Dead Bird Quiz: Mainers only edition

25 11 2014

In advance of the Thanksgiving holiday, I thought you would all probably be longing for a DBQ. So here are two birds found by Mainers in October:

Bird A:

Bird A (photo: B&C Grunden)

Bird A (photo: B&C Grunden)

Bird B:

Bird B (Photo: S & R Brezinski)

Bird B (Photo: S & R Brezinski)

Neither of them are turkeys, by way of a hint.





News flash: citizen scientists are trainable

20 11 2014

Not to be smug about it, but SEANET has been doing citizen science since before citizen science was cool. Or at least, since before it was widely accepted as a viable and valid method of collecting large scale data sets. For a long time, the critique from the science establishment was that lay people without formal science training could not match the quality of data generated by trained scientists. Over time, more and more citizen science projects have taken off and produced high quality data sets on a scale impossible for scientists and their exhausted grad student minions to replicate. Now, in the face of these data, many former naysayers have had to admit that citizen science plays a role nothing else can. Professional scientists needn’t have feared; the rise of citizen science can, in many cases, free them up to do things besides constantly collecting data themselves. Study design, data analysis, publication of results, all these things remain in their purview.

As these views have evolved, it has remained critical to ensure that citizen scientists, who often collect data with little to no direct supervision, are actually doing a good job. In some projects, that requires intensive training before joining up–learning how to identify organisms, or take measurements with accuracy and precision, for example. These trainings were often in person and labor intensive, and sometimes also cost prohibitive, so many programs began looking for alternative methods of training, whether with print materials or mult-media ones.

The slick and flashy app interface of the Outsmart cit sci project.

The slick and flashy app interface of the Outsmart cit sci project.

A new study out in PLOS one looked into the relative effectveness of print vs. video training for volunteers monitoring invasive plant species in Massachusetts. They determined that video training out performs plain print resources (photos and text descriptions of plants), but, perhaps more importantly, rivals in person training in preparing volunteers who can correctly identify invasive species. Moreover, when volunteers did incorrectly identify species, they tended to be plants that were challenging for all volunteers, regardless of how they were trained. Identifying exotic honeysuckles, for instance, is hard for almost everyone, while multiflora rose was identified by nearly 100% of volunteers.

For SEANET, we have chosen to put more work in on the back end of data collection. Our volunteers are not required to have any knowledge of species identification when they join (though they tend to acquire it if they stick around); instead, every bird must be photographed so that it can be reviewed for accuracy as to species. For a program of SEANET’s relatively modest size, this works well, and I am able to review everyone’s reports individually. But on a scaled up project–something like ebird for instance–the program leaders must rely on the volunteer’s abilities and experience, and only reports that seem strange or outlandish are challenged and followed up on. If SEANET were to get so big as that, we’d have to modify things.

One thing the invasive plant project studied in this article has that I do indeed covet is a very slick and attractive interface in a smartphone app. We’ve talked about having such a thing for SEANET for a long time, but as of now, it’s not in the cards. But you can all gaze in wondering admiration at this plant project’s interface, and, if you are located in the northeast, you might even consider participating. If, of course, it wouldn’t cut into your Seanetting.





Carnage on the coast!

18 11 2014

The title here may be somewhat hyperbolic, but the situation on Gil Grant’s North Carolina beach on November 10 was striking. Gil found 7 dead birds, all of which had been thoroughly dismembered and stripped of flesh. For the most part, all that remained were wings and the occasional flayed skull. Six of the birds were laughing gulls, and one was a ring-billed gull.

ggrant6834-16287Whenever several specimens of a single species or closely related species turn up dead at the same time, we always have to consider a disease as a possible cause. But what else could it potentially be? Gil pointed out one likely suspect himself, writing this note on his report: “all 7 gulls today within 1/2 mile of fishing pier, gill nets, and shrimp boats.”

Nice clean skull, possibly thanks to ghost crabs.

Nice clean skull, possibly thanks to ghost crabs.

This is a situation we encounter a few times a year: a suspected case of bycatch, where birds are entangled and killed in fishing gear and then tossed aside. The diagnosis is not easy to make, however, even in fresh carcasses. When a bird is documented coming up dead in a net or other gear, the case is fairly clear. But we often get only a waterlogged carcass washing up on a beach, and it’s much harder to attribute those deaths to bycatch. The situation on Gil’s beach is further complicated by the heavy scavenging of these carcasses.

ggrant6826-16283This scenario is common–larger scavengers like other gulls pick the carcasses apart, and then, on southern beaches, it appears that ghost crabs do a thorough job of cleaning almost all the remaining flesh off the bones with remarkable speed. You can see a crab burrow near a carcass in one of these photos. We don’t see quite this much cleaning off of bones up here in the north, which, to me, is further support of my ghost crab hypothesis, since we don’t have them up here.

Because of the scavenging, there is no way to determine a definitive cause of death in these birds. But we have at least documented the presence of these several carcasses. I have been chatting with researchers interested in tracking bycatch and marine debris, and they are also interested in these more circumstantial cases, so we may soon be contributing photos from cases like Gil’s to that effort as well. You never know to what use your SEANET reports may be put in the name of conservation science!





The field guides are finished!

7 11 2014

SEGuideFrontCoverIt is with no small degree of personal pride that I officially announce the completion of the Field Guide to Beached Birds of the Southeastern United States by me, Sarah Courchesne. Of our initial print run of 720 books, 500 will go directly to our funder, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, for distribution to biologists and other folks both in that agency and with National Parks, or NOAA, or USDA or what have you. John Stanton will be deciding which lucky guys and gals get those. The remainder will be for us here at SEANET to decide. What I would like to offer is first dibs to any Seanetter who has put in at least a year of beach walks. You need not live in the southeast, but should I get inundated by requests, precedence will go to the southern contingent. For those who qualify, I will ask only that you pay for the shipping. Please contact me if you are one such SEANET veteran interested in a guide, and I will give you specifics on how to order it.

Once I have distributed those, I will offer up the remaining books as thank you gifts to anyone who makes a $30 or more donation to SEANET. Could there be a better Christmas gift, I ask you? I think not.

Thanks to everyone for their tolerance and forbearance over the course of this multi-year project, and I hope you all enjoy the finished product. Many, if not most, of the photos in the guide were submitted by you folks, so don’t be surprised to open up the book and see your own name, whether you actually walk in the southeast or not!





State of Wellfleet Harbor Conference on November 8th

4 11 2014

Let us continue the Wellfleet theme just a bit longer, shall we? SEANET ally Jenette Kerr sent along word of a great way to spend this Saturday should you find yourself on Cape Cod. Pertinent points to consider: the conference is free and open to the public AND includes a complimentary continental breakfast!

The 12th annual State of Wellfleet Harbor Conference will be held Saturday, November 8 from
8:30 AM–2 PM at the Wellfleet Elementary School. The conference is free and open to the public.

Diamondback terrapin feels that you should attend this conference. (USDA photo by Jenny Mastanuono)

Diamondback terrapin feels that you should attend this conference. (USDA photo by Jenny Mastanuono)

This year’s event features research and other activities related to the planned restoration of tidal flow to the Herring River as well as surveys aimed at learning more about animals that make a living in and near Wellfleet Harbor—oysters, river herring, horseshoe crabs, diamondback terrapins, and ocean sunfish. Among this year’s presenters will be Nauset High School students who’ve teamed up with fifth graders from Wellfleet and Truro to compare oyster growth and mortality in various locations of the Herring River and Mayo Creek.
“I think this year’s conference offers great examples of how our community of scientists, citizens, and organizations are using scientific inquiry at all scales, from satellites to test tubes, to meet our local natural resource challenges,” notes conference founder Abigail Franklin Archer. “I’m also looking forward to hearing from the youngest researchers we’ve ever had present!”
The conference also will feature a field trip on Sunday from 9:30–11:30 AM, a tour of upper Herring River culverts and road crossings led by some of the scientists and conservationists involved in the river’s planned restoration. Details about the conference and field trip can be found at http://www.massaudubon.org/wellfleet-harbor-conference.

Contemplating the Wellfleet area ecosystem from a hammock. Also a good way to spend a Saturday. (Photo by S. Courchesne)

Contemplating the Wellfleet area ecosystem from a hammock. Also a good way to spend a Saturday. (Photo by S. Courchesne)

Sponsors of this year’s State of Wellfleet Harbor Conference include Cape Cod Five Cents Savings Bank, Mid Cape Home Centers, the town of Wellfleet, the Wellfleet Conservation Trust, Friends of the Herring River and Mass Audubon. Food donations are being made by Mac’s Seafood, the Wellfleet Box Lunch, Dunkin Donuts, the South Wellfleet General Store, and PB Boulangerie.

For more information, contact conference coordinator Jenette Kerr at jkerr@massaudubon.org or
508-349-2615.





Update on eider research

30 10 2014

It’s fall, and on Cape Cod, that often means piles of dead eiders rather than piles of rustling leaves. In the multi-year investigation into why so many common eiders turn up dead around Wellfleet most years, the USDA, USFWS and numerous other groups have partnered up and pooled their skill and resources to try to get to the bottom of what’s happening. Right now, the researchers are wrapping up the live bird sampling phase of this fall’s work; they have been trapping birds as they arrive from their breeding islands–some from as nearby as Boston Harbor, some from nearer the Arctic. The idea is to sample their blood and feces to see if they arrive in Cape Cod Bay already having been exposed to, and possibly even shedding the virus. The birds are also banded so that if they ultimately die (of any cause) and are found, we will know what their viral status was as of the beginning of the overwintering season. The Cape Cod Times has posted an article with some rather delightful photos of this work.

Cape Cod is a SEANET hotspot, luckily for us, and many of our dedicated volunteers have offered to help in any way they can. Up to now, biologists were interested in hearing where and when eiders were arriving from the north. With the sampling work completed, the focus will now shift to documenting and collecting dead birds. Anyone, Seanetter or not, can help with this effort, so if you see more than a few sick or dead eiders (and this is not just for Cape Cod), please contact Randall Mickley (randall.m.mickley”at”aphis.usda.gov or 413-658-7113).

The other critical thing to report is any banded bird found dead. Here is a timely time to reissue our dead bird flyer! Please encourage all your friends and neighbors to jot down any band numbers they find and report them. I can’t emphasize enough how valuable those data are!

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Dead Bird Quiz answers

28 10 2014

Before I launch into the DBQ answers, it’s time to revisit an old quiz. Edward wrote in to say that our conclusion on a bird we featured a while back in this DBQ may have been erroneous. He writes that the bird more closely resembles a Brown Booby than the juvenile cormorant we deemed it to be. Edward is right in pointing out that that species is hardly unheard of off the South Carolina coast, so I wanted to bring the debate to your attention and see what you think upon considering this idea.

Now to the current quiz. There was no debate on this one; Bird A was universally recognized as a Northern Fulmar (NOFU), and Bird B as a Mute Swan. Indeed, this one was not intended to be very tricky, but more to pull out a couple species we see dead only rarely on SEANET beaches. The reasons for that most likely do not reflect the overall commonness of each species. The Mute Swan, in particular, is a non-native species that has risen to nuisance status in many regions on the United States, and we have several volunteers who report dozens of live swans every time they survey their beaches. Yet, we don’t get them reported dead very often. In fact, the last time we had a Mute Swan reported was back in 2011 in Rhode Island. Whenever a bird is uncommon in our database, we wonder why. Is the species rare overall? Is it found so far offshore that a carcass is unlikely to wash up on a beach? Do the birds go elsewhere when sick or dying (like a sheltered bay or estuary, rather than the open water near a SEANET beach)? I don’t know the answer in the case of Mute Swans. But at least making the i.d. is simple–a very large (see index card in photo for reference), all white bird with an exceedingly long neck. I suppose egrets partly meet that list of characteristics, but they are far less massive and they have long legs with unwebbed feet: far different from our Bird B. In Bird B, we have the additional benefit of an intact skull. Edward pointed out that the skull shows the knobby projection at the base of the bill that marks the Mute Swan. Compare the bill profiles of Mute Swans with two native North American swan species:

Image: NC Wildlife

Bird A, the Northern Fulmar, is another species that has not turned up on a SEANET beach since 2011 when Frank Kenny found on in New Jersey. Here is a side-by-side of that bird and Sarah Porter’s find:

NOFU in NJ (Photo: F. Kenny)

NOFU in NJ (Photo: F. Kenny)

NOFU in MA (Photo: Sarah Porter)

NOFU in MA (Photo: Sarah Porter)

In both cases, after the initial glance that often makes one think of a gull, closer inspection reveals the thick, stocky bill that makes both these birds unmistakably Northern Fulmars. What is interesting is the substantial difference in plumage coloration. Frank’s NOFU is almost white overall, while Sarah’s is a mix of grays and some interspersed brown feathers over the mantle and upper wing. What’s going on there? The answer is twofold.

First off, what’s with the light bird and the dark bird? Are they different subspecies? Different sexes? It’s a bit complicated, so let’s start with the basics.

Northern Fulmars are aptly named on both counts. “Fulmar” derives from “foul gull” (and I know many will argue that gulls are foul enough) due to their charming habit of projectile regurgitating stomach oils as a defense. The “northern” refers to their range. The species is circumpolar and nests from the high Arctic down as far south as Newfoundland and France in the Atlantic and the Aleutians in the Pacific. They winter from the limit of the pack ice down to the mid-Atlantic states and sometimes occur as far as Florida or even (very rarely) Mexico. Given this, it is not unusual to have NOFU anywhere along the SEANET territory during the non-breeding season, approximately September through April. After that, they mostly head north to breed, though in some years substantial numbers persist as far south as North Carolina as late as May or June.

The species is divided into two subspecies: Pacific (Fulmarus glacialis rodgersii) and Atlantic (P.g. glacialis). Our Atlantic subspecies is larger overall, though within the subspecies, the high Arctic breeders are smaller than birds breeding in boreal regions (farther south). Also within the Atlantic subspecies, there are what we call two “morphs” or color varieties: light and dark. That gets us to the main difference between Sarah’s NOFU and Frank’s. In the Atlantic, the light morph is more common, except for a few pockets in the high Arctic where the dark morph prevails. Even though Sarah and Frank’s birds look rather different in their coloration, both of these would be classified as light morphs since both have all white bellies, breasts and heads. This gives the birds a coloration pattern similar to a Herring Gull overall.

Light morphs nesting in Scotland (Photo by Dick Daniels)

Light morphs nesting in Scotland (Photo by Dick Daniels)

Dark morphs are harder to find in the Atlantic, so most pictures of them come from the Pacific where they are more common, but do check out these photos at neseabirds.com to see some very nice comparisons between the two.

Finally, that gray/brown mottling on Sarah’s bird. That is evidence of molting going on in this bird, where new feathers are coming in amongst the old. Edward points out that that makes this a bird older than 1 year since it is now replacing those older, worn feathers.








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