Archive for the 'Water and Shore' Category

Aug 03 2013

Visiting Shorebirds

Marbled godwit at Conneaut Harbor, Ohio (photo by Steve Gosser)

Shorebirds are migrating but we’re not likely to see them in Pittsburgh because we don’t have a shore. However there’s an excellent place north of us that does:  the harbor at Conneaut, Ohio.

Conneaut’s harbor was formed where Conneaut Creek flows into Lake Erie.  The lake’s waves can be rough so the harbor has been sheltered by two breakwaters.  These allowed the creek (and probably the harbor dredge) to deposit a sand spit and mud flat so extensive you can park on it.

Visiting shorebirds feed at the water’s edge and rest on the sand.  Sometimes they’re so close you have to back up to see them with binoculars!

The harbor is more than two hours away but the trip is well worth it.  Steve Gosser photographed this marbled godwit there in July.

Click here for a map and the harbor’s eBird checklist.  The best place is called the “sand spit” on the map.

More shorebirds coming.  Visit them at Conneaut.

(photo by Steve Gosser)

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Jun 17 2013

Doppler Effect

American avocet in flight (photo by Ingrid Taylar on Wikimedia Commons)

We all recognize the Doppler effect when an ambulance siren rises in pitch as it speeds toward us, then drops as it recedes. (Click here for a car horn example.)

Here’s a bird that uses that sound effect.

American avocets have many techniques for protecting their nests from predators.  They pretend to incubate a fake nest, then walk a few steps and pretend again.  They distract the predator by walking toward him in a teetering tightrope walk with wings outspread.  And they mob aerial predators before they can reach the nests.

But the most amazing technique is reserved for ground predators.  When avocets swoop to chase them away they shout at them, modulating their pitch to resemble the Doppler effect.  This is done so convincingly that the predator thinks the bird is approaching much faster than it actually is.  Run away!

Tex Sordahl discovered this while studying American avocets and black-necked stilts in the 1970s and ’80s.  Both use the Doppler sound effect.  I’m sure he got a dose of it during his study.


(photo by Ingrid Taylar via Wikimedia Commons.  Click on the image to see the original.)

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Mar 30 2013


Male common merganser in flight (photo by Steve Gosser)

Most birds fly with flat backs and heads up but some have this rounded hunchbacked look.

Here a common merganser flies with dipped neck and tail.  Loons always show this profile.

This shape is a good field mark.  Can you name other birds that fly like this?

(photo by Steve Gosser)

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Mar 26 2013

A Very Rare Goose

Red-breasted Goose, Branta ruficollis ()photo from Wikimedia Commons

This beautiful small goose is heading toward extinction.

The red-breasted goose (Branta ruficollis) breeds in arctic Russia and winters at only five sites along the Black Sea in Bulgaria, Romania and Ukraine.  Though protected by law it faces many challenges, from land use changes to illegal hunting.

It was already listed as threatened when suddenly, 10 years ago, half the population simply disappeared.  50,000 birds. Gone.  No one knows what happened.  Did they forsake the Black Sea for a new winter home?  Did something go radically wrong where they breed?

Now listed as endangered on the IUCN Red List, the red-breasted goose population continues to decline.  Another such disappearance would mean the end so researchers from Britain’s Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust and the Bulgarian Society for the Protection of Birds have fitted 11 red-breasted geese with tags to track their movements.

Nine geese received GPS data packs that will log their winter locations at the Black Sea.  Two received satellite tags that will track their migration from Bulgaria to the breeding grounds in Siberia.

Perhaps the data will reveal the mystery.

Read more about the study here.


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

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Mar 21 2013

Tundra Swan Quartet

This year snow geese and tundra swans peaked in eastern Pennsylvania in mid to late February.

I missed their migration but Meredith Lombard visited Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area and captured this video of tundra swan interactions.

These four swans are really hooting it up.  The quartet began when two pairs encouraged their mates with lean-forward and wing-quiver calls.   But the quivering wing display is also used in antagonistic encounters.  When the males got too close the dominant male had had enough.  He rushed the other one.

Whoa!  The less aggressive male immediately sat on the water in a submissive posture and the situation defused.  Watch him curl his neck down in an S position and look away.

Tundra swans can make music together.  Sometimes they jazz it up.

(video by Meredith Lombard on Flickr)

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Mar 06 2013

Hard And Easy

Surfbird and Black Turnstone (photo by Dick Daniels on Wikimedia Commons)

Here are two Life Birds who were hardest and easiest to see when I was in San Diego.

The surfbird, on the left, was hard!  He walks on seaside rocks and lets the surf break over him.  The best place to find him is on the breakwater at Mission Bay’s entrance but the day we were there the bird was way down the jetty out of sight.

A few intrepid birders walked the jetty and pointed to the bird.  For this particular Life Bird I was willing to walk the jetty but I didn’t count on how hard it would be.  Without my walking stick I literally crawled over the uneven rocks.   Not fun!  I turned back without seeing the bird and waited onshore for him to pop into someone’s scope.  Fortunately he appeared at a distance.  Even through the scope I felt like I earned him.

The black turnstone was easy.  He also lives on rocky shores but there were many more black turnstones and they were easy to see at La Jolla while walking the beautiful seaside path.

For some reason the surfbird feels more valuable.  ;)

(photo by Dick Daniels on Wikimedia Commons.  Click on the image to see the original.)

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Mar 02 2013

The Birdiest County

Brandt's cormorant (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

To my untrained East Coast eyes this bird looked like an odd double-crested cormorant, but it’s actually a Brandt’s cormorant, a common bird of the Pacific coast.

This weekend I’m in the bottom left corner of the United States at the San Diego Bird Festival held in one of the two “Birdiest Counties” in the continental U.S.  (Los Angeles County is the other.)

According to San Diego Audubon, “the County boasts the largest bird list of any similarly sized area in the United States at almost 500 species.”   With this honor also comes the distinction of having “the greatest number of endangered, threatened, and sensitive species than any comparable land area in the continental United States.”

San Diego is able to set these records because it has at least 11 habitat zones including coastal scrub, desert, mountains, salt marshes, wetlands and ocean, far outranking my land-locked home in Pittsburgh.

In my first hour of birding — just walking near the hotel — I saw long-billed curlew’s, marbled godwits, an orange-crowned warbler (singing!), Anna’s hummingbirds, black-crowned night-herons, and Heerman’s gulls.  By now I’ve seen 94 species including this life bird, Brandt’s cormorant.

When you compare San Diego’s checklist of 501 birds to Allegheny County’s 316 species (including vagrants), I know I’ll find a “lifer” around every corner.


(photo from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original.
Quotes are from the San Diego Audubon Society website.

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Feb 17 2013

Rare Pattern

Black-legged Kittiwake at Tampa Bay (photo by Dan Irizarry)

Something strange happened in the North Atlantic this fall that prompted thousands of seabirds to migrate much further south than normal.

This juvenile black-legged kittiwake is one of them, photographed by Dan Irizarry on February 6 in Manatee County, Florida.

Hatched somewhere in Canada or Greenland, this bird normally would have spent the winter offshore between Newfoundland and North Carolina.  Instead he’s foraging at Tampa Bay.

His bold black M pattern shouts out that he’s a kittiwake.

Not only is he rare, but he really stands out.

(photo by Dan Irizarry)

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Feb 07 2013

A Trip To See The Trumpeters

Published by under Water and Shore


Heavily hunted for meat and feathers, trumpeter swans nearly went extinct in the early 20th century, disappearing from all but a small range in Alaska and Canada.

When the swans were at their low ebb, states and provinces established reintroduction programs in the 1970′s and 1980′s in Ontario, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, and (an introduction program in) Ohio.

Because of the Ohio program we now see trumpeter swans occasionally in western Pennsylvania, but if you want to see a really large flock the place to be is along the Mississippi River at Monticello, Minnesota in mid-winter.  They’re there because the water is ice free, thanks to a nuclear power plant upstream.

Sparky Stensaas, the Photonaturalist, visited last month and produced this video.

Read his blog for more information about the Monticello trumpeters.


(video by Sparky Stensaas)

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Jan 29 2013

Open Water

Female buffelhead at Bosque del Apache (photo by Steve Valasek)

The long spate of cold weather froze all our ponds and lakes.  Even the rivers were beginning to freeze until Monday’s warmth reversed the trend.

Don’t expect to see a lot of birds at Lake Arthur right now.  Waterfowl who rely on open water for food or to get airborne have left for open water.  Some are at our rivers, most have left town completely.

This female bufflehead was on the other side of the U.S. — at Bosque del Apache, New Mexico — when Steve Valasek took her picture.

No, she didn’t leave Pittsburgh for New Mexico, but Steve did.

(photo by Steve Valasek)

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