Dead Bird Quiz: (more questions than) answers

26 06 2015

Sometimes, with these tangled up piles of feathers and bones, we don’t get a nice clear i.d. For Bird A, we do at least have a consensus; John and Jim both wrote in to say Bufflehead, and indeed, we had quite a few more Bufflehead turn up on beaches this spring than is typical; by the rough numbers, for instance, in all of 2014, we had only three BUFF reported across all SEANET beaches. So far this year, we’ve had eight. Most have been pretty well degraded, but here’s a spectrum of what’s been found out there for this species. Note the small size of these birds; wing chord is only 14-18 cm. Other species with a similar white speculum (red-breasted mergansers, goldeneyes, for instance) are quite a bit larger.

Male Bufflehead found by Walt Granda in MA.

Male Bufflehead found by Walt Granda in MA.

Another male found by Lori Benson in MA. Note the pinkish gray feet--a good clue to the species when present.

Another male found by Lori Benson in MA. Note the pinkish gray feet–a good clue to the species when present.

Note the diminutive size of these birds! This wing was found by Dennis Minsky in MA. Also note how limited the speculum is in this specimen.

Note the diminutive size of these birds! This wing was found by Dennis Minsky in MA. Also note how limited the speculum is in this specimen.

The extensive white areas on a breeding male are conspicuous, but keep in mind that the white n the wings will be much more limited in females, juveniles, and even in non-breeding males.

All this is a bit of a distraction though, since I don’t actually think Bird A is a Bufflehead. The underwings are quite bright white, the wings are pointy, and the sternum is very long. Ducks tend to have squarish, broad sternae, and Bird A’s actually reminds me more of an alcid. But what’s bothering me is that this bird does appear to be very small, based on the index card beside it. That size would fit with a Dovekie, but Dovekies have a dusky underwing. Persuade me, dear readers! This one is bothering me!

Bird B also bothers me. We are fortunate that Charlie took that closeup photo of the iridescent feathers on the wing. From that, we can see that this bird had a greenish speculum on the upper wing. That gives us a limited slate of possibilities. What has a shiny, colored speculum? Some ducks. Both Jim and John think American Black Duck (ABDU) for this one, and indeed, that species has a colored speculum. But the speculum in ABDU has no white border, while Mallards, the most similar species to ABDU, do have a white border fore and aft. If you look at the closeup photo of Bird B’s wing, you see feathers with white and black bands at the tip. How can we explain this? Also, the underwing on Bird B seems to lack the characteristic brown flecking at the wrist that ABDUs have. Is this a Mallard? I don’t really think so. What other options do we have? Well, I’ve been a-pondering and some possibilities that came to my mind were green-winged teal and American wigeon. Any bites on those?

Green-winged Teal. Look like a possibility to you folks? Photo: NC Wildlife Resources Commission.

Green-winged Teal. Look like a possibility to you folks? Photo: NC Wildlife Resources Commission.

As for Bird C, oh boy. Your guess is as good as mine there. Probably better. This post was a long way from definitive, I realize. It’s a glimpse into my life as I verify (or attempt to verify) all your reports and photos.





Dead Bird Quiz: delayed by squirrel edition

22 06 2015

I had intended to post a DBQ last week, but on Friday we lost power for most of the day. Our utility company reported that, “a squirrel was found in a substation. Damage to several sections.” I cannot imagine this ended well for the squirrel. But it will end well for you all, because it means an extra excellent DBQ. Here ’tis.

Bird A: Found in Chatham, MA this month by Warren Mumford.

Bird A: Found in Chatham, MA this month by Warren Mumford.

Bird B: Found by the Grundens in Maine.

Bird B: Found by the Grundens in Maine.

Bird B: closeup of wing.

Bird B: closeup of wing.

This last one wasn’t much more than a tuft of feathers, but I did want to see what impressions you might have of it.

Bird C: not much left of this one, found by Diana Gaumond on Cape Cod.

Bird C: not much left of this one, found by Diana Gaumond on Cape Cod.

Bird C, alternate view.

Bird C, alternate view.





Carolina! (in my mind)

16 06 2015

Tomorrow, I will be giving a virtual volunteer training to new recruits on Bald Head Island in North Carolina. The good people of the Bald Head Island Conservancy had invited me down in person, but alas, travel was not in the cards for me, so we are availing ourselves of wondrous technology in order for me to connect with these new volunteers. You can be sure I will also be sending them a whole box of the Beached Bird Guides to get them going.

Given my focus on NC this week, it seems a good time for me to share with you a couple of items out of that region. John Stanton put out this SEANET Carolinas newsletter last month, and I failed to post it here until now, I am just noticing.

And well before that, Wendy Stanton forwarded this very cool poster on life in the wrack line. Check it out!
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I suppose it’s best that I won’t be going in person. Lori Porwoll, who walks in South Carolina, tells me it’s in the 90s down there. It hit 75 up here the other day and I went scurrying off to the White Mountains to seek cooler temperatures at higher elevations.

Finally, if I can’t get down south, at least John Stanton will be coming up north! He just had a poster accepted to the Waterbirds meeting this summer in Maine! Huzzah!





Avian Flu and You

9 06 2015

I have been remiss in not writing about the avian influenza outbreak currently going on among domestic poultry in the United States. Seanetter/physician Donna Cooper wrote to me on the subject of keeping you volunteers protected during your dealings with carcasses, and her prompt is much appreciated. Here is a bit of a primer on what’s been going on, and what precautions you ought to take.

Avian flu appears and recedes in the news all the time, so it can be difficult to know when big flu news is breaking. The current out break is most assuredly newsworthy, with millions of birds out west being culled in the face of the disease’s potential spread. Referring to a monolithic “avian flu” is misleading however. There are many sorts of bird flu, some causing little to no illness and spreading almost undetected in a bird population, and others causing massive and widespread mortality. The two main divisions used to categorize avian flu are LPAI (low pathogenicity avian influenza) and HPAI (high pathogenicity avian influenza). Seems fairly straightforward; LPAI=mild, HPAI=severe. Alas, it is not so simple as that. LPAI vs. HPAI refers only to the disease’s behavior in chickens in a laboratory setting. If an avian flu makes chickens very sick in a lab, it’s HPAI. If it causes no clinical signs or mild ones, it’s LPAI. This tells us nothing about how the disease would affect geese, ducks, other waterbirds, or even seals or humans, for that matter, and in fact, the same disease can profoundly afflict one species, which causing no perceptible issues in another.

(Left to right): Dr. Catherine Woteki, Dr. Fidelis (Fidel) Hegngi,  and Dr. Denise Brinson visit a backyard coop. These small operations are now on the frontline of disease monitoring and control. (photo: USDA APHIS)

(Left to right): USDA and APHIS scientists Dr. Catherine Woteki, Dr. Fidelis Hegngi, and Dr. Denise Brinson visit a backyard coop. These small operations are now on the frontline of disease monitoring and control. (photo: USDA APHIS)

Beyond the HPAI/LPAI division, we have the further H/N classification. You may have heard of the H5N1 bird flu causing fatalities in Indonesia and other countries a few years ago, or the H1N1 “swine flu” that laid many of us low in the epidemic of 2009. These Hs and Ns refer to proteins present on the virus’ surface that determine, in part, its behavior–how it gets into the body, how it invades cells once there, how severe its effects may be. Generally, though this is an oversimplification, the H5 class of avian flu are bad news and worth watching. These H5 viruses are exactly what government labs found when they tested wild birds found dead in the Pacific Northwest back in December. H5N2 and H5N8 were detected in a wild duck and a captive raptor, respectively. Virologists work to try and understand the family trees of viruses, and their work on these strains indicated that these viruses may be related to avian flu viruses previously identified in Europe and Asia, but to complicate matters, an H5N1 virus found in a wild duck in the U.S. in January of this year does not appear related to the H5N1s that have caused human mortality in Asia. This latter virus is what is known as “mixed-origin,” reflecting flu viruses’ general gift for mixing and matching genetic material when they encounter each other. That ability to “re-assort” and splice together bits of one variant with parts of another is part of what keeps us all vigilant about flu. If something like the Asian H5N1 bird flu, which presently can pass from birds to humans but so far has not been able to jump effectively between people, managed to acquire that skill, we would have the makings of a pandemic.

So, what of the goings-on in chicken houses throughout much of the country? LPAI infections have occurred from time to time in domestic poultry in the U.S. These strains are known to circulate in wild waterfowl in the U.S. True to their LP designation, these outbreaks may infect many chickens quickly, but cause only mild disease. HPAI in a poultry house, on the other hand, can be devastating. This year, H5 HPAI has been detected in backyard and commercial poultry, as well as in wild, migratory birds. You can see the latest numbers at USDA APHIS’ tracking site. The scale of the problem becomes apparent when you note the flock size listed in the far right column at that site–some of these chicken operations are raising over a million birds. Complete depopulation of these chicken houses after confirmation of HPAI infection is a daunting, though not unprecedented prospect. An outbreak of Exotic Newcastle Disease in poultry in 2002-03, for example, resulted in the euthanasia of over four million birds in the U.S. The numbers involved in the current HPAI outbreak are, admittedly, far higher and losses are ongoing.

Captive poultry are comparatively easy to control when we compare them with wild birds, however. We know that avian flu of various strains circulate in wild birds who can spread them throughout their migratory range. Waterfowl appear to be the major purveyors of the viruses, and can travel great distances. It may seem strange that a disease that so rapidly sickens and kills chickens and turkeys could be spread by wild birds apparently hale and hearty enough to fly the length of a continent. Part of the explanation lies back in the fact that not all birds are affected by avian flu the same way. HPAIs are “high path” in chickens, but the same virus often causes no disease at all in mallard ducks who may shed it in feces or respiratory secretions for two weeks after infection. And we have no data on the viruses’ behavior in the dozens of other species of waterbirds who may acquire the virus.

Waterfowl aggregration as petri dish? (photo: USFWS)

Waterfowl aggregration as petri dish? (photo: USFWS)

What to do? USDA and other agencies will continue to monitor both poultry and wild birds closely for new viruses, new reassortments, and new geographic occurrences of these HPAIs. So far, we are not seeing it here on the East Coast, but we should behave as if we may. Since you Seanetters handle dead birds as a matter of course, it’s a good time to review saftety practices that are good habits to maintain whether or not a flu outbreak is underway. The CDC’s full suite of recommendations for working with infected birds or carcasses of bird flu victims include goggles, gloves, coveralls, masks and the like. For our purposes, given that the CDC lists the risk of human infection from these H5s as very low, we will continue to recommend wearing gloves whenever handling a carcass for tagging or measurements, discarding the gloves after use, and washing hands thoroughly after the walk. As always, if you have a weakened immune system for any reason, you may be at increased risk of any infection, not just avian flu, and may wish not to handle dead birds at all. If this is the case, get in touch and we can figure out some accommodations. Should you find yourself ill, particularly with a respiratory illness, the CDC asks that you disclose any contact with potentially diseased birds to your doctor. Doctors (and vets, for that matter) are taught, “when hearing hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras.” Because of this, your doctor is unlikely to think of avian flu as a potential diagnose unless you disclose your exposure. Contrary to what we all may think, it’s not usual to muck around on the beach with dead birds. On the other hand, anyone who has walked on a soccer field or golf course has been exposed to more potentially infectious goose feces than the average Seanetter meets in a year of tagging carcasses, so do maintain a sense of perspective.

I hope this has served as a helpful outline of the problem, and not has not unduly alarmed you. Your risk of becoming sick from handling dead birds is extremely low, but particularly if any of you should happen upon a major mortality event involving waterfowl (the main species groups affected by these viruses) I wanted you to be informed participants.





Back home, post-gulling

5 06 2015

On one of our last banding days, a group of birders showed up on the island. We gave them the whole gull banding dog and pony show, and it turned out that one member of the group was a reporter for New Hampshire Public Radio. Though his story focused mainly on the songbirds migrating through, he did include a clip of me describing gull-inflicted injuries. While this is not positive for those hoping to raise public opinion of gulls, I still think the story is worth sharing.

I also wanted to share some photos of our gull banding team–Bill Clark, longtime gull banding volunteer, took some really great photos of our group and the work. Take a look at his collection on Flickr, and please indulge me while I share two pictures that I find very funny.

A gull regards Bill’s camera head on. This is always funny.

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Julie sets a trap while Peggy Friar staves off attack.

I am set up at my dining room table right now, where I am working on SEANET encounter rate data from 2010-2014. I am swearing never to permit such a backlog again. It’s going faster than I had expected, though it remains tedious work. Soon, I will have numbers for Cape Cod Bay at least, and you can be sure, you will be the first to know.





Return from Appledore

1 06 2015

The rains descended on our last morning of gull banding week this year, but fortunately, we had already wrapped up most of our work while the sun was still shining the previous evening. In the end, we managed to capture and band over fifty adult gulls, and later this summer, a second team will head out to band hundreds of pre-fledglings. As you can see, the adult banding is much slower going, but the advantage is that the adults are far more likely to return than any given juvenile, which suffer substantial mortality in the first year. So, we hope to cover our bases by doing both types of banding.

We were fortunate that Julie Ellis made it out for a couple days this years, wrestling free of her children for 48 hours or so. Hilarity ensued, naturally.

Julie and UNE student Taylor Ouellette take measurements on a gull. If these are their game faces, we're in trouble.

Julie and UNE student Taylor Ouellette take measurements on a gull. If these are their game faces, we’re in trouble.

The team gradually gained in skill over the course of the week, going from the skittish neophytes you see here to the confident gull-stalkers they were by week’s end.

Ally Pittman watches a trap from a rocky vantage point.

Ally Pittman watches a trap from a rocky vantage point.

They were also extremely good at relaxing.

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From left: Alisa Povenmire, Bill Clark, Peggy Friar, Jamie Zananiri, and Ally Pittman (foreground).

Jamie was our diligent and detail-oriented data recorder, and Chandler Maagoul was Chief Sitter and Snacker.

Jamie was our diligent and detail-oriented data recorder, and Chandler Maagoul was Chief Sitter and Snacker.

Of course, even while working with live birds, my heart is with the dead ones, so I share with you this carcass we found on one of the rocky beaches of the island between two raucous gull colonies:

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Luckily I snapped a photo of this Great Cormorant since Superstar Bird Nerd and Ornithology Professor David Bonter publicly called my i.d. into question. Take THAT, David Bonter!

Now, it’s back to computer work. Feast or famine around here, when it comes to the outdoors, it seems.





Annual Gull Fest on Appledore underway!

28 05 2015
From left: Mary Everett, Alisa Povenmire, and Jamie Zananiri, all of Northern Essex Community College.

From left: Mary Everett, Alisa Povenmire, and Jamie Zananiri, all of Northern Essex Community College.

This week I am on my annual idyll, banding gulls on Appledore. We have an excellent team this year (and I don’t say that every time. Or if I do, I do not mean it). It’s a mixed group of students in terms of their institutions of origin, four of them being my recruits from Northern Essex Community College. They, of course, are the best of the best.

IMG_6749

Jamie and University of New England student Taylor Ouelette draw blood from a Herring Gull.

We are focusing mainly on Herring Gulls, which are notoriously difficult to trap, but the team’s spirits are high despite it all.
We’re working long days, but I did want to let you know what’s happening before I stagger off to bed. Tomorrow, it’s another day of banding and patrolling the island for any previously banded birds. So far, we’ve banded around twenty birds, and we hope to at least double that by the end of the week. Wish us luck!

A single Herring Gull in the heart of Black-backed territory--intrepid.

A single Herring Gull in the heart of Black-backed territory–intrepid.








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