DBQ answers

7 10 2015

It’s fitting that both these DBQ birds come from the Carolinas; our volunteers and friends in both states have been much on my mind given the horrendous flooding in that region, and I know some of our walkers live and work right in the heart of the most heavily impacted areas. I hope everyone in the SEANET clan is safe and sound, and if it’s not TOO much to hope, that your houses remain high and dry. You’re in our thoughts all the time, southern friends.

For these southern birds, on the other hand, there is not consensus as to the i.d. of the second bird. The first, however, was obvious to all as a Laughing Gull. The giveaways: the dark, downcurved bill, and the black legs. These are typical of winter plumage LAGU like the ones seen in this photo:

"Leucophaeus atricilla P5190038ra" by Migdoniodiaz - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

“Leucophaeus atricilla P5190038ra” by Migdoniodiaz – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

I suppose it may seem strange that I chose this bird, since everyone seemed certain of its identity. Maybe it was just me, but the gray on the upperwings of this bird seemed really pale, no? What did you all make of that? Just a trick of the light? A really pale individual? Have you seen them this light before? I ask my southern contingent especially since, while we do have LAGU up here in the great white north, I don’t see them all that often in winter in plumage like this.

How about Bird B? This one drew a verdict of Black Skimmer from John Stanton, and whenever someone suggest Black Skimmer, I always think, “Oh! Right! Could be a skimmer! I always forget about them. Northern bias shows again since that’s a species I really don’t ever see. Out of sight, out of mind, therefore. But Black Skimmer needs to be on the list whenever we have a dark wing with white feathertips especially through the secondaries. I actually thought Bird B might be another Laughing Gull, so, I dutifully went to my Beached Bird guide and, using its wing key, I arrived at a page showing immature LAGU and immature Black Skimmer side by side. Sure enough, both have white tipped secondaries, though the skimmer’s are much more extensive, with a very wide white band, while the LAGU has much more limited white. The main difference the guide mentions is actually the color of the underwing, which is pale or mottled in LAGU and dark in the skimmer. I did not provide that image in the original post, so here is the underside of Bird B’s wings:

Photo by G. Grant

Photo by G. Grant

This is actually sort of not helpful, since much of the underwing has been eaten away, most likely by notorious ghost crabs. So it’s impossible to tell whether the feathers that used to be on the underwing close to the body were mottled or clear white, so I turned again to the upperside of the wing. There, I can see what looks to me like a few rusty feathers among gray feathers. Since Black Skimmer juveniles are more black and white on the upperwing, that rusty/gray contrast jumped out at me. I am fairly persuaded, then, that Bird B too is a LAGU. Two LAGU in one DBQ? Unprecedented. Daring. Accurate? I hope. But I await verbal combat from those who may disagree.

Dead Bird Quiz: back to school edition

30 09 2015

Hi Seanetters! I am back in the throes of teaching now, so much of my days are consumed by teaching, grading, listening to people whine, and all the usual teaching related stuff. Please forgive me, therefore, if I only manage one post a week for the next couple months. One thing is certain though: it is high time for a DBQ. Here it is.

Bird A, found by Lynda Zegers on her South Carolina beach in August.

Bird A's underside

Bird A’s underside

Upper surface of Bird A.

Upper surface of Bird A.

Bird B, found by Gil Grant on his North Carolina beach, also in August.

Statelessness and decline in seabirds

23 09 2015

This week, I read an article in the Guardian about global, severe declines in the majority of seabird species. The impacts have been worst in open-ocean birds like albatross, petrels, and shearwaters. Though the causes of such a broad and precipitious decline are myriad, one particular factor caught my eye–the remarkable globe-trotting of these birds and their utter lack of respect for political boundaries. People marvel at feats like the globe crossing migrations of terns, or the zig-zag path of Greater Shearwaters as they bounce from North America over to Africa and down to the farthest south Atlantic. But this fligth prowess puts there birds at risk. While they may be well protected under one nation’s conservation policies, as soon as they pass into another country’s waters, those protections may fall away. This is not to mention the lawlessless of the high seas–the open ocean where many of these birds must make a living. Plastic pollution, overfishing, entanglement: these mutiple factors all converge on the open ocean species.

In my biology classes, I like to show my students, many of whom are immigrants from the Dominican Republic, this image of the island of Hispaniola.

The border between Haiti (left) and the Dominican Republic (right) where forest protections are much more stringent.

The border between Haiti (left) and the Dominican Republic (right) where forest protections are well enforced.

In many cases, we know what we need to do to protect seabirds; longline fishing techniques, for instance, can be modified to avoid catching albatross. But issues of compliance and enforcement are myriad. We know that overfishing can be addressed and that fish populations can rebound quickly in some cases. Several years ago, Senegal banned the export of fish caught in its waters and rescinded the fishing licenses of many EU and Asian boats. This was done mainly to protect subsistence and artisanal fishing in that country, but it has successfully boosted fish stocks. Each nation makes its own laws, of course, and even then, the ability to enforce those laws varies wildly between nations and continents. Threading their way through all these borders are the seabirds. Unless we can get some semblance of an international approach, it seems we can anticipate further declines across these species groups. I am congenitally optimistic, but my realist side does wonder…

Empty nests

11 09 2015
Songbird bander Lindsay Herlihy helps my elder son release a cedar waxwing!

Songbird bander Lindsay Herlihy helps my elder son release a cedar waxwing!

This week, I went back to school, meeting several classrooms’ worth of new students. The campus, which had been a veritable ghost town, is now bustling again with bewildered and lost students, nervous students, and the feeling of optimism that comes with a new school year no matter how old you may be. Over the summer, I was focused on SEANET, and on spending time with my kids, and on the gull project on Appledore Island. For the first time, I combined those last two and brought my two sons out to Shoals Marine Lab for a meeting with the Director there, Jennifer Seavey. I’ve been out for gull banding just about every year since 2008, but I had never visited the island when the gulls were not breeding. It was a strange feeling, then, to encounter gulls loafing about near their tousled old nests, not trying to dive bomb or defecate on me. It was quiet and weirdly calm. The breeding birds were slowly departing, and the young almost all fledged and gone too. Lovely as it was, I couldn’t help but feel like the soul of the island was missing, not only because the gulls were going, but because there were no boisterous undergrads running around, working on projects, mucking around in tide pools,  or lying in the hammocks during downtime from classes. I won’t deny, it was pleasant to see this quiet side of Appledore, but it was undeniably strange to see all those abandoned grass nests where before I’d been chased off by individual gulls that I’ve known for years.

Broken eggs litter the ground on Seahorse Key. (Photo: AP)

Broken eggs litter the ground on Seahorse Key. (Photo: AP)

It got me thinking about another island with a whole lot of empty nests. Shoals Director Jenn Seavey previously worked on Seahorse Key in Florida. On that very island this year, thousands of waterbirds in the middle of the breeding season, disappeared. Many left eggs behind in their nests. Researchers say the birds were there on the 19th of May, and all gone when they checked again on the 21st. Was it a predator? Someone flying a recreational drone over the island? Hypotheses abound, but whatever it was, the disturbance had to have been profound to cause such extensive abandonment. Biologists found only a fraction of the birds from Seahorse had re-nested on other islands. The rest seem to have lit off for parts unknown. Whether they will come back next year is unknown. We will be in suspense until the breeding season rolls around again next spring.

Back on Appledore, we were also focused on filling up an island next summer. My colleague at Northern Essex Community College, Ken Thomas, and I, were meeting with Jenn Seavey and Julie Ellis about expanding opportunities for NECC students to take courses through the lab, and also potentially to help out with the gull project beyond the banding weeks in May and July. I came away from the meeting with a long list of people to see and things to do, and money to find, but I am optimistic that we will see community college students on the course rosters on the island next summer.

These shearwaters ain’t foolin’ nobody!

1 09 2015
These GRSH show off their competitive natures and their field marks. The birds in the background look like Wilson's Storm Petrels to me. (Photo: DickDaniels via wikimedia commons)

These GRSH show off their competitive natures and their field marks. The birds in the background look like Wilson’s Storm Petrels to me. (Photo: DickDaniels via wikimedia commons)

As anticipated, pro dead bird identifiers like the readers of this blog recognized the three species in the last post immediately. Bird A is a Greater, Bird B a Sooty, and Bird C a Cory’s Shearwater. Luckily for me, shearwater i.d. tends to be straightforward, and I have a few quick features I look for to make the call at a glance. For the Cory’s, it’s that yellow bill. As the field guides say, that is “distinctive” once you’ve established you’re looking at a shearwater. And the wacky tube nose is a giveaway on that. For the Sooty, the dark breast and belly are the decisive factor here; other shearwaters have white on the underside. The most common shearwater we get on SEANET beaches though is by far the Greater. When looking at a light bellied shearwater with a dark bill, it’s almost always a Greater. But I check every time for what I find the most reliable indicators. GRSH have a dark, smudgy patch on the belly. To the uninitiated, it can look like dirt, or even oil. You all, of course, are initiated, and know that. That is, however, why I chose Bird A particularly. The smudge is variable between individuals, and I found it interesting that it is basically absent in this bird. That did give me pause, so I double-checked with another of my go-t0s for GRSH, the undertail coverts (dark in Bird A). Among the white-bellied shearwaters, the Manx has white undertail coverts, while both the GRSH and Audubon’s have dark. So we should at least entertain Audubon’s when looking at a shearwater that has a white belly and seems to lack any dark smudging.

Though I didn’t provide a picture of the upper side of Bird A in the original post (not that any of you needed it), so I will do so now:

Other side of Bird A. Photo courtesy of L. Ries.

Other side of Bird A. Photo courtesy of L. Ries.

This Bird looks brownish overall on its upper surface. This is definitely a GRSH characteristic; Audubon’s shearwaters are much blacker above. Finally, if you look at the upper surface of the tail, you can see a disheveled pale band in evidence. This is also a GRSH feature; Audubon’s have an all dark rump and tail. The pale tail band also brings up one last species to keep in the back of our mind, though it very rarely turns up; the Black-capped Petrel is not a shearwater at all, but it is a tubenose with a white belly and dark upper side. What sets it apart, however, is a broad, clearly white band on the upper tail, and a sharp black band on the underside of the wing. I am always hoping such rarities will turn up, so I try to keep my mind open to them, and my oddball i.d. skills honed.

Update on shearwater mortalities

26 08 2015

Reports of dead shearwaters continue to come in from both Seanetters and non-SEANET affiliated folks. All summer, this has been a decidedly northern phenomenon; of the 16 Greater Shearwaters reported to SEANET, three were found in North Carolina, and all the rest were spotted between Long Island and Provincetown at the tip of Cape Cod. We have also received word of dead shearwaters from National Parks Service personnel, wildlife rehabilitators, and members of the public. We even had a shearwater banded in Spain (!) turn up dead on a beach in Winthrop, Massachusetts. Thanks to Susannah Corona for that report, and I will share with you the history on that bird when I hear back from the European banding lab.

I had planned to post a Dead Bird Quiz today, so I will throw in a shearwater themed one amidst this post. Easy peasy for you Dead Bird Identifiers extraordinaire, but humor me.

What kind is this? (Found on Long Island)

What kind is this? (Found on Long Island)

And this one? (Found by J. Powell in NC)

And this one? (Found by J. Powell in NC)

How's about this guy? (Found by T. Lee, brand new volunteer in NC!)

How’s about this guy? (Found by T. Lee, brand new volunteer in NC!)

We know that summer shearwater mortality is a fairly typical phenomenon, though the magnitude does vary year to year. Last year was extremely quiet on the shearwater front, with only four reported to SEANET, and nothing that raised anyone’s eyebrows outside SEANET either. This year is rather a different situation. Fifteen Greater Shearwaters were found on beaches in Eastham, Massachusetts alone, with perhaps a total of another dozen birds found on various other beaches on the ocean side of Cape Cod. Several agencies and non-profits have collected carcasses, so we may have some necropsy results by fall. If nothing else, we can get a glimpse into the general body condition and stomach contents of these birds.

In some of the back and forth on email amongst wildlife biologists, veterinarians, rehabbers and seabird researchers, this request was put forward by Kevin Powers: “I would recommend that the napes of the necks of any Great Shearwater cadavers be photographed because there is some limited ability to age birds to their 3rd year based on the amount of brown feathers on the nape using Peter Pyle’s Handbook to North American Birds (Vol 2). I would be more than willing to participate.” Any of you who find these birds, whether on a SEANET walk, or just while out and about, please do consider taking a photo as Kevin described. It could get us a little closer toward understanding the demographics (zoographics?) of this die-off.

Beware the citizen scientist!

21 08 2015

This week, an editorial in Nature addressed the now well established use of citizen science generated data. Though the line “Some professional scientists are sniffy about the role of amateurs,” the piece points out the general acceptance of the value of volunteer-driven science. But even though scientists are using or at least accepting these data (some grudgingly, perhaps, or even sniffily), the editor points out some potential pitfalls to be considered. A major one is the potential for bias introduced by a self-selected team of citizen scientists. In a program like SEANET, we know our volunteers tend to be conservation minded, outdoorsy types. Nothing wrong with that, but as the editorial describes, an interest in conserving the subject of a given study could change the behaviors of the data collectors. People’s personal predilections and preferences can also skew data. This could be deliberate, or, perhaps more likely and more difficult to detect, subconscious. In projects like eBird, researchers learned early on of the tendency of many birders to overreport rare birds and underreport common ones. Overreporting the rare birds does not mean the birders record birds they don’t actually see, just that they may report it every time they see a rare bird, and not bother to report a bird they see everyday even if it was sitting side by side with the rarity. eBird now asks the question,
“are you reporting all birds you saw/heard?” to make sure you aren’t cherry-picking, or, if you are, that they can account for it in their analyses.

img_3208For Seanetters, that particular type of skew might not seem relevant since Seanetters go out for a beach walk and record every dead bird they see, regardless of species. We don’t accept incidental reports of oddities like an albatross in the backyard. But we still wrestle with these issues. Many of our volunteers join up thinking that finding the most dead birds is the goal, and that a “good” beach is one that turns up many carcasses. Some volunteers ask if they should modify their walk schedules to coincide with the aftermath of a big storm in the interest of finding wind and wave-tossed bird bodies. That’s why we try very hard to instill in all our volunteers the value of a true baseline (or as close as we can get). For our purposes, a beach that never turns up any birds is no more or less valuable than a beach stacked high with carcasses. For the volunteers who rarely or never find dead birds though, the chance to finally  record one can be tempting. Seanetters will email from time to time saying they’ve been tipped off to the presence of a dead bird on the beach on a day when they had no walk scheduled, asking if they should go out and record it as a walk. I understand the temptation, but sticking to the set schedule of monthly, twice-monthly, or weekly walks is critical to our attempt to get at that baseline.

lc_feb2012_3The editorial closes with a mention of “increased scrutiny […] on the reliability of the work of professional scientists,” a reference, I can only assume, to recent stories of trained scientists fabricating data or even entire careers. Some of these stories are truly egregious, like that of Dutch sociologist Diederick Stapel, whose falsifications ramified down into the careers of his graduate students too. This sort of extreme case is fortunately rare, but what it points to is the possibility to get away with even a massive fraud if no one ever checks on the work. Replicating scientific studies to verify the findings of other researchers is not as common as it ought to be, and the tendency of scientific journals to preferentially publish positive results put pressure on scientists to generate the right kind of study. Most scientists, and most citizen scientists, resist that tug, but we also do whatever we can on our end to make our program as rigorous as possible. As the editorial mentions, volunteers may not be expert in identifying, say, plants. Or dead birds. We want anyone to be able to volunteer with us, so we apply to everyone equally the requirement to take a photo of every dead bird found, whether the volunteer is a total newbie to birding, or a wildlife biologist. We reduce the impact of inter-observer variation in bird identification by having one person (me) do all photo verification. And when I’m not sure of an i.d., I send it out to you, my crack team of bird identifying experts. Sometimes, science requires relinquishing some ego. But the better job we do, the more our data will stand up to rigorous inspection, and the more the profile of you, the army of citizen scientists, will rise in the world. In defiance of those who would sniff.


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