A bad year for cormorants

30 12 2008
Double-crested cormorant

Double-crested cormorant

2008 has been a year of heavy mortality for Double-crested Cormorants. SEANET received reports a few months ago of substantial die-offs  in the Canadian Maritimes. Our collaborators there asked us to keep an eye out for aberrant cormorant related events down here in the States. While we did not see anything out of the ordinary down here in Massachusetts, we did get word of unusually high numbers of sick and dead cormorants along the Maine coast this summer.

Our Canadian friends have since diagnosed their dead cormorants with Newcastle Disease, a paramyxovirus that is a common cause of cormorant die-offs. SEANET will be pursuing diagnostics in some of the birds found in Maine to determine if Newcastle Disease was at play there as well.

While all species of birds worldwide are potentially susceptible to Newcastle Disease, both cormorants and rock doves (piegons) appear to maintain the disease in their populations and can then suffer periodic severe mortality from it. Newcastle is also of major economic importance as it can decimate commercial poultry flocks. As a result, federal authorities are constantly vigilant in detecting and containing outbreaks of the disease.

Signs and symptoms of the disease are variable, but the most common ones are related to infection within the brain, spinal cord and nerves. Affected birds may be unable to fly or even walk and may lose balance and coordination before dying. Birds that survive the virus often suffer permanent paralysis, especially of a single wing. Seeing a number of birds with one paralyzed wing in a particular area is a good indication that an outbreak of Newcastle Disease recently ran through the population.

Newcastle Disease can also affect the lungs, intestine and kidneys of infected birds, and we will be submitting samples of those tissues to test for the virus in the Maine birds. Keep an eye on the blog for results of the cormorant necropsies and the viral testing to follow!

Common Eider research update

29 12 2008
Adult male Common Eider found dead in Wellfleet

Adult male Common Eider found dead in Wellfleet

This past year was relatively light in terms of Common Eider mortality on Cape Cod in Massachusetts. In 2007, we saw heavy mortality among males in the Spring and Fall (the usual pattern for these events) but we also saw an unusual die-off of adult females over the Summer. In comparison, 2008 saw only one minor event involving a few dozen birds. The reason for such a stark difference in severity between years is unknown.

SEANET continues to work on the issue of these die-offs. We applied for funding this year to perform further testing on the birds, but we unfortunately received word this week that our proposal had been declined.

Undaunted, we continue to pursue the issue through more low budget means.  Our collaborator, Jack Renfrew, an avid sea duck hunter and co-chair of the Boston Chapter of Ducks Unlimited, has generously provided us with a number of eider carcasses he has acquired during his activities out on the open water this hunting season.

Jack Renfrew, outdoorsman extraordinaire, single-handedly wrangles a shearwater from the sky.

Jack Renfrew, outdoorsman extraordinaire, single-handedly wrangles a shearwater from the sky.

These specimens are invaluable in collecting normal baseline data on presumably healthy birds. This permits us to then compare these birds with birds affected by past and future die-offs. Without access to these specimens, we would be unable to appreciate subtle abnormalities in the die-off birds, or to interpret our findings. We thank Jack for all his time and effort in this endeavor, and SEANET will keep you all informed of our findings in our ongoing investigation of this phenomenon.

Dead bird quiz results

23 12 2008

Ding ding ding! Kudos to Jenette Kerr who correctly identified our dead friend as a male Common Goldeneye. At least, that’s what SEANET thinks it is. SEANET welcomes the thoughts of better minds, however, as there is more than one species of Goldeneye.

Common Goldeneye male

Common Goldeneye male

The Common Goldeneye are among the last ducks to migrate south in the Fall, and often hang around to overwinter as far north as they can find open water.

As their breeding territories span the Arctic and only the most northern segments of the U.S., winter is the best time for most of us Seanetters to catch sight of these birds. Our friends in Florida are likely out of luck, but the rest of you, keep your eyes peeled for this, one of our more common winter live bird sightings along the coast.

SEANET will be away for the Christmas holiday the rest of this week, so check back next week for new posts and fabulous content, as always. Happy Holidays!

Dead bird quiz

22 12 2008

Any takers on this one, ladies and gentlemen? It was found in February, 2007 on Martha’s Vineyard. We don’t get many of these reported as beached birds, but it is a relatively common sighting among the living birds out there…

Beached bird found on Martha's Vineyard

Beached bird found on Martha's Vineyard

Another view

Another view

Dead bird quiz results

19 12 2008

Doug Suitor is right on with his identifications: Bird A is a Thick-Billed Murre and Bird B is an immature Atlantic Puffin (thus, the dark beak and not the clownish appearance of the well known adults.)

A) Razorbill; B) Atlantic Puffin; C) Thick-Billed Murre; D) Dovekie; E) Common Murre; F) Black Guillemot

Members of the alcid family: A) Razorbill; B) Atlantic Puffin; C) Thick-Billed Murre; D) Dovekie; E) Common Murre; F) Black Guillemot

These birds are both in the Alcid family, which also includes Dovekies, Razorbills and Guillemots. The appearance of birds from this family in a common occurrence after storms, and Cape Cod Bay is a particular hotspot for birders looking to sight large numbers of the ocean-going birds post-storm. Recently, we received the following report from Marshall Iliff, birder extraordinaire with Cornell’s eBird program:


“Saturday was a major storm that pushed tens of thousands of alcids into Cape Cod Bay and I would have little doubt that the alcid mortality at Wellfleet was a direct result of the storm. See the following report from birder Blair Nikula:
‘There was a fantastic flight of alcids past First Encounter Beach in Eastham this morning. In four hours I counted approximately 15,400 large alcids, the vast majority of those that were identifiable being Razorbills, though Dovekies, puffins, and both murres were present as well. I was using a mechanical counter and clicked off the alcids by tens, so, needless to say, there’s a sizable margin of error in my total. Additionally, viewing conditions were far from ideal, with a bitter wind (NW @ 15-30mph), rather funky lighting, and considerable distortion over the water (cold air over the relatively warm water), and many of the birds were distant, though there were plenty in fairly close as well.'”

With the major winter storm currently raging across the Northeast, all you northern SEANETers should look forward to heading out to the beaches post-storm and seeing what blew in with the snow. We’ll be looking forward to your reports!



Dead bird quiz

17 12 2008

Try your hand at these two beached birds (A and B) and post your answers as comments. Both birds are from the same family, as you might have guessed from their rather similar appearance. Answers will appear within the next two days, so don’t forget to visit often! (Shameless.)

A) Found by Jenette Kerr (WB_36) in Massachusetts on December 8.

A) Found by Jenette Kerr (WB_36) in Massachusetts on December 8.

B) Found by Mary and Steve Gulrich (WB_44) in Massachusetts on December 14.

B) Found by Mary and Steve Gulrich (WB_04) in Massachusetts on December 14.

SEANET investigates loon die-off on Long Island

15 12 2008
Red-throated Loons have been washing up dead on the shores of Long Island

Red-throated Loons have been washing up dead on the shores of Long Island

This story out of Long Island has been developing over the course of the past few weeks.  Our SEANET coordinator for Long Island, Peg Hart, has gone above and beyond in this investigation and sends us the following account:

“Since November 23, 2008 dead loons have been appearing in large numbers on the ocean beaches between Amagansett and Montauk, New York.  As of today, we have found 74 birds in total. The majority are Red-throated Loons, but a few Common Loons, gulls and Gannets have also been found. Necropsies performed to date  indicate that the cause of death is drowning, and gill nets (used for fishing) are suspected. Once we have completed our analysis, we plan to work with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) marine resources to draft a much needed amendment to New York State fisheries regulations, with a goal to reduce bycatch of migratory birds.”

If you have any information pertaining to this case or sightings of dead seabirds on Long Island, please contact Peg Hart at sshearwater@yahoo.com.

This die-off event is, unfortunately, all too common. After all, fishermen and fish-eating seabirds are drawn to the same productive waters. We see similar phenomena involving Loons and Northern Gannets up and down the eastern seaboard. This time of year, when the birds are overwintering off our shores, such mortality events tend to reach their peak.

A sample of the birds washing up on New York beaches

A sample of the birds washing up on New York beaches

Peg is doing a remarkable job of documenting this event and her necropsy findings in order to provide high quality evidence should there in fact be a push to change fishing regulations in order to lessen the impact on seabirds. We want to thank her for her time, thoroughness and dedication, and for being SEANET’s on the ground presence during this die-off event.

We will keep you posted on further developments in this story as they become available.

Congrats to Dr. Julie Ellis!

11 12 2008
Julie's beloved gulls in a distubingly violent tableau. Note the abject terror in the eyes of  the Herring Gull (right).

Julie's beloved gulls in a disturbingly violent tableau. Note the abject terror in the eyes of the Herring Gull (right).

Our very own SEANET ecologist, Julie Ellis, has just submitted a major federal grant. She has applied to the National Science Foundation’s Ecology of Infectious Disease program. Her proposal, entitled, “Are gulls expanding the antibiotic resistome? A model of microbial transmission by wild birds ” is a joint effort with two other scientists: Dr. Jennifer Martiny and Dr. Lauren Meyers.

The increasing threat of bacteria  resistant to commonly used antibiotics has been covered extensively in the media. Multiple causes appear to be at play, including indiscriminate or inappropriate use of antibiotics by humans, and especially the widespread use of low levels of antibiotics in animals raised for food. In such cases, improper use of the drugs (discontinuing your antibiotic because you started to feel better, for instance, or, on farms, giving just a low dose of the drug to livestock because it promotes more rapid weight gain) allows the weakest bacteria to succumb to the drug but leaves behind a population of bacteria that are resistant to it. When such a bacterium infects another human or animal, the antibiotic will no longer be effective against it and the infection can rage on unchecked with potentially fatal consequences.

Julie got the idea to look at the role of gulls in transmitting such bacteria after observing some peculiarities of their behavior. Julie has studied gulls on Appledore Island in Maine for nearly 10 years. In that time, she has found that gulls from the Appledore breeding colony often venture to the mainland for food. Some of the richest feeding grounds they encounter are landfills and sewage treatment facilities.

Gulls foraging at a New Hampshire landfill.

Gulls foraging at a New Hampshire landfill.

Suspecting that these behaviors may place them at risk of encountering bacteria from both human and domestic animal sources, Julie decided to pursue the issue in a systematic way. Never one to think small, she has applied for this NSF grant which is extremely competitive and prestigious. Regardless of the outcome, SEANET has no doubt that Julie will continue to work on this issue and push the limits of scientific knowledge on the subject. We will keep you posted on how it turns out. Congratulations Julie and keep up the good work! SEANET is proud and very impressed!

‘Tis the season…

8 12 2008

…for beached gannets, it appears. Volunteers from Massachusetts to New Jersey have been reporting dead Northern Gannets on their beaches.  Adults are mainly white in color with the exception of black wing tips. This plumage develops only in birds five years of age and older. Young birds go through a series of molts changing from almost entirely brown with white speckling (see bottom photo) and acquiring more and more white feathering with each passing year.

Adult gannet found by Bud Johnson and Brian Carroll (WB_44) in Massachusetts on November 26.

Adult Northern Gannet found by Bud Johnson and Brian Carroll (WB_44) in Massachusetts on November 26.

The birds breed on islands off the coast of Canada, and at this time of year they are headed for their warmer wintering grounds. Juveniles head south first and generally travel farther than their elders, commonly venturing down to the Gulf of Mexico. The adults are more conservative, and will often aggregate along the coast from Massachusetts through the mid-Atlantic states.

New Jersey volunteer Jerry Golub (NJ_51) estimated that 1000s of the birds were traveling over his beach last week, coinciding with discoveries of dead birds on numerous SEANET beaches.

Our Florida volunteers report many beached juveniles over the course of the winter each year, so those of you down in the Sunshine State, brace yourselves.

A 1-2 year old Northern Gannet, also found by Bud Johnson and Brian Carroll, this one on November 27.

A 1-2 year old Northern Gannet, also found by Bud Johnson and Brian Carroll, this one on November 27.

The juveniles can be tricky to identify, so if you think you may have found a Gannet, look particularly at the beak which gives the birds a very characteristic look unlikely to be confused with many other species. Interestingly, the birds lack externally visible nostrils (a trait shared with cormorants.) This feature allows them to dive for fish from great heights above the ocean’s surface without the unpleasant sensation of water up the nose.

The birds are also exceptionally large making them a striking find should one turn up on your beach.

SEANET speaks at EcoHealth

4 12 2008

Today was the big day; SEANET went international (again) in a presentation here at the EcoHealth forum in Mexico (www.ecohealth2008.org)! There was much interest generated by the presentation, particularly on the issue of plastics polluting the oceans and their subsequent ingestion by seabirds.

Greater Shearwater found dead on Martha's Vineyard

Greater Shearwater found dead on Martha's Vineyard this summer

The issue was presented as a case study involving Greater Shearwaters found dead on the shores of Martha’s Vineyard, as well as Shearwaters killed after becoming entangled in fishing nets and drowning.

In both populations, numerous small plastic fragments were found in the birds’ stomachs. These varied from pieces of detergent bottles to parts of band-aids.

The potential threat to the birds from the ingestion of plastic is unknown, and the participants in the forum were curious to know more about the potential long-term toxic effects of plastic ingestion in seabirds as well as more short-term risks.



Typical appearance of plastic fragments recovered from the stomach of a single Greater Shearwater (ruler in centimeters)

One audience member, a scientist at a university here in Mexico, was particularly concerned about the seabird population on the island where his university is located. The island struggles to deal with issues of waste management, and this scientist had always feared that discarded plastics might pose a threat to the birds and other wildlife on the island. Like many other audience members, he was alarmed, but perhaps not entirely surprised, to hear that even Shearwaters, birds that spend the majority of their lives out at sea, have been touched by marine pollution in such a startling way.

Another audience member raised the possibility of developing a program like SEANET in her home country of Mexico. Still others asked about the seasonal variation of carcass deposition, and the wider threat of plastics to birds beyond the Atlantic coast of the United States. 

SEANET has been well received here in Mexico, it appears. Tomorrow, I head off to go birding in the Celestun Reserve in northwest Yucatan. Check the blog for photos soon to follow…