Balloons in the environment survey

27 10 2011

It's all fun and games until a seabird chokes on a balloon. (photo: National Parks Service)

Clemson University is conducted a web-based survey on the prevalence and perceived impacts of latex balloons on wildlife. Since many of you Seanetters and SEANET friends encounter balloons and their accoutrements on your beaches or in your other travels, you are the perfect population to take this survey! The researchers are looking for as many participants as possible, so feel free to spread this link around to any and all who have an opinion on feral balloons.

Coming together for the eiders.

25 10 2011

Spot the carcasses: several dead common eiders amid the wrack in Wellfleet. (photo: Dick Jordan)

Since I last wrote, much has been afoot regarding the common eider die-off occurring on Cape Cod. Dick Jordan, intrepid Seanetter about town (the town being Wellfleet, MA), relayed real time reports of sick and dying birds to Randy Mickley, of the USDA’s Wildlife Services, who headed right out. The dying birds were euthanized, and blood samples shipped to our partners at SCWDS in Georgia who will test the blood for the virus first discovered in Wellfleet Bay eiders. Samples and carcasses were also sent to the National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, WI for testing.
Your blogger was so pleased to see the USDA, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the US Geological Survey (USGS), the National Parks Service, Massachusetts Audubon, and SEANET all working together to get fresh samples and move this investigation along.

Eider nest among the grasses: the perfect chance for a tick to climb aboard?

We also had a question come in over the blog from Helen in Maine, who asked for more information about the theory that ticks may spread this novel virus from bird to bird. Helen wrote that she (sensibly) does not often associate ticks with sea-faring ducks. Indeed, the exposure to terrestrial parasites is generally low in marine organisms, but even eiders must go ashore to lay their eggs, and they generally nest amongst vegetation, giving ticks the chance to hitch-hike. What species of ticks tend to colonize eiders, your blogger does not know, but that would be a subject that the scientists and veterinarians working on this virus will be pursuing. So, for the investigation’s sake, we hope there were some ticks on those Wellfleet eiders.

I will continue to keep you up to date on this investigation, dear readers.

Julie Ellis is back on the case!

20 10 2011

This week marks the official return of Dr. Julie Ellis from her blissful maternity leave! I cannot even say how pleased I am to have her back! So, no real substance today, just a gratuituous photo of Julie and Baby Iris, now 3 months old.

Baby Iris (infront) and her mom.

Common eiders are at it again (dying, I mean).

18 10 2011

Dapper though dead: one of the Common Eiders found by Dick Jordan on Cape Cod this month.

Seanetter Dick Jordan has been spotting dead Common Eiders in Wellfleet, MA on Cape Cod for about a month now. And he’s not alone; Seanetters from the Cape up to Maine have found varying numbers of the species dead on their beaches as well. Numbers are typical of the season so far, with fewer than 50 dead eiders reported through formal SEANET survey channels. Nonetheless, a die-off is a die-off, and a research team is currently looking into the newly discovered Wellfleet Bay Virus (WFBV) found in dead eiders from years past. The team, lead by scientists and veterinarians at the Southeast Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study (SCWDS) and the USDA’s Wildlife Services division brings together collaborators from around the country. They hope to collect carcasses, and also to get blood samples from sick eiders. They also hope to collect ticks from the live birds, as the blood-sucking arthropods are suspected of potentially spreading the virus from bird to bird.

We hope the carcass collecting trip goes off without a hitch, and that some sick birds can be found to offer up blood samples, as such samples could offer a treasure trove of information on the virus’ behavior, and its effect on the birds.

Capt. Moore to talk marine plastics in North Carolina

13 10 2011

With impeccable timing, given our recent SEANET recruiting blitz in North Carolina, Captain Charles Moore, founder of Algalita Marine Research Foundation, will be giving a presentation at Topsail Beach in NC next month. Captain Moore is credited with bringing global attention to the vast plastic soup swirling in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Since the 1997 voyage that sparked Moore’s interest in the plastic crisis, he and his team have also made trips to similar cauldrons of plastic filled sea water in the middle of the Atlantic and Indian oceans.

Captain Moore will be giving a talk at the Topsail Island Welcome Center on November 14th at 12:30pm. The event is limited to 125 people, and if you would like to attend, please email Ginger Taylor at If you can’t attend on the 14th, Captain Moore will give an additional presentation at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington on November 15th at 7pm.

If your SEANET blogger were anywhere near NC, she would for certain go see Captain Moore! So get to it, new Seanetters and other NC friends!

Updates on New England marine mortalities and how everyone can help!

11 10 2011

A dead scarlet tanager: I reported a dead bird to WHER, and you can too!

Reports continue to come regarding dead marine organisms along the New Hampshire and northern Massachusetts coasts. At present, your SEANET blogger has tallied up about 15 dead seabirds (of questionable i.d.–originally called gulls, it appears some of them were Greater Shearwaters), several harbor seal pups, and the Minke Whale.

The seabird carcasses collected from Jenness Beach in NH have been taken to the University of New Hampshire for autopsy. Their stomach contents will also be analyzed for algal toxins.

So, what is a concerned citizen to do when confronted with a dead animal or fifteen? SEANET is dedicated to collecting seabird mortality data from formal surveys on set coastal routes, but what should a Seanetter do when she finds a dead bird outside those parameters? And what is any of us to do when we find a dead animal of any species in our backyard, by the side of the road, or floating in our swimming pool? I have posted here about the Wildlife Health Event Reporter run out of Madison, Wisconsin previously, and I mention it again now. WHER is designed to capture these incidental sightings, compile them, and map them for all to see. You can report a sighting of a sick or dead animal anywhere in the world. Whether it’s a major die-off, a slightly unusual event, or a single, roadkilled skunk, WHER will take your report.

I have been compiling all the reports from this current MA/NH event and submitting them to WHER, and I encourage everyone to help out! You need not be a Seanetter, a scientist, or a wildlife expert. If you find something dead, just report it! You never know what patterns we may help detect!

Maine/NH/Massachusetts Alert: watch for marine organism die-offs!

6 10 2011

Minke whale: a specimen of this species has been reported dead off the shores of Beverly, MA.

Judy Kleindinst, who works at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, got in touch with SEANET this week asking if we had gotten any reports of unusual seabird mortality on our beaches. It seems that dead seals began turning up along New Hampshire’s coast last week. Sketchy reports of gull and cormorant mortalities had also come in from southern Maine through northern Massachusetts, and a dead Minke Whale was reported off the coast of Beverly, on Massachusetts’ north shore. Mortality affecting such a wide variety of organisms tends to raise the possibility of a harmful algal bloom, or HAB, sometimes referred to as red tides. Woods Hole will be sampling area waters to see if any such event is occurring.

Seanetters have not detected unusual numbers of carcasses during formal walks this past week, and I have received no informal alarm calls either, but please get in touch if you see anything strange out there, whether you’re on a survey or not, and whether you’re an official Seanetter or not!

The eye of the storm: shorebirds can fly through hurricanes

4 10 2011

A whimbrel named Machi getting a satellite transmitter backpack. (photo by Bart Paxton)

Scientists at the Center for Conservation Biology have been satellite tagging and tracking the movements of Whimbrels, large shorebirds who undertake major migrations from breeding grounds in Alaska to wintering grounds in South America. While the researchers were primarily interested in migration patterns, they ended up learning something about the fate of birds caught in hurricanes. Conventional wisdom holds that smart birds of all species sense major storms coming, and flee the dropping air pressure for pleasanter weather. Generally, birds tend to hunker down in trees to ride out storms. It’s generally believed that birds unwise enough to be caught in tropical storms or hurricanes on the open ocean would quickly exhaust themselves flying in the high winds and perish.
The Whimbrel tracking study has shown otherwise, and while it is only a very small sample size, it does demonstrate that birds can fly straight through a major storm and survive. One of the tagged birds, nicknamed Chinquapin, flew directly into the center of Hurricane Irene as it passed over Atlantic waters with winds up to 110mph. Scientists lost the signal from Chinquapin’s tracker and feared the bird was lost. Two days later, their computers picked up the signal again, and realized the bird’s path had borne it straight into the eye of the storm and that it had emerged alive to rest up in the Bahamas.

It appears that most birds of any species that attempt this feat will fail, lacking the energy reserves to fly against such high winds. Whimbrels can double their weight as they stage for their flights south after breeding, packing on fat for their epic migrations, and scientists believe that this kind of energy reserve is necessary to even stand a chance at surviving hurricane force winds.

A second bird, Machi, survived a flight through a tropical storm only to be shot by a hunter on Guadeloupe Island. A third bird, Goshen, passed through an outer band of Hurricane Irene and was shot on the same island. Just goes to show that the life of wild birds is fraught with peril, and passage through wild winds is no guarantee of easier days ahead. And I was whining after losing power for two days in Irene’s wake.