Dead Bird Quiz: rare birds edition

28 06 2012

Though not rare by most standards, today’s birds are rare within the SEANET database. One is the first of its species to be reported to us, and the other is one of only three in 6 years of walks. What do you think of these leggy two?

Bird A: Found by Maggie Komosinski in Rhode Island back in October 2010.

Bird B: Found by Rick Keup in South Carolina this week.

Endangered status considered for Black-capped Petrel

26 06 2012

Gliding toward endangered status?

In response to a petition filed by WildEarth Guardians in September of last year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) has begun a 12 month process examining the conservation status of the Black-capped Petrel. The decision, known as a 90-day finding, triggers a thorough review of existing data on the Caribbean-nesting birds, and the public is encouraged to submit documentation about the bird, its habitat, and potential threats to its survival by August 20.

In a previous post, I gave a bit of background on the life history of this secretive seabird, but there remains much that is unknown about them. Regarding threats to the species, the USFWS  writes:

“The black-capped petrel faces many potential threats to its continued existence, including human encroachment, deforestation, agricultural modification, offshore oil exploration and development, overuse from subsistence hunting, predation by introduced species, pollution, mercury bioaccumulation and inadequate regulatory mechanisms. […]  Pollution, bioaccumulation of heavy metals, and oil spills potentially threaten the existence of the petrel as researchers have noted that the species has a mercury concentration seven to nine times higher than other similar seabirds.

Additionally, impacts specific to the black-capped petrels could include changes in habitat suitability, loss of nesting burrows washed out by rain or flooding, increased petrel strandings inland during storm events, and increased risk from animal-borne disease (emphasis mine).”

These last are most certainly the domain of the Seanetter, and of our wildlife disease investigating cousins over at the Northeast Wildlife Disease Cooperative. It isn’t surprising that Seanetters have never found a beached Black-capped Petrel since they are, obviously, rare enough to be considered for endangered species status. But we do pride ourselves on being a clearinghouse for all dead seabird news, and we will contribute any information we gather on the species during this 90 day period. All members of the public can submit comments via the Federal Goverment’s ePortal, but be aware that at this point in the process, the government is looking for scientific reports, journal articles, unpublished data, photo documentation and the like. Evidence, in other words, rather than personal reflection or simple pleas for the species. These will be noted if submitted, but will not sway the decision making at this point.

We will, of course, be following this story for you, Seanetters, and welcome any input or questions you may have along the way. It should be a good civics lesson on how the Endangered Species listing process works.

Dead shearwaters on shore leave

21 06 2012

Here they come…

I am hard at work, this summer, on the Field Guide to Beached Birds of the Southeastern United States. Right now, I am immersed in, and confounded by, the seemingly endless and extensive plumages of waterfowl. So, as a break for my feeble intellect, I am turning to a subject about which I know comparatively more: the annual die-offs of Greater Shearwaters.

Right on schedule, reports are coming in now from Florida of both Greater and Cory’s Shearwaters turning up either dead or nearly so. The Brevard County News is reporting over one hundred shearwaters dead or in extremis on Florida’s Space Coast. Most of those that have been taken to wildlife clinics have not survived. The Offshore Wildlife blog reports that the birds began turning up on Florida beaches after a stretch of sustained, strong winds offshore.

This seasonal pattern is predictable, and generally involves mostly juvenile birds who seem to fail to find enough food to sustain them on their long migration north from their hatching places in the southern Atlantic. The magnitude of the die-offs does vary year to year, and early reports from Florida suggest that this may be a big one. Our new SEANET force in North Carolina should brace themselves, as they will be expected to see the carcasses over the next week or so. Here in New England, we generally don’t get shearwaters until July.

Seanetters should maintain their usual walk schedules through these events, but if you see large numbers of dead birds when you aren’t on a designated walk, or on a stretch of beach that isn’t your normal turf, please send me an email (and photos are, of course, always welcome) so we can try to get a better picture of what’s going on out there.

To all our readers, Happy Summer Solstice, and with it, Happy Shearwater Season!

Adding insult to injury

19 06 2012

Friends, I write today of one of the most revolting hazards facing Seanetters on the beaches: dog feces. I recently resumed Seanetting myself, teaming up with Dan Tracey to alternate walks at Salisbury Beach State Reservation at the mouth of the Merrimack River in Massachusetts. Dan and I each walk MA_23 once a month, so between us, we generate the golden, twice-monthly frequency that we strive for here at SEANET.

The bird (and turd) as found.

Like many of you, I walk a lovely, sandy beach popular with walkers of various stripes including many, many dog owners. I disclose here that I am not a dog person. I am a bird person. I own a coop full of chickens, three pet parrots, and I graduated veterinary school only to run a beached bird survey program. I have certainly met many charming and well behaved dogs, and I maintain that obnoxious dogs are merely an extension of their obnoxious owners. Unfortunately, these people seem to hanging out on my beach. With their dogs.

MA_23 is generally trash strewn; being at a river’s mouth, it snags both incoming ocean debris and outgoing river discharge. This is a hotspot for the Hooksett sewage disc outfall, and on any given day, you can find tens to hundreds of those little plastic grids strewn about the beach. But for all the hysteria these sewage discs caused “fecal bacteria?! In the water?!” people seem inexplicably untroubled by the presence of large quantities of dog excrement on the sand and in the surf.

Most days I just grumblingly dodge the piles dotting MA_23, but last week I was confronted with a dog feces situation that was impossible to ignore. As I approached the turnaround point on my beach, I spotted a form in the sand, and felt the familiar quickening of the heart that only a Seanetter would feel–could that dark form be a dead bird? And indeed, this one was. A subadult Herring Gull, bread and butter of the SEANET program. But as I drew closer, I saw that the mostly mummified carcass was precisely topped with a large dollop of dog poop. It seemed impossibly well placed; bizarrely so, and I eyed suspiciously the slobbering Newfie bounding away from his shifty-eyed owner.

This was the ultimate indignity. I shook the bird free of the coiled turd and arrayed it for the usual SEANET photos. As if handling maggot-ridden bird carcasses weren’t gross enough, must we now add a garnish of feces? And in the larger scheme, why is it that people feel so free to leave trash and dog poop all over the beach? I believe that people will only wish to protect the places they love. But people claim to love this beach, and yet, here we are with a bird covered in poop and plastic bottles and flip flops everywhere.

Sometimes, I despair.

14 06 2012

I would like to call this a sensible reuse of content and not simple laziness. You Seanetters will obviously know about SEANET already, but the other Citizen Science projects I write about in this post on my personal blog may be of interest to you as well. After all, if you’ll volunteer for dead seabirds, why not roadkill too?


As the Director of a volunteer based citizen science project, I have been most gratified to see the status of programs like mine rise in recent years. Data collected by average people used to be largely dismissed as unreliable junk science. Fortunately, scientists seem to be gradually relinquishing this snobbery and finding uses for projects that used to be relegated to the sidelines. My project, the Seabird Ecological Assessment Network (SEANET) is among the more rigorous programs out there, requiring regular trips to a designated beach year-round, and further requiring the handling of seabird carcasses in various phases of decomposition. We are always on the lookout for volunteers, so if you live anywhere near the Atlantic from Maine to Florida, we’ll take you.

If dead birds aren’t your thing, or if SEANET is too demanding, there are new citizen science opportunities cropping up all the time, many requiring nothing beyond…

View original post 371 more words

Beware the plover wardens!

12 06 2012

It’s Piping Plover breeding season, and the diminutive shorebirds are not alone on the beaches of the east coast; their companion species, the plover wardens, have also descended, bright orange fencing over their shoulders, variably attired in khaki vests, polo shirts bearing official logos and serious looking “just try and cross that line” expressions.

Having grown up in Massachusetts near Parker River National Wildlife Refuge on Plum Island, where most of the beach is closed entirely most of the summer, I know the rage these birds can stir in the hearts of locals. Even as I kid though, I found it satisfying that the birds got almost a whole island to themselves, without dogs, pickup trucks, or staggering drunks to stomp them. But I always felt a bit left out, watching the plover wardens patrol the boundary between the peopled beach and the plovered beach.

As a Seanetter, it becomes even worse. After all, we’re out there on the beaches in all weather, all year round, and then suddenly, our access to our turf is curtailed by those orange fences and the crossed arms of the plover wardens. It can be tempting to slip past the fencing, rationalizing that SEANET is environmental science, so we should have special privileges. But today, I write urging you to resist the temptation. No one likes being left out, but Seanetters of all people should be first to appreciate the exclusion zones.

Last month, I got an email from a Massachusetts Audubon employee on Cape Cod. She told us that some beachgoer had found a seabird wing tagged with orange cable ties and had brought it to the Audubon center. It was, of course, one of ours. No information was left on where the wing was found, or when. I was frustrated that this beachgoer had interfered with our project, and that we’d lost a data point as a result. But more than that, as a teacher I was frustrated at my inability to reach his person, to explain the purpose of the project, and what to do if he or she ever finds another bird carcass bristling with orange tags. I suspect the same is true of the plover wardens. While they often do seem to derive understandable delight in sternly warning jerk-face frisbee players away from the tiny eggs, I know that they all volunteer because they love the birds and they wish more people would too.

So, Seanetters, respect the fencing, respect the beach closures, and be kind to the plover wardens. If you spot a beached bird in an exclusion zone, I warn you officially, don’t go in after it! It’s not worth the risk to the living birds. You may find that if you contact the folks responsible for the plovers on your beach, they may permit you to pull the bird out, or they may have someone fetch it for you. Tell them I sent you. If you are a new Seanetter and you find that most or all of your beach is closed for plover or tern nesting, let me know and we’ll determine if you need a different beach.

Humans naturally close ranks around their particular tribes. We have many Seanetters who keep one foot in the SEANET tribe and one among the Plover People. We do have a lot in common with them. So keep that in mind, and keep SEANET plover friendly!

p.s.–in response to a very shrewd observation by blog visitor David Clerk, “what is one to do with a SEANET carcass found on the beach?” The answer: leave it be, and send me an email to let me know where you spotted it, when, and what, if any, number it sported on its tag. Thanks for pointing out my failure to say that in the body of this post!

SEANET Blog hits the 400 mark!

7 06 2012

Where the magic happens: coffee, NPR, Sibley and the Beached Bird Guide are all I really need.

I know this is shameless self promotion, but I’ve watched so many blogs start up, go strong for a couple weeks or months, and then fade away into oblivion. Not so, the SEANET blog! Today’s post is my 400th since I started this project in 2008. I mainly credit you, our active and engaged readership, for pushing me to post every couple days.

And now, to your thunderous applause, I will go get another cup of coffee.