Dead bird Quiz answers and updates on Julie’s LBBG

27 02 2009

First off, the long-awaited answers to yesterday’s dead bird quiz:
Bird A gave people the most trouble, but is, in fact, an American Robin. Granted, the bill appears to be a bizarre color, but our dead bird experts all agreed that this was the only aberration and that all other signs point to American Robin. All three were confident in the i.d.
Bird B is a pigeon (aka rock dove) and Bird C is a Northern Flicker. These two did not seem to phase our savvy blog posters who did not hesitate in their i.d.s.

And now, an update on the Lesser Black-backed Gull (LBBG) banded by SEANET’s own Dr. Julie Ellis this summer. For background on this bird’s story and travels up to this point, see the earlier post Adventures of a Euro Gull.

Julie's banded LBBG continues to vacation in Florida (photo by Chuck Tague)

Julie's banded LBBG continues to vacation in Florida (photo by Chuck Tague)

Far from shunning the limelight, the LBBG continues to draw the attention of birders along a stretch of several miles of beach in the Sunshine State. We all eagerly await word of the gull’s next move, as he will presumably head back up north at some point to prospect this year’s nest site. Gulls are generally quite faithful to their nest site, so it is likely that the gull will make an appearance back on Appledore Island in Maine sometime in the next few months. Certainly, we northern Seanetters don’t blame him for extending his stay in Florida as long as possible.
You can check out the most recent report of the gull by Florida birder Chuck Tague at his blog, the Florida Journal.

Additionally, Julie herself maintains a website on the LBBG and his antics, so check it out at AppledoreLBBG!

Dead bird quiz: expect the unexpected edition

26 02 2009

While our volunteers quickly become well versed in dead seabird identification, an additional challenge is posed by non seabird carcasses. Even something otherwise familiar can become foreign when seen as a mangled featherball strewn across the sand. For the following three birds, you’ll have to think outside the seabird box. As always, submit your response as a comment, and the answers will be revealed in tomorrow’s post.

Bird B) Found by Jerry Golub of New Jersey this month.

Bird A) Found by Jerry Golub of New Jersey this month.

Bird A) Found by Melissa Buhler of Florida in December.

Bird B) Found by Melissa Buhler of Florida in December.

Bird C) Found by Heidi Hanlon of New Jersey in May.

Bird C) Found by Heidi Hanlon of New Jersey in May.

The matter of plastic

25 02 2009

In her comment on yesterday’s post, blog visitor Julie made a valid point about marking carcasses found on the beach. SEANET wants to be certain that carcasses are marked in a permanent or at least semi-permanent fashion so that we can avoid double counting birds that persist on beaches for days or weeks. In examining the model of the very successful COASST beached bird survey program on the west coast, we have learned that attaching plastic cable ties to carcasses is the most durable method.

COASST volunteers document a beached bird. Click on the photo to visit COASST's website.

COASST volunteers document a beached bird. Click on the photo to visit COASST's website.

Julie’s comment suggested that adding more plastic debris to the coastal environment might not be a sound environmental strategy. SEANET has wrestled with that fact, dedicated as we are to benefiting, not harming the oceans and their inhabitants.

The COASST program justifies the use of plastic ties by pointing out that the volume of plastic is imperceptible, and is outweighed by the value of generating high-quality, reliable environmental data. This thinking is similar to that of biologists who band birds; the number of plastic bands out in the environment is tiny and the benefits to scientific understanding are comparatively enormous.

SEANET would like to offer our volunteers a compromise; while we will continue to recommend cable ties as the preferred method of carcass marking, we suggest that volunteers uncomfortable with doing so simply remove the carcass from the beach entirely and dispose of it offsite. This will ensure that the bird is not re-sighted on that beach and counted again.

Thanks to Julie for the comment. Keep them coming everyone!

The subtleties of scavenging

23 02 2009

So much of what you Seanetters find out there on the beaches is pretty far gone; often just a pair of wings or a keel bone, the birds are frequently not worth salvaging for necropsy.

Female Bufflehead found by Ray Bosse (LC_02a) along Buzzard's Bay in Massachusetts.

Female Bufflehead found by Ray Bosse (LC_02a) along Buzzard's Bay in Massachusetts.

Occasionally, the undaunted Seanetter encounters a bird that seems to be in good shape. An example is shown in this post: a female Bufflehead found by volunteer Ray Bosse this month. The bird had what appeared to be a relatively small hole in the breast, and was otherwise well preserved. Ray salvaged the bird and it arrived here at Tufts for necropsy. Upon examining the body cavity of this bird, it was discovered that all the internal organs with the exception of one kidney, had been removed. This is quite consistent with the work of a gull. Gulls will often poke what seems like a small hole through the dead bird’s belly or side and then manage to extract all the organs through it. Yet more proof of the dexterity and cleverness of gulls.

As SEANET’s necropsy program is set to be drastically scaled back starting in May, you will need to be even more selective about which carcasses are to be salvaged. If you find a specimen with a hole in the body similar to this, pass it by as the gulls have beaten you to it.

Along those same lines, please remember that any carcass you find and leave on the beach must be marked (i.e. with spray paint, cable ties, etc) so that it will not be recounted as a new find should you encounter the same carcass again. This is crucial and mandatory. I cannot stress enough how important it is to our data collection.

Keep up the good work Seanetters, and get out there to beat the gulls to the carcasses!

Update on the updates

20 02 2009

bannerToday is, alas, the last day we will have our database guru, Megan Hines, on site to help us overhaul our system. Megan is single-handedly redoing our SEANET interface and reorganizing our copious data. Check out how SEANET fits in to the larger Wildlife Disease Information Node and Megan’s numerous other projects by clicking on the banner above.

The past few days have been enlightening for us all as we look through all the SEANET beaches in the system, and at all the collected data since SEANET’s inception in 2002. While the big changes to the database and the paper survey forms will be unveiled in the coming weeks, one change can be implemented immediately. In perusing the data and looking at beached bird survey programs on the west coast, we have determined that we need to strive for more frequent walks. Our goal is for each of you Seanetters to get out there and walk your beach at least once a month for 9 months of every 12. We have found that fewer walks results in data of lower quality. So, if you’ve been needing a little prod to get out there, especially you northerners sick of these late winter days, here it is! Get out there more often so your data will be the best it can be. For SEANET’s part, we intend to start harassing you more often when we notice that you appear to be lying around on the couch instead of walking your beach.

Thanks to all you Seanetters for all you have done and continue to do; you are the life of this program and we want to make sure we are getting all we can from your considerable efforts. So think warm thoughts (easier for our southern contingent) and head out there today! The more walks the better!

Tale of two scoters

18 02 2009

What is a Seanetter to do when faced with a pair of black wings that are duck-ish in appearance?

Pair of wings found by Diana Gaumond of Cape Cod in March 2008.

Pair of wings found by Diana Gaumond of Cape Cod in March 2008.

For instance, in this first photo shown here, we see a pair of wings that are relatively short and broad (which is generally characteristic of a duck wing). Volunteer Diana Gaumond found this pair of wings and reported a wing chord of 22cm. Given the general appearance–uniformly dark with no colored speculum–and that relatively short wing chord, the hapless Seanetter could easily end up stuck between two scoters. Both the Black Scoter (wing chord 20-24cm) and the Surf Scoter (wing chord 20-25cm) seem to match, and without the head or feet, or anything else to use to differentiate, one could be forgiven for calling the bird “Unknown scoter” and moving on with one’s life. But no! One needn’t be content with such an i.d.!

Take a close look at the tips of the primaries (outermost feathers) in that first pair of wings. You can see that the very outermost primary is also the longest of all the primaries. This indicates that the bird is a Surf Scoter.

Compare that with the second photo, provided by Mary and Steve Gulrich. In this closeup, you may be able to appreciate that the outermost primary is actually shorter than the one beside it. This is characteristic of a Black Scoter.

Tip of wing found by Mary and Steve Gulrich of Cape Cod in February, 2009.

Tip of wing found by Mary and Steve Gulrich of Cape Cod in February, 2009.

While it is tough to tell from these photos, you will undoubtedly be able to see this difference in the field. So if you live in scoter country (and most of us do since their winter range is as far south as the northern Gulf of Mexico) don’t despair at the sight of a pair of black wings with a wing chord between 20 and 25. There is hope yet, Seanetters!

SEANET database to undergo overhaul

17 02 2009

logo Megan Hines, database whiz from NBII, the system that graciously hosts the SEANET database, will be visiting this week to carefully reevaluate the database, the data entry system, and various and sundry other matters. We have compiled all the complaints, compliments and suggestions you have submitted over the past few months and hope to make changes to the database that will increase its ease of use and utility for everyone.

Megan is incredibly busy with other projects and yet always responds promptly to SEANET concerns via email. To have her actually on site for a few days to help us with our system is an incredible opportunity. Once we’re done tormenting Megan and making endless adjustments to the database, we hope to unveil the new and improved system. We know that any change requires extra attention and care on the part of our volunteers, and we thank you in advance for your tolerance and for not throwing shoes or other potentially harmful objects.

If you have concerns or suggestions about the database, please don’t hesitate to contact us and we will incorporate them into our discussions with Megan.

All beaches are not equal

13 02 2009

SEANET has recently gotten very interested in the variability in numbers of carcasses found on different beaches and also in variable scavenging rates. While some of our volunteers regularly find numerous intact carcasses, others find nothing but wings and bones scraped clean of all muscle. Still other volunteers walk diligently all year and never find even a single feather.

Jenette Kerr of Cape Cod (WB_36) routinely finds only wings, like this one from a male Common Eider

Jenette Kerr of Cape Cod (WB_36) routinely finds only wings, like this one from a male Common Eider

We want to take a closer look at all this variability and are currently working on an analysis of the data from the past year. The implications are numerous. Beach survey programs in Canada, for instance, focus on finding intact carcasses so that they can assess whether or not a bird has been oiled. When nothing but a wing or two turns up on a beach, it is impossible to ascertain oiling rates. For their program, they have had to increase the frequency of beach walks in many locales  in order to detect intact carcasses before they are scavenged or even washed back out to sea.

While SEANET and its expert bird identification consultants can do a very good job of identifying species even from nothing but mangled wings, we can’t use those specimens to determine anything regarding causes of mortality. We will be at work on your data to determine both what we know and what we don’t know based on your beach finds, and how to address those findings in the future.

Jerry Golub of New Jersey (NJ_51) finds intact carcasses much more often than his colleagues on Cape Cod

Jerry Golub of New Jersey (NJ_51) finds intact carcasses much more often than his colleagues on Cape Cod

You can help by continuing to take such good photos of the birds you find out there, and also by making sure that when you enter your data online, that you pay attention to the field that asks if the bird was scavenged. Mark this field as “yes” for any carcass that is not completely intact, even if you are not sure that the cause was scavenger activity. Doing so permits us to determine scavenging rates on your beach much more readily.

We hope to get data on carcass deposition and scavenging from some select regions out to you soon, so keep your eyes peeled for that.

Seanetters are eBirders!

12 02 2009


Great Black-backed Gulls at their breeding colony in Maine

Great Black-backed Gulls at their breeding colony in Maine

Our thanks go out to intrepid souls Ray Bosse (SEANET volunteer in Buzzard’s Bay, Massachusetts) and Jackie Page (walking her SEANET beat on Cape Cod) for posting the very first SEANET eBird lists! Both have posted multiple lists from beach walks and successfully shared the data with SEANET. We hope this is the beginning of a beautiful relationship for all parties involved. eBird is truly a remarkable tool allowing all you Seanetters and birders out there to map live bird sightings, chart species occurence over time and explore the data in ways heretofore unimaginable for those more familiar with SEANET’s own database.¬†

For you cautious folks out there, just give it a try! Head over to and get started now!

Dead bird quiz answers

9 02 2009

As anticipated, it was a southerner who immediately recognized these two birds. Georgia artist, birder, and bird-blogger Lydia Thompson (check out the link to her blog, Coastal Georgia Birding, on the right of your screen) shot back her answer right away. Indeed, Bird A is an immature Black Skimmer, and Bird B is a Laughing Gull.

Bird A) Immature Black Skimmer

Bird A) Immature Black Skimmer

The Black Skimmer is a fascinating bird with a unique way of feeding. The asymmetrical beak of the Skimmer features a lower bill (mandible) that protrudes beyond the tip of the upper bill (maxilla). The bird uses this bizarre anatomy to fly just above the surface of the water with the lower bill partially submerged. When the bill strikes a prey item, it automatically snaps shut. Because this system does not rely on visual detection of prey, Black Skimmers are capable of feeding in dim light and even overnight, which they do frequently.

Black Skimmer in flight (photo courtesy of Cornell Lab of Ornithology)

Black Skimmer in flight (photo courtesy of Cornell Lab of Ornithology)

While Black Skimmers are sighted rarely as far north as the Gulf of Maine, and are seen in the summer months along the shores of New Jersey and Long Island, they are most strongly associated with southern coasts where they can be seen in large flocks year round.


Bird B) Laughing Gull

Our second bird, a Laughing Gull found in December, presents a bit of a challenge in terms of age determination. The photo provided in the quiz tells part of the story; the bird’s mantle (back) is all gray with no brown scalloping remaining on the wings. This means the bird is not a first-winter bird. That leaves either a second-winter bird or an adult in winter plumage. There are a few clues that would point one toward the answer. The first is the bill. A winter adult shows a vermilion red tip to the bill while a second-winter bird will have an entirely black bill. The bird in our photo appears to have an all black bill, but the angle and lighting make it difficult to say for sure. An additional clue can be found in the primaries.

In an adult bird in winter plumage, the primaries will show

Bird B's ventral surface showing the all-black primary tips.

Bird B's ventral surface showing the all-black primary tips.

clear white tips. While the primaries are not visible in the photo provided in this quiz, an additional photo of the bird’s ventral surface shows that this bird’s primaries are all black. Based on that, this bird appears to be an immature in its second winter.

Like the Black Skimmer, the Laughing Gull is also resident along coasts throughout the south. The Laughing Gull, however, breeds all along the New England shores through Maine and is a familiar sight along our northern shores in the summer.