Christmas critter countdown: Snowy plovers

Snowy plovers are among some of the cutest shorebirds, don’t you think? Or, are they a seabird or a wading bird? Find out what the difference is here.

Christmas critter countdown

Osprey platforms: Foundations that helped a comeback

For more pictures from the osprey banding trip check out https://www.flickr.com/photos/beachchairscientist/sets/72157654936373085

For more pictures from the osprey banding trip check out https://www.flickr.com/photos/beachchairscientist/sets/72157654936373085

Those huge platforms along the causeways are there for a very important reason. Osprey build their nests on them. They’ll also build their nests on any open platform free from predators and near shallow water. But, the man-made platforms have really help to bring back populations of osprey after their sharp decline in numbers due to DDT.  Each year the huge raptors, also known as “fish hawks” because 99.9% of their diet is fish, wait until after the water thaws to build a nest. Since the winter was so long this year along the Mid-Atlantic many of the birds just made their nests in March/April. With an incubation period of just over a month and the young needing just about two months before they take off from the nest it was a perfect time to follow along with Greg Kearns of Patuxent River Park in Upper Marlboro, MD, as he banded juvenile osprey (don’t worry, he has a permit for this kind of thing).

Osprey are banded at a young age to help determine their migration patterns, life expectancy, as well as reasons for mortality. The band that is placed on the young is very light weight and has not hindered their ability to catch food. I am incredibly grateful for his time and dedication to his efforts in conservation and education. Thank you for your enthusiasm and sharing your knowledge with the Mid-Atlantic Marine Education Association late last month. Here are some more interesting facts learned along the way:

  • As with all birds of prey these birds have very sharp talons. But, the osprey have a reverse talon making it easy for them to grasp their prey with two toes in the front and two from behind.
  • The male usually scopes out the spot for the nest to be built several days before the arrival of the female.
  • Osprey are asynchronous incubators and do not hatch all at once. The female typically lay four eggs but usually one two survive. While they do share food distributed by their mother the oldest one dominates.
  • The hunts for food for the mother and young and before he returns to the nest with food he’ll eat about one-third of the fish. Hunting for fish does burn a lot of calories after all. The mother and young will eat the rest of the fish, but seem to not favor the gut of the fish. The adults generally need about 300 grams of fish per day.
  • There is a 40-50% chance of survival for the young. The average age of an osprey is 8-10 years old. The oldest tracked osprey was found to be 33 years old.
  • Their nests are made of sticks from the surrounding marsh plants, as well as animal hide or even litter such as plastic bags.
  • Young osprey have orange eyes that turn brown as they get older.

If you live near shallow water and want to build a platform there are several plans available here: http://www.osprey-watch.org/learn-about-osprey/build-an-osprey-nest/.

To watch a pair of osprey raising their young during this nesting season from the comfort of your own screen check out the Patuxent River Park’s Osprey Cam here:  http://www.pgparks.com/Things_To_Do/Nature/Patuxent_River_Park.htm.

What you need to know about World Shorebirds Day: Saturday, September 6th

world-shorebirds-day1000My husband isn’t happy about this … But, recently, I have found a new love of birds. It’s because we live in the woods and not near the ocean, so those flighted friends have stolen my heart just like fish did back some many years ago. My husband thinks it is hysterical since we grew up in Cape May County, NJ and birders are synonymous with “tourists”, a group to which locals have a love/hate relationship. But, I don’t care … I can hardly contain my excitement for this Saturday – during World Shorebirds Day!

The celebration was proposed and organized by György Szimuly, a well-known bird conservationist based in Milton Keynes, England. Szimuly set out to promote and celebrate shorebirds.

Find out the differences between a seabirds, shorebirds, wading birds here.

“The idea to hold a World Shorebirds Day was inspired by the ongoing conservation issues we have been facing,” Szimuly said. “I think that setting a commemorative day for shorebirds will give conservation bodies and individuals another chance to educate.” He continues that “This is not particularly a citizen science program, but rather an effort to raise awareness for the importance of regular bird monitoring as the core element of bird protection and habitat conservation.”

“I think the global shorebird counts are a good get-together event,” Szimuly said. “I asked birdwatchers to book their site now, where they can go counting shorebirds on the 6th and 7th of September.” There are hundreds of sites and counters already registered for the World Shorebirds Day. The ‘booked’ sites can be seen on the event’s Google Map. https://mapsengine.google.com/map/edit?mid=z3yRwAVo2mAw.k42bDqIRe7a4.

Follow the activities and learn how to submit data of World Shorebirds Day on the website blog and Facebook page.

Penguins and pebble proposals

Have you seen this floating around the internet these days “33 Awesome Marriage Proposals You Couldn’t Say No To“? Well, I’m a romantic so I read them all and boy was I excited when I made it to #32 … all about that cute and fluffy flightless bird, the penguin. Check out the image below:

penguinproposal

I was a little annoyed at the generalization (not all penguin species participate in this practice), but then remembered the point of the article is sharing undeniably adorable proposals, not teaching marine science. Where did this statement come from? Well, most likely this was swiped from the movie Good Luck Chuck. See the scene below:

So to shed a little light on this generalization here goes it … The Gentoo and Adelie penguins are the two species out of the 17 known species of penguins to participate in this practice. According to the “Observations on Animal Behaviour” blog “During courtship, the male will present the female with a pebble as a gift. If the female accepts the generous gift, they bond and mate for life. These pebbles hold considerable value and they are also symbols of affection toward a mate. It’s actually quite touching that he would give one away when he’s fighting ferociously to defend his pebbles.”

Gentoo penguin

Gentoo penguin

Adelie penguin

Adelie penguin

Happy World Penguin Day!

From USFWS “Miracle Migration: The Long Distance Flyer, Rufa Red Knot”

Thank you to the Northeast Office of the US Fish and Wildlife Service for posting this graphic on their Twitter feed! With the mention of horseshoe crabs, how could I not repost this!?!

  • Did you know that shorebird hunting in the Caribbean and South America may contribute to the red knot’s decline along the Atlantic coast? (OK, how can we get this practice to stop trending? Those poor little birds!)
  • With scientific management measures now in place, horseshoe crab harvest is no longer consider a threat to the red knot?
  • Habitat loss due to sea level rise, shoreline development, and human development are still consider threats to the red knot?
  • One banded red knot, B95, was nicknamed “Moonbird” because researchers discovered this bird had flown enough miles to get to the moon and back!
via @USFWSNortheast

via @USFWSNortheast

 

What are the names of juvenile coastal and marine animals?

Well, it’s been quite some time since I’ve posted and it’s all due to an adorable little distraction – my son was born in early January. The addition has been wonderful and fairly stress free (keep your fingers crossed!). In fact, I have to say this time around my biggest stress was picking out a name. We had a boy name chosen, but not a girl name, so the decision was easy. However, it got me thinking about what juvenile marine animals are called. Here is a list of ‘baby’ names of over 25 well-known ocean animals. After all, you don’t accidentally want to refer to a juvenile shark as a calf or a juvenile eel as a spet, do you? If you can expand or elaborate on the list feel free to share in the comments box.

Birds
Flamingo, gull, heron, penguin: Chick
Crane:  Chick or craneling
Pelican: Nestling

Fish
Barracuda: Spet
Cod: Codling, hake, sprag, or sprat
Eel: Elver
Most fish: Fry or fingerling
Salmon: Smelt

Invertebrates
Blue crab: Larva
Clam: Larva, chiton, or littleneck
Horseshoe crab: Larva
Jellyfish: Ephyrae
Oyster: Spat
Sand dollar, sea urchin, sea star: Larva or pluteus (free-swimming stage)

Marine mammals
Dolphin, manatee, porpoise, whale: Calf
Otter: Whelp or pup
Shark, seal, sea lion: Pup
Walrus: Cub or pup

Reptile
Turtle: Hatchling

What this short video for some cute pictures of featured juvenile coastal and marine animals. Which one is your favorite?

Juvenile Animal Names from Beach Chair Scientist on Vimeo.

For more information:
http://www.pawnation.com/2013/11/19/baby-animal-names/7
http://www.defenders.org/sites/default/files/publications/sea_otter_faqs.pdf
http://www.zooborns.com/zooborns/baby-animal-names.html
http://www.enchantedlearning.com/subjects/animals/Animalbabies.shtml
http://www.english-for-students.com/Names-of-Baby-Animals.html
http://www.pawnation.com/2013/11/19/baby-animal-names/7
http://dictionary.reference.com/writing/styleguide/animal.html
http://www.horseshoecrab.org/info/lifecycle.html
http://www.bluecrab.info/lifecycle.html
http://www.jellywatch.org/blooms/facts

Beach Chair Birding

While enjoying the pleasures of beach chair biology, it would be a real shame to overlook the wide variety of coastal birds that can be observed from a comfortable lean. I know, I know those seagulls may be obstructing your view, but if you head out at the right time of day or year, and if you look closely enough, you’ll find a wide variety of different birds to study and learn about.

Ruddy Turnstone (Arenaria interpres)
 This little beauty is found all over the world, as long as there are beaches nearby. Its harlequin pattern makes it beautiful in and out of breeding season, but the patterns that emerge when this bird is breeding are unforgettable. So, I’m afraid, is its call, which is rattling most of the time and quite obnoxious when it transforms into the alarm-call.

Ruddy Turnstone

Ruddy Turnstone

Spotted Sandpiper (Actitis macularia)
These fun, freckled shorebirds are most often found in North and South America, although one will occasionally make his way into Europe. They not much for flying, usually choosing to foraging for their food and building their nests on the ground, but they can put on a show, catching insects in mid-flight.

Spotted Sandpiper

Spotted Sandpiper

American Oystercatcher (Haematopus palliated)
I’ve always found Oystercatchers to be sort of silly looking, but like most birds they’re beautiful in their own way. Their long, thick, orange beak is perfect for breaking open mollusks, which is how they got their very descriptive name. They’re most likely to be found along the Atlantic coast of the US and the Pacific coasts of South and Central America.

American Oystercatcher

American Oystercatcher

American Avocet (Recurvirostra americana)
This particular avocet is a member of the stilt family, and it’s thin, gray legs earned it the nickname ‘blue shanks.’ It is most likely to be found on the North American Pacific coast, but it will move inland as far as the mid-west during its breeding season. They’re migratory, making their way down into Mexico during the winter, and they’re also quite social, forming breeding colonies with dozens of pairs, and then grouping into huge flocks when the season is over.

American Avocet

American Avocet

Wandering Tattler (Tringa incana)
I saved this for last to reward you for reading all the way through. I’ve been a birder for many, many years, and I find pleasure in just about every aspect of it, but sometimes the names we give to the creatures around us just make me smile.

The Wandering Tattler is a somewhat plain-looking bird without much pattern on its back at all, just dull gray wings. Their breast is covered by a scaly pattern, but otherwise they’re what we used to call ‘Plain Jane.’ They migrate from Alaska to Australia, so depending on the time of year they can be found along the costs of North and South America.

Wandering Tattler

Wandering Tattler

They are wading birds and feed mostly on crustaceans and marine worms, but during mating season they’ve been known to expand their diets to include a variety of insects. They may be plain in color, but their foraging process more than makes up for it. They have a tendency to bob in and out of the water, giving the Oystercatchers a run for their money when it comes to silliness.

Ernie Allison is a freelance writer for PerkyPet, which makes high quality bird feeders to bring a little more nature to your backyard.

If you’re interested in guest posting for Beach Chair Scientist, please email info@beachchairscientist.com for more information.

The flight of swallows

That’s a great title for a song if someone wants to use it. In any event, have you ever been to the beach or walking along the marsh and felt the gloom and doom of darkness approach even though it’s a bright and sunny day? Have you ever looked up into the sky to witness the emergence of a feathered tornado? What you’re watching is the flight of the swallows – which can be up to several thousand birds approaching in one flight!

These no-more-than-14-centimeter-in-length birds are commonly seen swarming along the mid-Atlantic coast in September, the tail end of their breeding season. However, they are found throughout central and northern North America during their entire breeding season from May to September. These very social birds winter in Florida and the Caribbean. They’re rarely seen on land and spend the majority of their life in trees, maybe coming down to earth just to graze their wings along the surface of a body of water for a quick bath.

Why are they found along the mid-Atlantic coast in September? Well, they congregate in large flocks to roost among groves of small trees and cattails away threats (e.g., lots of people). They also prefer to make the nest for their eggs in the holes of dead trees away from threats. Male and female swallows are very territorial when it comes to their nest and will stand guard even from approaching fellow swallows.

Swallows produce one brood per year, averaging 5 eggs. These birds prove it takes a village as they make a nest for their eggs using the feathers of other birds to keep the eggs warm. The eggs typically hatch in about two weeks and are able to fly from the nest after three weeks. In one year the young swallow will be mature enough to breed!

And, in case you’re not familiar with the phenomenon – check out this well done amateur video I found on YouTube of a swarm of swallows (set to classical music no less!). It’s quite to spectacular sight.

Other great bird resources:

 

10 tips for a successful beachcombing trip

Pick up that clump! You never know what you'll find.

Pick up that clump! You never know what you’ll find.

It’s my favorite time of year. This is the best time to explore the beach. It’s still sunny and warm, there are frequent storms (you’ll see why that matters later), and there are few people on the beach. For another six weeks along the mid-Atlantic (before it gets too cold), I encourage you to spend some time getting to know your local shoreline. Here are 10 tips for a successful beachcombing trip.

10. What to bring. Here is a list of some items you may want to remember so you’re prepared for any situation.

  • Often the beach is considerably cooler than inland so bring layers. You may want to wear hiking pants and bring a zippered sweatshirt so you’re equipped with lots of pockets for some other items that might be essential.
  • Make sure to have some appropriate soles. Sure it’s our instinct to be barefoot, however if you want to venture out along the jetties or rocks make sure you have some old sneakers or those water shoes with some decent grip (After all, you don’t want to ruin your adventure with a puncture to some sharp object). Also, the water might be a little cooler than you’d prefer and some good foot cover will allow you to wade into a tide pool.
  • Make sure to have a watch.
  • Even during the off-season the sun is shining and is strong enough to give you a burn. Make sure to bring along a hat, sunglasses, and sunscreen.
  • It’s always a good idea to bring a shovel, grabber sick, or even a metal detector so you can gently investigate inside crevices and below the sand.
  • You are going to want to cherish the moments so find that camera and try to make a neck strap so it’s always handy. You can take pictures of items you find and want to learn about later. You’ll also want to catalog those smiles in the sun.
  • Take along a small (i.e., not heavy) identification book so you can learn more about what you find while on your outing.

9. Be hands free. One more item that you’re going to love me for suggesting is a backpack. This way you can investigate a little bit further from your base and your items are quickly at your disposal.

8. Leave important items behind. Don’t ruin the day by losing a credit card or your phone. If you’re active and in the moment you might lose something and it’s going to be difficult to retrace your steps. I won’t say “I told you so”. On the same note it’s important to leave animals, plants, rocks, and seashells where you find them. If you want to have a little bit of the beach in your home check out these great books by Josie Iselin.

7. When to go. To get the optimum experience for beachcombing you’ll want to check on when low tide is at your beach spot. The best time to go beachcombing is 2-3 hours prior to low tide or an hour or so after (This is why a watch is important, you don’t want to get stuck on  shoal during high tide). Many intertidal animals live under the water in the sand during high tide, but come out to play (and seek out food) during low tide. If you can time it so you get to check out the beach after a big storm you’ll be in for a real treat. The strong wind and wave action of storms will wash up a fossils, bones, seaweed, and lot of other interesting treasures from the ocean floor. Also, keep in mind that dawn and dusk are difficult times to identify beach treasures. Although this is a great time to spot birds as many fish tend to come up to the surface at these times.

6. Where to go. My favorite spot to beachcomb is the Stone Harbor Point in NJ, but it’s not always easy for me to get there these days. I like to remind myself from time to time that I don’t need an ocean to beachcomb. There is a lake and creek in my neighborhood and these spots are a great place to spend the afternoon. After all, these waterways eventually lead to the ocean.  No matter where I decide to spend some time beachcombing I always make sure to note the general water quality.

5. Be careful. This is just a reminder to not tamper with obviously dangerous items. Fish hooks, metal canisters, and needles often wash up on the beach. While I am going to also suggest doing your part and picking up marine debris it’s also a good idea to err on the side of caution and when poking around. Also, some rocks look very steady but it’s important to be aware of your surroundings. If you are feeling like having an adventurous day it’s might be a good idea to make sure you have someone else with you. One last thing about being careful,even though the dunes might look like an interesting place to check out – it’s important to know that those grasses are incredibly brittle and can crack easily. It’s also against the law to walk on the dunes. The dunes are an important part of the beach ecosystem as they protect our homes from storm surge.

4. Leave it be. Each rock that you turn over is part of an ecosystem. A rock might be an essential part of an animal’s home as it helps pool water during high tide. Rocks also protect them from predator as well as the sun. It’s important to always remember to not take animals out of their natural setting – especially if you see them in a tide pool. Many animals are naturally attached to rocks for survival and you could be risking their survival.

3. Play. You might not want to go home, but you also might be in the company of some people that just don’t have a very long attention span. Even more frustrating is repeating the phrase, “No, you cannot go in the water today” over and over again. Build a sandcastle. Look to the horizon for dolphins or porpoises. Make a sand angel. Look up to the sky for cloud animals. Check out my ebook for other beachcombing adventures.

2. Bag it and track it. It’s always nice to be prepared to be able to do your part. I prefer to take along a hefty canvas bag that can fit in a backpack so I can tote marine debris back to a garbage can. You might even try to acquire one of these nifty bags with holes for sand to percolate through from the Green Bag Lady. When you head back to the car you can even do some citizen science and log your marine debris on the Marine Debris Tracker.

1. Don’t expect too much. It’s important to remember to relax and respect the area you are exploring. All of the ideas above are simply suggestions and ideas to ensure you get the most out of  a beachcombing adventure. Please don’t hesitate to share your favorite stories, spots, and other ideas for a great day. You can comment below of email me at info@beachchairscientist.com.

No balloons at the celebration for the Beach Chair Scientist …

Today is the fourth birthday of the Beach Chair Scientist blog. Despite the fact that some companies label latex balloons as ‘biodegradable’ and therefore, ‘safe’ for the environment, I will not be decorating any birthday celebration with balloons. Balloons blow! What has been widely spread is that latex balloons breakdown at ‘the same rate as an oak leaf from a tree‘. First, let me explain ‘latex’. Latex is a white tree sap of rubber particles from the plant, Hevae brasiliensis. After it is processed it becomes rubber. Rubber, as we know, is used in a variety of products because of its strong resilience and tear resistance. Balloons are made from latex (essentially, liquid rubber) once colors are added.

It just would not feel like a celebration for Beach Chair Scientist because I have been to countless beach clean-ups and see those latex and mylar balloons, as well as the strings that are tied to them, along the shoreline. Balloons are just not following the path that balloon manufacturers want us to believe. It may be true that research done in a controlled setting proves that when latex balloons rises to almost 30,000 feet they will freeze and bust into tiny slivers that fall back to earth. However, there are just too many natural factors (e.g., trees, wind) that impede balloons from rising to that height prior to losing their helium and flaying to the earth whole. Not to mention that even if latex balloons do break apart into tiny shards the tiny shard are still detrimental to the ocean. According to Sea Turtle Foundation, “Most balloons are made from ‘biodegradable’ latex, which degrades on exposure to air. However degradation can take up to six months and balloons floating in seawater can take up to twelve months to degrade”. In many areas it is illegal for mass balloon releases. Please check out your area for the local laws on balloons.

Here are ten examples of balloons affecting the ocean ecosystem:  

  1. On a New Jersey beach a sperm whale was found dying because it had a balloon in its stomach halting the passage of food.
  2. At a clean-up was on an island 5 miles out to sea – the distance cleaned at the 4 sites we targeted was about 1/2 mile of shoreline – in southern Maine this past June over 550 pounds of marine debris were found, including 232 pieces of debris (9 of which were balloons and one was found right next to a gull’s nest).
  3. Birds will collect plastic debris for their nests, and unknowingly construct death traps for their young.
  4. Balloons, plastic straws, plastic bottles, plastic bags, and metal beverage cans were found to be the most abundant type of marine debris litter as a 10-year national survey completed in 2008.
  5. Most of the trash found along the California coast during a 2003-2010 survey was 82% land-based plastics, including plastic bags, plastic bottles, balloons and straws.
  6. Fishing gear fragments, packaging materials, balloons, bottle caps, and straws were found to be the most common items found during a Cape Cod survey that collected 5,829 items along one-kilometer.
  7. A leatherback turtle starved to death because a latex balloon was stuck in its stomach. After the turtle necropsy, the only thing found in its intestines was three feet of nylon string attached to a balloon.
  8. Animals can become entangled in balloon ribbons and string, restricting their movement and their ability to feed.
  9. Bottlenose dolphins in California, loggerhead turtles in Texas, and a green turtle in Florida were all found dead after ingesting latex balloons.
  10. In the UK, Risso’s dolphins in French waters and fulmars in the North Sea are known to ingest balloons.

If you’re still keen on celebrating with balloons try to do activities where you can control them and not have them released into the atmosphere. You can put prizes inside them or decorate them or play games. Below are are alternatives for decorating and commemorating without balloons. Check out the background image from Orlando Sentinel with the juvenile loggerhead turtle swimming close to the floating balloons.

One last thing, if you’re in the DC area Saturday, July 21st and would like to join me during a stream clean-up with United By Blue please feel free to come along! It’s a great event co-sponsored by Subaru and fun for the whole family. Read this article about my first experience volunteering with them. Please feel free to drop me a line at info@beachchairscientist.com or leave a comment below if you have anything else you like to add to this post or just a question in general.