Breakneck tour of Cape Cod ends with exhaustion for Courchesnes.

29 07 2012

I’m sure all of you have been wringing your hands and rocking back and forth wondering where the SEANET blog went last week. It was inconsiderate of me to take off and leave not a note, not a word of explanation, but we had places to go and beaches to see.

My kids seeking calico crabs on the tide flats.

My family and I blissfully joined the hordes of dopey tourists aggravating those of you who actually live on the Cape. We made a very fine investment in a Cape Cod National Seashore season pass, and then embarked on a berserk, headlong expedition exploring as much of the Seashore as we possibly could in a week. Based at our beloved Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary and our tent at their utterly perfect campground, we hiked, ran, swam and got dumped off the back of waves at a total of eight beaches. Six of these were SEANET beaches, including First Encounter (WB_04), Coast Guard (WB_07), Coast Guard/Nauset Spit (WB_10), Herring Cove (WB_39), Great Island (MA_21), and Duck Harbor (WB_13). Plus Race Point in Provincetown, and Marconi Beach in Wellfleet. Holy guacamole.

The Wellfleet mascot: a mummified eider.

I could not help but feel fortunate to head a program studying the goings-on at such places as these. I wore my SEANET t-shirt to go people-watching in Provincetown, and I even found a dead eider (surprise, surprise) up in The Gut at Wellfleet Bay. Seems my work follows me wherever I go. Or maybe I follow it. But when a job involves some of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been, and a volunteer force of some of the coolest people I know, it’s hard not to mix business and pleasure. Sometimes, it’s even hard for me to tell the difference.

Scouring the web for seabird news!

19 07 2012

I know you count on the SEANET blog to keep a finger on the pulse of all things seabird. Because I bear this mantle of responsibility so solemnly, I spend a lot of time perusing twitter, Facebook, blogs, and all sorts of other sources to keep you informed. Today, I couldn’t choose between two fascinating seabird stories, so you get a bonus, two-for-one deal!

The first story: Male Gannets are from Mars, Female Gannets are from…somewhat farther away?

Don’t worry, honey, I’ll fly to the store. Halfway across the world. Again.

A new study out this month in Marine Ecology Progress Series investigated sex-specific differences in foraging in Northern Gannets. The researchers utilized both satellite tags (to track a small number of birds) and analysis of blood and feather samples which can reveal what sort of prey the birds have eating, and where they caught it. During the chick-rearing season, they found that hard working gannet moms were traveling substantially farther afield than gannet dads in order to provision the chicks. Once the babies had fledged, the differences disappeared and males and females traveled similar distances to forage. No differences were seen in males and females of less than breeding age, suggesting that providing food to the young is the driver for longer trips, rather than inherent sex differences. Whether females not rearing chicks make longer trips as well is generally difficult to assess since it’s nearly impossible to catch a gannet when it’s not on a nest.

This study is not the first to detect sex differences in foraging distances or strategies; such findings are rather common in the bird literature. But these findings are important. In any scientific study, one of the first questions in study design is “what constitutes a representative population?” What subset of animals will best reflect the reality of the larger group? In this case, it’s clear that males and females must be considered separately, for instance, when governments are debating how to define the boundaries of a marine reserve. A reserve drawn up to meet the foraging needs of male gannets will clearly be inadequate to protect the foraging waters of females with young. And that would be a critical population to target for protection, after all.

The second story: The scent of romance…or incest avoidance?

That smell…it’s captivating…so…distantly related.

Storm Petrels are the bloodhounds of the seabird world. While many birds have a rather underdeveloped sense of olfaction, the diminutive storm petrels track their preferred food source largely by smell, and can even be lured alongside birdwatching cruises from great distances by tossing an oily fish slurry onto the surface of the water. So it probably shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that the birds also use smell to choose a mate. The study, just out in Animal Behaviour, used swabs taken from European storm petrels and presented birds with the scent of a close relative, and an unrelated individual, each smelly swab being placed at one end of a Y shaped maze. Reliably, the birds steered clear of the scent of a relative, and chose the route to the exotic smell of an unrelated bird. This kind of inbreeding avoidance is particularly critical in a population where birds come back to nest in the same colony where they hatched, and where mating is generally for life; chances are, your sister or brother is at the colony looking to breed at the same time, and the wrong choice will lead to a lifetime of inbred offspring.

Studies have shown the same smell preference for unrelated individuals in mammals, including humans. Turns out, our sweat reflects the composition of MHC molecules on our cells. These markers are the tiny flags that allow the body to recognize its own cells and attack foreign ones. The more distantly related the individuals, the more likely their MHC molecules are to differ. MHC is one of the markers used to match organ donors with recipients, in fact. Not a surprise to this readership, I’m sure, that we share much in common with a musky-smelling, diminutive seabird.

Good fences make good neighbors, if your neighbor is a rat.

17 07 2012

“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” opens the Robert Frost poem “Mending Wall.” And I suspect that, aside from the poetic longing for human connection, the “something” may actually be introduced rodents on seabird breeding islands. Ever since the sea-going Polynesians unwittingly scattered rats all over the tiny islands of the remote Pacific, ground-nesting seabirds have hit by wave after wave of human-induced damage. After the Polynesians came Europeans with cats and dogs, and more rats. Then the Americans fortified many Pacific islands in response to the looming Japanese threat in the 1940s, and along came, yes, more rats. The population of Bonin Petrels, for instance, dropped from 500,000 down to only 5,000 after 1940 when the Americans arrived on Midway Atoll with their rats. The rodents make easy meals of the helpless, blobby seabird chicks, and BirdLife International reports that 75% of threatened, ocean-dwelling seabirds are affected by invasive nest-predators.

Ka-ena Point, Oahu: A nice place to be a Laysan albatross. Bad place to be a rat.

On small islands, it’s sometimes possible to exterminate the entire rodent population and restore the ecosystem to its prehistoric, seabird friendly state. But on a big island, say Oahu, for instance, total eradication just isn’t feasible. Enter a relatively simple and apparently very successful solution: a big, sturdy fence. On Ka’ena Point at the western end of Oahu, scientists exterminated all the rodents within the fenced area, and so far, it seems to be working, keeping even little baby mice from passing through.

A husband and wife team of biologists continue to monitor the population, and are hopeful for its continued success. The location of Ka’ena Point, only 30 miles from Honolulu, also provides unparalleled opportunities for people to observe the albatross colony and its comical denizens.

With the bewildering daily increase in scientific technical complexity, molecular pathways and sterile bench top cell cultures, ecology remains perhaps my favorite discipline, where sometimes, the solution is as simple as a really good fence across the rocks.

Photographers needed, both north and south

12 07 2012

Live here in New England, or planning to cavort along our shores this summer? Then have I got a photo contest for you! The Conservation Law Foundation┬áhas partnered with photojournalist Brian Skerry in the New England Ocean Odyssey, a five year program of dives in both coastal and deep water habitats. Brian will be bringing back photos of his undersea travels; the first dispatch from the deep came from Cashes Ledge out in the Gulf of Maine. A half a dozen more dives are in the works, but Brian’s not the only one contributing pictures of New England’s marine treasures; now you can too! If you will be in, on or along the Atlantic anywhere in New England, all you need is a Fickr account and a camera to submit your images to the Ocean Odyssey Photo Contest.

Some of the photos already submitted for this month’s contest.

A winner will be selected each month, so you’ll have plenty of chances to win a signed copy of Brian’s beautiful book Ocean Soul.

Not in New England and don’t intend to be? We still have need of your photos. As I continue working on the Field Guide to Beached Birds of the Southeastern United States, I have compiled a list of the birds of which I still need to find photographs. The species required are listed on this goofball poster I put together. So, if you have any photos like this, or know someone who might (biologists, hunters, zookeepers, veterinarians, wildlife rehabbers, butchers, bakers, candlestick-makers…) please help me spread the word! Some of these rarities will be challenging to find, and I need all the help I can get!

The things I do for SEANET

10 07 2012

My roadside find: a dead grebe.

I am a runner, and while running is definitely good exercise, and good meditation, and good travel through the local habitats, I had never before thought of it as a good source of dead waterbirds. But on an evening run the other day, as I trotted past a local farm and the onlooking goats, I spied an unfamiliar dead bird on the gravel shoulder. Roadkill is not unusual, for sure, and my brain initially dismissed the bird as yet another dead pigeon. Something didn’t seem right about it though, and as I passed by, I saw the gray bill with the prominent, vertical black stripe. “Whoa!” I yelled to no one in particular, or to the goats, and skidded to a stop. “A pied-billed grebe,” I muttered to the goats. And indeed it was. I stashed the carcass under a shrub, hoping the farm dog wouldn’t find it, and continued on the outbound leg of my run. On the way back, I retrieved the bird and carried it by its lobed feet, its head lolling by my knee as I ran the remaining 3/4 of a mile back to my house.

This is not the first time I have carried a dead bird whilst running; I once cradled a lovely scarlet tanager corpse for a full 3 miles back home. But this grebe seemed dropped very nearly in my lap by divine providence, for this is one of the species whose photos I still lack for the Field Guide to Beached Birds of the Southeastern United States. I jogged up the slope to my house and yelled to my husband to grab my camera. He is totally unfazed by my habit of running home with dead animals, so he obliged, and I took the photos on my back stoop in the fading light. The bird had not been well preserved in the recent heat, and was unsuitable for taxidermy. I tossed the carcass in the woods, and by morning, it was gone, making a good meal for something that haunts our neighboring swamp.

I went to sleep happy that night.


Update on beach alterations in Rhode Island

5 07 2012

The surf scoured shoreline along Matunuck Beach Road. (Photo

Back in May, I wrote about a battle underway in South Kingstown, RI regarding the fate of Matunuck Beach. Coastal erosion has been threatening buildings, a road along the beachfront, and a water supply pipe to a cluster of homes and businesses. Initially, at the end of April, the Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC) voted down a request to reclassify the shore as man-made, which would have opened up the beach to various reinforcement and construction projects. But, under pressure from town officials in South Kingstown, the CRMC appears to have reversed course and approved plans to build a retaining wall along Matunuck Beach Road.

Last week, the project leapt a big hurdle when the U.S. House of Representatives approved the Surface Transportation Extension Act, which includes $1.6 million for Matunuck Beach Road stabilization. Environmentalists and beach goers have been opposed to the project because of the fundamental and largely irreversible alteration it will make to this beautiful bit of shoreline.

It seems unlikely that even the very best wall will solve this problem permanently. The ocean generally wins, even in the face of the cleverest human engineering. And with the Northeast being a hotspot for climate change related sea level rise, even the best laid plans of R.I. may well be underwater within a human lifetime.

Dead Bird Quiz answers

3 07 2012

The business end of an American Coot.

OK, Bird A didn’t fool anyone; both Molly and Wouter wrote in saying American Coot. Yep, that’s the one. The giveaway is in the feet. Each toe on our Bird A has several, well-demarcated lobes. This is distinct from grebes, which bear a single large lobe on each toe.

Grebes also have comical, though different, feet.

Bird B is superficially similar to the Coot, but the two are actually assigned to separate genera. Molly guessed Common Moorhen, and Wouter said Purple Gallinule, and indeed, those two species were the two that we were batting about in the SEANET office. I came down on the side of Wouter and Purple Gallinule. Here’s why:

Bird B has a two-toned bill–red with a yellow tip. This could mark it as either a moorhen or a gallinule. So we must go beyond that. Bird B is soaking wet, which notoriously darkens plumage, but there is still some iridescent green and purple evident over the neck and back, which leads us away from the duller-feathered moorhen. Finally, the legs are bright yellow, rather than the dull yellow of a moorhen’s legs.

Adult purple gallinule: understated? No. Fabulous? Decidedly yes.

We don’t see any of these three species often in the SEANET database, and they aren’t actually seabirds, which should place them beyond our purview. But who can resist a bird that looks something like a swimming chicken?