New wildlife health event reporting tool!

28 10 2010

SEANET’s amazing database manager, Megan Hines, actually does more than just deal with SEANET data and SEANET crises–yesterday, Megan let us know that the USGS has released the Wildlife Health Event Reporter, a public database to which anyone can contribute. Megan has been working on this (along with some other people, I suppose) for some time, testing it internally, and inviting members of the public to submit test reports. Now, the site has gone live, and is accepting real reports from around the globe.

SEANET has already submitted a report regarding the Common Eider die-off on Cape Cod, but Seanetters should feel free to use the Reporter themselves, whether for something you see on a SEANET walk, or a sick or dead animal you see in your own backyard. The Reporter will accept reports of individual sick or dead animals, all the way up through massive mortality events involving multiple species. Many Seanetters have come across fish kills, horseshoe crab die-offs, stranded marine mammals or sea turtles, and various other unusual events. While not a substitute for alerting local wildlife authorities, the Reporter offers an additional tool for sharing your observations with national and international groups.

We encourage you to use the tool, and let us know what you think. Kudos to Megan on the successful launch–we hope all goes smoothly!

Dead eiders like clockwork

26 10 2010

Great Island on Cape Cod in Massachusetts: site of the eider die-off (photo: D. Jordan)

Right on schedule, eiders have begun turning up dead on Cape Cod once again. The last reported die-off occurred at exactly this time last year,and the profile of birds involved is similar once again: mainly males with occasional adult females. While determining the cause of these die-offs has been a long, often arduous process, this year we are better positioned than ever to make progress. The reasons for our optimism are mainly personnel based: we have a new “eider intern” on the ground on the Cape. Ashley Gorr will be surveying the Great Island area, which is generally the epicenter of these events, and she will be collecting wings from some of the birds for examination by experts. Getting an accurate age on male eiders is notoriously difficult, but details of wing plumage can assist in the process. Ashley will also collect data on live birds present in the area so that we will have a sense of what proportion of the local eider population is apparently involved in the die-off.

In addition to Ashley, we have a new SEANET volunteer, Dick Jordan, who has taken on Great Island’s western shore as his SEANET route. This is something we have longed for for many years, so we offer our profuse thanks to Dick. On his beach walk on October 13 (an epic seven hour tour!) Dick recorded 18 dead or dying eider, a Herring Gull, and a Ring-billed Gull. This introduction to SEANET surveys was quite a grueling one, and we hope that Dick will enjoy more leisurely walks once the die-off abates. He even made a valiant attempt to transport a sick female eider to a wildlife rehabilitation center, hiking an hour out to his car with the bird. Unfortunately, she died upon reaching the parking lot. A second bird Dick tried to transport died en route to the rehab center. Birds involved in these events have notoriously low survival rates; in fact, SEANET does not know of a single survivor over the many years these die-offs have been occurring.

A profoundly weak female eider. She died hours later. (photo: D. Jordan)

Working off of a tip provided by Dick, Randy Mickley of the USDA headed out to Great Island on ATV to collect numerous sick eiders. He captured 13 seriously ill birds which were then humanely euthanized and will be examined by veterinary pathologists at two institutions in an attempt to get closer to a definitive answer on these events. Special thanks also goes to Chris Dwyer of the US Fish and Wildlife Service who has been exceedingly supportive of this investigation all along and has provided coordination and assistance at every turn. Finally, thank you to Bob Cook of the National Park Service, who granted Randy ATV access to the site so he could collect the birds just as night was falling. It all converged to create a very dramatic picture of collaborative science in action.

We will keep you posted on the results of the autopsies of the 13 birds, and thank you to all parties involved here–your cooperative spirit is affording us our best chance yet of building on previous years’ work and getting to the bottom of this!

Dead Bird Quiz answers

21 10 2010

Not a bad response rate on this week’s quiz, and good variability in the guesses. First, a disclaimer: your blogger does not profess to be anything other than a self-taught student of dead bird identification, so the “answers” given here are by no means absolute, but only my own opinion based on the evidence.

There was nothing left of Bird A aside from a head and trailing spinal column. Guesses ranged from immature Great Black-Backed Gull or Herring Gull to Glaucous Gull. Your blogger’s answer: sure. Based on what we have for evidence, really any of those are possible. The first item to consider is the culmen length, which Diana reported as 64mm. This places it right in the overlap between numerous species of large gull. The only other clue we really have here is the coloration of the bill, and this, unfortunately, is not much more enlightening. From what we can see, the bill is mainly pale with a band of black near the tip. As you can see in the photos here, this coloration can occur in multiple species of gull.

Had we more to go on–the coloration of the head, some of the body, or even one wing, we could get a lot farther with this i.d. But for the purposes of the database, we must be conservative and classify Bird A, unsatisfyingly, as “large, immature gull.” Sigh.

2nd-3rd year Herring Gull: bill shows pale tip, then black band, then pale pink-gray base.

2nd year Great Black-Backed Gull. Note the bill, which looks strikingly similar to the Herring Gull of similar age.

2nd year Glaucous Gull. More of the same in terms of bill color.

Let’s see if we can’t do any better with Bird B. What we have to go on here is basically a gray wing with black primaries and rather large white mirrors (spots) on those primaries. Also, an all-white tail. And we know that the wing chord is only 32cm. Finally, I posit that there is a mangled, but bright yellow leg hanging off the pelvis on the right side of the photo. The leg aside (pun intended), let’s consider the wing alone for a moment.

Ring-billed Gull wing (adult). Black primaries with prominent white mirrors.

Laughing Gull wing (adult). White mirrors at wingtips can vary, but will generally be smaller than Ring-billed Gull's.

Black-legged Kittiwake wing (adult). Note characteristic "ink-dipped" appearance to primary tips.

These three species were offered as guesses on this quiz. From the photos here, you can see the variability in the amount of black on the primaries. Also, note that the division between gray and black is least defined in the Laughing Gull, more defined in the Ring-billed, and most stark in the Kittiwake. Bird B seems most to resemble the Ring-billed, and if you believe in the phantom yellow leg, that would seal the deal for Ring-billed Gull. One other note, without the yellow leg, and without the wing chord, this specimen would be basically indistinguishable from a Herring Gull, which has a nearly identical wing coloration.

Dead Bird Quiz: spare parts edition

19 10 2010

Bird A: Found this month by Diana Gaumond on Cape Cod. Culmen: 64mm.

Bird B: Also found by Diana on the same walk. Wing chord: 32cm.

This dead bird quiz offers up a couple tidbits commonly encountered on SEANET beaches. As you know, partial birds can count as carcasses; as long as there is one measurable body part (bill, wing, or tarsus), the “bird” counts in our database.

Identifying bits of dead birds can be a difficult skill to acquire, but Seanetters, in their zeal for deceased avians, are doubtless undaunted by the challenge. So bring on your thoughts on these specimens. They may be a bit trickier than one would expect…

Progress in Massachusetts

14 10 2010

5 new SEANET beaches in northern MA!

Thanks in large part to the legacy of our summer intern, Sarabeth, SEANET continues to add new volunteers in our own backyard here in Massachusetts. While our coverage on Cape Cod and along Buzzard’s Bay have historically been good, we have had a serious dearth of beaches on the north and south shores of Massachusetts, only 40 miles or so from SEANET central in Grafton, MA. Now, we are slowly but steadily rectifying that.

This Monday, October 18th, our own Julie Ellis will continue working on our Massachusetts campaign. She will be presenting to the Eight Towns and the Bay Committee, a Local Governance Committee of the Upper North Shore of Massachusetts. Julie will be presenting to the Committee’s representatives, who will in turn take the information back to their membership. We hope to gain a number of new Seanetters from the interaction.


Finally today, I wish to share a brief story submitted on our database by Seanetter Diana Gaumond on Cape Cod. I was struck by its absurdity and thank Diana for verbally sketching this comical scene:

“We came upon a wedding in progress – about 50 people, with a harpist trying to compete with a sea gull cacophony. Best wishes to Amanda and David!”

Like penguins? Then you’ll like this.

12 10 2010

After all the bad oil spill news that we’ve featured on this blog in recent months, your SEANET blogger wants to share some relatively good news. A new book by Dyan DeNapoli chronicles the rescue and rehabiliation of 40,ooo or so penguins. DeNapoli was penguin aquarist at the New England Aquarium when an oil spill hit the South African coast in 2000. She immediately volunteered to fly to the site and offer her rare expertise on penguin care and handling.

A recent review states,
“The book opens with deNapoli’s arrival at the enormous warehouse in the heart of Cape Town that served as an improvised penguin rescuecenter. It covered over five acres, and inside were 16,000 soiled, mute, and traumatized African penguins, each of which would require many weeks of rehabilitation if it were to have a chance at survival. They had all, she later wrote, been “ripped from their nests, their mates, and their chicks, then tossed haphazardly into random holding pens.” The cause of their misery was a relatively small oil spill of around 1,500 tons. But the size of the spill is no guide to its impact on seabirds.”

Sounds like a good read to me, and might offer a hopeful persepctive to those of us despairing of seabirds’ chances in the face of the human juggernaut.

More on the situation in Florida?

7 10 2010

Red icon marking Siesta Key: site of testing for hydrocarbon compounds in water and sand.

After my last post, I contacted a couple of our Seanetters on Florida’s Gulf Coast. While neither Phil Sorenson nor Melissa Buhler have seen any unusual mortality on their beaches, Phil did send a link to some testing results from a local citizen’s initiative in Florida. Testing the Gulf Water submitted both water and sand samples from Siesta Key in Sarasota. The samples were tested both for levels of oil and grease, (which were negative for all sand and water samples submitted) as well as Total Petroleum Hydrocarbons (TPH). TPH  includes hundreds of compounds that originally came from crude oil. Testing for TPH will also detect mixtures of oil and chemical dispersants like the Corexit used in the Gulf spill.

Sand samples from Siesta Key reportedly contained 173ppm TPH. This is in and of itself quite a high number, although the EPA has reported that the addition of Corexit to a petroleum sample can increase its TPH level ten-fold. EPA testing indicates that this elevation does not equate to a commensurate increase in toxicity, however.

Thus, these results are intriguing, and at the least point to the issue of dispersant-oil mixtures settling into sand and sediment with unknown consequences. What impact this is having on Gulf wildlife, and particularly on the terns and gulls dying along Florida’s coast is no clearer for the addition of these test results, and SEANET will continue to diligently follow the story, with the help of Seanetters on the ground in the Gulf. All Seanetters should feel free to send along interesting links and local news. We are a far-flung, widely distributed group, and your SEANET blogger loves to get information from insiders like you all.

Seabirds and swans dying on Florida’s gulf coast

5 10 2010

Veterinarian John Gardner (right) examines a sick swan from Longboat Key in Florida

Over the past month, residents and wildlife rehabilitators near Florida’s Longboat Key (near Tampa) have noticed unusually high numbers of seabirds and swans dead or dying on the beaches. Lee Fox, a longtime rehabilitator with Save Our Seabirds, reports that 65 terns and gulls have died in a month, a number far exceeding what they typically see in that time period. Fox also noted that more of the birds brought to her facility have died despite treatment than is typical for the species. Clinical signs in the birds included paralysis and sudden death. No cause for the birds’ illness has yet been determined, and it is unclear whether any of the seabirds were submitted for necropsy.

The affected swans were sent to a veterinarian in the inland city of Lakeland, FL. Dr. John Gardner, locally known as the “swan vet” for his work with the city’s resident swans, received 3 live swans and one dead one for examination. He has not determined a cause for their illness, but in response to speculation that it might be botulism, he said the signs did not appear consistent with that infection. He also pointed out that botulism rarely affects seabirds living in a marine environment, and so would be highly unlikely to have caused the tern and gull mortalities.

The single dead swan has been submitted to a lab in Orlando for testing.

Observers in Florida have speculated that the deaths could be linked to the BP spill, or the chemical dispersants used to break up the oil. At this point, there is no evidence pointing to such a link. Your SEANET blogger is, of course, intrigued by the story and will inform you readers should any further information or test results become available.