Oiled Gulls in Gloucester, MA

29 12 2009

The fishing port of Gloucester is on Cape Ann in Massachusetts

Thanks, Jenette, for being the only one to acknowledge the skunk at the garden party (the terrible pun in the last post.) Additional thanks to Jenette for alerting us to a troubling discovery in the fishing port of Gloucester, MA.

Two Great Black-Backed Gulls coated in what appears to be a clear, yellowish oil. (photo credit: Richard Heil)

Accomplished birder Richard Heil observed at least 40 gulls (mainly Great Black-Backed Gulls) coated in what appeared to be some sort of oil. While the birds could fly and swim, they appeared very bedraggled, and are likely suffering substantial loss of waterproofing–especially fatal in the frigid temperatures currently gripping New England.
SEANET is attempting to facilitate a response by the appropriate agencies, and we are hopeful that the cause of this event will be determined. The SEANET blogger is struck by the similarities to an oiling event in Ohio earlier this year. In that incident, cooking oil spilled out of a sewage treatment plant into the Cuyahoga River killing hundreds of Ring-Billed Gulls.

There is currently no indication of the source of the substance in Gloucester, but these gulls were certainly in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Dead Bird Quiz answers; I crack myself up!

24 12 2009

Doug Suitor, right again! Big shocker there. Indeed, Bird A is a Black-legged kittiwake (black legs, yellow bill, and those inky black primary tips without the white mirrors seen in Herring Gulls). And Bird B is a Thick-billed Murre, but from this distance, the average Seanetter would be forgiven for saying “Unknown alcid.” It is especially easy to confuse Common Murres and Thick-billed Murres. Thick-billeds tend to turn up with far greater frequency on SEANET beaches, however.

The real reason for yesterday’s bird quiz is a really terrible pun. Here it is (lucky for me, this murre was found by Frank Kenny):


Frank (inset) and murre

Get it? Get it? Oh man, that is terrible. Must be the delirium of the Christmas season with little kids setting in.

Please don’t stop reading the blog–I promise, no more ghastly puns!

For those who celebrate, Merry Christmas, and to all, peace!

Nothing more festive than a…Dead bird quiz

22 12 2009

First, an item basically unrelated to the dead bird quiz: Dennis Minsky, volunteer extaordinaire out on Cape Cod, always enjoys dead birds for their own sake, but the bird he found most recently came with an extra gift. While walking the beach with assistant/puppy Dory, the two came upon what appeared to be a White-winged Scoter carcass. On the leg was a band reading, “REWARD $100.” Dennis followed up on this bizarre message and discovered that it’s for real! Now Dennis is flush with cash, has a new puppy, and a beach that turns up endless dead birds. Sounds like a happy man.

Now, for the dead bird quiz.

Bird A found by Mary Myers on Cape Cod last month

Bird B, found by Frank Kenny in NJ back in February.

Another update on the slimed birds; a link to dinosaurs?

17 12 2009

Murres were one of the species hardest hit by the algal bloom. These await transport to a rehab facility.

Last week, we provided a brief follow-up on some of the birds treated and released after a bizarre algal bloom in the Pacific Northwest. Below is an article by Les Blumenthal of McClatchy Newspapers who reports on the theory that toxic algal blooms might have contributed to mass extinctions throughout prehistory. The story came to the SEANET blogger through ProMed, a site run by the International Society for Infectious Diseases. ProMed compiles reports of disease occurence around the world, in humans, other animals, and plants and is always worth a read, though it’s usually packed with bad news. In any case, the SEANET blogger recommends it highly.

“With a new theory surfacing that toxic algae rather than asteroids killed the dinosaurs, scientists are still trying to unravel the mystery of what caused a massive algae bloom off the north west coast of the U.S. that left thousands of seabirds dead and may have sickened some surfers and kayakers. The bloom, which stretches roughly 300 miles from Newport, Oregon, north to the Canadian border, still persists, though it’s a shadow of its September and October [2009] peak. Whipped by waves and storms, the microscopic phytoplankton, which had turned the ocean a rust color, broke apart, releasing toxins and creating a meringue-like foam that coated the feathers of birds like spilled oil. Up to 10 000 birds died of hypothermia in September, and researchers are still trying to come up with a count for October. Researchers are also checking reports that surfers and kayakers who came in contact with the foam may have suffered cold-like signs, including temporary loss of smell and taste. The toxins also may have become aerosolized and affected beachcombers. In another strange twist, pathologists performing necropsies found that some of the birds lacked normal bacteria in their stomachs and other internal organs. Blooms of the single-cell, saltwater algae species known as _Akashiwo sanguinea_ have been found in Puget Sound, the Chesapeake Bay, and elsewhere around the world. The bloom off the north west coast, however, is huge compared with others. At its height, there were 1.5 million algae cells per quart of water. The bloom was up to 65 feet [20 m] deep and miles wide. In only one other instance — a smaller bloom in 2007 in California’s Monterey Bay — have the cells broken apart to create a toxic froth. And this particular specie of algae usually likes warmer water than that found off the north west coast. No one is sure what ignited the bloom. Some scientists think it could be caused by climate change, which has raised ocean temperatures and made the water more acidic — both conditions could favor this algae species. Others say it could be the result of such weather conditions as El Nino or the Pacific decadal oscillation, a long-lived El Nino-like pattern of Pacific climate variability. The bloom could have been fed by nutrients washed down the Columbia River from farms in eastern Washington and Oregon, or from an ocean condition known as upwelling, where cold water rich with nutrients is pushed toward the surface by the wind. Or, it could just be the rhythms of the ocean, which scientists are just starting to understand. “The ocean does have a natural pulse,” said Vera Trainer, a Seattle-based research oceanographer for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “Is this part of the pulse or is this something different? We want to find out. But some of this is very unusual. We are looking at this very intensely.” One of the scientists who developed the theory linking toxic algae to mass extinctions said it fit in with the research he and his partner were working on. “That’s exactly what we are talking about,” said John Rodgers, an ecotoxicologist at Clemson University in South Carolina, who along with James Castle, a geologist at Clemson, developed the killer algae theory. Rodgers was on the road last week in the [American] Midwest, collecting samples of algae to analyze back in his lab. He said he and Castle have found ancient deposits of blue-green algae that produce toxins and deplete oxygen that coincide with 5 mass extinctions millions of years ago. Though he said algae may not have been the only cause for the extinctions, he said it was a major factor. The blue-green algae were freshwater algae in ponds, lakes, and rivers that could have been ingested by prehistoric animals. The toxins also may have been absorbed by plants that were later eaten by animals or become airborne and breathed in by animals. “They certainly didn’t die on the same day or week,” Rodgers said. “This happened over hundreds of years.” Even though there are thousands of species of algae, only several hundred produce toxins, he said. Though the bloom off the north west coast is in salt water rather than fresh water, Rodgers said such blooms were well worth keeping an eye on. “They are changing, expanding their ranges into places never seen before and in densities never seen before,” Rodgers said. “It’s hard to ignore, and as the data grows, we are becoming more and more convinced.” Rodgers said his theory has been peer reviewed and is gaining acceptance among scientists. Current climate conditions are becoming strikingly similar to those that existed during the time of the mass extinctions, he said. In a paper published in March [2009] in the journal Environment Geosciences, Rodgers and Castle wrote that their finding “gives us cause for concern and underscores the importance of careful and strategic monitoring as we move into an era of global climate change.” Scientists studying the bloom off the north west are wary when asked about Rodgers’ and Castle’s theory. “I would be cautious about it,” Trainer said. Raphael Kudela, a toxic algae expert and ocean sciences professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz, thinks algae blooms such as those off the north west coast are becoming more frequent. “It is consistent with climate change,” Kudela said, adding that a bloom like this in the chilly waters of the north west was “very unusual.” As for the killer algae theory, Kudela said, “People who study harmful algae don’t dismiss it. But it can’t be proved.”

Parrish doesn’t quite know what to make of the theory that algae killed dinosaurs. Back when life was just starting, she said, algae and other single-cell organisms excreted oxygen that created the atmosphere.

“The claim algae had a humongous effect on the atmosphere is correct,” Parrish said. ‘Whether it caused mass extinctions, I don’t know.'”

Damaged merganser in Maine

15 12 2009

Red-breasted merganser hauling out repeatedly in Maine.

Kirk Gentalen, prospective SEANET volunteer and all-around nature aficionado, sent us these photos of a  red-breasted merganser he observed up around Vinalhaven in Maine. The bird kept hauling out near a bridge where mergansers don’t commonly hang out. Kirk took a closer look at the bird and noticed that both of its wings appeared abnormal. Both were angled out from the body rather than being held close to the flanks. I suggested that this bird might have a developmental abnormality since both wings are affected. We rarely see simultaneous fractures in both wings without substantial (often fatal) injuries to the rest of the body (gulls being an exception to this rule; they frequently mangle both wings quite inexplicably).

Developmental abnormalities in the wings can be present at hatch and derive from contaminants, genetic mutations, and a host of other causes. They can also develop over time as the bird grows due to nutritional imbalances, for instance.

Kirk raised a very reasonable objection to the developmental abnormality theory: how had the bird traveled to Maine from Nova Scotia if not by flying? It is possible that the bird swam, but this case is puzzling. SEANET would love to be able to examine the bird, and necropsy it should it be found dead. Kirk has promised to fetch the bird should it meet its demise and turn up on shore somewhere.

Seanetters are on the frontlines of seabird disease and SEANET is working toward a more proactive approach to reports like these. So do let us know if you see anything weird out there–we want to hear about it!

Close-up of the merganser: both wings are held at bizarre angles.

Update on slimed seabirds in Pacific Northwest

10 12 2009

Volunteer Karen Beck releases a rehabilitated grebe.

In a previous post, we reported on seabirds caught in the slimy byproduct of a bizarre algal bloom off the coast of Oregon in October. The influx of seabirds overwhelmed wildlife rehab facilties in Oregon and spilled over into northern California. At the end of November, a small scale triumph: the Wildlife Center of the North Coast in Oregon released 40 grebes and murres back into their natural habitat after successful washing and rehabiliation.

In total, the algal bloom is now estimated to have killed over 10,000 seabirds.

Wellfleet Volunteers Rock!

9 12 2009

Seanetters gather in Wellfleet: left to right: Sarah Courchesne, Mary Myers, Diana Gaumond, Jenette Kerr, Dennis Minsky, Julie Ellis, Seanetter whose name your blogger has failed to determine, Judy Parmelee, Mike Bjornholm.

SEANET wishes to thank all the current volunteers, prospective volunteers, and generally interested members of the public for joining us at the Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary on Cape Cod this past Saturday. The weather was atrocious, likely aiding our cause by driving people out of the rain and wind and into our lecture hall. The crowd was attentive, inquisitive and very kind to your SEANET blogger, who did not see anyone falling asleep or wandering off.
Thanks also to the staff of the Sanctuary; Mark Faherty and Melissa Lowe in particular were most solicitous and helpful.
It was an absolute pleasure to meet the walkers behind some of SEANET’s longest standing beaches, and the trip overall made SEANET wish to be quartered on the captivating Cape rather than outside Worcester.

Your blogger would like to point out an egregious error. In the whirlwind of meetings and conversations at Saturday’s presentation, she managed to put faces with names and beaches for all but one Seanetter. He is the tall guy in the picture in this post. As your blogger sits here, mortified at this situation, she hopes one of you kind blog readers will set her straight. SEANET desperately wishes to rectify this sad state of affairs and is hoping she got everyone else’s name right at least. She even tried googling the names of all our best Cape Cod walkers in the hopes of recognizing the face. To no avail. Sigh.

The SEANET blogger visits Dennis Minksy's beach. Not evident from photo: the wind was so strong, the gulls were flying backwards.

The day after the presentation, the SEANET blogger even visited Dennis Minsky’s beach in Provincetown where she was nearly swept off the continent by strong winds. Even the gulls looked breathless and chilled.
We hope to continue holding these occasional SEANET get-togethers to meet and recognize our wonderful volunteers for all they do. Perhaps we’ll come to your neck of the woods next–stay tuned Seanetters.

Dead Bird Quiz answer

5 12 2009

Doug Suitor is a ringer! He’s right again; the answer to yesterday’s dead bird quiz is, indeed, a Northern Fulmar. Here’s the walk-through for those of us less gifted in deceased bird observing than Doug.

The bill is one of the most useful features in this specimen. It’s a tubenose, with that weird structure atop the bill characteristic of petrels, albatross, shearwaters and the like. The bill is also pale. This might suggest a Cory’s Shearwater, as most of the tubenoses anywhere near SEANET beaches have dark bills. But the fulmar’s bill is much stubbier than any of our shearwaters.

Cory's Shearwater. A much longer bill relative to the head size than the Fulmar. (photo by A. Raine)

All in all, everything about the Northern Fulmar is stockier and stubbier than our shearwater friends. Sorry fulmars, but it’s true; you guys are like linebackers attempting to dance with the ballerinas. The tail and wings on the fulmar are short and rounded, and even the neck is thick, giving the fulmar a stocky appearance overall.

Sibley writes that an additional aid in differentiating the fulmar from other tubenoses is the fulmar’s lack of an “M” pattern on its back and upperwing. The common shearwater species and storm petrels Seanetters might encounter generally have some degree of this pattern (though I think  it’s pretty hard to see on the very dark Manx Shearwater). Really the “M” is most distinct on the petrels, and you won’t see many of them in SEANET territory.

Northern Fulmar. The gray back and white head might make one think "gull" if glimpsed quickly. Note, however, the very short, rounded tail.

Have a good weekend Seanetters; and your blogger is looking forward to meeting some of the Cape Cod contingent at tomorrow’s presentation in Wellfleet. See you there!

Dead Bird Quiz

3 12 2009

A couple days ago, Massachusetts Audubon Science Coordinator Mark Faherty was out for a leisurely evening  stroll (looking for stranded sea turtles) in Wellfleet, MA when he stumbled upon this dead bird. It is a rare find for Seanetters, and we have only two reports of this species in our database. So this is a good training exercise should you ever encounter one of these. Guesses?

The bird as found by Mark Fahety in Wellfleet, MA

Close up of the mystery bird

Great Atlantic Garbage Patch?

1 12 2009

The SSV Corwith Cramer will carry researchers to investigate plastic in the North Atlantic

In a gross cop-out, SEANET here cuts and pastes an article, rather than writing on the subject with any original thought. SEANET deludes itself into believing that this will more accurately convey the information, rather than offering a second hand interpretation. But really, it’s just that the SEANET blogger’s baby is crying and she must go attend to him.

(Woods Hole, Mass.) — Sea Education Association (SEA) is preparing to conduct the first-ever research expedition dedicated solely to examining the accumulation of plastic marine debris in the North Atlantic Ocean.

The expedition, scheduled to begin in June, will expand upon a 20-year data set previously collected by SEA that reveals a region of extensive plastic pollution in a narrow latitude band in the western North Atlantic Ocean.

This trip will explore an area southeast of Bermuda that, it is hypothesized, is an extension of the high plastic pollution region defined by more than 200 previous SEA voyages in the Western North Atlantic. Observations from those trips indicate the area has large concentrations of plastic debris comparable to the region of the Eastern North Pacific Ocean dubbed the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch.”

Paul Joyce, SEA dean, said the expedition is a natural extension of the efforts in measuring plastic debris by SEA students and staff for decades.

“SEA’s physical data sets contribute to our understanding of the distribution and ultimate fate of plastic in the ocean,” said Joyce. “Every one of the several thousand students who have helped collect and count plastic debris over the decades have been important contributors to this work and have gained a much fuller understanding of how the oceans work and the role humans play in the present and future of the oceans.”

The expedition is funded by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Marine Debris Program, and is in collaboration with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and Woods Hole Sea Grant.

The cruise, tentatively scheduled for June 10-July 14, will take place on the SSV Corwith Cramer, SEA’s 134-foot brigantine-rigged sailing oceanographic research vessel. The crew will consist of 11 professional mariners and up to 22 additional participants, many of them alumni of SEA’s core academic program, SEA Semester.

The expedition will follow a 3,300 nautical mile saw-toothed cruise track extending more than 1,100 nautical miles east of Bermuda. The expedition will feature a website with daily updates on the scientific findings and shipboard life, including multimedia content.