A process post: the drudgery of wing i.d.

29 11 2012

Sometimes, in my work on the Field Guide to Beached Birds of the Southeastern United States, things proceed at an encouraging clip. And then sometimes, I find myself daunted, in the middle of a pile of pictures of severed wings on my bedroom/office floor. Today is just such a time. So, in an effort to bring you briefly into my world, I share with you this image of the situation here this morning.

The outward reflection of the inner chaos. How to classify wings?

Happy Giving Tuesday!

27 11 2012

How about this for the top of the tree? (photo: audubon.org)

Feeling drained by the orgiastic spending of Gray Thursday, Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, Something-or-Other Sunday, and Cyber Monday? Need to withdraw from the consumeristic melee? Here’s an opportunity to boost up your favorite organization (SEANET, I presume) by donating today on another day with a goofy name, Giving Tuesday. Here at SEANET, we keep our costs low by relying on our dedicated, uncomplaining volunteers to generate all of our data. But we do need support! Twenty dollars buys a couple boxes of rulers to measure wings, or a bunch of calipers for determining culmen and tarsus lengths. Fifty dollars pays for permission to use a few photos in our upcoming Field Guide to Beached Birds of the Southeastern United States. One hundred dollars gets me part of the way to a training session on Cape Cod to recruit more volunteers. Any amount helps, and we really mean it. We’re a lean, lean machine here at SEANET, and what you give matters. If you want something to wrap up and give a loved one this season, we have our ever popular SEANET t-shirts in three colors, and, for the somewhat stranger member of your family, we have the Field Guide to Beached Birds (Northeast edition). You can donate via check, or via the Tufts secure online giving form. For instructions on either, please visit our Donate page, and thank you!

I also want to offer you another option for your giving dollar. We could not do what we do here at SEANET without the support of the Wildlife Data Integration Network (WDIN) at the University of Wisconsin. Our database manager, Megan Hines, is some kind of miracle worker. And far beyond what they do for us, the WDIN has several invaluable projects going on, many of which I use daily. Their Wildlife Disease News Digest is my daily source for what’s brewing in wildlife populations all over the world. Cris Marsh and company do an incredible job of poring over a huge volume of information and distilling it for readers. As a blogger myself, I have a deep appreciation for what they do. None of what the WDINers do is cheap, so I strongly encourage you to support their very fine work this holiday season!

Happy shopping, and above all, happy giving!

Dead Bird Quiz, er…answers?

20 11 2012

‘Tis the season for American thankfulness, and I, for one, am thankful for Wouter van Gestel who always helps with the Dead Bird Quiz. Wouter and I are in full agreement on Bird B: an immature Black Skimmer. The upperwing is marbled, with a prominent white band on the secondaries. And the clincher is the all white underwing, which most immature gulls don’t show. Which brings us to the problem presented by Bird A.

Black Skimmers show white underwing even when young, and have a longer, thinner wing than their gull cousins.

Wouter picked up on the same cues I did on Bird A: gull-like wing shape, intermediate wing chord (39cm), dark gray/brown upperwing (suggesting subadult gull), but whitish underwing (somewhat confounding). The little bit of body feathering still evident here suggests that this bird’s belly/breast would have been mostly white. So this is not, evidently, a first year bird. Gulls in the years between hatching and breeding go through an oft maddening series of molts. Field guides tend to depict a sort of idealized average of the annual plumage changes, and it may be that we are dealing with an atypical bird here. The upperwing coloration said immature Herring Gull to me when I first saw it, and the wing chord supports that. But this light underwing gives me pause. Most immature gulls with a mottled gray-brown upper wing also have a darkish underwing. Wouter raised a possibility that had not occurred to me: immature Lesser Black-Backed Gull (LBBG). If you are not familiar with the challenge and the torment that is identifying gulls, check out this post on Larusology. LBBG youngsters can show more white on the underwing, and seem to acquire a white body a bit earlier than young Herring Gulls.

Dennis re-found Bird A on a subsequent walk. Here’s what it looks like in different light.

So, where do I come down on this bird? Sigh. I wish I could continue to hedge indefinitely. I am hearing the voices of my veterinary school professors in making diagnoses: “When you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras.” The Herring Gull is certainly the horse of the seabird world–common, ubiquitous, possibly the number one bird encountered by Seanetters. But LBBG are no longer the rare and exotic zebras they might once have been; sightings of them are on the rise in North America. So, since this bird does not quite match Herring Gull, and fits a bit better with Lesser Black-Backed Gull, that’s the identification I will go with, shoring up my confidence with Wouter’s input. But you can bet I won’t be checking off “very confident” in the database on this one.

DBQ answers postponed; supplanted by fish.

15 11 2012

I will not be proffering answers to the Dead Bird Quiz just yet. My reasons are twofold:

1) No one took a guess, and I really am in need of some extra sets of eyes on these specimens. So please help!

2) There is a time-sensitive matter involving management of menhaden stocks. The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission is now entertaining an amendment to the management plan for Atlantic menhaden. Menhaden have been in decline since their last population peak in the 1980s, and the ASMFC is proposing ways to address the problem. Changes in catch limits, as well as new caps on bycatch of menhaden during seasonal closures of the menhaden fishery are part of this amendment. ASMFC is a deliberative body with members drawn from Maine to Florida, so nothing better parallels our SEANET membership!

This is a menhaden.

The public comment period on this amendment closes tomorrow at 5pm, so this is your chance to have your say. The language is amendments like this one can be bewildering, and if you aren’t sure how to interpret it, or what to say in your public comment, may I be so bold as to recommend a few advocacy groups that have looked at the issue and made statements on the matter?

National Audubon provides a form letter you can submit online in support of strong final action on the amendment. If you choose to submit via this route, I encourage you to add your own thoughts to the letter as provided. I appended my strong support for the new rules, citing my professional and personal interest in sustainable prey bases for our beloved seabirds.
The Pew Environment Group’s Atlantic Menhaden Campaign also has a link to add your name to a petition in support of strong, science-based regulations on the take of this critical species.

Dead Bird Quiz: couple sets of wings edition

13 11 2012

As winter closes in, we approach the high season for dead birds. We’ve begun to see an uptick in carcasses in several locations already, so I am increasing the frequency of Dead Bird Quizzes accordingly. Thus, I give you this one.

Bird A was found in late October by Dennis Minsky in Provincetown, MA. Wing chord is reported as 39cm. Bird B was found by Paula Gillikin in Beaufort, NC at the beginning of this month. Wing chord was reportedly 36.5cm. OK, my dead bird enthusiasts, go!

Bird A: upper surface.

Bird A: underside.

Bird B: upper side.

Bird B: underside.

John Galluzzo Seanets, traverses state, does radio.

8 11 2012

John in his native habitat.



Back in August, I introduced you all to John Galluzzo. John is a totally cool guy who knows an immense amount about both the history of his native Massachusetts South Shore, as well as the native wildlife of New England. He’s an extremely prolific writer and walker, and he has recently been making the rounds talking about his new book, Half an Hour a Day Across Massachusetts. I just listened to an interview John did with radio host Mark Lynch at WICN in Worcester, MA. John and Mark have a rather wide ranging discussion that will appeal to all of you outdoorsy, bird loving readers of this blog.

John told me about a recent surprise encounter with a fellow Seanetter too. He was giving a talk in Onset, MA for the Appalachian Mountain Club about the 351 walks he took in each of the towns in Massachusetts:

“It was in the middle of my lecture – I was talking about SEANET as it fell into my 351 walks, and said, “Does anybody know about the SEANET program?” expecting blank stares and a guy in the front row raised his hand and said, “Yes, I’m a SEANETTER.” I was dumbfounded. I gave him a blank stare, then actually said, “Seriously?””

Who was that front row Seanetter? His identity is a mystery. So, if you are reading this, mystery Seanetter, let us know it was you! I find these serendipitous meetings delightful, though perhaps not surprising. Seanetters tend to be interested in the natural world, and are joiners and learners by nature. So we tend to show up at talks like John’s. Still, it’s nice to be reminded that you folks are out there; that, figuratively and literally,  Seanetters perpetually walk among us!

Checking in with the NY/NJ contingent

6 11 2012


In the wake of Superstorm Sandy, I tried to contact as many of our NJ/NYC Seanetters as possible, hoping they had fared ok. While I haven’t been able to reach everyone, almost all of our volunteers down there did surprisingly well! I lost power here in NH longer than our folks in the direct path! I was very relieved to hear that Jerry Golub, one of the closest to the worst of it, had been out of town visiting grandkids, and that his house fared just fine in their absence. Not so his SEANET beach:

The new face of Jerry’s beach in Spring Lake, NJ.

I also heard back from Frank Kenny down near Atlantic City, and Heidi Hanlon down in Cape May, as well as Ron and Jean Bourque in NYC, and all are safe and sound. I’m still hoping to hear back from a couple other people, especially as a Nor’Easter winds up out in the Atlantic and temperatures drop in the storm ravaged region. I encourage you all to donate to the recovery efforts, and keep both our Seanetters and the unconverted in your thoughts.

Dead Bird Quiz answers

1 11 2012

Thanks to Wouter, super dead-bird-identifier, for submitting answers on this quiz! Especially since Bird B is nearly skeletal and Wouter is quite an expert in seabird osteology.

Bird A presents a particular kind of challenge: the falling apart bird. What we have here is a partial head and a set of wings. It’s always possible that the parts are actually from more than one carcass and just got jumbled together. We can reserve this explanation if we can find no single species that fits both the head and wings of this carcass. So, to assess what we have: a broad, duck-like bill attached to part of a dark capped, white cheeked head. What ducks have a dark cap and a white cheek? All three of our scoter species have some degree of white cheek, but only the Black Scoter has a bill shape and profile that roughly matches the one in our Bird A. Black Scoters though tend to have something of a brownish wash to the cheek, unlike the bright white we see in Bird A.

Adult male Ruddy Duck showing some breeding blue on the bill. Clean white cheeks are evident here.

Black scoters show a less stark contrast between dark cap and white cheek.

The white cheek in male Ruddy Ducks is set off quite starkly from the dark cap. This is consistent with the coloration in our Bird A. Juvenile Ruddy Ducks and females have a much muddier look to the cheek, so we can rule those out in this case. Now, about those wings. I admit that the grayish color with faint spots of chestnut made me think of something like a night heron.  We don’t have a wing chord on Bird A since it was not found on a SEANET survey, but a night heron’s wing is almost twice the size of a Ruddy Duck’s, and, roughly speaking, the wings in the photo of Bird A seem closer to Ruddy Duck size than heron size. So, could these wings actually be a Ruddy Duck’s? While breeding male Ruddy Ducks have a reddish cast to the wing (hence the species’ name), in its non-breeding plumage, the male’s wing takes on a darker, gray or brown cast. Check out this image of a male Ruddy Duck wing from the Slater Museum and see what you think. Any other ideas for what it might be?

Bird B presents another challenge: the mostly skeletal bird. This carcass is severely weathered, and essentially no useful plumage characteristics remain. There are some useful features here that can get us quite far. The foot, at first glance, appears unwebbed with “talons” that might make one think of a raptor. On closer inspection, however, some tattered, leathery remnants of foot webs do remain, and in fact are present between all four toes. This is the hallmark of the pouchbill group of seabirds, including gannets, cormorants and pelicans.

What’s left of the fully webbed foot of Bird B.

The other feature that tells us this is a pouchbill is the arrangement of the clavicles, or collarbones. In birds, the clavicles are joined at the center in a v-shaped structure called the furcula (or “wishbone” in common parlance). In most birds, the furcula is not attached to the sternum (breastbone), but in pouchbills, it is quite firmly fused. This adaptation seems especially fitting in the gannets, which plunge dive for food from great heights. The stability provided by a fused furcula/sternum helps them withstand the force of impact with the water’s surface.
So, within the pouchbills, the most likely candidates for a bird found in Maine would be Northern Gannet and cormorant. The only measurement we have on this bird is the tarsus, reported as 50mm. This would be small even for a Double-crested Cormorant, and very small indeed for either a Great Cormorant or a Northern Gannet. I agree with Wouter on this one: cormorant is most likely, but it’s difficult to say for sure which species. Given the apparent small size, and the general rarity of Great Cormorants on SEANET beaches, I might wager a small amount of money on Double-crested. But only a small amount.