Dead Bird Quiz: I’m flummoxed edition

31 08 2012

For today’s quiz, I have selected one specimen with which I am quite familiar, and a second which I find very puzzling. Both are from our active new North Carolina contingent, who are doing a bang-up job Seanetting in the tar and turpentine state.

The first bird was found just yesterday by Gilbert Grant on North Topsail Beach. It’s one of a handful of this species we’ve had reported on NC beaches in the past week or so, which is not uncommon this time of year. Gil reports that the bird was “heavily scavenged by ghost crabs, fire ants, and probably birds.” The ghost crabs were fascinating to me when I visited Becky Bartel on her SEANET beach in NC. You can watch them dragging the severed wings of birds over their burrows and stripping every last bit of flesh from the bone. Hard workers, those ghost crabs. Apparently, they are found as far north as Rhode Island. But living up here by the cold waters of the Gulf of Maine  system, ghost crabs are generally outside my  ken. Just another reason I love traveling for SEANET!

The second bird was found by Al and Suzie Buzzard on their beach near the mouth of the Cape Fear River on Bald Head Island. This one is a new one in our database, and while I have my suspicions as to an i.d., they are shaky at best. So please, please, help me out! And do share this quiz far and wide too–the more the merrier, after all!

Bird A: Found by Gilbert Grant on North Topsail Beach, NC.

Bird B (underside): Found in NC by Al and Suzie Buzzard back in May.

Bird B (upperside).

Exam results are in for global oceans

28 08 2012

A paper in Nature this month details an ambitious project to score the health of the world’s oceans with a single number. The results, ranking the health of various regions from 0-100 takes into account such measures as opportunities for small-scale family fishing endeavors, to tourism, to biodiversity. It’s a daunting idea, a synthesis of so many quite disparate   metrics from the concrete (fishing stocks) to the abstract (“sense of place”). But the result is a very approachable and readily understood score for marine waters around the world, permitting comparisons and contrasts from Indonesia to Cape Cod. Globally, the overall score is not great; the average worldwide is only 60 out of 100 points. But on a smaller, regional scale, the results vary widely.

Visual depiction of various scores. The outer black rings mark the 100 point mark. Colored bars show the scores of different nations on a number of measures. Overall score is shown in the central circles. (Jarvis Island has no human inhabitants).

High level science tends toward a ever narrower focus. As techniques grow more complex and knowledge inexorably expands, scientists must hone in on a single topic, single organism, or single molecular pathway to remain on the cutting edge. But what we gain in depth of understanding through this inevitable process can be a breadth of knowledge. Not just a single pathway, single cell, or even single species, but an understanding of how an entire ecosystem functions, and what makes it healthy or sick. Just as we need bench top science to elucidate the mechanism of a dread human disease, we also need medical practitioners who see the patient as a whole person, with physical, nutritional, psychological and social needs all requiring attention. The health of that patient is a amalgam of everything happening within and without her body. Just so is the health of an ecosystem influenced by what goes on within it and what is done to it. This new Ocean Health Index is an elegant tool to help us understand those impacts.

This ecosystem level approach has been gaining ground in recent years. No longer seen as something distinct from humanity, and valuable only for scenic vistas and meditative silences, “nature” as ecosystem is recognized as a hard working, service providing, human including unit. Ecosystems provide food, water purification, waste management and more ethereal, psychological benefits. In turn, humans have become recognized less as a foreign threat to ecosystems and more as a participating (though extraordinarily influential) member. The new view of ecosystems as holistic, and human including rather than fragmented and “other” is not only beneficial for the Earth’s future, but likely critical to it. I was listening to an old radio interview with scientist and eco-activist David Suzuki this past weekend. He said:

“Now, we know the forest, the salmon need the forest. If you clear-cut the forest, the salmon populations plummet or disappear because the salmon need the forest canopy to keep the waters cool. They need the forest to hold the soil so when it rains it doesn’t run in and spoil the spawning gravels. And the forest feeds the baby salmon on their way to the ocean. So we know the salmon needs the forest: now we know the forest needs the salmon. So you see this beautiful system where the ocean is connected through the salmon to the forest, and the birds from South America are connected to the northern hemisphere.

Humans come along, and we go ‘Oh, well uh, gee, there’s a lot of salmon here. That’s the Ministry of Fisheries and Oceans for the fishing fleet. Oh, the trees, well that’s the Ministry of Forestry. And the eagles, bears and the wolves, that’s the Ministry of the Environment. Gee, the river? – that’s managed by the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Energy. And the rocks, the mountains, that’s the Department of Mining. So, what is a single interconnected system, we come along, fragment into different bureaucracies and try to manage a complete system through this fractured way of looking at the world. And we will never do it in the right way when we look at it that way.”

We are a super-brainy species, and we will always need scientists to drill down on the details of how things work. But scientists, usually leery of overstating their cases, are at least seeing the imperative to make these broader claims. Of course, in a huge, multi-factor analysis of something as massive as “Ocean Health” there will be plenty of room to argue about techniques, statistics, methods, assumptions and a thousand other issues. But to paraphrase a professor of mine, “Arguing with a scientist is like wrestling with a pig in mud. Sooner or later, you realize, he likes it.”

Dead Bird Quiz answers

22 08 2012

I’m with Wouter on both these i.d.s, and since no one else weighed in on this quiz, we stand unchallenged. Bird A is a sassy little Gray Catbird, now lacking its sass. The key to the i.d. is the rusty red under tail coverts. I’ve been surprised by the number of small songbirds that turn up on SEANET beaches, but typically we see American Robins and sparrows. This is, I believe, our first and only catbird up to now.

Juvenile Red-tailed Hawk: as close to the pose of a dead bird on a beach as a live bird gets!

Bird B is more of a challenge, especially since it has no face. But it’s a raptor for sure. The brown stripes on the tail and wings made me think initially of an accipiter like a Sharp-shinned or Cooper’s Hawk. But both of those tend to have broader gray and brown bands on the tail, rather than the thin brown striping on our Bird B. One useful field mark on Red-tailed is the band of whitish feathers across the shoulders and back. This is not visible on our Bird B, but that seems to be more a result of its advanced state of dishevelment rather than an absolute lack. Bird B’s measurements could be helpful too, but I am currently on vacation in Maine and rocking back in forth in withdrawal from the Bible of bird measurements: Peter Pyle’s multi-volume set. So if you have one at your fingertips and want to voice your opinion, by all means!

I will return from vacation next week, and this inexcusably sluggish posting pace will be remedied!

Dead Bird Quiz: What the woo-woo edition

16 08 2012

Here it is, the latest DBQ, dubbed the “What the woo-woo?” edition (that being my five year old’s favorite expression of surprise and bewilderment.) So help a Seanetter out friends; do you know what these are?

Bird A’s overall size can be judged generally by the ruler beside it. Bird B’s measurements are given as: Culmen 35.5mm; Wing chord 90 cm; Tarsus 57mm.

Bird A: Found in North Carolina by the Frazier team in June.

Bird B: Found in Massachusetts in June (on my birthday!) by Jenn Grota.

Superstar Seanetter publishes zillionth book.

14 08 2012

You Seanetters never fail to astound me. It’s humbling to find that many, if not most of you, have several other fascinating projects, passions and commitments outside of the time you devote to our little endeavor. Indeed, I often say I want to be like you guys when I grow up. Seanetter John Galluzzo, with whom I was lucky enough to walk down in Duxbury MA last week, is just such a guy. He has written over thirty books in his not very long life, and shows no sign of stopping or even slackening his pace.

He has a new one out now, called Half an Hour a Day Across Massachusetts, chronicling his 2009 quest to walk for 30 minutes each day in all the towns and cities of the Commonwealth. Of particular narcissistic interest, John tells me SEANET makes into this volume. I’ll be reading John’s book for sure, and I hope some of you will join me so that we can hold some sort of virtual book club here in our virtual SEANET living room.

Congrats on your latest tome, John! You Seanetters make me so proud!

Results from 2011 New England harbor seal die-off

9 08 2012

Katie Pugliares and Michael O’Neil with the New England Aquarium prepare to necropsy a seal pup. (Photo: NEAQ)

A full report in the microbiology journal mBio offers fascinating details on the nature of the flu virus that killed over a hundred harbor seal pups in northern New England last year. The virus, known as H3N8, was known to circulate in waterfowl, but had never been responsible for a seal die-off before.
Now, the full analysis of the virus’ molecular strategy is out, and it offers some troubling findings. First off, a bit of a primer on flu viruses. Viruses are tiny packets of genetic material wrapped in a protein covering. While it is possible to sequence that genetic material, it’s much easier to identify viruses by the protein flags they bear on their surfaces. In flu viruses, the two proteins used are hemagglutinin and neuraminidase (The “H” and “N” designations of the various flu variants.) There are many fine divisions within a particular H/N combination, as many, many mutations are possible in many, many enzymes or other proteins. This particular H3N8 virus appears to have been passing between waterfowl since 2002, and in that time, it’s now evident that it developed some new tricks.

Genes within the virus code for the surface proteins (including H and N). (Photo: wikimediacommons)

Flu viruses don’t make the jump between species very readily. For instance, the molecular markers the viruses use to stick to the inside of the trachea and successfully infect are different between species groups. So the marker on a duck’s trachea looks very different to a flu virus than that on a seal’s trachea. One of the mutations seen in the H3N8 of last year’s seal die-off gave the virus the ability to stick to those seal tracheal markers as well as the bird ones. Since those markers are common to many different mammal species, the virus could, in theory, then be able to infect additional non-bird victims.

It’s unclear whether all of the affected seals acquired this mutated, mammal-adapted version of H3N8 independently from waterfowl, or if any of the seals might have acquired it directly from other seals. That kind of transmission makes epidemiologists very nervous.

Highly pathogenic avian flu (H5N1) can infect and kill humans, but so far all its victims have had close contact with infected poultry. The possibility that H5N1 avian flu could acquire the ability to jump from human to human would vastly widen the circle of potential victims. No longer requiring a direct link to sick chickens, the virus could hopscotch across the globe in a flu pandemic. So far, it hasn’t happened. But what we know about flu is its limitless capacity for mutation and shape-shifting, and the unpredictable results when different flu strains mix in a single organism. These harbor seals, we now see, are capable of serving as just such a mixing bowl, infected with both avian and mammalian flu strains.

As with highly pathogenic avian flu, even if H3N8 were demonstrated to be able to infect humans, it would likely require several additional steps before the virus acquired the ability to jump from human to human. And the limited contact between seals and humans would offer some degree of a viral buffer zone. Still yet another reason to keep your (and your dog’s) distance from seals. As if the risk of shark bite weren’t sufficient.

On the beach in Duxbury

7 08 2012

If I lived here, I’d SEANET here.

I’m just getting back from the beautiful beach in Duxbury, MA (known colloquially as Deluxebury). Indeed, the beach is top-notch, just like the local real estate. John Galluzzo of Mass Audubon fame (and I do mean fame; the man has written 36 books!) hosted me for a SEANET training and beach walk this morning. The group was small, but very engaged and interested (or very gifted flatterers) and after a little spiel, we walked down the sheltered cobble beach facing Duxbury Bay, and then around the broad, sandy, ocean facing beach. Piping Plovers breed here, and the bayside is, John tells me, a hotspot for Horseshoe Crabs. The evidence was all over, including several gigantic dead female crabs the size of dinner plates.

Most days, I like my job. But days like this, I love it. Walking a stunning beach with interesting people, having my lunch at the edge of a salt marsh–when one’s work looks to the outside exactly like one’s vacation, there’s no space left for complaint. Hopefully we’ll get a new Seanetter or two out of today’s gig, but even if not, I’m certainly open to another trip down to Massachusetts’ South Shore anytime.

Everybody’s gone surfing…including distantly related taxonomic groups.

2 08 2012

Since I’m still coming down off my fabulous seaside vacation, my mind is still wandering to thoughts of frolicsome surf sports. And I’m clearly not the only one. Seal numbers are up on Cape Cod, and just about every time I paddled out with my body board, the long, horse-like face of a gray seal would surface next to me. This is slightly unnerving, since seals are also what has been drawing great white sharks to the Cape’s waters, but I emerged each time with all limbs intact. And seals aren’t the only ones hanging out in the breakers; dolphins rather commonly come in close to shore, sometimes for food, and sometimes even hydroplaning up onto the beach after fish. But often, the marine mammals seem to be simply enjoying themselves, right alongside us, their clumsy terrestrial cousins. This videofrom last year shows a teenage boy wake surfing alongside a dolphin that seemed to be recreating right alongside the adolescent human.

Mullets near the beach. Photo by Martin Vanoy.

Mullet at the beach.

Martin Vanoy, our crack photographer who walks his SEANET beach in Florida, sent me this photo of mullets (the fish, not the unfortunate hairstyle of the same name) in the surf. I can always count on Martin to share gorgeous shots that evoke a strong sense of his place down there in Florida. Martin also wrote to tell me that the one-legged Great Blue Heron nicknamed (naturally) Stumpy has disappeared after frequenting his beach for years. RIP, Stumpy. We will honor your legacy of hope and perseverance in the face of challenges.