Dead Bird Quiz: 99% intact birds edition

29 03 2013

After a series of very challenging, mangled up specimens on the DBQ, here are two intact birds that are interesting by virtue of not being particularly commonly found on SEANET beaches. So what are they, Seanetters?

Bird A: Found by Gilbert Grant in N.C. on March 11.

Bird A: Found by Gilbert Grant in N.C. on March 11.

Bird B: Found by Diana Gaumond on Cape Cod this week.

Bird B: Found by Diana Gaumond on Cape Cod this week.

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Puffins dying in the UK too

27 03 2013

Thanks to Dennis Riordan down in Connecticut for tipping me off to a story out of Scotland where hundreds of puffins have been washing up on the beaches. Professor Mike Harris, writing on the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology Science News blog reports that this puffin die-off will easily be the worst in 60 years. Tallies of the dead birds along the east coast of Scotland are running to the hundreds and could approach thousands before the counting is done.

Beached puffin found by the Hequembourgs on Cape Cod in February.

Beached puffin found by the Hequembourgs on Cape Cod in February.

The problem seems partly to be timing; the puffins are making their way back to the breeding colonies at this time of year, coming in closer to shore than they do during winter. This means that they are more likely to wash up on beaches when they die than during times of the year when they are far offshore. Razorbills have been found dead in large numbers on our own coasts and in Europe this year, but this is less unusual precisely because that species normally winters closer to shore. Only a handful of the sea-faring puffins are found dead in a typical year on each side of the Atlantic, but how much of the actual mortality that reflects if the birds usually sink far off at sea is unclear.

We are beginning post-mortem exams here in the states on almost 50 puffins collected from New England’s coastline, and our counterparts in Scotland are doing the same. So far, it looks like most of the dead in the UK are young birds that appear to have starved during this difficult winter. If that pattern holds, the breeding population may not be as severely impacted as it would be if most of the affected birds were breeding adults. We will see what age and sex patterns emerge from both sides of the Atlantic, and we will follow Professor Harris’ work with interest from here on out.





In advance of publication…

22 03 2013

Writer Teresa Carey emailed this week to say that her article “Citizen Oceanographer,” in which SEANET is featured, will be appearing in an upcoming issue of Bluewater Sailing Magazine. When Teresa was working on the article, she sent a few questions for our volunteers to answer, and since she couldn’t fit everyone in, I thought this an opportune time to share the answers given by Ray Bosse, one of our dearest and longest-serving Seanetters. I have included photos of two of his non-seabird finds, though for the life of me, I cannot find the picture of the beached pig. A great disappointment.

Presumptive seal spine

Presumptive seal spine

Here are the queries and his replies:

Q.    How can participating in data collection with SeaNet enrich the volunteer’s experience of the ocean?
A.    It has opened my eyes to a whole world I didn’t know existed. I very much enjoy being around or on the water but until I joined SEANet I had no idea how many seabirds were around me. Enjoying their beauty and learning how to identify them has been a great experience.

Q.    Why is it important to you to study the coast and seabirds? Why do you love it?
A.    Being an avid sailor and receiving much enjoyment from the ocean I feel like this is a way to give back by helping to protect something that is so important to us all and such a large part of what I enjoy in life.

Q.    Has the data you’ve been collecting ever been surprising?
A.    Several years back while surveying Gooseberry Island I witnessed extremely large flotillas of Common eider. Best estimate would be over 1000 birds. This only occurred a few times and have not seen anything like it since.

Q.    What has been a highlight of your experience with SeaNet?
A.    First time I witnessed a Snowy Owl!

Q.    Please tell me of a significant moment (either funny, surprising, or informative) that you experienced during data collection.
A.    Beached pig. I have a knack for finding odd things other than dead seabirds …..  and the aformentioned pig. Seals, alive and dead. Dolphin, aids to navigation.

Q.    Please tell me your name and role in the organization.
A.    Ray Bosse, long time SEANet volunteer. Currently survey Cherry and Webb section of Horseneck Beach (LC-03a) and Gooseberry Island (LC-03b). Both are in Westport MA.

Dead dolphin

Dead dolphin





Dead Bird Quiz answers: geeked out for skeletal anatomy!

18 03 2013

You know you’re a little too into dead seabirds when it’s easier to identify an inside out skin bag of partial seabird bits than it is to identify a completely intact hawk. But so it is.

Bird A had most people thinking alcid of some kind. Murre or Razorbill, particularly. Or, as a colleague of mine suggested in an email: “the rare and elusive pygmy pelican.” As you can see, I am well suited to that job, with such colleagues.

Bird A's leg labeled as I have interpreted it.

Bird A’s leg labeled as I have interpreted it.

I thought alcid was a possibility initially as well, but some things were nagging at me. The wing chord is rather small, approximately 15cm, whereas RAZOs and murres are usually in the 19-22cm range. The dark wing with clean, unmarked white underwing does fit Razorbill particularly well, so that i.d. is tempting. In thinking about this bird, I focused a bit more on the hind end. The body is inside out, but the general shape in very boxy and appears compressed. The legs have been turned inside out and the feet are not evident. At first glance, it looks like the feet have been severed from the legs, but I would argue that the feet are probably tucked inside the skin, and the leg bones pointing up to the top of the frame are actually the femur (thigh bone) and “shin bone” (tibiotarsus). The end of the femur that once formed the hip is now dangling free up near the top of the image. That means the femur itself is very short and curved, and the tibiotarsus is quite long. It also appears to have a projection that extends up above the knee joint. This looks to me like a cnemial process–a jutting lever of bone where the strong thigh muscles attach. All of these are the marks of foot propelled divers, and the cnemial process is especially pronounced in loons. Alcids, on the other hand, propel themselves mainly by flapping their wings underwater and don’t need such specialized knee apparatus. Bird A is too small to be a loon, which made me think it may be a grebe. I know I have grebes on the brain, but I really can’t find another way around that  that leg anatomy, if I am oriented correctly in my interpretation. Based on the size, and the amount of white in the underwing, I would venture to say that the bird is a Horned Grebe.

Image from a 1982 paper comparing tibiotarsi (shin bones) of an extinct diving bird (A), a loon (B) and a grebe (C). The spear-like structures pointing up are cnemial processes of the tibiotarsi.

Image from a 1982 paper comparing tibiotarsi (shin bones) of an extinct diving bird (A), a loon (B) and a grebe (C). The spear-like structures pointing up are cnemial processes of the tibiotarsi.

Bird B generated a strong consensus, thankfully, since I am woefully inept at non-seabird i.d. Though Cooper’s Hawk was also a common response, most of you concur that this bird is a Red-shouldered Hawk. And Lori Benson herself, who found the bird, identified it as the same. As a rank amateur, I cam glad this bird bears some clear identifying signs that I can compare with my Sibley guide. The red “shoulders” are evident on this bird, and the striking wide black bands on the tail interspersed with thinner white bands appear, to me, to mark this bird as an adult.





Dead Bird Quiz: Lori Benson edition!

13 03 2013

I’m probably embarrassing poor Lori, but who wouldn’t want to be publicly associated with dead birds and their quizzes?

Bird A, found by Lori Benson in Massachusetts this month.

Bird A, found by Lori Benson in Massachusetts this month.

Lori is a Seanetter along Buzzard’s Bay in Massachusetts, and she has had a couple interesting finds this past few weeks. The first, Bird A, is twisted around, mangled, footless and inside out. Wing chord, the only measurable parameter here, was somewhere in the neighborhood of 15cm. So this is a small bird. It’s difficult to orient oneself, but as far as I can tell, the footless, skeletal legs are off to the left, and the neck (with skin inside out) is coming up off the body in the center of the picture. Feature of note: that clean white underwing catches my eye. This one is a real challenge, and I don’t really have a good answer yet, so fling your wildest guesses this way. I suspect there’s a species or two I’m not considering that this one must be. I do have some suspicions, based on the structure of what I take to be the legs, but this is a doozy!

Bird B is one that Lori found while on a run by the beach rather than on a SEANET walk, but I like to try to hone my very rusty non-seabird identifying skills, and this is a nice, intact bird to try it on.

Bird B: underside (photo by L. Benson)

Bird B: underside (photo by L. Benson)

Bird B, upper side. (photo by L. Benson)

Bird B, upper side. (photo by L. Benson)





A respite from all those dead

8 03 2013
Banded bird from South Dakota contemplates the Georgia coast. (photo by G. Graves)

Banded bird from South Dakota contemplates the Georgia coast. (photo by G. Graves)

Though the die-offs continue (Mary Myers emailed to say she spotted another pile of 11 dead Razorbills on Cape Cod this week), it’s time for a bit of live bird news from all quarters. Georgia Graves, naturalist on St. Simons Island in Georgia, has spotted some banded piping plovers on the beach once again! Georgia also documented banded birds last winter as they arrived from parts north, and this year, it’s a new bird, sporting green and white bands and a green flag on its legs. The particular color combo mark this bird as one banded as an adult by a team from Virginia Tech in June 2012 on the Missouri River near Yankton, South Dakota. Last year’s banded bird hailed from Michigan, so St. Simons Island seems to draw migrants from a wide swath of the upper middle west.

A bit farther north, in North Carolina, Stan Rule reports the presence of Sandhill Cranes in the vicinity of his beach near Morehead City. Stan has seen them in the early morning commuting to their foraging grounds near the airport. Beautiful birds to lift your spirits in this unusually grim winter. Stan also relayed the strange story of a local hunter who shot a passing Atlantic Puffin, mistaking it for a duck. This struck me as rather far south for a Puffin to be flying around, and evidently, Puffins are indeed rare enough there not to be on the minds of hunters seeking other, fast-flying quarry. But Stan tells me that the old timers and watermen in the area have seen the birds occasionally throughout the years. This has been a strange winter for puffins, so I suppose nothing should really surprise me.

Sandhill Cranes in North Carolina. (Photo: S. Rule)

Sandhill Cranes in North Carolina. (Photo: S. Rule)





Oh great. Now grebes?!

7 03 2013
Horned Grebe found on Cape Cod by Mary Myers.

Horned Grebe found on Cape Cod by Mary Myers.

We are still in the throes of a sizeable Razorbill die-off, and a smaller, though still notable puffin mortality event, and yet it now appears we might have yet another unusual data blip. In the past three weeks, we’ve have five Horned Grebe carcasses turn up on SEANET beaches in Rhode Island and Massachusetts. This is a bit out of the ordinary; we generally get a sporadic report or two in an entire year, and sometimes not even that. Not a single Horned Grebe was reported to SEANET in 2012. Whether this event will continue, and whether it will approach truly alarming proportions cannot be determined just yet. This is about the time grebes are migrating away from their wintering waters along the coast and flying by night toward their nesting ponds in western Canada and Alaska. Reports to eBird.org show Horned Grebes disappearing from the east coast right around now, and then by summer, nary a grebe is in sight. We may be seeing this uptick in mortality simply because the birds are on the move, though why we wouldn’t then see it every year, I don’t know.

Frequency of Horned Grebes in birding lists from Massachusetts.

Frequency of Horned Grebes in birding lists from Massachusetts. (ebird.org)

We’ve also had a single report from Dan Tracey, (who walks the same beach I do in Salisbury, MA) of a Red-necked Grebe: a larger species, with a yellowish bill, and, from the looks of this picture, sometimes yellow feet as well. This bird seems more of a one off event so far at least, but as ever, we are keeping a weather eye on the horizon for the next big thing in dead birds.

If you’ve found a dead bird, and you are either not a Seanetter, or the bird was not found on an official SEANET walk, please report it to the Wildlife Health Event Reporter! It only takes a moment to set up an account, it’s free, and you will be helping us keep tabs on these mortalities.

Red-necked Grebe found by Dan Tracey.

Red-necked Grebe found by Dan Tracey.