Dead shearwaters on shore leave

21 06 2012

Here they come…

I am hard at work, this summer, on the Field Guide to Beached Birds of the Southeastern United States. Right now, I am immersed in, and confounded by, the seemingly endless and extensive plumages of waterfowl. So, as a break for my feeble intellect, I am turning to a subject about which I know comparatively more: the annual die-offs of Greater Shearwaters.

Right on schedule, reports are coming in now from Florida of both Greater and Cory’s Shearwaters turning up either dead or nearly so. The Brevard County News is reporting over one hundred shearwaters dead or in extremis on Florida’s Space Coast. Most of those that have been taken to wildlife clinics have not survived. The Offshore Wildlife blog reports that the birds began turning up on Florida beaches after a stretch of sustained, strong winds offshore.

This seasonal pattern is predictable, and generally involves mostly juvenile birds who seem to fail to find enough food to sustain them on their long migration north from their hatching places in the southern Atlantic. The magnitude of the die-offs does vary year to year, and early reports from Florida suggest that this may be a big one. Our new SEANET force in North Carolina should brace themselves, as they will be expected to see the carcasses over the next week or so. Here in New England, we generally don’t get shearwaters until July.

Seanetters should maintain their usual walk schedules through these events, but if you see large numbers of dead birds when you aren’t on a designated walk, or on a stretch of beach that isn’t your normal turf, please send me an email (and photos are, of course, always welcome) so we can try to get a better picture of what’s going on out there.

To all our readers, Happy Summer Solstice, and with it, Happy Shearwater Season!

14 06 2012


I would like to call this a sensible reuse of content and not simple laziness. You Seanetters will obviously know about SEANET already, but the other Citizen Science projects I write about in this post on my personal blog may be of interest to you as well. After all, if you’ll volunteer for dead seabirds, why not roadkill too?

Originally posted on thestagecoachroad:

As the Director of a volunteer based citizen science project, I have been most gratified to see the status of programs like mine rise in recent years. Data collected by average people used to be largely dismissed as unreliable junk science. Fortunately, scientists seem to be gradually relinquishing this snobbery and finding uses for projects that used to be relegated to the sidelines. My project, the Seabird Ecological Assessment Network (SEANET) is among the more rigorous programs out there, requiring regular trips to a designated beach year-round, and further requiring the handling of seabird carcasses in various phases of decomposition. We are always on the lookout for volunteers, so if you live anywhere near the Atlantic from Maine to Florida, we’ll take you.

If dead birds aren’t your thing, or if SEANET is too demanding, there are new citizen science opportunities cropping up all the time, many requiring nothing beyond…

View original 398 more words

SEANET Blog hits the 400 mark!

7 06 2012

Where the magic happens: coffee, NPR, Sibley and the Beached Bird Guide are all I really need.

I know this is shameless self promotion, but I’ve watched so many blogs start up, go strong for a couple weeks or months, and then fade away into oblivion. Not so, the SEANET blog! Today’s post is my 400th since I started this project in 2008. I mainly credit you, our active and engaged readership, for pushing me to post every couple days.

And now, to your thunderous applause, I will go get another cup of coffee.

Giant carnivorous mice?!

24 05 2012

House mouse atop its prize: the carcass of a petrel chick. (Photo: National Geographic)

Yes, they exist, and they may drive some seabirds straight to extinction. Researchers on Gough Island, way down in the southern Atlantic about half way between South America and Africa, have been studying the impacts of house mice on Atlantic Petrels. The petrels have been breeding on Gough Island for millennia, while the house mice are a more recent introduction brought there by, guess who? Yep, humans with boats. Since they were inadvertently dropped off on Gough, the mice have evolved much larger size than the average mouse gnawing a hole in your cereal boxes. The mice on Gough are now about ten inches long, not including the tail. This trend toward larger size is typical of small mammals marooned on islands over generations, and consistent with theories of island biogeography known as “The Island Rule”first posited by J. Bristol Foster in the 1960s.

The middle of nowhere: site of of the mouse induced carnage.

Now, these monster mice have multiplied as rodents are wont to do, and when their more typical sources of food run low, they turn to a massive, fleshy buffet: the large, immobile chicks of the Atlantic Petrel sitting in their underground burrows with no evolutionary defenses against the new comer mice. The mice simply eat the helpless chicks alive while the parents are out foraging.

The impacts are not slight–a study in Animal Conservation shows that millions of the chicks are being killed and eaten by mice every year, and a majority of their mathematical models project that the species will be driven into endangered, “Red List”status. Based on these numbers, an outcry is now rising for the extermination of the giant carnivorous mice. Gough is not the first nor the only island with a rodent problem, and all over the world, various strategies have been used to deal with invasive species. Poison is the most likely tactic to be used on Gough, and of course, it’s not without peril to non-target species, but with an infestation of this size and severity, there are few alternatives. It’s a problem of human making, and humans, being imperfect ourselves, have but imperfect means of fixing it. We’ll be rooting for the helpless, burrow-dwelling petrels and hoping the species itself won’t meet its end staring into the beady, heartless eyes of gigantic mice.

Dead Bird Quiz answers

22 05 2012

OK, so both of these birds are ducks. That was clear to everyone who responded to this quiz. But what sort of ducks? Bird A, which was merely a skeletal head, is definitely some kind of sea duck, what with that hooked beak tip and very thick ridges along the bill edges. Guesses on this one were Northern Shoveler and Common Eider. So let’s look at those two. The Northern Shoveler has an absurd looking bill, which makes up more than half of the total head plus bill length. As blog reader Wouter pointed out, it would be helpful to view the bill of Bird A from above to see if it’s wide enough to be a Shoveler’s. Well, Wouter, request granted! Here’s another shot of Bird A’s bill, showing that it’s pretty narrow, and helping us rule out the Northern Shoveler, whose bill would have a prominent, spatula-like appearance at its tip.

Aerial view of Bird A’s head.

Northern Shoveler: comical bill appears longer than the head itself.

What about Alicia’s suggestion of Common Eider then? Certainly, there are some similarities there, but if you look at the shape of the nostril, the Common Eider’s is elongated and placed lower on the side of the bill than our Bird A, whose nostril is very close to the top edge of the bill, and has a more open, almost triangular shape. So where does that leave us? I would posit that Bird A is a White-winged Scoter. The nostril shape and position are right, and while the demarcation between feathered area and bill is mostly obliterated, I can persuade myself that the profile of that line would have been consistent with WWSC. What do you think, Seanetters?

Bears some similarities to Bird A, but note shape and position of nostril.

Is this our bird? I would say yes!

Bird B is an easier case, and Wouter and I both agree, this is a Long-tailed Duck. The pinkish band on the bill marks it as a male, and the white neck followed by a wide black band on the breast, and then a white belly tell us this bird is still in its winter plumage, and had not yet acquired the full breeding plumage seen later in the year. Like many ducks though, the LTDU undergoes some complex interrupted and partial molts, changing its appearance almost continuously from April to October. What a pain for Dead Bird Quiz devotees, huh?

Long-tailed Duck in winter/spring.

Dead Bird Quiz to boost my spirits

17 05 2012

My weekend trip to Cape May, NJ for a SEANET training has now been canceled. Unable to drum up sufficient interest, the good folks down there at the Wetlands Institute will give it another try later this year. So, to distract myself from my sadness, I’m posting one of my favorite things: a Dead Bird Quiz. And one of these specimens is one I found myself! Bird A was nothing but a skeletal head attached to a strand of vertebrae. Bird B was mostly intact, though its head was crushed. Measurements for Bird B are provided in the photo, partly in the bizarre scrawl of my five year old son. It was his birthday yesterday, and this dead bird was my gift to him.

Guesses please!

Bird A: Found by Janet Kurz in North Carolina last week.

Bird B: Found by yours truly, Sarah Courchesne, yesterday in Massachusetts.

Seabird and dolphin die-offs in Peru: some answers?

15 05 2012

Silvia Oshiro/Getty images

Late last year, nearly a thousand dolphins and over 1500 seabirds turned up dead on the shores of Peru. Months later, a frustrating lack of answers prevails. While the initial fear was that all the animals were dying of a single cause, it now appears that the dolphins and seabirds were afflicted with separate issues. Still, the results as they have been presented in the media are incomplete and conflicting. The matter of the seabirds seems more settled–disruptions in the usual flow of nutrients via the cold Humboldt Current have driven the massive anchoveta shoals into deeper waters where seabirds, especially shallow divers like Brown Pelicans, can’t hunt them. The birds necropsied were mostly emaciated, supporting the theory of a collapsed prey base.

The mystery of the dolphin deaths, however, has generated more controversy. Many environmentalists have charged that offshore seismic testing for oil and gas wells has injured and disoriented the animals. But Peruvian environmental ministers stated that necropsies on the animals showed no evidence of characteristic seismic injuries. Carlos Yaipen-Llanos, of Peruvian marine conservation group Orca, however, reports “categorical” evidence of the animals dying from decompression sickness– in 30 necropsies he noted fractured bones in the dolphins’ ears, and blood and bubbles in their sinuses. Yaipen-Llanos suggests seismic testing could have scared the dolphins and caused them to surface too rapidly, leading to the damage.

These entirely opposing reports are further complicated by the findings in a study in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. It appears that bubbles may form in the bodies of both live stranded dolphins, and post mortem in dolphins hauled up after drowning in fishing nets. The bubbles can be clinically silent, and it seems that dolphins and other marine mammals have a substantial degree of tolerance for this form of decompression sickness. While blood in the sinuses and fractured ear bones are a step well beyond bubble formation, the study does raise questions about the necropsy results out of Peru. Could the damage to the dolphins have been postmortem? Could it have been less than directly linked to decompression sickness? Peruvian government officials say they never received Yaipen-Llanos’ necropsy reports, and I can’t find the actual reports in any public venue either.

Over my time with SEANET, I have grown ever more leery of making blanket judgments about mortality events and their causes based only on second hand media reports of necropsy reports. Too many layers to the onion for me. So for now, I await more definitive results on the dolphin die-off, and will continue to follow any further developments in the seabird story as well. It’s all a classic tale of the convergence of environmentalists, industry, government and science. Let’s all root for a satisfactory resolution, and that fact may prevail!

Onward, ever onward for the Southeast Beached Bird Guide

10 05 2012

I work several jobs these days, including running SEANET, helping out with the Northeast Wildlife Disease Cooperative, and teaching college biology. Plus a little veterinary work on the side. It stems from my varied, sometimes scattered interests–I’m an artist! No, a teacher! No, a scientist! No, a writer! But once in a while, a project comes my way that brings them all together. Right now, that project is the Field Guide to Beached Birds of the Southeastern U.S. Through the generosity of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the cheerleading of SEANET’s great friend John Stanton, I’m funded to do this book start to finish. I’ve compiled body measurements, written up descriptions of individual species, and am now working on the life size line drawings of each species’ bill.

I’m hoping this guide will be of equal use to Seanetters, and to people monitoring seabird mortality in other ways, whether on board fishing vessels or responding to the next oil spill. I’m hoping to have most of the content done by the end of summer, and from there, on to the presses! As soon as this new volume is available, you Seanetters will be the first to know, of course.

Rhode Island beach on the brink

8 05 2012

Once more unto the breach: the ocean carves the RI shore.

The turf of Seanetter Doris Briggs has been in the news lately; RI_23 is just down the way from a stretch of Matunuck Beach Road on the verge of crumbling into the sea. Only a few feet now separate the road from the crashing waves that have eroded the headland there. Residents of South Kingstown are divided on the course to be taken, with many oceanfront property owners advocating for a change in the beach’s designation from a coastal bluff to a manmade shoreline. If reclassified, the beach could then be reinforced with a seawall to protect both the road and the buildings along it. Last month, the state’s Coastal Resources Management Council denied the request for reclassification, but expressed willingness to entertain a more limited plan including beach replenishment with sand, and limited wall construction.

Having grown up near the barrier beaches of Plum Island, Massachusetts, I watched with bemusement as the residents repeatedly rebuilt their beachfront homes on ever taller stilts only to watch the ocean tear them down (again). These debates over seawalls and beach renourishment, replenishment, jetties and groins often come down to the same dichotomy facing the Rhode Islanders of Matunuck now: reinforce the beach with granite walls and lose what sand beach is left, or let the ocean take what it will and preserve the shoreline in as close to a natural state as possible. It often comes down to saving the houses of the few people rich enough to afford a place on the beach, or saving the beach for the rest of the people who can only visit. It’s saving the houses for some people, or saving the beach for the beach. Or even not saving the beach as we know it, and letting it erode away entirely, if that’s what the tides dictate. At the end of the town hearings in South Kingstown last month, a woman spoke about her childhood visits to Matunuck. She pointed to our human sense of scale–wanting to save houses that are 50 or 100 years old at the expense of a seascape that is millions of years old.

I can’t help but be pleased that the reclassification has failed. I have faith that this will get sorted out in a sensible fashion in the coming months; I know there are good stewards of the coastal ecosystem down there in Rhode Island. And in the end, we’re all going to have to face it–when you battle the ocean, the ocean always wins.

Welcome, Bald Head Island crew!

3 05 2012

New beaches on Cape Fear! Click the map to view all current SEANET beaches.

After last year’s initial training in Wilmington, NC, we’ve been gathering up new Seanetters left and right. Now, we have an exciting development down at the mouth of the Cape Fear River: 12 volunteers on six beaches, and all of them contiguous, so we now have coverage along the entire shore of Bald Head Island! This cadre of new beach walkers are all affiliated with the Bald Head Island Conservancy, and we thank Patrick Amico for coordinating their activities down there. The beaches range from east-facing, exposed ocean beaches to more sheltered areas on the eastern shore of the river’s mouth. We expect a variety of finds across these varied beaches, and we’re very pleased to welcome our newest Seanetters to the fold!


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