The far-reaching effects of oil, and some good news.

29 06 2010

Becky Harris (wearing hat) pictured in a colder season with chickadee (on hat). Photo by Carolyn Bishop.

An article in a Massachusetts newspaper has caught the eye of your SEANET blogger. The reasons are two-fold: the article in SouthCoastToday covers some of the potential impacts of the Gulf oil spill that could reach as far north as New England, and it also highlights fellow blogger Becky Harris of MA Audubon (more on her later).
While the oil itself is not projected to make it all the way up the east coast, it would be naive to think of our oceans as discrete, isolated sections. Currents aside, the mobile denizens of the oceans often do travel between distant regions and waters. The South Coast Today article discusses the oil spill’s impacts on sea turtles, which are already occurring, and on shorebirds like piping plovers and oystercatchers, which won’t be known until the birds head south to their wintering grounds. Becky Harris, former Director of SEANET and current Director of MA Audubon’s Coastal Waterbird Program, gave the issue some considered attention in her most recent blogpost. For Becky, the issue is personal since she and her team work ceaselessly through the Spring and Summer to ensure the safety and success of nesting shorebirds and seabirds along the Massachusetts shore. Now, as the chicks fledge, Becky and her dedicated staff and volunteers must stand back and watch, knowing that many of those birds are bound for wintering grounds on the oiled mudflats of the Gulf. What impact that may have on next year’s breeding success is unknown.

Becky’s mind is bound to be on the future these days; while her adoptive chicks fledge, she’s managed to hatch one of her very own–Becky and her husband welcomed a brand new daughter this month! So congrats to Becky on another successful field season, and on the new addition!

Close encounters with gannets

24 06 2010

Grayson Renfrew holds a bewildered gannet prior to its safe release.

SEANET’s official Captain/Duck Hunter/General Outdoorsman, Jack Renfrew, has been in touch with news of an “interaction” with a Northern Gannet. Jack and his son, Grayson, were fishing for striper in Barnstable Harbor, Massachusetts. They had noticed that a large number of gannets appeared to be hanging out closer to shore than is their usual habit.

One unfortunate bird ventured a bit too close to the fisherman and was entangled in the line. Captain Jack and son disentangled the bird and paused with it in hand for a brief photo opportunity before successfully releasing the bird.

From the look of the bird’s plumage, it is an immature bird, probably about 3 years old. Its inexperience may partially explain this very doofus-y behavior, as younger birds seem to be more likely to suffer entanglements or approach humans too closely for their own good.

Fortunately for this bird, the Renfrew men are kind-hearted nature lovers and happily sent the bird back out, apparently none the worse for the wear.

Based on this report of large numbers of gannets near-shore, our Cape Cod walkers especially may anticipate increased numbers of beached gannets. But in any case, keep doing what you’re doing Seanetters!

A little help, Seanetters?

22 06 2010

Don't forget, the beak needs to be tagged too!

Our excellent new intern, Sarabeth, is hard at work on some informational/promotional materials for our recruiting and education efforts. As part of this endeavor, she is putting together a pamphlet which outlines the procedures our volunteers must follow in the field. To that end, we are in need of a photo of a carcass properly and completely marked with orange cable ties.

Each whole carcass found should be marked with a cable tie on each leg, each wing, and through the nostrils. While many people place one or two ties on a bird, we really need all five parts tagged, and we need a photo illustrating that. The photo should show the tagged bird in one of the two approved SEANET postures–either ventral or dorsal, with the wings outstretched and bill shown in profile.

If you have a photo on hand of such a thoroughly marked carcass, please send it in! Otherwise, next time you find a dead bird, please tag it fully and send the photo directly to me (sarah.courchesne”at” for immediate use in Sarabeth’s work.

What’s in it for you? Our undying affection, credit for your photo in our awesome pamphlet,  and potentially a very fabulous gift.

Good news for albatross, and a young kindred spirit

18 06 2010

An albatross hooked on a baited fishing line. This bird was freed and survived the incident.

Many species of albatross are being driven to the brink of global extinction. One of the major threats to these birds has been accidental drownings that occur when the birds forage around fishing vessels and are dragged underwater on the baited hooks. Now, the Albatross Task Force (ATF) in Brazil is reporting that, through very simple measures, 90% of those deaths can be prevented.

The ATF’s Tatiana Neves says, “So far we have proved it’s possible to save nine of the ten albatrosses which were dying three years ago, but this success has only been on vessels where we have expert instructors. The next huge step is to strive for similar levels of success across the fishing fleet operating in Brazil.” This will undoubtably take considerable education, which means money and manpower. But the measures themselves are surprisingly low-tech: attaching streamers to the lines as they are set to frighten the birds away, and weighting the hooks causing them to sink quickly, reducing their accessibility to the birds.

The ATF and their funders and partners will be hard at work to implement these changes now that they know how successful these tactics can be. SEANET appreciates this bit of good news and is rooting for the ATF.

And now, a plug for a fellow blogger, 9 year old Silas Rock. Silas is the nephew of Seanetter Libby Rock who brought the blog to our attention. Silas’ blog is the eclectic musings of an obviously very precocious young man and is worth a read anytime. But I would like to refer you specifically to his post “Skeleton Bird;” a Seanetter’s heart cannot help but swell with hope for the future of dead bird studies.

Shearwater season?

15 06 2010

First off, a correction to last week’s post on our new intern, Sarabeth. In a stunning lapse in journalistic rigor, the SEANET blogger merged two separate organizations: Tufts Institute of the Environment (TIE), and Students for a Just and Stable Future. The original post has been corrected and now reflects reality. The legislative campaign mentioned was coordinated by the Students group. Sarabeth’s activities with TIE included work on the Tufts Environmental Literacy Institute (TELI),  a workshop  for professors to learn new environmental information to include in their course materials. She has also been making an inventory for TIE of current Tufts research related to Energy and Climate Change. Welcome again to Sarabeth!

A Cory's Shearwater found by Rick Keup in South Carolina this month

Now, some shearwater news out of the southeastern US and Caribbean: this week, concerned residents of St. John’s, Antigua contacted seabird experts with reports of dozens to hundreds of dead and dying shearwaters in the waters off the island. They also described “thousands” of shearwaters mobbing fishing boats and attempting to feed on bait and discarded fish. The birds were reported to be Audubon’s Shearwaters, a species widespread in the tropical regions of the globe. We have no photos of the birds involved in the die-off, however, and some experts have suggested that the birds may actually have been Greater Shearwaters which typically migrate through the Caribbean at this time of year. Many of those Greater Shearwaters are inexperienced juveniles desperate for food, so flocks of them will often approach fishing vessels looking for an easy meal.

At this point, the species involved in the Antiguan die-off has not been confirmed, and we have not received any reports of die-offs of any shearwater species from SEANET volunteers. Rick Keup, Seanetter on Fripp Island in South Carolina, reported a dead Cory’s Shearwater earlier this month. Cory’s are a rare find for Seanetters, and so far, no others have been found.

At this time of year, it would not be unusual for Greater Shearwaters to begin washing up dead in substantial numbers on beaches all the way up to New England. Given the situation in the Gulf, however, all die-offs will be of particular interest not just to SEANET, but to the public and to wildlife officials. So continue your diligent and dedicated walking, Seanetters. And it might be a good time to dust off your field guide and familiarize yourselves with the various shearwater species in your area. You never know what may turn up, and a Seanetter should always be prepared.

If you do detect a die-off on your beach, please contact us immediately in addition to filing your usual online walk report. We are also interested in reports via email and phone about die-offs observed outside your usual route or walk schedule. Thanks for all you do, Seanetters!

Tufts student is new SEANET intern!

11 06 2010

SEANET intern Sarabeth has taken over Julie's desk!

Sarabeth Buckley, a Tufts undergraduate, has joined SEANET as our summer intern! Sarabeth has already proven to be a force for change, and is enthusiastically taking on projects your downtrodden Director (Julie) and Project Coordinator (Sarah) had all but given up on.

Sarabeth is double majoring in Environmental Science and Biology, and is also pursuing a minor in English. She comes to us through the Tufts Institute of the Environment (TIE).

Sarabeth reports that she was consumed this past academic year by a  legislative campaign run by Students for a Just and Stable Future to convert Massachusetts to 100% clean energy by 2020. This admirable and ambitious agenda has met with some of the usual congressional obstacles, but I have no doubt that if all the students on the campaign are as dedicated as Sarabeth, we haven’t heard the last of them.

Since these legislative activities are on something of a summer hiatus, SEANET benefits from Sarabeth’s newfound availability. She has begun contacting dozens of environmental organizations throughout Massachusetts to try to increase the number of volunteers and beaches we have in the state. She has also set about creating some new promotional and educational materials, and has some great ideas for improving our web presence and general outreach.

Sarabeth is clearly highly motivated, committed and a diligent worker. So your SEANET blogger was surprised to hear that she actually manages to find time to read for fun, and is an avid ballroom dancer. In any case, Sarabeth has brought a fresh perspective to SEANET central, and we look forward to seeing where she takes us this summer. Welcome, Sarabeth!

Unprecedented challenges face Gulf spill responders

8 06 2010

Pelicans have been the species hardest hit by the spill. (photo by Charlie Riedel)

An article in the New York Times highlights the unusual circumstances facing the government and other spill responders along the Gulf coast. Not only is the spill ongoing as a broken pipe continues to spew oil from the ocean floor, but the area threatened by the oil plumes is unusually sensitive. Miles of marshy islands in the Mississippi Delta are at risk of washing away entirely if the marsh grasses stabilizing them are killed off by the oil. And while most of the migratory birds that make stopovers in the Gulf have moved on to northern climes, entire colonies of ground nesting seabirds and shorebirds remain vulnerable on their breeding islands. As we move into hurricane season, the threat of wind and wave tossed oil breaching protective booms around the islands grows.

So far, about 500 live and dead oiled animals (mostly seabirds) have been recovered. Wildlife officials continue to scramble to cover strategic areas of coastline, responding to ever-shifting NOAA projections of where the oil may be headed.

SEANET continues to follow developments from the Gulf, and to share news and resources with you as they become available. And your SEANET blogger promises an uplifting and hopeful post on Thursday.

A boost for citizen scientists!

3 06 2010

We here at SEANET have always known the value of citizen science. Our volunteers are patrolling coastlines from Florida to Maine, walking sites that professional scientists have never been and may never go. The data you collect is not haphazard or casual, but follows rigorous scientific standards and methods. Seanetters adapt their routines when asked, even when it’s difficult, if it means better data in the long run.

Seanetters go where science pros don't. (photo of the SEANET blogger's brother, James, and sister, Kata, helping out.)

And Seanetters are the ONLY people collecting large scale, long-term seabird mortality data on the entire East Coast! So no one here needs convincing, but the worth of citizen science is sometimes questioned.

A new paper out in the journal PLoS Biology hails citizen science efforts for the massive gap they fill. The paper points out examples like that of India, where extensive data on birds comes out of the Himalayas, where scientists throng. By contrast,  hardly anything is known about birds living on the central plains of India where avian biodiversity is low, and thus of less interest to scientists. By relying on the people who live in these “less interesting” areas, science gains a true picture of what species inhabit all sorts of places, not just biodiversity hotspots.

Author Dr. Elizabeth Boakes told the BBC News,

“In the future, say 50 or 100 years time, if scientists want to reconstruct a picture of our present-day biodiversity, they are not going to be able to because the data has not been recorded. We found that data from the past 30 years or so has been heavily biased towards threatened species and areas of high biodiversity, such as protected areas like national parks.”

Because Seanetters report all species of avian carcasses found (yes, even the gulls!), our data gives a relatively complete picture of east coast seabird mortality. Our goal, of course, is to improve that picture by increasing our coverage both geographically and temporally.  Dr. Boakes also points out in the article the need for centralized databases of citizen science data, so it isn’t dispersed in individual laptops, birding logs, or emails about cool observations among friends. So you should pat yourselves on the backs, Seanetters, for contributing to just such a database. Those of you submitting live bird data to eBird may be doubly proud!

We appreciate you, Seanetters, and it appears that the scientific community is beginning to as well.

Tracking the Gulf oil spill

1 06 2010

NOAA offers both nearshore (shown here) and offshore projections for the Gulf spill

With speculation about the path of the Gulf oil running rampant, the SEANET blogger would like to steer you to a very good resource on the matter. NOAA offers daily oil spill trajectory maps which project where the oil is likely to spread within the next 24, 48 and 72 hours. The maps utilize mathematical models of currents and surface winds as well as first hand reports of the oil’s movement from pilots conducting fly-overs of the Gulf. The maps show how thick the oil is on the water’s surface, as well as areas where it is anticipated to make landfall during the projected timeframe. The NOAA site also has a number of other excellent resources on what they call the “Mississippi Canyon 252” event.

The big worry at present is that the oil might get caught up in the Gulf’s Loop Current, depositing the crude in the Florida Keys. Worse still, the oil could then be swept into the Gulf Stream and travel up the east coast potentially affecting the shoreline up to Virginia. Experts report that even in that worst-case scenario, the damage to east coast marine life would be mitigated as the oil weathers, breaks down, and forms discrete masses called tarballs rather than outright slicks.

Whether or not the oil does make it into the Gulf Stream, it is now feared that massive dead zones will form in the Gulf as marine organisms are killed by the ever worsening spill. Small numbers of oiled seabirds and other animals continue to be retrieved dead and alive on the Gulf coast, but the full impact of the spill offshore has been maddeningly difficult to ascertain. NOAA is also in the early stages of a Natural Resources Damage Assessment, in which they collect data on what species were present in the spill zone before the event, how many individuals of those species were using the habitat, and various other data on life before the spill. SEANET has already contributed to that effort, offering our Florida data to help flesh out a picture of what live and dead birds “normally” turn up in Florida.

SEANET has darkly observed that our relevance as an organization is largely dismissed until a catastrophe like this. In its less grim moments, SEANET only wishes to help the recovery efforts in any way it can. We also hope this will be the impetus to expand our efforts into the Gulf beyond Florida. We’re trying to find some bright side to this, Seanetters. It isn’t easy.