State of the SEANET: Buzzard’s Bay

31 01 2012

Current beach coverage along Buzzard's Bay (in blue)

Anyone in the neighborhood of Dartmouth, Massachusetts should join us on February 18th at 10am for a SEANET recruiting blitz/reconnect/training session at the Lloyd Center for the Environment. Buzzard’s Bay is where it all began for SEANET, and the Lloyd Center is our oldest partner. Thanks to Jamie Bogart, our stalwart supporter there, for the prod in setting up this meeting; we’d love to get some big gaps filled along the shores of the Bay, so if you know anyone interested in joining, encourage them to attend! Your blogger looks forward to seeing some long-time volunteers, and also to getting some enthusiastic young’uns (in fact or in spirit) Seanetting!

Literary interlude: The Run

26 01 2012

While on Cape Cod earlier this month, I stopped into a used book shop in Harwich (the only place open on a very cold day near the ocean) and picked up an old copy of John Hay’s The Run, a non-fiction ramble along the brackish streams of the Cape where swim the alewives: an ocean-living, but freshwater spawning fish. The book is a fine example of the gentleman-poet-naturalist genre that was once quite common. Hay’s writing is often quite lovely, and always approachable, and one passage in particular made me think of you Seanetters:

“I saw a kingfisher rising up over the creek, a green crab shifting over the shelving bank; and on the beach were the remains of a black duck, sodden, bedraggled, the feathers loaded with wet sand, the breastbone sticking up like the white prow of a helmet, flies buzzing over it–the smell of salted carrion around it.”


The frozen fish identified

24 01 2012
ocean perch

in living color

I am most grateful to eminent fish experts Willy Bemis and J.B. Heiser, current and past Directors of the Shoals Marine Laboratory respectively, for helping with this identification. While the head-on posing of our mystery fish was ideal in an artistic/compositional sense, it was sub-optimal for making the i.d. Despite this, Drs. Bemis and Heiser both concur that the fish Kristin found is a redfish, specifically Sebastes marinus, known colloquially as an ocean perch. You can check out details of the skull structure in this group of fish, and also read more about any fish of interest at FishBase, which is a cool reference provided to me by Willy.

Features of note in the Sebastes genus: big eye, and spikes on operculum.

One feature even a fish neophyte like me can appreciate in Sebastes marinus is the presence of numerous spikes on the operculum (the shield like structure over the gills behind and below the eye). I can persuade myself that these spikes are actually partially visible in the head-on shot provided by Kristin.

In any case, I’m lucky to have contacts at Shoals Marine Lab, including Christine Bogdanowicz, who facilitated the communication on this fishy query. Also, an additional plug: anyone can visit, volunteer, or take courses at Shoals, and the season will be fast upon us! Now is the time to check out their offerings, and with any luck, I’ll see some of you out there this Summer!

A mystery fish

19 01 2012

Frozen fish in Maine. Photo by Kristin Cattrano.

Linda Woodard, our Local Coordinator in Maine, started up a Maine Seanet facebook page to offer another virtual conversation into the mix for our farflung volunteers. It’s been great to follow the finds and comments of our downeast Seanetters via this medium, and this week, Kristin Cattrano posted a very cool photo of a dead fish. The carcass was a foot to a foot and a half long, by Kristin’s estimation, and the photo has stirred up a debate as to the i.d. of this dead beast with the mouthful of ice.
I know extremely little about fish identification, and I would be delighted if any of you pisciphiles (which may not be an actual word) would weigh in on this. And I will take this opportunity to learn something about fish i.d. and share whatever rudimentary knowledge I gain next week.

SEANET data entry site has migrated!

17 01 2012

Some of you may have already discovered the change, but database manager Megan Hines has been working like a crazy person as our beloved SEANET data entry site flies the coop from the now defunct nbii, to the robust Wildlife Data Integration Network. To access the new site (which will look exactly the same to you), head to this address: Please update any bookmarks you may have.

You may notice that some photos have not yet migrated to the new site. Please be patient; Megan is slaving away on this, and she’ll get it done! If you have any questions or problems as you use the new link, let us know and we’ll fix you right up1

The strange bones of birds

13 01 2012

Structure circled in yellow: dragon skull, or bird sternum?

Seanetter Libby Rock can always be counted upon to identify potential supernatural or phantasmagorical finds on the beaches and on this blog. Noting the bony structure attached to the wigeon wings on the last post, she suggested dragon skull for the i.d. In fact, the structure is a severely displaced sternum. While the sternum in mammals like ourselves is a thin, flat bone, in birds, it is a wide, shield shaped bone with a deep keel projecting out to give a sturdy attachment zone for the massive pectoral muscles birds require for flight.

A bird's sternum in profile (left) and head on (right). Bonus points: can you spot the fracture?

Fused pelvis and vertebrae in birds: an adaptation for the rigors of flight.

Another evolutionary adaptation for flight is demonstrated by a bone photographed by Jack Renfrew, who sent in a pic of a mystery specimen much like the one in the second photo. The structure shown in this photo is actually the fused lower vertebrae and pelvis of a Northern Fulmar. Flight is a very energy intensive and demanding activity, and the sheer force of the powerful downbeat of the wings would cause a very flexible skeleton (like ours) to bend ineffectively making the bird incapable of taking off. The fusing of multiple bones together through evolutionary time is a theme throughout the avian skeleton; where humans have 206 bones, birds typically have fewer overall, though the loss of flexibility in the mid and lower spine is compensated for by additional vertebrae in the neck. These “extra” bones (compared with mammals) are responsible for the ability of birds to turn their heads as much as 270º, though the common belief that birds can spin their heads all the way around is nothing but a goofy, Exorcist-style myth.

Dead Bird Quiz answers

10 01 2012

Razorbill in breeding plumage. Quite striking.

Bird A didn’t really stump anyone; all respondents knew this was a Razorbill. These guys can be tricky though, especially when it comes to distinguishing them from murres. When the carcass is intact, check the bill. While breeding Razorbills have a distinctive vertical white stripe on the bill, and a white line running back to the eye, Seanetters are unlikely to encounter birds in breeding plumage as the species nests only from Maine northward. In non-breeding adults, the bill is more subtle, but still shows the deep, arcing profile, and some trace of a white line. Young birds have a shallower bill and bear the most resemblance to murres. In those cases, the tail can be of help. In Razorbills, the tail is long, pointed, and extends beyond the feet. In murres, by contrast, the tail does not extend beyond the feet.

A more demure looking Common Murre. Oh, that's a terrible pun! Sorry!

Bird B was an entirely different story. We did get a correct response, all the way from Europe, from Wouter van Gestel who correctly identified Bird B as an American Wigeon. It’s our very first of the species here at SEANET, so this bird is big news! Tell-tale field marks here are the black secondaries with a white wing patch. This is a male American Wigeon, which is the easier to identify of the sexes. As you can see from these two photos from the Wing and Tail Collection of the University of Puget Sound (a spectacular resource), only the male has that broad white patch, and a small, iridescent green area on the speculum. The female’s wing is more muted, with only a thin, white bar.

On Thursday, this blog will address the topic of weird bird bones and how they look nothing like the bones you’re used to, and more like, as Libby Rock has pointed out to me, dragon skulls.

Male American Wigeon wing. Photo from University of Puget Sound collection

Female American Wigeon wing. Photo from University of Puget Sound collection.

Dead Bird Quiz for the New Year!

5 01 2012

Bird A: Found by Mary and Steve Gulrich on Cape Cod last month.

Bird B: Found by Becky Bartel in North Carolina last month.

Here it is: the first DBQ of 2012. Bird A turned up late last month on the Cape Cod beach of Mary and Steve Gulrich. Bird B is the inaugural find of Becky Bartel, walking a brand new SEANET beat in North Carolina. Wing chord on Becky’s bird is 26 cm.
Now, give me some guesses and we’ll see what we can do!

The story of one Georgia Piping Plover

3 01 2012

It takes a great deal of patience to record the full combination of plover color bands. (photo by G. Graves)

Alice van Zoeren, who handles reports of banded plovers up at the University of Minnesota, sent us the full scoop on the bird spotted by Georgia Graves on St. Simons Island in Georgia: the bird hatched in 2010, and nested along Lake Michigan this past summer when it was captured and tagged with the elaborate color band pattern that allows each bird to be individually identified via photo. The system is well explained and illustrated at the UMN plover research site, and you can also learn more about what they’re up to with both their plover work and their studies of other waterbirds.

The recorded history of Georgia's banded Piping Plover

The UMN folks have determined that the Great Lakes Piping Plovers overwinter from North Carolina south to Texas, so now is the time for our southern Seanetters to be on the lookout for tagged and flagged birds. The plovers are also banded by other agencies and programs, like the US Fish and Wildlife Service and Bird Studies Canada, so take careful note of the bands you see, get a good photo whenever possible, and start the detective work of figuring out where your bird came from. Of course, we want to hear about your sightings too, so pass them along. And as the folks at UMN say, happy plovering!