Massachusettsan Warren Mumford has just begun Seanetting for us down Chatham way in the Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge. He’s been most kind to share his thoughts on his first foray, and his writing needs little introduction. I am certain many, if not most, of you can relate. And regarding the question posed in the last line, You couldn’t get yourself fired if you tried. What’s the worst you can do, kill a bird? They’re already dead. Er…”beached.”
Beached Bird Hunt Number 1
The SEANET (Seabird Ecological Assessment Network) coordinator (Sarah) gave a talk at the Wellfleet Audubon Center a few weeks ago. Her description of this program was given with a flair and a sense of humor. She cheerily asked for volunteers to help look for “beached” birds on Cape Cod.
Somehow, being recently retired, I was attracted to this sunny prospect as a way to spend quality time outside on the beautiful Cape. Today, my wife, Mary, and I made our first excursion to search my chosen beach at the Morris Island National Wildlife Refuge in Chatham, MA. Our first find was a nondescript wing, a complete wing, but only a wing nevertheless. A complete wing constitutes a “beached bird” to be recorded according to the SEANET protocol. I was hoping for a more dramatic beginning for my first entry into the annals of SEANET and tried to suggest to Mary that we skip this puny item and perhaps record this avian body part on the way back in case we did not find anything more juicy. Mary unkindly chided me into following the protocol.
The directions say to place a 3X5 card next to the carcass of interest with descriptive info like my name, beach, date and alas, a four letter code indicating the species. To my consternation, I had no idea what ornithological name to apply to this forlorn wing. I am only a beginning birder, and the new copy of Sibley in my backpack would be no help to this neophyte eyeing an arbitrary collection of black, grey and white feathers on bone. Eating humble pie, I penciled “UNKNOWN” on the card and snapped the required pair of pictures: wing face up, wing face down.
Further down the beach we stumbled upon another “beached” bird. This one possessed all body parts. It didn’t hit home to me till then, that the term “beached” is really a soft front for the more exact and macabre adjective, “dead.” I nervously donned my surgical gloves to adjust the bird into the prescribed model position in preparation for a photograph, however, I ran into a problem. There was no flexibility to this bird. It was in an advanced state of decomposition and therefore was afflicted with an advanced state of arthritis. As I struggled to create the Nazi eagle pose described in the protocol, black spiders abandoned the avian scull through the eye sockets and gullet. Mary peered down with a look of disgust, saying “I don’t know about this?” I soldiered on and abruptly broke off one stubborn wing. When I began to record culmen, wing chord and tarsis lengths, still wearing my plastic gloves, Mary raised the question that some kind of disease might be spread on pen, clipboard and into my trusty backpack. I mumbled that I needed a better system for posing the specimen, snapping photos, measuring body parts and recording numbers. For Pete’s sake, I had never been trained in taking biological data. (The last time I performed a dissection was of a frog in freshman high school bio class and my partner, Sarah, did most of the cutting. Funny how two Sarahs are associated with my ventures into the bio world.) Again, I had trouble with the ID for the index card. The best I could muster was “GULL?” with a big question mark.
We trudged on in our quest, finding two more “GULL?” specimens which I dutifully photographed, measured and banded, all the while avoiding the fleeing spiders in the process. Eventually we reached the end marker on my assigned length of beach. We were then able to enjoy the colors of the sunset sky and return to our car. I wonder if the program coordinator will be cruel enough to fire this eager volunteer after the very first mission.