The festivities in Georgia

29 12 2011

The winsome Piping Plover of winter. Photo by G. Graves.

Georgia Graves, Seanetting down on St. Simons Island in Georgia, sent along a few pictures of the goings-on down there. Last week, she spotted a few Piping Plovers sporting on the sands, two of which wore orange flags above the ankle, and colored bands above the foot. Knowledgeable in the ways of plover banders, Georgia knew that the orange flag marks a bird from the breeding population on the Great Lakes. This is not the first time a marked Piping Plover has turned up on a southern beach in winter; back in 2008, a pair of siblings turned up in Florida, wintering on the same beach–a highly unusual thing for this species. Dr. Francesca Cuthbert at the University of Minnesota studies these birds, and I’ve dropped her line to try to get some specifics on Georgia’s sighting. While we wait for word, here’s a festive little Christmas scene schooling us in how that holiday gets done on the Georgia coast. What more could I ask?

An East Beach Christmas: how Georgia does it up!

Atlantic flotsam, living and otherwise

27 12 2011

Dick Jordan and the rescued loggerhead he assisted.

We’re into the northern winter now, and the ocean tends to churn up more in these cold months than at any other time in the year. November is also known as sea turtle stranding season here in New England, and Seanetter Dick Jordan has sent in a report; a couple of weeks ago he went out to do his beach walk on Cape Cod and ended up assisting a cold-stunned Kemp’s Ridley and a loggerhead! The chilled loggerhead paused for a photo op before his conveyance to the sea turtle rescue center at the New England Aquarium in Boston.

Sea turtles and dead seabirds are by no means the only things tossed ashore in winter; Mary Myers, who also walks the bay side of Cape Cod, sent in a photo of some now very familiar detritus. The sewage discs released from a Hooksett, NH treatment plant back in March. Seanetters have found them as far south as New Jersey, and while their appearance is sporadic, when the wind and waves are right, we get a reminder that millions of these discs were released and they’re still floating around out there, buffeted by the currents.

Whether it’s something you find on your SEANET beach or not, and whether you’re a Seanetter or not, we’re always curious to see what oddities you find out there. So send in your pictures and reports–’tis the season for weird stuff to wash up out there!

Spent shotgun shells and sewage discs: must be the holidays!

Some results from that seal die-off in the Fall.

22 12 2011

Back in September, unusually high numbers of dead or dying harbor seals began to be reported from Massachusetts up through Maine. Over the next two months, 162 dead seals were tallied, qualifying the die-off as an official Unusual Mortality Event (UME). The majority of the affected animals were the young of the year.  In a normal year, young seals found dead have usually depleted all their body fat, succumbing to malnutrition. During this mortality event however, the dead seals were in good body condition. Many of the animals also showed ulcerations of the skin, and in the five individuals submitted for full autopsy, bacterial pneumonia and other secondary infections were identified. But secondary to what?

Dead harbor seal on Jenness Beach in Rye, New Hampshire.

Virology tests performed at two independent laboratories identified an influenza A virus known as H3N8 in the five seals sampled. The flu virus damaged the seals’ respiratory tracts and left them susceptible to the opportunistic bacterial infections that ultimately killed them. This particular flu virus is generally found in wild birds, and it is unclear how the seals contracted the disease. A related, though molecularly distinct form of H3N8 has been found in dogs and horses, but both of those species typically recover from the infection. No human cases of H3N8 have ever been reported.

While influenza viruses have been responsible for seal die-offs in the 80s and early 90s, this is the first time H3N8 has been implicated. H3N8 was detected in a harp seal retrieved dead from a fishing net several years ago, but no mass die-off was detected in association with that finding. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has been coordinating this investigation, and they are quick to point out that diagnosing H3N8 in 5 seals does not necessarily diagnose the entire die-off, and tests continue on samples collected from several more seals during the event. Many of the carcasses were well decomposed and not suitable for testing, and the same held for many seabird carcasses collected during the same time period. It may be impossible to determine whether H3N8 was present in a number of shearwaters found in Rye, NH for instance, as many of these were nearly mummified when found.

For those of you walking the beaches, the usual precautions should apply when encountering seals or other marine mammals: do not approach them, and for God’s sake, don’t let your dog approach them either! Should you encounter a stranded marine mammal, or an unusual number of dead ones, please call NOAA’s marine stranding hotline at 1-866-755-NOAA (6622) and let the professionals handle it.

Global Environment Facility advises on ocean issues

20 12 2011

First, I’d better help you wade through the morass of bureaucratic structure here: the oddly named Global Environment Facility (GEF) is a partnership between non-governmental organizations (including several United Nations programs), private sector participants, and 182 member governments from around the globe. The GEF’s substantial budget funds projects focusing on “biodiversity, climate change, international waters, land degradation, the ozone layer, and persistent organic pollutants” in developing and transitional economies. The GEF is advised by six experts on their Scientific and Technical Advisory Panel (STAP), which is essentially the objective science behind the GEF’s money.

The STAP has just released two publications on what they deem the most relevant challenges currently facing our global environment. Both topics have been featured here on this blog with some frequency: 1) hypoxic “dead zones” resulting from nutrient run-off into the oceans, and 2) Marine plastic pollution. The first issue was selected in light of the increasing number of these zones, now estimated at over 500 worldwide. The report is encouraging in its findings that this problem has a clear solution: reduce the amount of agricultural wastes, human sewage and livestock manure entering the oceans. As such, the GEF is advised to target funding at projects seeking to slow or stop these streams of excessive nutrients.

Honestly, why do these plastic toys need to be encased in plastic? Fragile immune systems in Star Wars droids?

The report on marine plastics is a bit more holistic, recognizing that we have been focused on the end result of plastics in the oceans and have not adequately addressed the matter of why we generate so much single use, designed-for-disposal plastic. The STAP advocates that the GEF apply itself to plastic pollution throughout that material’s lifetime, adopting a “5 Rs approach: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Redesign and Recover.”

On a personal note, your blogger points out the report’s specific mention of all the single use plastic used simply to package other items. As the mother of two small boys at Christmastime, I have found myself often demoralized by the shelves and shelves of plastic toys, which are themselves encased in plastic. As a result, my boys receive a great many second-hand, thrift store action figures as gifts due to my inability to fully finance this disposable culture. Still, none of us can avoid it entirely. Everything comes wrapped in plastic, much of which cannot be recycled either. As the STAP report points out, we have to stem this land based runoff of plastic if we want less of this stuff to end up in the oceans.

So as Hanukah begins, and Christmas closes in, I wish a minimally packaged holiday to all who celebrate, and to everyone, a reduced runoff of fecal material into our oceans!

Belated fanfare for Rey Larsen, the Seanetter’s Seanetter

15 12 2011

RI_21, Rey Larsen's former beat on the Connecticut border.

I have been terribly remiss. Almost a year and a half have elapsed since Rey Larsen, Seanetter on Napatree Point in Rhode Island, posted his last walk. Rey just turned 76 this month, and had begun to find the walks a bit daunting a couple of years ago. Lest ye think Rey’s was just your average beach, let me set you straight. Rey was circumnavigating Napatree Point, a route totaling 3.5 miles and including some quite isolated and rugged terrain, not once a month, but often two or three times. He racked up 105 walks on the Point over his four year tenure with us, and was without question one of the most dedicated volunteers we have ever had.

RI_21, jutting out into Fisher’s Island Sound, just across the river from Connecticut, never turned up many dead birds, but Rey was the ideal volunteer–understanding the value of monitoring the beach frequently and regularly, knowing the purpose of generating baseline data.

I was prompted to think of Rey when a potential new volunteer emailed about walking Napatree. I hope it works out–someone has to try to fill Rey’s hiking boots!

Happy birthday to you Rey, and thank you (belatedly) for your uncomplaining service to SEANET!

Dead stuff Quiz answers

13 12 2011

A flurry of guesses came in on this quiz; thank you everyone! This kind of class participation warms my blogging heart. Here’s what I think on the 3 specimens:

Non-breeding Horned Grebe with head still attached. Very like our Bird A.

Pied-billed Grebe's bill is the same overall length, but with a much deeper base.

Alternate view of Specimen C showing overall size and white "bib" fur.

Specimen A: Everyone knew this was a grebe (the lobed feet being the give-away). But to get to species, we must examine the severed head lying near the left side of the carcass. Specimen A shows a black crown with a sharply demarcated white cheek. The bill appears slender. These characteristics mark it as a non-breeding Horned Grebe. The other possibility based on size would be the Pied-billed Grebe. While that species has a bill of almost identical length as the Horned Grebe, the Pied-billed’s is much deeper, giving it a short, chunky appearance. The Pied-billed’s face is generally a brown or gray wash, with no clear black crown.

Specimen B is a diminutive character, diminished even more by the loss of most of its flesh to a predator. What remains is sufficient to make the i.d. though. The black upperwing with white trailing edge to the secondaries mark it as an alcid. (Other candidates like the Bufflehead would have a wider white band, known as a speculum, on the wings). Within the alcids, only the dovekie is this small, with a foot barely wider than a human thumb.

Specimen C: A mammalian interloper in our quiz. I confess to very little knowledge of mammal i.d., so here’s my thought process. You are free to argue with me!

First things first: this is a member of the weasel family, showing the pointed head and carnivorous teeth of that group. The striped skunk will be the most familiar weasel to many of you readers, but several species of weasel are quite common here in New England. Specimen C is brownish overall, with darker fur over the rump and tail. In the additional photo shown here, a white bib of fur is evident between the forelegs. This coloration is consistent with the fisher, the second largest member of the weasel family around here (the river otter being largest). The size of Specimen C could be estimated in the original photo by the presence of the index card (presumed to be 5″ in length). Based on that, Specimen C is quite large–about 30″ including the tail. That puts the animal solidly in the fisher range. The American mink, the other candidate here, would be substantially smaller, maxing out at 20″, tail included. The mink would show a darker, more uniform color to the fur (which is partly why its pelt is so prized).

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Specimen C is the location where Dennis found it. Fishers have been expanding their range in New England, but their presence was not confirmed on Cape Cod until 2006. Now, Dennis has found one at the very tip of the Cape in Provincetown. Fisher were once thought to rely on unbroken forest canopies for survival, but sightings are on the rise in more open habitats, including suburban backyards. It appears that fisher may be more flexible and adaptable than once thought. That’s good news for them, and for all of us who admire these dauntless and fierce predators.

Dead stuff Quiz

8 12 2011

Though nothing can ever supplant dead birds from their accustomed place in my heart, once in a while, a dead non-bird also captivates me. One of them is included in this quiz. The other two specimens, of course, remain avian. Guesses please, and my answers will be posted next week!


Specimen A: Found by Ray Bosse, Buzzard's Bay, Massachusetts.

Specimen B: Found by Jack Renfrew in Wellfleet, MA.

Specimen C: Found by Dennis Minsky in Provincetown, MA.

The loon in winter

6 12 2011

First off, we’ve had a comment thread running on our most recent post on the pelican die-off in North Carolina. Click here to read biologist Sara Schweitzer’s most recent input.

Now, for today’s content. For a month or so now, we’ve begun seeing scattered reports of loons turning up dead and alive on and near SEANET beaches. This is a normal phenomenon at this time of year. Two species occur here on the East Coast with some regularity: the Common and the Red-throated Loons. Common Loons in particular are generally associated with northern lakes from here in New England on up. Red-throated Loons push the envelope, breeding in northern Canada, well into the Arctic circle on tundra lakes. But when summer ends, both species have to move on and find open water. They range up and down the Atlantic coast in winter, and generally stay close to shore, making them readily visible to bird watchers on the beach.

Beached, but still live Common Loon on Cape Cod. Photo by D. Jordan.

Loons are extremely awkward and vulnerable when on land, so aside from the breeding season, a healthy loon will not be found hauled out on shore. That’s why a find like Dick Jordan’s, a Common Loon sitting on the sand in Wellfleet, MA last month, qualifies as a beached bird by our standards. Loons may haul out for many reasons–starvation, oiling, and disease can all leave the birds unable to contend with the cold and rough ocean waters. Once they haul out though, they are easy prey for predators, and also begin to suffer from conditions like pressure sores on their breasts. And of course, they cannot feed once on shore.

Loons are hardy indeed though, as a photo sent by Helen Rasmussen in Maine demonstrates. This Common Loon was spotted a little ways offshore, and Helen noticed that the bird’s lower bill was considerably shorter than the upper. She raised the possibility that this is a congenital deformity, much like those seen with increasing frequency in forest birds in Alaska and the Pacific Northwest. Without a closer look at the beak, it’s tough to say whether or not the bird was hatched that way. If not,  the other possibility is that this bird’s truncated beak is a result of a traumatic event.

Common Loon with a broken beak off the Portland, ME shore. Photo by Helen Rasmussen.

Helen’s bird seemed to be doing ok, outwardly, though its ultimate fate is unknown. Your SEANET blogger can speak from personal experience that loons can live with broken beaks at least for a while: I fish on the lakes of Maine every year, and a couple of years ago, I observed a loon with its upper beak snapped off successfully fishing. Of course, a broken beak is a significant handicap, and when prey is scarce, it could easily become a fatal one.

As to how loons could sustain such trauma, speculation certainly enters in prominently here, but one thing is for sure–Common Loons engage in violent combat with each other, and their beaks are their main weapons. The potential is there, then, for the beaks to be damaged in such fights. I have occasionally seen birds that have crash landed on pavement suffer beak trauma as well. There is no way to know for sure, but one thing is certain, these birds are tough!

Beach frolic and dead birds: the way life should be.

1 12 2011

Julie Ellis and Baby Iris daytripping on SEANET beach WB02!

Julie Ellis and family were visting friends on Cape Cod last weekend and they took their dear baby Iris on her first trip to the beach! (Recall that SEANET is located in the landlocked, central Massachusetts town of Grafton). Much to Julie’s shock and delight, she spied a carcass on the beach bristling with SEANET’s signature orange tags. Turns out, the Ellis-Hoffmans happened to have ventured to WB_02 in Brewster, the SEANET beach of Mary Myers and Diana Gaumond! All in all, Julie sighted three tagged carcasses, all Common Eiders left from this Fall’s die-off.
Fitting indeed that Iris’ first experience with a beach involved dead birds. Would all children could be so lucky.