SEANET musings from another season

29 07 2010

A mostly buried Eider unearthed by Diana Gaumond

Your SEANET blogger is at home today, engaged in a Candyland marathon with a sick toddler. With only a few moments to steal for this post, it is not simply impossible for me to come up with any original thoughts, it would be inadvisable given the mental state induced by the prolonged company of a feverish 3 year old.

In addition, it’s a hot, humid day here in New Hampshire, and the SEANET blogger is especially grateful for a reminder of cooler seasons. Thus, I share with you the thoughts of Seanetter Diana Gaumond, volunteer on Cape Cod. She included this note along with a January survey report. It seems to capture the very essence of the Seanetter’s determination, and, perhaps, eccentricity.

“I noticed a bit of wing sticking up from the sand and thought I would uncover the wing and try to identify it. After digging with a foot and hands, I realized the wing was attached to more bird parts and would need more serious digging. With so much human wrack around, I probably could have found a shovel if I looked long enough.  Instead, I used a nearby chunk of wood and dug and dug. After unearthing a foot and sternum, it became apparent that digging up any more was futile.  It seemed to go way down in the sand and wind was refilling the hole at the same rate as my sand removal. I took photos, tagged and spray-painted, and re-interred the much-dead bird. There were people further along the beach and I wondered how I would explain digging up, spray painting, and re-burying a mangled bird carcass to a casual observer.  I think what we do might appear somewhat deranged to some people and wondered if there is some point where some line of crazy is crossed. Or maybe the frozen-finger feeling had spread and brain-freeze was causing these ruminations, and it’s all really quite normal. Time to go home!”

Spotted a tagged gull?

27 07 2010

Fashion gull sports early 90s style hot pink wing tag

**if you have seen a tagged gull, please contact Dan Clark directly (info at bottom of post)! Comments posted here are welcome, but we do not run the tag program, so we aren’t the ones who need the details!**

The Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) is engaged in ongoing research on gulls and their potential impacts on drinking water reservoirs in the state. Three species of gull, Ring-billed, Herring and Great Black-backed, are continually being captured, banded and released in an effort to learn more about the travels and activities of the birds when they are not visiting the Quabbin and Wachusett reservoirs.

In addition to the standard issue leg bands used in most bird studies, DCR birds are also tagged with conspicuous, brightly colored wing tags. This enables even casual observers without binoculars to report sightings.

This past week, the SEANET blogger spotted a Ring-billed Gull with a fluorescent pink wing tag in Ogunquit, Maine. The bird was begging chips and sandwiches off of beach-goers. Upon contacting Dan Clark at DCR, the blogger learned that this bird was captured in Shrewsbury  in central MA back in October. She’s an adult female, and had not been seen since her tagging. The blogger was thus quite gratified to help out by reporting this bird. Though thousands of people were on the beach with the tagged bird, no one had apparently bothered to find out where to report the tag. So never assume a bird you see has already been reported; all sightings are valuable!

SEANET Local Coordinator, Jamie Bogart of the Lloyd Center in Buzzard’s Bay, Massachusetts, has also seen a number of these tagged gulls and inquired with SEANET about where to report sightings. If you should encounter one of these gulls (and really anyone could given the great distances the birds often travel), please contact Dan Clark ( or Ken Mackenzie ( And be sure to check out their study website where you can learn all about their work and even follow the movements of some of their satellite tagged birds.

Gluttony may actually be a deadly sin (for seabirds)

22 07 2010

Royal Tern found by Rebecca Bell in Georgia in February.

We see some strange things here at SEANET. One might think that wild birds would not do anything so dumb as to try to eat a much-too-big prey item and then die by choking on it, but it appears that it does happen with surprising frequency.

Recently, our own Dr. Julie Ellis found a kingfisher thrashing around  in the road. She stopped to examine the bird, which appeared about to expire, and discovered a large fish protruding from its bill. She extracted the fish, and released the bird which flew off erratically. Its ultimate fate remains unknown.

Two Seanetters have found birds dead with incriminating half-swallowed fish at the crime scene. Rebecca Bell of Georgia found a Royal Tern, while Dennis Minsky found a juvenile Great Black-Backed Gull. While it’s not possible to determine from the pictures whether death was caused by strangulation subsequent to an episode of eyes-bigger-than-head disease, it is not unprecendented in seabirds. Northern Gannets have been found dead with large striped bass lodged in the esophagus. Post-mortem examination has shown that the birds died when the blood vessels to the head were constricted by the pressure of the fish against their walls.

Great Black-Backed Gull with fish in mouth found by Dennis Minksy. Revenge of the prey fish?

"Clammy" the Common Eider: he apparently bit off more than he could chew.

Another means of death by food is demonstrated by the unfortunate Common Eider shown here. Affectionately known as “Clammy” in the SEANET office, the bird likely died of dehydration based on the position of the shell obstructing the entire oral cavity.

Certainly, nature is brutal in its dealings with the less fit individuals of a species. And there is a possibility that these birds were killed by some other cause while in the act of swallowing a fish, but it seems plausible that the fish itself dealt the fatal blow. At the least, these instances stike the SEANET blogger as grimly absurd, and sometimes seem reminiscent of the close of a Shakespearean tragedy, where heroes and villians, killers and victims all lie dead in a great heap. Forgive the hyperbole, Seanetters, for it is late in the day and your blogger is dangerously decaffeinated.

SEANET in the press

20 07 2010

Thanks to our intern, Sarabeth Buckley, we are in the midst of a volunteer recruiting blitz in Massachusetts (click here for a list of upcoming training sessions). Sarabeth and the rest of the extensive SEANET staff (Julie Ellis and Sarah Courchesne) were all interviewed by the Daily News in Newburyport, MA about our program. Check out the article, which was on the front page of yesterday’s paper, as pointed out by Daily News reader, Sarah Courchesne’s Dad.

Thanks to Daily News correspondent Susan Deily-Swearingen for taking the time to talk with us and for taking an interest in our program. Now we sit back and await the onslaught of volunteers certain to result from this publicity!

Dead Bird Quiz answers

15 07 2010

What?! Only ONE guess on this week’s quiz? What are you all, on vacation?!

Bonaparte's Gull in flight. Note the prominent white stripe on the primary feathers.

Only the intrepid John Stanton offered a guess, and he’s 1 for 2. John correctly identified Bird A as a Bonaparte’s Gull. These Arctic breeders overwinter up and down the East Coast, and are found on lakes, rivers and ocean waters. They usually do not mix with other gulls, and will form large flocks where prey is abundant. They are smaller than most other gull species found by Seanetters. Distinguishing features of this gull apart from its small size are its thin, black bill and the conspicuous white triangle on the outer primaries.

Seanetters report very few Bonaparte’s Gulls, and even fewer of our Bird B, which was a terribly tricky specimen. Your SEANET blogger was stumped by this bird, and submitted it to our panel of experts, with the off-the-wall guess of a Sabine’s Gull (which would be almost impossible based on the time of year this bird was found). Cornell’s Marshall Iliff was first on the case, replying,

“This is not a Sabine’s Gull, since the feet are totally wrong in both color and shape (no webbing). In fact, this is an American Oystercatcher, which explains the wing pattern and the thick pink legs with prominent, rounded nails.
Oystercatchers occur in Maine only around Scarborough Marsh/Pine Point
Narrows/Stratton Island.”

Alternate view of Bird B, an American Oystercatcher. Note the lack of foot webbing and the white stripe on the upperwing.

This bird was, in fact, found on Scarborough Beach in Maine, falling within the limits of the only population of that species in the state.

Dead Bird Quiz, advanced edition

13 07 2010

Seanetters are a savvy bunch when it comes to dead birds. Difficult to stump, and quick to respond, your SEANET blogger felt they deserved a special challenge for this dead bird quiz. Bird B, found by new Seanetter, Kate Wall, in Maine is a particularly tough one. Bird A, found by long-time Seanetter Rey Larsen is a relatively unusual find on a SEANET beach, though the id is made considerably easier given the presence of a head.

Bring on the guesses/confident assertions as usual. Post them as comments and the answer will be posted later this week. Good luck Seanetters!

Bird A: Found in Rhode Island in April, 2010.

Bird B: Found in Scarborough, Maine in April 2010.

A clarification, and some spectacular photos this Friday

9 07 2010

In yesterday’s post, your SEANET blogger reported that gannets were the species most severely affected by the Gulf oil spill. That was based on a report from the Mobile sector and referred only to the birds recovered in Mississippi, Alabama and Florida. Throughout the Gulf as a whole, Brown Pelicans have been hardest hit, representing over 50% of the total oiled birds recovered live.

The spectacular photos of Andrew Zuckerman have been featured in Audubon magazine.

With that bit of business attended to, the SEANET blogger wants to share an amazing series of photos by photographer Andrew Zuckerman. The works are high definition images of birds against a stark white background. Britain’s Telegraph newspaper recently featured a slideshow of some of the photos, so take a look, but be forewarned, it may cause you run out and buy Zuckerman’s new book, Bird.


Gannets hit hardest by Gulf spill

8 07 2010

Spots of oil on a Northern Gannet. This bird is still well enough to fly.

A wildlife rescue operation based in Mobile, Alabama has reported that of the 420 oiled birds recovered in the Gulf, only 220 were found alive. And the species hardest hit by the spill appears to be the Northern Gannet.

Since the Deepwater Horizon exploded and sank on April 20th, experts have speculated that birds would not be severely impacted since the spill was so far off shore where few birds generally spend time. Most Gulf birds, like pelicans, loons and shorebirds, are found much closer to shore. Northern Gannets, however, routinely congregate and forage over deeper waters far from shore, and as a result, they have been exposed to more of the oil spewing from the broken well-head on the ocean floor.

Seabird expert Bill Montevecchi has pointed out the interconnectedness of seabird populations, and gannets are one of his prime examples. The birds nest largely on rocky islands in Quebec, so gannets affected by the spill that survive to breed will ultimately travel through much SEANET territory on their way up the East Coast. And since many oiled birds are never found, whether dead or alive, it’s possibly that Seanetters could encounter either live or dead birds that show some degree of external oiling, or that carry invisible impacts of oil ingestion.

Addendum: I want to recognize the excellent photography of Julian Bell, who maintains a great website, Natural Born Birder. The photo shown here was borrowed from his site, and he has many great shots there, so please visit!

Eyes on the beach!

6 07 2010

A once oiled, banded pelican is released in Georgia last week. (photo by T. Heilemann)

Last week we mentioned the release in Georgia of over 70 oiled pelicans from the Gulf. That first batch of pelicans released on Tuesday last week were banded, and now sport orange bands on their right legs. The bands do not have any markings on them, so it will not be possible to identify individual birds in the field from the band. A second batch of 78 birds was released on Thursday, July 1st. Most of these birds are tagged with white alpha-numeric codes on a red band. Any sightings of these banded birds should be reported to the national banding lab.

It’s unfortunate that none of these birds were satellite tagged, which, while expensive, is the best way to truly determine the survival of these rehabilitated birds over the longer term. Lacking that, the next best thing is having as many people as possible keep an eye out for these birds. They are large, conspicuous, and tend to hang out on or near the shore, making it more likely that people will spot them as compared with species that spend their time out at sea.

Already, two Georgia Seanetters, Lydia Thompson and Georgia Graves, have reported seeing banded pelicans intermingling with the unbanded local pelican population. We know that the Georgia beaches are well watched, and we are hopeful that the fate of many of these birds will be known because of that dedication and vigilance.

This kind of observational data is a happy side-effect of having people out on the beaches for projects like SEANET. Banded bird sightings, unusual mortality events, marine mammal and sea turtle strandings have all been detected by Seanetters because they were out on their surveys. Last month, Seanetter Maggie Komosinski found a federally banded horseshoe crab on her Rhode Island beach. All of these incidental findings amplify the impact of SEANET and benefit multiple studies and research activities. So keep the observations coming, Seanetters. Keep your eyes on the beach, and share anything unusual with us; we love to hear it!

Alert for the southeast!

1 07 2010

Rick Keup found a live stranded Greater Shearwater on his South Carolina beach last week.

Things may get exciting in the coming days for our southeastern Seanetters. In a recent post, we mentioned the potential for Greater Shearwaters to begin washing up on east coast beaches. Sure enough, the influx has begun. Rick Newman, Conservation Biologist at the Gumbo Limbo Nature Center in Boca Raton, FL has reported 21 stranded shearwaters along a 5 mile stretch of beach there over the past two weeks. North of that, South Carolina Seanetter Rick Keup (who found a Cory’s Shearwater on his beach last month) has now found a dead Greater Shearwater, as well as  a live one in just the past week. The live bird was captured and Rick reports that he could find no outward cause for its stranding. He released the bird, which made no attempt to fly and merely walked along the sand.

Seanetters should expect to see these birds stranding farther and farther north, corresponding with their migration to north Atlantic waters. And to reiterate, we want you to continue your usual SEANET walking schedule, and to report and tag any shearwaters found on your route as usual. But we are also interested in any reports of shearwater mortalities observed outside your official SEANET walks. These incidental observations should be submitted to us via email or phone, but should not be reported in the SEANET database.

In more southeastern news, Georgia SEANET Coordinator Marge Inness brought to our attention a news story involving oiled pelicans from the Gulf. Because of severe weather bearing down on the Gulf, 72 Brown Pelicans that were oiled and are now ready for release must be flown to an alternate release site. The birds will be transported to the coast of Georgia and set free there, so Georgia Seanetters may want to be on the lookout. It’s unclear from the news report whether the birds are banded or tagged in some other way but SEANET suspects they may be, so even when not on  a SEANET walk, keep a close eye out for banded birds, dead or alive!