks leaving behind hard volcanic cliffs.  They will eventually erode as well, it’ll just take longer.

For now Surtsey has settled down to a bland, quiet existence as a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the most studied places on earth.  What began as barren hot rock now hosts at least 69 plant species and 15 species of nesting birds (nice cliffs!).  Even spiders have drifted in and set up housekeeping.

Two unexpected plants arrived with human visitors and had to be eradicated lest they became invasive.  A tomato plant grew from a seed deposited by diarrhea (yes, it happens) and some boys planted potatoes.  Wrong!  Those had to go.

Right now Surtsey is probably under snow as in this photo from January 2009.
Surtsey Island, Jan 2009 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Very quiet, but she has an amazing history.  See great photos of her fiery birth and read more of her history, including the bizarre French territorial dispute, at the VolcanoCafé blog.

 

(photos of Surtsey from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the images to see the original)

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Nov 18 2013

Not Born Like This

Black Skimmer (photo by Steve Gosser)

Speaking of pied shorebirds as I did yesterday …  when I see American oystercatchers I’m reminded of black skimmers (Rynchops niger).  Both have bold black-and-white plumage and long beaks but their differences are striking.

Unlike oystercatchers, skimmers have very short orange legs and a beak whose mandibles are two different lengths.  They use their long lower mandible — 2-3 cm longer than the upper — to skim food from the ocean’s surface in flight.  Click here to see.

Black skimmers aren’t born like this.  At hatching their beaks are normal but by the time they fledge four weeks later their lower mandibles have grown 1 cm longer than the uppers, halfway to this striking adult appearance.

One more amazing beak fact:  Black skimmers’ beaks look fat from the side but if you see them straight on they are knife-thin like this.

The better to skim with, my dear.

 

(photo by Steve Gosser)

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Nov 17 2013

Pied

Published by under Water and Shore

American oystercatcher (photo by Gintaras Baltusis)

American oystercatchers look so unusual that it’s hard to mistake them for anything else:  big orange bill, yellow red-rimmed eyes, bold black, white and brown pattern, and thick beige legs.

Gintaras Baltusis found these two at Breezy Point, New York in late September.   Look closely and you can see they aren’t the same age.

The juvenile (below) has the same feather pattern but doesn’t have yellow eyes and his bill is still half black.

American oystercatcher (photo by Gintaras Baltusis)

 

Before Mark Catesby renamed them in 1731 American oystercatchers (Haematopus palliatus) were called Sea Pies because of their pied plumage.  Fortunately their new name describes what they eat and cannot be confused with what we eat, a casserole called a Sea Pie.

Can you think of other pie-named birds?  I know of three in North America.

 

(photos by Gintaras Baltusis)

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Nov 13 2013

Give Back, Get Back

Chidham Point, West Sussex, UK (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Breach an earthwork like the one above, give back land to the sea, and you’ll get fewer floods.

After Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, U.S. emergency managers and town planners are discussing giving back land to the ocean as a way to protect still-viable coastal communities.  It’s a concept called “managed retreat,” a name that conjures loss and sometimes sparks defiance in those who live at the ocean’s door.

In the U.K. they’ve recently returned more than 450 acres to the sea by breaching an earthwork just five miles from this one at Chidham Point.  The locals are excited about it.  They expect the resulting salt marsh to increase tourism.  Here’s how:

At Medmerry on the south coast of England, shingle(*) sea walls were supposed to protect towns and undeveloped land but in recent years have proved inadequate.  Stronger storms and higher tides frequently flooded the low-lying communities, especially the caravan (campers) vacation parks.  Some sections of Selsey and Bracklesham Bay are below sea level.  It wasn’t working.

In 2011 the U.K.’s Environment Agency began a managed retreat project in West Sussex.  They built four miles of new sea walls up to a mile inland around the developed areas.  They also built drainage ditches and ponds, two parking lots for visitors, and 10km of bicycle paths and horse trails.  Then they breached the earthworks and gave land back to the sea.  The resulting salt marsh buffers the ocean’s rage.

It’s also great for wildlife.  Even while construction was underway migrating water birds stopped by to visit the growing new salt marsh.  Bird watching improved immediately and is expected to get even better in the months and years ahead.  The new salt marsh will be a birding tourist destination.

Give back to the sea and get back safety and tourism.  Compromise with Mother Nature is good.

Read more about this project and see a video here at the BBC News.

 

(photo of dike at Chidham Point, West Sussex, UK, located about 5 miles from Medmerry)

(*) The British word “shingle” means the sand, pebbles, cobbles and shell-pieces that make up the beach.

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Nov 04 2013

Feed In The Middle If You Can

Semipalmated sandpiper (photo by Steve Gosser)

For two years Guy Beauchamp carefully watched the behavior of migrating semipalmated sandpipers on the tidal flats at the Bay of Fundy.  He noticed the birds were doing something that no one had ever reported.

The sandpipers on the edge of the flock kept their heads up while feeding.  They were always on the lookout for danger, especially for merlins or peregrines that could easily snatch one of them.  Meanwhile the sandpipers in the middle were more relaxed and kept their heads down most of the time.  It turns out the birds in the middle were eating different food than the ones on the edges.

The birds on the edge of the flock pecked quickly at amphipods (similar to tiny shrimp) that were easy to see.  Their sentinel behavior made it safe for those in the middle to swish their beaks back and forth and filter the tidal slurry of diatoms (algae) and phytoplankton.  Swishing behavior wouldn’t have been possible if the flock hadn’t posted sentinels.  The birds had the advantage of living in a group.

This semipalmated sandpiper is alone, feeding with his head up, and probably has an amphipod in his beak.

I’ll bet he’d like to feed in the middle of the flock if he could.

Read more about this study here in Science Daily.

 

(photo by Steve Gosser)

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Nov 03 2013

Cormorants On The Move

DCCO_drying_sgosserDouble-crested cormorants drying their wings (photo by Steve Gosser)

These double-crested cormorants are drying their wings after diving for fish.  Are they visiting our area?  You bet.

Double-crested cormorants were on the move last week along Lake Erie’s shore.  According to Jerry McWilliam’s waterbird count, 2,125 flew past Presque Isle State Park last Sunday (Oct 27), 227 on Monday, and 680 on Tuesday. Then their numbers dropped.

When cormorants are on the move, the ducks aren’t far behind.

November may be cold but it’s a great month for watching waterfowl.

 

(photo by Steve Gosser)

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Oct 10 2013

Peregrines As A Fitness Program

Peregrine falcon at Lake Erie, Presque Isle, PA (photo by Steve Gosser)

Here’s my favorite bird patrolling Lake Erie’s shore at Presque Isle State Park, looking for a meal.

And here’s a potential food source — a flock of dunlin.

Dunlin at Lake Erie, Presque Isle, PA (photo by Steve Gosser)

The peregrine is looking for a bird that’s easy to catch.  The dunlin are sitting ducks (er… dunlin) if they stay on the ground so they fly and flock as soon as they see a peregrine.  This interaction has made dunlin more fit in the years since the peregrine population has recovered from the DDT crash.

A 2009 study at the Fraser River delta on the Pacific coast backs this up.  Peregrines never went extinct on the West Coast but they were very scarce in the 1970′s.  During this period wintering flocks of dunlin safely roosted on the sand at high tide and became fat — and a bit slower — in early winter.

The peregrine population began to recover in the 1990′s and soon found tasty dunlin meals as they migrated past the Fraser River delta in fall and spring. The dunlin quickly learned it was unsafe to roost at high tide during the day because peregrines were on patrol.  Instead they began to spend high tide flocking over the open ocean, flying and flying for three to five hours.  With this exertion they became much more fit and are now are measurably thinner in early winter, the time when peregrines are passing by.

Peregrine falcons have provided dunlin with a fitness program.  Be fit or be eaten.

Click here to read more about the Fraser River dunlin study.

 

(photos by Steve Gosser)

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Sep 24 2013

Longest Migration

While songbirds, hawks, and dragonflies are migrating this month there’s a bird whose journey beats them all.

The arctic tern sets long distance records in its pole-to-pole round-trip migration of 44,000 miles (71,000 km).  Since arctic terns can live 30 years, an individual can rack up a lifetime achievement of 1.5 million miles (2.4 million km).

The data behind this amazing feat was published in 2010 by the Arctic Tern Migration Project which studied arctic terns that nest in Greenland and winter in Antarctica.

To track the terns the scientists used tiny geolocator tags from the British Antarctic Survey, the same tags used to track wood thrushes.  In both studies scientists captured each bird, affixed a tag, then had to find the same bird on its breeding grounds a year later and recapture it to gather the data.  Wood thrushes don’t put up a fight but arctic terns relentlessly dive bomb their enemies to drive them away.  This study had bird hazards.

Attacking terns were not the only hazards.  Camping on an island off the coast of Greenland is no picnic.  “Our tents blew out to sea in the storm.”  Yow!

Watch this video from the Encyclopedia of Life to see the terns’ amazing migration and why it’s worthwhile for these birds to travel so far.

 

For more information, visit the Arctic Tern Migration Project at www.arctictern.info.

(video by the Encyclopedia of Life)

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