More on eider movements

27 09 2012

A brief addition to Tuesday’s post: Josh has provided a link to this video that explains a bit more about the nature of the eider study. Unfortunately, Josh himself is not featured here, but the faculty members he works with give a good overview of the reasons for the study and how it’s done. And of course, the seaside footage is gorgeous! Even at 3am, and in the bitter cold, not a bad place to work.


Rhode Island grad student tracking Common Eider movements

25 09 2012

Satellite tagged Common Eider contemplates her next move. (Photo: J. Beuth)

Josh Beuth, a Master’s candidate at the University of Rhode Island is working with the RI Department of Environmental Management, Division of Fish and Wildlife to study the body condition, movement ecology and habitat usage of Common Eiders during winter.  During November/December 2011, 26 adult female eider were implanted with satellite transmitters.  These birds spent the winter in southern New England before traveling to Maine, Nova Scotia, Quebec and Newfoundland for the spring and summer.  On September 3rd, the first of the eiders returned to the Rhode Island wintering grounds after spending her summer in the St. Lawrence Estuary.

A seaduck’s progress: tracking data for one of the early arrivals back to the RI wintering waters. (Click map to enlarge)

Josh provided us with a map tracking her movements, and we’re excited to see the beginnings of a full annual cycle of data on the movements of these birds. Whenever we give a presentation on the annual eider die-offs on Cape Cod, we get numerous questions about where the birds may be congregating during the summer, and where they might be contracting diseases. The sort of tracking data Josh is collecting is just what we’ve been looking for, and we’ll be watching with interest as additional tagged birds make their way down to southern New England for the winter months.

Thanks to Josh for sharing his research with us, and we look forward to seeing more!

Where the sea meets the sky: government agencies formalize collaboration

20 09 2012

Unaware of the oversight of two different agencies, these seabirds forage perilously close to a fishing vessel.

We have a tendency to think of our federal government as a monolithic force with a consistent, and very general, federal perspective on things. As one delves into the day to day activities of particular government agencies, it becomes rapidly clear how distinct, separate, and sometimes even isolated they are from each other. In our experience with SEANET, we have worked most closely with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), followed rather closely by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), specifically their National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). The list of acronyms grows ever more dizzying, as we have had occasion to interact with The USDA and their Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) and within that, their Wildlife Services (WS) division. When we work on a disease outbreak with the federal government, it’s (strangely) through the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). A project like ours tends to cross the boundaries between these agencies on a daily, sometimes hourly basis, so it can be a challenge to remember that they do not, necessarily, keep in close contact with each other. This is not a criticism: these so-called “siloed” agencies each have their own mandates and areas of focus. With so much information and so many resources to manage, we require specialized agencies to keep on top of it all. In fact, we revere specialized knowledge and expertise in our daily lives; smart as a rocket scientist may be, I’d prefer she not deliver my baby or represent me in a court of law.

So given the need for specialization and a somewhat narrow focus, the question is, how can these agencies ensure communication and collaboration when their mandates and purviews do overlap? Two such parties, the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service have now issued a formal Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), outlining their shared and divergent interests, the need for increased information sharing, and greater cooperation. The MOU, at its most basic level, says formally, “We will speak to each other.” But by putting this into writing, the relationship between the two agencies is publicly and officially declared. The MOU also gets into a great deal of specifics, and is focused particularly on seabird/fisheries interactions. With one agency (FWS) overseeing the well-being of aerial seabirds, and another (NMFS) the stewardship of marine resources below the waves, it has been difficult to effectively address the threats to either that occur at the interface between the two. Policies that end at the water’s surface will never be sufficient for either side.

Seabirds forage near fishing vessels and get fatally entangled in fishing gear. Endangered fish stocks may face additional pressures from growing populations of Great Black-backed or Herring Gulls. The interconnectedness and complexity of even a relatively simple food web defies the siloed nature of our agencies. FWS and NMFS have recognized the need to bridge the gap in order to maintain sustainable fisheries and protect seabird populations.

We at SEANET applaud this MOU, and as an independent, University-based program, welcome the formalization of a relationship between two of our most important government partners. From use of our Beached Bird Field Guides by NMFS Fisheries Observers, to SEANET volunteers documenting seabird entanglements in gillnets, our program fully inhabits the spaces between the groups and we fully appreciate the need for close collaboration.

We hope to both contribute to, and reinforce this newly stated bond between two agencies working hard to defend and understand the wide range of organisms inhabiting our marine environment.

I love coastal Connecticut!

17 09 2012

I spent a lovely day in picturesque and historic Branford.

The past couple weeks have been a chaos of obligations, tasks and chores. I started up my teaching job again, and yet SEANET demands are unrelenting. I was feeling rather overwhelmed by my schedule, which included, last week, a 3 hour drive down to Connecticut to do a talk for the Menunkatuck Audubon. As expected though, this dynamic and dedicated group reinvigorated my love for SEANET. Menunkatuck is a volunteer run chapter of National Audubon, and does not run out of a center, but is coordinated out of the various homes and offices of its remarkable members. They have generously provided me with a stipend for my travel both times I have come down to present to their group, something we do not require, but which is unspeakably welcome to our tiny organization. Thanks to Cindi Kobak for inviting me, to Dennis Riordan for aiding me out of my A/V flailings, and to the chapter’s President, Suzanne Botta. Additional thanks to the staff of the lovely Branford Public Library for use of their distinguished and dignified space.

The view from one of Branford’s tiny beaches, flanked by unwalkable rock faces. A challenge for a Seanetter, certainly.

Menunkatuck volunteers already monitor amphibians, horseshoe crabs, and birds (of course) and yet were most enthusiastic about contributing to SEANET. We discussed the particular challenges of this area of the CT coast, where beaches are very short and isolated one from the next by jetties, or seawalls, or impassable rocky segments. This drove home for me the need to work with people who have intimate, local knowledge of coastal conditions so that we might best modify our procedures where it is warranted. Our plan is to coordinate a series of small beaches into a critical mass of data. I will head down to the area again in Spring to meet up with new recruits and explore the beaches in person. I can’t wait–Menunkatuck always gets out a good crowd, and they like to buy the Beached Bird Field Guides and SEANET t-shirts too–an added bonus!

Volunteer Profile: Jerry Golub

11 09 2012

Intrepid explorers Carol and Jerry Golub suited up for an Icelandic excursion.

Jerry Golub has been a Seanetter for nearly eight years, posting walks from his beach in New Jersey since 2004. When skeptics of the citizen science approach doubt that volunteers have the tenacity needed to stick to a long-term, baseline project like SEANET, Jerry is one of the very first people who comes to my mind. I rarely get to see many Seanetters in person, and Jerry is no exception. But his email correspondence is always so warm and open that I thought I should introduce him to all you fellow Seanetters, if only via this digital medium. Jerry kindly obliged my request for a bit of autobiography, and while he describes it as “more than you needed to know,” I beg to differ. I have included his message in its entirety, even his deeply wounding dig at the Red Sox. But my allegiance to SEANET rises even above my lifelong New Englander’s dedication to lost athletic causes. And so, I give you Jerry, in his own words:

“I volunteered for SeaNet surveys because I felt it was a contradiction to use excessive gasoline for birding, and the surveys make me feel I m doing something worthwhile with my gasoline.  Excessive is relative and I don’t mean to impugn birders who drive to increase their life, year, state or whatever lists.  Sometimes I feel I should do more of it.
In addition to my activity for SeaNet I also volunteer for a few NJ Audubon Society projects.  Twice/year I conduct Grassland Bird Surveys on 5 plots in NW NJ.  This has given me an opportunity to see Bobolink, Grasshopper Sparrow & Meadowlark which I probably wouldn’t see otherwise (but I once saw a migrating flock of Bobolinks in FL.).
It is time for my first Heron Survey in NJ Meadowlands where I have occasionally seen dead birds  which I irresistibly must photograph.  However, I am looking for live herons & egrets to assess success of local breeding.  When there was more $$$$, I also recorded the birds’ foraging  success.
I also do shorebird surveys in spring & fall @NJ Meadowlands, but have been disappointed by seeing virtually nothing besides yellowlegs & peeps.
Of course I bird more extensively in spring & fall and to conserve fuel, I usually go to a spot~2.5 miles from home.  I was “secretly” glad it has been inaccessible most of this spring for renovations that should improve my experience there, because I have less guiltily traveled to Garret Mt., a renowned migrant trap which is ~12 miles from home.

Young Black-legged Kittiwakes at their cliffside nests in Iceland were among the birds Jerry sighted.

Despite the preceding, birding and avian volunteering does not dominate my life.  Living close to NYC, Carol (my wife of 49 years next week!) go to Broadway Shows and the Metropolitan Opera and museums several times a year.  While I can recognize virtually no music from any opera, we always enjoy the productions.

While this is probably anathema to SeaNet’s mostly Massachusetts based constituency, I am an avid NYY fan, and go to a few games a year, even  postseason games last year.  Do you know what the postseason is?  Just kidding!  However, I am astonished by the anti-NYY feelings in the greater Boston area extending to NH where at a luncheonette a few years ago we encountered a “Parking for anyone but Yankee Fans”  sign and baseball card and pennant displays with all teams but NYY!

While Carol and I don’t revere travel like some retirees, we do like to go to interesting places, and in July we went to Iceland for a week.  Surprisingly many of our friends ask, “Why?”.  Most of our travel is to Baltimore where until 4 May there was only Zack, our 8 year old grandson (in addition to son & daughter-in-law of course.).  Eli and Samantha were born then and we have been there a lot more than before.  From the NICU to home took ~4 weeks, but they are growing rapidly.
Our other major travel destination is Melbourne Beach, FL where our older son lives among the nesting sea turtles.  Other time is spent volunteering for and attending services at our synagogue.

As the saying goes, “you probably know more than you needed!”, but I’m just trying to be compliant.”

Pictures like this make me want to go to Iceland too.

You can check out all of Jerry’s photos from the Icelandic adventure here. It was an Atlantic seabird bonanza, clearly. Also check out the photos of signage describing the mythical “Hot Spring Bird.”

For your compliance in all things SEANET, for your dedication, for your knowledge and passion for birds, I thank you, Jerry! I won’t deny my fascination with dead seabirds, but it’s people like Jerry who make this job worthwhile. Here’s to another eight years of Seanetting!

Events upcoming for this Seanetter!

6 09 2012

I’m getting excited about a couple of items coming up on my calendar. On Saturday, September 8, the Master of Conservation Medicine students at Tufts will present their case studies. One student, Katie Montgomery, chose beached bird surveys as her subject matter, and we were very pleased to share our own data with her. I look forward to hearing from all of these talented Master’s students, to whom I had the privilege to speak some months ago, but in particular to what Katie has to say.

Next week, on September 12 at 7:30pm, I will be at Branford, Connecticut’s Blackstone Library to give the SEANET dog and pony show. The talk is sponsored by the Menunkatuck Audubon Society, who drummed up a whole room full of attendees last time I trekked down there. The group was engaged and enthusiastic, and I am so pleased to have been asked back again. So if you know anyone in the greater New Haven area who might have a secret interest in dead birds, please do spread the word!

Dead Bird Quiz answers

4 09 2012

Bird A, not surprisingly, fooled no one. This intact carcass was a Greater Shearwater. Though it’s just about impossible to tell without dissecting the bird, if I had to guess, I’d bet it’s a juvenile. This summer, we had 14 dead shearwaters turn up on SEANET beaches in North Carolina and Georgia. Interestingly, we had only reported up north. We did get informal reports through the grapevine of some dead shearwaters floating off the oceanside of Cape Cod, but none of those chanced to wash up where Seanetters might find them. The shearwater die-off is a seasonal phenomenon, generally involving the young of the year birds unable to make the grueling northward migration from their hatching grounds way way down in the south Atlantic. I also posted this particular bird in honor of Katie Haman, veterinarian and now PhD student, who just had an article on Greater Shearwater mortalities accepted to the Journal of Wildlife Disease. SEANET data was included in that paper, and I will provide you with a link once it’s published.

Clapper Rail. A dark back, and just a bit of a reddish tinge to the breast

King Rail showing the rufous wing patches that distinguish it from the Clapper Rail. The breast and cheek (when head is present) are also quite reddish in this species.




As for Bird B, I am grateful for the unusual number of responses we got on this one, because I really did need the help. All of our contestants identified Bird B as a Rail, but then discussion ensued as to whether the bird was a Clapper or a King Rail. Lacking a head, this bird can only be identified based on leg color and plumage characteristics. The upper wings and back of Bird B appear rather drab overall (they may appear darker than normal since dead birds are rather often wet, sand-caked and disheveled.) This overall drab color, with no reddish patches on the upper wing argues for Clapper Rail. And on the underside of the bird, we see a pale brownish breast with barring on the belly and flanks. Adult King Rails usually have a rich orange breast sharply contrasting with strikingly barred flanks. Our Bird B is much more subtle than that, and while its orange-ish breast is rather more vibrant than Atlantic region Clapper Rails usually are, Bird B still appears to fit that species better. There is always the tantalizing possibility that is an Atlantic coast Clapper Rail/King Rail hybrid, which Sibley reports is rather common. The result would look rather similar the more orange-ish breasted Gulf Coast population of Clapper Rails, but Sibley cautions that these hybrids would be nearly impossible to detect visually, given the overlap between male Clappers and female Kings.