SEANET goes to Portland, ME (and/or the Dominican Republic)

24 02 2011

While Julie Ellis prepares to run off on a tropical vacation, she elects to abandon your SEANET blogger to a New England February. Instead of the DR, I am a meeting of the Northwest Atlantic Marine Bird Cooperative meeting in Portland. It is, admittedly, a good opportunity to meet with seabird biologists and wildlife managers. Looks like a good day ahead of comparing notes and huddling inside a cozy hotel conference room. Alas, your blogger must leave before the evening’s lobster dinner. Figures.

The scenery here at the Holiday Inn

Dead Bird Quiz answers

22 02 2011

Mary Wright and John Stanton can always be relied upon to answer, and on this quiz, I even got my good friend Sarah Kern to take a look and offer her guesses. The Dead Bird Quiz is clearly catching on!

So, here are the answers insofar as I have any:

Razorbill tail projects beyond the feet.

Murre tails are quite stubby and end well short of the feet

Bird A: John and Mary are both right, in my opinion. It’s definitely an alcid (black and white bird with white-tipped secondary feathers; small, webbed feet) and the wing chord of 22cm makes it much too big to be the diminutive Dovekie. John answered that it’s either a Common Murre or a Thick-billed Murre. Mary wrote that the wing chord is too long to be a Common Murre, so it must be a Thick-billed. True indeed, the wing chord range for a Common Murre is 19-21cm, while the range for the Thick-billed is 20-22cm. The only trick here comes with the variability we find in our volunteers’ wing chord measurements. Published data on wing chords tends to be more constrained in their ranges because the data are generated by fewer observers with extensive experience. Our volunteers typically show more variation in their measurements, so while Thick-billed is by far the most likely i.d. (an inch is a lot when it comes to wing chords, after all), we cannot entirely rule out the possibility that it’s a Common Murre. Finally, why not a Razorbill? The measurements match, and without the head, how can one tell? Mary solved this mystery as well, pointing out that Razorbills have longer tails. In fact, Razorbill tails extend past the feet, while murre tails don’t even come close.

Bird B, as both Mary and John assert, is a female Common Goldeneye. The golden colored iris that gives the bird its name is, sadly, not often evident in dead specimens. But in a whole carcass, there are plenty of other markings that identify this species. For females, these include a reddish-brown head,  a dark bill that develops a small amount of  yellow at the tip in adulthood, a gray back and breast with a white belly.

Female Common Goldeneye: this photo shows the extensive white speculum on the wing.

Finally, Bird C. This one, not surprisingly, has caused the most trouble. It was not very fair of me to withhold the wing chord on this one, which was 24cm. Even with the caveat given above regarding wing chords, that is well outside the range of the little Bufflehead (wing chord: 14-18cm). So, given that relatively large size, another possibility is Mary’s answer, Long-tailed Duck. Mary also hedged with the comment: “maybe those white feathers aren’t scapulars, but the inner part of the wings . . . We await the official word from Sarah . . .” While I cannot profess to have the official word, being only a self-taught dead bird afficionado, I contend that this is another Goldeneye. Just as Mary said, the white feathers on Bird C are not scapulars, but are part of the wing proper; Bird C has a white speculum that extends almost to the leading edge of the upper wing. From the wings only, I don’t think it’s possible (at least for me) to determine whether this is a Common Goldeneye or a Barrow’s Goldeneye, though the Barrow’s is a much more northern species and Cape Cod (where Bird C was found) is the southern limit of the Barrow’s typical range, so odds are that Bird C is a Common.

Bufflehead (male) upperwing: similar to Goldeneye except MUCH smaller.

Long-tailed Duck in flight: the wing proper is all dark. White feathers are limited to the back and scapular region.

Common Goldeneye (male) upperwing.

Dead Bird Quiz: winter classic edition

17 02 2011

Bird A: Found on Cape Cod by Dick Jordan this month. Wing chord: 22cm.

Bird B: Found by Maggie Komosinski in Rhode Island last month.

Bird C: Found by Dennis Minsky on Cape Cod this month.

Bring on the guesses! Answers will be revealed, as ever, in the next post.

Update on Black Scoter mortality

15 02 2011

Back in December, we reported on what seemed an unusual number of Black Scoters being reported on SEANET beaches. Sure enough, as dead duck season winds down, a tally of scoter reports shows that 14 Black Scoters were found this winter (November-February) versus 6 the previous year. While those numbers need to be adjusted for the number of kilometers traveled by Seanetters in their searches, it does appear to be a real jump in their numbers. Further supporting this, SEANET Director Julie Ellis received an email from Pam Loring, a graduate research assistant at the University of Rhode Island who has been following 20 scoters (18 Black, 1 White-winged, 1 Surf) that were surgically implanted with satellite transmitters in December. In addition to tracking the birds’ movements, the units also report temperature. Individual bird mortality can be detected by observing a precipitous drop in internal temperature. Pam reported that while expected mortality for the scoters is 10-25%, mortality among the tagged birds has been somewhat higher.

A Black Scoter expertly tagged by Libby Rock in Massachusetts' Buzzard's Bay.

Whether Pam’s study and SEANET are picking up on the same, larger trend of increased scoter mortality this year is not certain. SEANET would love to get some scoters for necropsy and begin looking for some potential causes of this apparent mortality rise. Along those lines, SEANET has been discussing a partnership with Delta Waterfowl’s Massachusetts Chapter, a local duck-hunting organization. Delta is able to dedicate a certain amount of its income to waterfowl research, and we hope to initiate a small scale research project should this partnership come to fruition.

We’re plugging along here at SEANET central, and maintaining our optimism despite the freezing cold, unrelenting snow, and always precarious funding situation.

One note in that regard, we offer our heartfelt thanks to our SEANET savior, Tracy Holmes, who made an extremely generous donation to the program recently. Thank you, thank you, thank you, Tracy!


Guest post: Tina Marconi introduces a few seabirds

10 02 2011

Several weeks ago, your SEANET blogger was contacted by Tina Marconi, who writes for the online site The site is an information clearinghouse for people interested in becoming veterinary technicians. While the subject matter does not precisely match our own here at SEANET, Tina asked if we ever accept guest posts. Since your SEANET blogger whole-heartedly supports people learning more about seabirds, I encouraged her to write something up for us. I am happy to present Tina’s finished product: a few brief profiles of some of our Atlantic species.

We invite anyone to propose a potential blog topic, and encourage our readers to do this sort of mini-research project. Thanks for the post, Tina!

Meet a Few East Coast Sea Birds
by: Tina Marconi

If you love bird watching and if you don’t mind training your eyes on the skies when you’re at the beach or enjoying the bracing weather of the coast, then you’d love watching the actions of seabirds and listening to their raucous cries. Some of them make the home along the coast, some are just visiting on their way towards warmer climes during their migratory journey, and some are there to stay for the summer before they make their way back home when the weather starts to change. If you enjoy watching seabirds, here are a few that you can find commonly along the East Coast:

    Wilson's Storm Petrel performing characteristic foot pattering behavior.

  • Wilson’s Storm Petrel: This is one of the most common seabirds in the world, and it’s identifiable by its brown plumage and white behind. It’s a small, nocturnal bird which avoids coming in to land even in the moonlight in order to avoid falling prey to other seabirds like gulls and skuas. It lives mostly in the skies, and when it does land, walks with a short shuffle. It builds its nest along rocky crevices on coastal cliffs, and spends just the breeding period on land; for the rest of the year, it is out at sea. This makes the Wilson’s Petrel extremely rare to see, except during its breeding season.

    Greater Shearwater

  • Greater Shearwater: The Greater Shearwater is one of the few bird species that migrates from the Southern to the Northern hemisphere. It nests in large colonies in burrows or in the grass, and these birds visit their nests only at night to avoid being eaten by large gulls. It is a large bird which flies in large numbers, with its wings out straight and stiff without too much flapping. It skims fish off the surface or plunges into the water to catch prey.
  • Black Guillemot: This bird can be identified by its predominantly black plumage, white patches on both wings, and its large, red feet. It lays its eggs on rocky shores and cliffs near the water, and doesn’t migrate very far from its breeding grounds. It carries fish crosswise in its bill, and it can stay underwater for up to a little more than 2 minutes. It is one of the few birds that breed in volcanic islands. During breeding season, the birds call out to their mates in a high whistle. The Black Guillemot is a member of the puffin family which lives closer to the shore than in the open sea.

    Black Guillemot



This guest post is contributed by Tina Marconi, she writes for She welcomes your comments at her email id: tinamarconi85[@]gmail[.]com.

Dead bird news never stops

8 02 2011

I realized I was remiss in not pointing out that Mary Wright is right again; the bird shown in last week’s post was a Clapper Rail. Clapper Rails are chicken-sized denizens of saltmarshes, feeding mainly on crustaceans. While many of their west coast populations are classified as endangered, our east coast birds appear to be doing reasonably well. They are a challenge to study as they lurk in dense grasses and do not tend to make themselves obvious. The species tends to be rather sedentary in that most breed and overwinter in the same region. The exception are the birds that nest in southern New England and the mid-Atlantic. Massachusetts is essentially the northern limit of their breeding range, and northern birds typically migrate south for the winter. (Unlike their southern cousins who live a cushy life year-round and are not subjected to the vicissitudes of  New England weather–not that your blogger is cranky about that.) So for this time of year in particular, this is an unusual find. Nice work as usual, Ashley!

Banded American Black Duck found on 1/29 by Gary Roberts.

In other dead bird news a bit farther north, Gary Roberts who Seanets on Peaks Island in Portland, ME, found a headless American Black Duck last month. The bird was banded, and Gary reported the band to the government. He received a report on the bird, stating that it was a male, banded on August 21, 2004, in Albert, New Brunswick, Canada. The bird was hatched in 2003 or earlier.

Seanetters should be proud to find and report banded birds to USFWS; generally they get these reports almost exclusively from hunters, so keep doing your part out there!

The path of Gary's Black Duck.

Trans-Atlantic SEANET

3 02 2011

Cory's Shearwaters: just one of many Atlantic seabirds known in both European and American waters.

Julie and I recently received an email from Nuno Barros, who works for the Portuguese Society for the Protection of Birds (SPEA). He wrote,
“SPEA is currently working on 2 marine conservation projects, FAME – Future of the Atlantic Marine Environment – a strategic transnational co-operation project delivered by partners from 5 countries (UK, Ireland, France, Spain and Portugal), and MARPRO – Conservation of marine protected species in Mainland Portugal – a LIFE+ project which has just started.
Both projects aim to increase the current knowledge on the distribution, abundance, and protection of the Portuguese seabirds along the European Atlantic coast, and range from seabird tracking & monitoring to mapping, data analysis and engagement with the offshore renewable energy and fisheries sectors. One of both their goals is to carry out a first national beached-bird survey, and this is how we came across SEANET.
We were planning to do something similar here in Portugal, with the possibility of extending the outcoming programme to other European countries. This volunteer based programme would be a source of additional information to our planned transects along the more extensive sandy areas. The frequency of the surveys, and some other organization aspects would be distinct from yours, but the general idea is the same, so we would like to ask your permission to download your SEANET volunteer datasheet, in order to make some adaptations, and the necessary translations, to fit our goals.

For more information regarding our work, I invite you to visit our website:, and the FAME project website:

We find your work very interesting, and would like to congratulate you on the initiative and good results. We are open to share ideas and discuss future possibilities, regarding our common interests regarding the health of the Atlantic marine environment.

Best regards from Portugal, Nuno Barros”

We are more than happy to support this new Portuguese endeavor, and have offered all our materials to them for their use; SEANET has always benefited immensely from the knowledge and experience of our sister beachwalk organization, COASST, in the Pacific Northwest, and we share more species, circumstances and conditions with our fellows in Europe than we do with our Pacific compatriots in our own country.

We hope that Nuno and co. get their efforts off and running quickly, and hope we can continue to be of assistance and they work through the process of setting up a beachwalk organization there. Hopefully, we will soon be comparing notes on the shared fates of our Atlantic seabirds!

The beauty and majesty of winter: bah.

1 02 2011

First off, please check out the comments below last week’s Dead Bird Quiz answers; not only did John Stanton decline my challenge to a duel, Mary Wright offered a much better explication of the differences between Greater and Lesser Scaups than I could have done. Thank you Mary!

Now, I have a hard time even writing these words, but at this very moment, yet another storm is hunkering down over the Northeast and most people I know up here are becoming mildly or moderately psychotic. I am still trying to cling to the positives, and wish to share with you a couple more photos of beaches up here in SEANET’s northern terrain. The first is a picture of what Seanetters Jerry and Diane Hequembourg faced when they attempted to walk their Cape Cod beach this month. Resembling an Arctic ice field, WB_09 was entirely impassable.

The view from WB_09 in Eastham, MA this month.

Despite the inclement weather, both the beautiful and the grotesque still turn up on the snowbound beaches. Our eider intern, Ashley Gorr, found quite a few interesting carcasses this month. A dolphin, a seal and a bird (whose identity I challenge you to discover) were all in various stages of dismemberment by local gulls (incriminating webbed footprints abound at the crime scene.)

Mystery bird in Wellfleet! What do you think, Seanetters?

Streamers of intestine trail away from a seal carcass. A decorative flourish courtesy of the gulls.

Miscellaneous dolphin