Pelican die-off again; this time, Seanetters are ready.

29 11 2011

Just about exactly one year ago, I posted about troubling numbers of Brown Pelicans turning up dead or severely injured on Topsail Beach in North Carolina. Speculation that the birds had been beaten to death by malevolent humans was not born out by necropsies performed at SCWDS in Georgia, though a definite cause of death was not determined. Then, in April of this year, dead and injured pelicans began turning up on Topsail again, many with wing fractures so severe that they had to be euthanized.

A Brown Pelican, a bit worse for the wear, found by Gilbert Grant just yesterday.

Now, we’re getting reports of injured birds yet again. Sara Schweitzer, Coastal Waterbird Biologist with the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, tells us that she has assisted in the rescue of 10-15 Brown Pelicans, most of which had suffered irreparable wing fractures and were euthanized. Dr. Craig Harms of NCSU will be performing necropsies on the birds that did not survive.

Unlike last year, we have Seanetters on the ground for this round of what now appears to be a regular occurrence on NC beaches. Gil Grant walks North Topsail Beach and has found 4 dead pelicans there since the beginning of November. While we are most pleased to be able to capture these events in our database, the need for observers goes beyond SEANET. The cause of these catastrophic injuries is still a mystery, and anyone who sees any behaviors or happenings that might help explain these events is urged to contact the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission. And let us know too; SEANET is very nosy.

Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours!

24 11 2011

Brown Pelican found by Gilbert Grant in North Carolina.

Whether it’s deep fried, brined, Turducken, or Tofurkey, enjoy the day, dear readers.

After all, who appreciates a dead bird more than a Seanetter?

SEANET and friends are so tech-savvy!

22 11 2011

Brown pelican after being disentangled from fishing line and freed. Photo by Stan Rule.

One of our new North Carolina volunteers, Stan Rule, has shared his own blog with us, and the latest post details his (very eventful) first SEANET walk in Bird Shoal beach. Stan and co. managed two seabird rescues on that walk! Stan also takes some beautiful photos, so keep an eye on his blogspot for continued reports from our more southern reaches.

Also, some of you may have missed the comment left on the blog by Megan Hines, database manager extraordinaire. Since her comments are worth everyone’s focused attention, I’m posting them again here. The data explorer mentioned in her comments can be accessed via the same SEANET database you use to enter your walk reports, or you can access it directly here.

“Hey all!

If you have comments or suggested changes to the data explorer, please feel free to share them with me and Sarah – I’m open to improving this to meet your needs and curiosities. One item I’m already working on is the ability to see the photos through the site also.

A few tips on the SEANET Beached Birds feed:

Feed URL –

The feed contains the last 25 beached bird reports only. It’s a moving window, meaning that each time you open it up, the last 25 birds are included.

The feed is also a GeoRSS feed, meaning that I’ve attached the coordinates for the start point of the beach to each of the beached birds reported. The feed can be mapped on something as simple as Google Maps like this:

To subscribe to the email subscription/email alerts (all new reports are delivered daily in a concise easy to read ‘digest’) – go here and input your email address:

Thanks for the kind words Sarah!


Dead Bird Quiz answers

17 11 2011

Juvenile Great Black-backed Gull. Photo by D. Minsky.

Two responses on this quiz: John Stanton and Dennis Minsky buzzed in with answers, and for Bird A, their differing responses perfectly illustrate the challenges of identifying dead gulls. Bird A is, in fact, a young Great Black-backed Gull similar to the one shown here. Juvenile GBBGs have a bold, black and white checkered pattern all over their backs and wings, which sets them apart from young Herring Gulls, which are a more blended gray overall. But John brought up the possibility that Bird A might be a juvenile Ring-billed Gull. In the picture here of a living specimen of a RBGU, you can see the similarities. While RBGU show a much greater degree of variation in their juvenile plumage, it is possible to find individuals with patterns similar to that of a GBBG. This drives home the importance of scale. I did not provide measurements for Bird A, but its wing chord was 47cm. This is massively longer than the RBGU, whose wing chord maxes out at 38cm. This is, clearly, an object lesson in taking measurements on all your carcasses–it can make the difference between “very confident” and “dunno” in our database.

Juvenile Ring-billed Gull

Bird B was unanimously and correctly identified as a young Laughing Gull. In comparison with GBBGs and RBGUs, young LAGUs show a darker, slaty back with dark brown feathers interspersed, and no white checkering anything like the other two species. We expect to get many more reports of Laughing Gulls from our new North Carolina contingent as winter sets in since this species tends not to hang out much here in New England in the colder months. They may be on to something…

Dead Bird Quiz: welcome North Carolina! edition

15 11 2011

Since we held our training in Wilmington, NC back in September, we’ve added 12 active beaches in that state! Not surprisingly, we have also gotten our first reports of dead birds on some of those beaches, so here it is: the latest installment of the DBQ. Answers here on Thursday, so get your guesses in!

Bird A: found by Joanne Powell on Bird Shoal in North Carolina this month.

Bird B: Found by Gilbert Grant on North Topsail Beach in North Carolina last month.

Still more on eiders and Team Eider 2011!

10 11 2011

USDA APHIS' Randy Mickley (left) and Seanetter Dick Jordan on Great Island in Wellfleet.

The Common Eider die-off is waning for the year, and before we move on to new topics on this fast moving, hard-hitting hub of journalistic excellence, there are a few remaining topics to cover. First and foremost, our thanks and genuine admiration to our volunteer Dick Jordan, who has headed out to Great Island numerous times for hours at a stretch. He went out again at the end of October in the company of the USDA’s Monte Chandler and Randy Mickley to count and tag eiders and to harvest wings from the carcasses for analysis. Randy wrote, “Thanks everyone for helping us collect 93 COEI wings and 1 White-winged scoter wing Friday. Dick was able to reach the tip of Jeremy Pt. ahead of me & Monte, and ahead of the incoming tide to collect wings. We covered the entire point at near high tide mark and collected from nearly every bird carcass we saw.”
Anyone who’s visited Great Island and Jeremy Point will appreciate the difficulty of accessing the area, and the challenges of the terrain. Add in the exertion of hacking off wings with pruning shears, and you get a recipe for a rugged day in the field. The wings harvested will substantially boost the efforts to track these eiders back to their land of origin.
A few blog readers have raised good questions about the die-off investigation, and I wish to address these here. The first: why does it seem to be almost exclusively male eiders involved? Is it just that they are more noticeable with their black and white plumage? While the striking colors do tend to make the males more eye-catching, in fact, the die-off population shifts over the course of the Fall. In late August and September, we see a spike in mortality in females. By October, the males become more prominent. The reason may lie in the migratory ecology of the species. After breeding in the Spring, the males and females go their separate ways. Multiple females raise their collective young in groups calls creches, while males head off into the wilderness. Females and males both molt prior to their Fall migration, but the timing can be staggered, and they molt in different geographic locations. Given that, it’s no surprise that males and females turn up separately on Cape Cod beaches.

USDA APHIS' Monte Chandler harvests an eider wing.

Another question arose in light of attempts to determine the source of the Wellfleet Bay Virus (WFBV) which has killed at least some of the birds. Scientists investigating the virus have postulated that ticks may be involved in the virus’ spread. But how, asked some of you, would ocean based ducks get infested with ticks? Well, even a sea duck comes ashore to lay eggs (the females, anyway), and research across seabird groups has shown that ticks are common on breeding islands, some specific to a particular host species, and others able to feed on multiple bird species. Some of the ticks will feed on a nesting host, then drop off onto the ground and survive through an entire year without feeding until the birds return to breed again the next season. And viruses have been shown to be viable within ticks for two full years. Whether the females might contract the disease from ticks, and then pass the ticks themselves to males during breeding, or whether the virus is spread from bird to bird in some alternate manner is entirely unknown now, but is most certainly an area of active research.

The harvest: 93 common eider wings for analysis.

As dead eider season winds to a close, we recognize the hard work of everyone involved in this investigation, but cannot resist a particular SEANET shout-out to Dick, undaunted out there on MA_21. Thank you, Dick; you’re awesome!

New ways to view and explore SEANET data!

8 11 2011
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Megan Hines made a mistake when she became my facebook friend; now I can steal pictures of her!

Thanks in large part to our data wizard, Megan Hines, Seanetters and friends can find out what’s turning up on other SEANET beaches both nearby and many states away. With the SEANET Beached Bird Data Explorer, you can now view all the carcasses reported on any SEANET beach from Maine to Florida, see how your beach stacks up, and compare the species profiles of carcasses found from region to region. Be a bit patient, as all this rich data can take a few moments to load.

And, for those of you who want to know about each and every dead bird the moment it hits the database, you can head to:


where you can either subscribe to receive reports of dead birds via email, or for the more casual carcass enthusiast, just visit the site from time to time to see what’s turned up.

Megan is quite possibly the best database manager ever, and I cannot praise her extensively enough. All Seanetters owe her a great debt of gratitude; Megan is super-fast, responsive, and thinks of things before I even know I need them. The only problem is that she works in Wisconsin and not right here with us in New England. Can’t win ’em all, I suppose.

Finally, Linda Daniels left a comment on the blog about the latex balloon survey put out by Clemson University. What can be done about this problem, she wrote. Indeed, it’s a fine question and we will follow Clemson’s work to see what they do next, after the survey phase of their work is done. It will likely take a great deal of public education, just as ubiquitous pictures of birds and sea turtles with their necks ensnared by six-pack rings ultimately got people reflexively snipping those items before tossing them. Still, people seem very attached to the practice of airborne balloon litter to celebrate just about any occasion. Irrational beings that we are, it’s hard to say what will get us to stop doing such dumb stuff.

State of Wellfleet Harbor Conference, this Saturday!

3 11 2011

View of the marshes in Wellfleet, MA.

This Saturday, November 5th, the 9th annual State of Wellfleet Harbor Conference will be held at the Wellfleet Elementary School in Wellfleet, Massachusetts. The conference, which is free and open to the public, will feature presentations on topics from contaminants in private wells, to red tides, to a subject of particular interest to SEANET: common eider die-offs.

The conference begins at 8:30am with a continental breakfast, and the program itself opens at 9am. Randy Mickley, Wildlife Disease Biologist with the USDA, will speak at 12:50pm and give an update on the progress we’ve made on the annual eider die-offs on the Cape. Randy’s talk is particularly timely, as he is still recovering from an epic trip out to Great Island and Jeremy Point in Wellfleet to collect a slew of wings from eider carcasses. These wings will be used to try and determine where the eiders had been feeding prior to their arrival in Wellfleet.

I would be remiss in discussing the eider investigation without also mentioning Dick Jordan, our man in Wellfleet, who has been heading out to Great Island and the Point for epic, four hour surveys. He aided Randy and Monte Chandler in collecting a whopping 93 wings for the study, and has been truly invaluable as our eyes on the ground out there.

If any of you Seanetters or friends of SEANET can make it to the conference, I hope you can all meet up! Seanetting can often be a lonely pursuit, so you folks should have the opportunity to commiserate. So you should all wear your SEANET t-shirts, or, in lieu of that, a large flower in a big floppy hat by way of identifying one another.

Dennis Minsky hits 200!

1 11 2011

And that is a far superior stat in beach walking than in baseball. Dennis found his 200th dead bird, a ring-billed gull rolling in the surf, yesterday on his Provincetown, Massachusetts beach on Cape Cod. Dennis tends to find more carcasses than the average Seanetter, helped along by the prevailing winds that tend to push carcasses and general debris up onto the shores of the west facing Cape. Seanetters who find few or no carcasses should not despair, for we value negative reports equally with positive reports. Our purpose is to generate as many walks as possible, not as many birds as possible. Still, ’tis the nature of humans to observe such a momentous event as this 200th body.

DMinsky3680-7505Dennis’ 200th bird: a headless Ring-billed Gull.

Dennis’ bird is instructive for another reason; on a walk on the same beach three days earlier, this gull had not been present. In the intervening days, it appeared, and got its head eaten off. This is a demonstration of how fleeting carcasses are, and how valuable frequent walks are if we want a detailed sense of what goes on out there.
If you are able, consider upping the frequency of your walks. Or, consider recruiting a friend to walk the beach on your off weeks. Our database will thank you!