Dead somethings or other answers (?)

31 07 2013

Thankfully, we caught Wouter, the bone expert, right before he took off for vacation. Also, I highly recommend visiting Wouter’s website, especially if you wish to take a bird skull quiz that will demoralize yet enthrall you. I scored a 928 out of 1200, which I deem respectable since I don’t know anything about these European jobbies like “hawfinches” and “bullfinches.” You will be pleased to know, Seanetters, that I knew the Gannet right away.

In any case, to remind you about the current quiz, here are the bones in question:

All the bones arrayed. (photo: E. Boucher)

All the bones arrayed. (photo: E. Boucher)

Wouter wrote:

“Indeed these bones are not from one animal. From left to right:
broken ulna bone (lower arm) of a bird, 2 x humerus (upper arm) of a bird, an a vertebra of which I cannot say much, 2 x radius bone (lower arm) of a mammal, and a tibia bone (lower leg) of a bird.
Maybe I can make a guess of what bird(s) are involved later, but I’ll leave for a 2 week holiday next Monday as well.”

I am not generally so good at this as Wouter, but I did pick out the bird humeri and knew that the two bones with the c-shaped groove at the top were mammalian. But there, I do differ from Wouter. Those bones with the c-shapes look very like mammalian ulnas (ulnae?) to me. The ulna and radius are the bones of the forearm, and they meet the humerus (upper arm bone) at the elbow. In mammals, the ulna has a deep, half moon shaped groove to accommodate the trochlea of the humerus. The ulna can thus slide over the humerus as the elbow is bent and straightened.

The ulna (bottom bone) cups the trochlea of the humerus (bone running vertically up the image)

The ulna (bottom bone) cups the trochlea of the humerus (bone running vertically). The radius, in back, has a flat head.

Dog elbow. Note how squared off the top of the ulna (the olecranon process) is.

Dog elbow. Note how squared off the top of the ulna (the olecranon process) is.

By contrast, the radius, which sits right next to the ulna, has basically a flat top that wedges up next to the humerus.The thing about these bones that I think are ulnae is that they lack the prominent olecranon process at the top with which I am familiar from my vet school anatomy days. Dog ulnae have a big, squarish olecranon jutting up above the c-shaped groove. Not all mammals have that feature; cats, for instance, have a more sloping olecranon. Weasels, and raccoons, kind of in the middle. In short, I do not know whose ulnae these might be, but I do feel confident that they are ulnae, and mammalian. Then again, I did only get a 928 on the skull quiz.

All this talk about mammal bones has made me, if not nostalgic for, then at least susceptible to the memory of my first year of vet school, when each student was loaned a bone box–a disarticulated dog skeleton in a tackle box. (They were plastic model bones, much to my great disappointment). I would study at home with my bone box and my pet birds out and about on the table. If you ever wondered about the relative supremacy of birds versus mammals, I need say nothing beyond what this picture can tell you.

Birds in the bone box.

Birds in the bone box.


The Herring Gull’s World

23 07 2013

By now, most of my feces and regurgitate besmirched clothes are washed and drying on the line, and I have had a few moments to think about the events of the past week. I was out on Appledore Island banding gull chicks, and taking blood and oral and cloacal swabs. Oh! The glamour!

My knees ache from seven days of crouching or kneeling on granite slabs, and there’s a small bit of blood spatter that may not ever come off of my field pants. A small souvenir to remember the birds by.

The work is always hot, grueling and dirty, and when I explain what I am off to do, most people I meet (on the mainland) look at me with brows furrowed and ask, “Why?!” I suppose I understand, and people have been giving such responses to gullers for a long time. I direct your attention to the middle paragraph of this page from Nobel Laureate Niko Tinbergen’s The Herring Gull’s World:


None of that middle paragraph is wrong; it is chaotic, and it is feces stained, and the birds do attack with substantial force when their chicks are menaced. But what Tinbergen and all of us gullers know is how enthralling the colony is too.

This year, we put together a great team of gull catchers, banders, bleeders and swabbers. They came from Virginia, Florida, New York, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and New Hampshire. Two of them were students at North Shore Community College where I teach biology and animal science. One of them, Nick Lovasco, wrote a truly lovely letter of thanks to the benefactors and mentors who afforded him the opportunity. You can read his letter here.

For Nick, and for just about everyone else who comes out to Appledore to work with the gulls, their perspective is permanently altered. Nearly all begin making plans to come out the following year before we’re even finished with this year’s work. I catch them gazing out at the ocean, or watching a gull chick peep incessantly at its sleeping parent. They want their pictures taken with the birds; they want leg bands to take home as souvenirs. One student, when allowed to take a blood sample herself, choked back amazed tears after succeeding.

An early morning in the field for the gull team.

An early morning in the field for the gull team.

More than the science we do, this is what keeps me going back again and again: watching students’ eyes open, literally and figuratively, to the natural machinery all around them, and, for my students at least, to the ecology of their own coastal backyard.

Tinbergen says most things best, about gulls anyway, whether it be about their diets: “Also, the food is never red…it is always half-digested, and whether it be fish, kittens, starfish, earthworms, clams or crabs (to mention some of the more common kinds of food), it is never red.”  or their calls: “The voice of a Herring Gull is wonderfully melodious. Of course I am biased, but I think there is no finer call than the clear, sturdy, resounding cries of the Herring Gull, carried away by the wind along the wide beach or over the undulating dunes.” But the best summation of all, I think, is this:

“I don’t regret for a moment that I have spent so many hours of my life in the gullery.”

Me neither.


Dead something or other Quiz

20 07 2013

This is highly unorthodox, but I got a plea for help with an i.d. on some bleached bones found by Evan Boucher out on the…Pacific coast! I know, I know. Wrong ocean. But I’m a sucker for dead things.

Not much to go on, but it may be enough. Evan reports that the bones were all in the same general vicinity, but he acknowledges that they may not, in fact, be from a single individual or even a single species.

Up for a challenge? Give this one a try. And you’ll have plenty of time to ponder since I’ll be on vacation all week. Now get to work!

All the bones arrayed. (photo: E. Boucher)

All the bones arrayed. (photo: E. Boucher)

A closer look at one of them.

A closer look at one of them.

Seabird spotters needed to cruise Stellwagen Bank!

14 07 2013

This week, I am racing around Appledore Island in Maine banding gulls and taking blood from them for an avian influenza survey, but I have a truly excellent opportunity to advertise to my more northern readership. New Englanders, take note of this!



An S4 citizen scientist crew on a seabird cruise in June. You could join too!

An S4 citizen scientist crew on a seabird cruise in June. You could join too!

Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary and its partner, Mass Audubon, are looking to better understand the dynamics, roles and importance of seabirds within the ecosystem. We wish to establish a baseline for seabird populations within the sanctuary boundaries, educate the public about the important role that seabirds play within the ecological community and to train volunteers to conduct citizen science on behalf of the Stellwagen Sanctuary Seabird Stewards (S4) Program. The S4 Program is in its sophomore year and has been supported largely by volunteers that participate either aboard our research vessel or on whale watching trips.

If you are interested in becoming a volunteer, we will be hosting two training events this month:

July 23rd at the Gloucester Maritime Center in Gloucester, MA

July 30th at Long Pasture Wildlife Sanctuary in Barnstable, MA

During these trainings, we will go over the protocol followed for these research cruises and provide you with an overview of what the S4 Program is all about. People with excellent seabird identification abilities and field research experience are encouraged to attend!

If you would like more information please contact either Sarah or Anne-Marie at the following emails:

We look forward to hearing from you soon!


Stellwagen Sanctuary Seabird Stewards Program

Dead Bird Quiz answers

9 07 2013

Though I am immersed in the finer points of dead bird i.d. for the upcoming Field Guide, these two specimens humbled me right back down to the rather poor birder I actually am. As both birds are non-ocean-going waterfowl, I would have had basically no idea what they were (beyond waterfowl) if they had not come pre-identified by their finders, and unanimously agreed upon by you, the readership. Bird A, Jerry Golub suggested when he emailed the picture, had probably once been a Gadwall, like this:

Adult male Gadwall showing flashy chestnut wing patch.

Adult male Gadwall showing flashy chestnut wing patch.

A very handsome duck, and one which is apparently very common, but which I have never seen. Though in fairness to myself, the Gadwall range map shows the species only migrating through my beloved homeland here in northern New England, so maybe that’s why. There is also one of these chilling notes on the Gadwall page in my Sibley guide:

“Most species of ducks hybridize with others. Some of the combinations seen occasionally are Mallard x Northern Pintail, Gadwall x American Wigeon, Northern Shoveler x Blue-winged Teal. Many other combinations have been reported rarely, as have aberrant plumages not caused by hybridization.”

Horrifying. I’ll stick with dead seabirds and nothing more complicated than the molts of eiders, thank you very much.

Wintering, staging, and breeding grounds of the Greater Snow Goose.

Wintering, staging, and breeding grounds of the Greater Snow Goose.

Now for Bird B, also pre-identified by the finder, Wendy Stanton, as a Snow Goose. I have never seen a Snow Goose either, but fortunately, everyone agreed on this one as well, and John Stanton even narrowed it down to Greater Snow Goose, which I then had to go look up. The Snow Goose page in Sibley also caused me to shudder in confusion. There is apparently a dark morph, which was once thought to be a separate species (the “Blue Goose”) and a white morph, which looks similar to the Ross’s Goose, only with a bigger bill and faint reddish tinge to the head. In ghastly waterfowl fashion, there are also Snow Goose x Ross’s Goose hybrids, but apparently it’s mostly the Lesser Snow Goose that engages in such cross-species dalliances. So what about this Greater Snow Goose John mentioned? Apparently, it is defined by a longer, stockier bill and head than the Lesser, which is, in turn, more wedge-headed than the adorably round-headed and small billed Ross’s Goose.
This is ridiculous.

I do have a great fondness for range maps, and I was intrigued to see that the Greater Snow Goose is quite restricted in its range, wintering in only a small portion of the mid-Atlantic coast encompassing parts of Chesapeake Bay and North Carolina. They then migrate to similarly limited sections of the Arctic tundra to breed. A research project on Greater Snow Goose demographics at the Université Laval has been placing field-readable collars on the birds to track their movements. So if you see a white goose sporting accessories like this:


it’s the cheater’s way to know it’s a Greater Snow Goose, and also, you should report it to the research team.

Dead Bird Quiz: cheer up edition

2 07 2013

After my last post apparently sent several readers into a tailspin of depression and despair, I decided it was time for something cheery, like dead birds on a beach.

So here you are, my friends, a little brightness in your day:

Bird A: Found by Jerry Golub in NJ last month.

Bird A: Found by Jerry Golub in NJ last month.

Bird B: Found by Wendy Stanton in NC last month.

Bird B: Found by Wendy Stanton in NC last month.

Bird B: closeup profile

Bird B: closeup profile