OK, whose feather is this?!

29 09 2011

Ever found a feather and wondered what sort of bird it might have come from? Well, wonder no more! The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Forensics Laboratory provides their Feather Atlas online! The site provides detailed scans of the flight feathers with a visual scale showing the feather’s size. While in many cases, it will not be possible to determine species from a single feather’s appearance, this is a great resource for narrowing things down, and for educating yourself.

Here’s an example from the poster bird for Seanetters everywhere: The Herring Gull. Pretty cool, huh?

Major disclaimer: it is a violation of federal law to possess even a single feather of MOST North American bird species. A federal permit is required to keep most feathers even for educational purposes. So snap a picture of your mystery feather and leave it where it lies. That’s today’s legal advice from your SEANET blogger.

SEANET is cool; SEANET is hip!

27 09 2011

A Luddite by nature, your SEANET blogger has had to adapt to this new-fangled “internet” and also to utilize “electronic mail” to coordinate our far-flung volunteer base. Now, I’m really pushing the envelope. Just today, I have instituted two new ways to keep track of SEANET and our goings-on.

For one thing, SEANET now has a facebook page! Blog posts will appear there, as will other news. So if you have a coastal conservation event you’re running, or want to get the word out about an ocean-related something or other, get the info to me and I will post it on our page. All the youngsters are doing it, as are many oldsters, so go ahead, like Seanet! (And I mean that in the facebook sense of clicking the “Like” button over there on the right hand side of your screen, not just sitting around contemplating how very much you enjoy Seanet generally. That is SO 20th century.)

Now you can check out all our active beaches in Google Earth! Click the image for up to date maps!

The second thing is very cool: you can now view all active and archived SEANET beaches in real time! Just click this link to see a Google Earth file of where SEANET has boots (or sandals) on the ground. See a beach you already like to visit that we don’t cover? Join up! We welcome volunteers of ALL backgrounds, ages, and educational attainments; no special knowledge needed, just an interest in doing science with us!

It’s non-stop excitement here at SEANET! Keep your eyes peeled for the latest and greatest things from your reluctant techie, me.

When worlds collide…

22 09 2011

4R9: a young Great Black-Backed Gull with a tragically brief lifespan. (photo: M. Bjornholm)

This week, Seanetter Mike Bjornholm found a dead subadult Great Black-Backed Gull on his beach on Cape Cod. The carcass sported a metal, federal band, but on the opposite leg, a boldly numbered black band reading 4R9. Such bands are the calling card of our own Dr. Julie Ellis, in her other role as gull bander extraordinaire. When we reported this find to Bill Clark, who maintains Julie’s banding database and is an inexhaustible font of all things gull, he gave us the scoop on this bird,
“4R9 was a first year Great Black-backed Gull banded on July 8, 2011 as a chick near Celia’s Garden on Appledore Island, Maine. We appreciate re-sights of our Appledore Gulls but wish more of them were alive resights. The life of a first-year gull is tough and many do not survive for a variety of reasons.  It’s sad to see but your report helps provide information on mortality rates.”

A brilliant coincidence that a bird banded under one of Julie’s endeavors should show up dead on another. Julie is still on maternity leave, so there have not been many updates to her gull banding blog, but do check it out from time to time–it’s always cool to see how far and wide her banded birds end up!

New lawsuit seeks to protect Cape Cod waters from nitrogen pollution

20 09 2011

Excess nitrogen has caused massive blooms of marine algae along Cape Cod.

Today’s blog fodder comes from a very inside source–my house. Your blogger’s husband is an attorney at Conservation Law Foundation in New Hampshire. Some of his southern New England compatriots in CLF, along with The Buzzard’s Bay Coalition, have just filed a lawsuit citing the EPA for failure to address the growing, and potentially catastrophic problem of excess nitrogen flowing into Cape Cod waters. Nitrogen may seem innocous enough, especially when compared with such bad actors as DDT, mercury or the alphabet soup that is industrial waste. After all, nitrogen is a critical component of plant fertilizer. So how can it be poisoning Cape Cod’s bays? The very same property that makes nitrogen an essential component of fertilizer can lead to dead zones in our oceans. If large amounts of nitrogen-rich wastes flow into the water, the algae in that water will multiply rapidly in response to the nutrient boost. Eventually, those algae will die, and as they decompose, the oxygen in the water is depleted, killing other organisms in the vicinity. Fish die-offs have been observed on the Cape due to this very process, known formally as eutrophication.

So where is the nitrogen coming from? Generally, animal (including human) wastes are the source. In the Midwest, this generally means agricultural run-off. But on Cape Cod, the culprit is septic systems. Because the Cape is a sand spit with little organic material in its soils, nitrogen rich water filters rapidly away from septic systems there and flows directly into the bays. Essentially, the sandy soils don’t hold the water long enough, nor do they contain enough organic molecules, to bind up the nitrogen, even when septic systems are up to date and operating effectively.

The problem is not new. In fact, the CLF/Buzzard’s Bay Coalition lawsuit cites a 1978 Areawide Plan for Cape Cod that predicted an ecological crisis due to septic tank runoff if the issue were not addressed. The lawsuit charges that the EPA failed to act on the Plan, or to annually update and approve it.

To read more about the suit, and about the issue, you can read CLF’s press release. And I also encourage you to read more about the missions of both groups–they are most worthy of your attention, and, may I say, your financial support. And that’s not entirely self-serving, I swear.

Stubby-winged seaducks

15 09 2011

Male Common Eider found in Maine this month. Flight feathers appear extremely short on both wings. (photo: H. Rasmussen)

Seanetter Helen Rasmussen made an interesting find on her Portland, Maine beach this month. A dead male Common Eider turned up with a substantial wound on its neck and a peculiar stubby look to the wings. On closer examination, it’s clear that the flight feathers are all missing on both wings. This is a normal phenomenon in many sea ducks, including eider and scoters. In Common Eiders, the males and females separate and migrate to separate molting areas on the open water. There, they lose all their flight feathers at once, and spend an average of 36 days completely unable to fly. They continue to dive for food and swim around in a limited area.

Scientists are not entirely certain why this period of flightlessness evolved in these birds, but one theory suggests that the birds conserve energy they would otherwise spend flying, and use that energy to put toward the development of a new set of feathers. Molting is a very energy intensive activity, and it may be that these birds can’t afford to both fly and grow feathers at once.

An alternative theory points to the sea ducks’ heavy bodies as the reason–while many birds molt one or two flight feathers at a time and never become flightless during the molt, sea ducks may need every one of their feathers to support their heavy bodies in flight. Losing even one or two would make them so inefficient in flight, it may be more adaptive to simply molt all at once and endure a concentrated period of complete flightlessness.

As you might expect, this flightless period is one of heightened danger to the birds. They are, quite literally, sitting ducks out there on the water, able to escape predators only by diving, which often won’t save you from a determined seal, for instance. So, if we wildly speculate on the cause of the neck wound in Helen’s bird, we might spin out a yarn where a seal found a group of these flightless eiders and went on a killing spree, leaving some of the carcasses uneaten. Of course, the wound could also have inflicted postmortem by a scavenging gull on the beach, but that is much less cinematic.

We also had a report from Maggie Komosinski in Rhode Island shortly after Tropical Storm Irene passed through. Maggie had found a Black Scoter with similar, stubby-looking wings, still alive on the beach. Presumably, the bird was also in its flightless period and was pushed ashore by the winds and rains of the storm. It’s tough out there when 2 of your four limbs are seriously compromised!

Live Bird Quiz answers

13 09 2011

Why do I do this to myself?! I am NOT a seasoned birder, and my only marginal expertise is in dead seabird identification. Live shorebirds? What was I thinking?
Anyway, I am fortunate that our usual pros weighed in on this one: John Stanton and Mary Wright wrote in with answers. First, the easier ones, on which Mary and John were in agreement: Birds B and C are both Piping Plovers. Bird B is an immature bird, while C is an adult. Kathy Kelly, who photographed the birds, tells us that she spoke to Eric Hynes, staff naturalist with Maine Audubon, who told her this young bird was one of two that hatched on Pine Point Beach. Its sibling went missing, and was likely lost to predation. He told Kathy this Bird B was just about ready to go off on its own.
While the markings on the immature and adult birds do differ, there are certain characteristics common to plovers generally that we can focus on for the purposes of identifying Bird A, which is a thornier problem.
The general look of a plover is a large-eyed, straight-beaked, and somewhat dome-headed bird. Someone once described their very high foreheads as giving them the look of a dolphin, and that description seems apt to me.

Bird A: Mystery plover?

Bird A appears to be a plover, but what sort? Mary says Killdeer, and John says Wilson’s Plover. I’ll throw another common species into the mix and say Semi-palmated Plover just to make things interesting. The view in the photo is from the back, and with the head turned away, it’s hard to get a good sense of the size or length of the bill. So what can we say about this bird? It has a distinct white collar above a brownish-gray back, a brownish-gray head and a pale supercilium (“eyebrow”). The legs appear to be orange, at least to my eye. What we can see of the bill is black.There is no evidence (from this angle) of a strong black band encircling the upper chest/base of neck, which is common in many plover species.

Killdeer--even from this angle, the double breast bands are evident.

Let’s consider the Killdeer as our first candidate. Killdeer are rather lanky for plovers, and that’s very consistent with Bird A. Back color works for Killdeer, as does the pale supercilium, white collar and black bill. What argues against Killdeer is Bird A’s orange-ish leg color, and especially the apparent lack of any black breast bands in our bird. Even when viewed from a similar, oblique angle, Killdeer of any age and sex should show some portion of the distinctive double breast band that sets them apart from other plovers. The photo here of a Killdeer from a similar angle shows the upper breast band encircling the entire neck at the base of the white collar, and the second, lower breast band extending all the way to the “wrist,” or forward bend in the wing. Bird A shows no trace of either.

Non-breeding Wilson's Plover: heavy black bill is distinctive (when you can see it.)

How about Wilson’s Plover? Unfortunately, perhaps the most distinctive feature this species is a long, heavy black bill that sets it apart from otherwise similar plovers. The angle we have on Bird A makes it tough to say much about the bill, but it doesn’t look terribly heavy, from what we can see of it. Wilson’s Plovers generally have a sort of dull gray-yellow leg, a grayish back, white collar and a pale supercilium. Breeding adults have a single black breast band, but juveniles and non-breeding adults have a washed out looking gray band, which could account for the lack of any evident black breast band. Perhaps the biggest problem with an i.d. of Wilson’s Plover is its location: these birds typically breed from Virginia south, and while occasional sightings are not unheard of in New England, if we’re playing the odds, we’d have to bet against Wilson’s Plover.

Range map for the Wilson's Plover. Summer range in pink.

And what about Semi-palmated Plover? Well, if you accept my premise that Bird A’s legs are orange(ish), then that’s a strong point in favor of Semi-palmated Plover. And non-breeding birds have less of a distinct black breast band, and more of a grayish band that blends into the color of the bird’s back. The white collar is consistent with Bird A, as is the pale supercilium. This is by no means the clear and final answer, and I would be delighted to hear from John, Mary, or any of you on how you go about plover identification. As for me, I have exhausted myself trying to work through this, so I think I need a nap.

Semi-palmated Plover. Are orange legs the key to Bird A's identity?

Maine Live Bird Quiz!

8 09 2011

Bird A) Anne Hess spotted this bird on Lamoine Beach in Maine earlier this summer..

As we verge into fall here in the northern reaches of New England, your blogger wishes to share a few pictures from the waning summer, and in a departure from the usual Dead Bird Quiz, I offer a Live Bird Quiz on one of the most dreaded bird groups: the shorebirds!

Kathleen Kelly is a professional photographer, so her pics are gloriously close up and clear. Anne Hess’ photo is more along the lines of what the rest of us mortals capture–a fast moving shorebird at some distance. This is why shorebirds are cursed by many a birder who just lumps all of them into the “peeps” category.

Give this quiz a try, Seanetters. I know they aren’t dead, but they’re still birds, right?

Bird B) Spotted by Kathleen Kelly on Old Orchard Beach in Maine in July.

Bird C) Also seen by Kathleen Kelly on Old Orchard Beach in July.