Beaches looking all spiffed up!

30 09 2013

Apologies for the dearth of posts last week; I was caught up in the flurry of readying for a SEANET recruiting trip to Cape Cod. The trip was, you’ll be glad to know, quite successful, and we filled a room with potential recruits as well as interested members of the public. Some of our long-standing, most dedicated volunteers were there too: Jerry Hequembourg, Mary Myers, and Diana Gaumond were in the crowd, and if I missed anyone else, forgive me! Thank you to Diane Silverstein, Mark Faherty and Bob Prescott of Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary for hosting me and for getting the word out!

A good turnout for last week's SEANET training at Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary!

A good turnout for last week’s SEANET training at Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary!

Now I am scrambling to get all our newest recruits assigned to beaches, but I did go out this morning to do my own SEANET walk on Salisbury Beach in Massachusetts. I was, at first, surprised to find the beach looking remarkably clean of human generated wrack. Normally, my beach is strewn with picnic detritus, cigarette butts, plastics in various stages of degradation, balloons, and monofilament fishing line. Today, entire stretches of the beach were clear of all that, and I picked up only three plastic water bottles along the whole walk.

A beautiful day by Rock Harbor in Orleans, MA. A girl could used to this job...

A beautiful day by Rock Harbor in Orleans, MA. A girl could used to this job…

Then I remembered that this past weekend was International Coastal Cleanup Day and Salisbury is always a target beach. The cleanup crew apparently did a great job, though it’s always discouraging to see how quickly the dog feces and plastic begins to pile up again.

Down on Linnell Landing Beach in Brewster, MA (known affectionately to Seanetters as WB_02) the aforementioned Diana Gaumond and her husband John decided to do their own beach cleanup and dropped me a note about the experience:

In recognition of Ocean Conservancy International Coastal Cleanup Day, we took some trash bags and cleaned up trash on WB_02 (in the places not otherwise occupied by live persons). This stretch of beach looked generally pretty clean, but a closer look at the wrack revealed a more serious picture. Though we didn’t find any dead birds, we found many objects that could kill birds. There were over 550 pieces of human generated rubbish, and over 300 of these were small pieces of plastic that could be ingested by birds.  There were also numerous long coils of fishing line, wire, and balloon ribbon which could entangle birds. Besides these, the most numerous items were plastic bottle caps and straws, cigar/cigarette tips, casing from ammo and fireworks, tampon applicators, and a dozen of those old favorite sewage discs – the gift that keeps on giving (thank you, Hookset). We picked up about 4.5 lbs. of stuff and will clear up the rest of the one mile stretch of WB_02 when it becomes vacant.

John also sent a tally and breakdown of what they found, and you can see their report here. Diana and John point out one of the biggest problems with our plastic pollution crisis: rather than being an issue of large, floating plastic bottles and other large items that would, theoretically, be easy to spot and scoop up from marine waters, the plastic is actually quite insidious. As it breaks into smaller and smaller pieces, those fragments get closer and closer to the size of normal food items for seabirds. When we open up seabird stomachs at autopsy, we find numerous pieces of worn plastic, mostly no bigger than a pencil eraser. It’s these easily overlooked and almost impossible to collect pieces that pose a grave threat to the birds. And as the plastics continue to break apart, there is an organism at every level of the food web ready and willing to take it up as if it were sustenance. Even filter feeding shellfish take up tiny beads of plastic as they sieve the water for food. If you’d like to learn more about plastics in the Atlantic, and current research on the subject, please check out the Sea Education Association’s website.

unnamedJohn asked if there is some sort of reporting system in place for such marine trash, and in fact, there’s an app for that! The Southeast Atlantic Marine Debris Initiative developed its Marine Debris Tracker, which is available for either iPhone or Android. The tracker automatically GPS tags the debris as you report it, so as people use the app, the database can generate a map of where and when the debris is being reported.

Funnily enough, on the FAQ page for the Tracker, a question on how best to survey for debris is answered with a suggested protocol remarkably familiar to Seanetters: walk on a regular basis (daily, weekly, monthly, etc) year-round, and select a set start and end point so that you are walking the same distance each time. There are also formal sampling protocols you can request from NOAA by emailing

This has been a good prompt for me, and I plan to download the Tracker today and start recording the debris I encounter on my SEANET walks. If you have the time and the interest, I encourage you to do so too. If you do try it out, let us know what you think!


Dead Bird Quiz answers. Finally. After haranguing you.

18 09 2013

Thanks to those of you who indulged me and my shrieking for responses to this latest DBQ. I got several responses for Bird A, all identifying it as a tern, and some specifying Common Tern. I am relieved to concur with you all. There are many live Common Terns swooping and feeding at MA_23, but of course, the presence of live birds is not always at all predictive of what might turn up dead. In this case, however, it appears that one of those terns didn’t make it and washed up at the river’s edge.

How to make the i.d.? Well, it’s terny. Terns have long, pointy wings, a thin, pointy beak, and, for many species, a forked tail. Among the terns with all these features, the i.d. generally hinges on the color pattern on the head, the relative lengths of the wings and tail, and the depth of the tail fork. Out Bird A has a black cap but a white forehead, gray wings with darker bars on the upperwing, and a fairly deeply forked tail. The tail itself is mostly white with dark outer margins. Many of these things help differentiate our Bird A from the other tern species with which it is most likely to be confused.

A black cap with a white forehead is also present in Arctic and Roseate Terns. Roseates, however, have long tails that usually project past the wings when the bird is laid out. The tail is all white in Roseates, and our Bird A has those dark margins. The measurements help us a good deal too–both the wing and tarsus are substantially shorter in Roseates than in Commons. How about Arctic Terns? They can be similar to Common Terns in many respects. One key is to compare the color of the secondaries. In Arctic Terns, the secondaries are white, whereas our Bird A has dark secondaries. Tarsus is quite a bit shorter in Arctic Terns than Common Terns.

This is a young Arctic Tern. Look how stubby their legs are! (photo by David Blaikie)

This is a young Arctic Tern. Look how stubby their legs are! (photo by David Blaikie)

Two breeding Common Terns. The one in back is farther along in the transition to basic (non-breeding) plumage. (photo by Jeff Lewis)

Two breeding Common Terns. The one in back is farther along in the transition to basic (non-breeding) plumage. (photo by Jeff Lewis)

So, we settle on Common Tern. Is it an adult, or a immature? Non-breeding adults can resemble immatures in many ways; both have the dark carpal bar on the upper wing, and both have a white forehead. Typically, non-breeding adults will have a more uniform gray color to the back and upperwing, while immatures have a more scalloped pattern. This is difficult to appreciate in a bedraggled specimen like Bird A, however. What I am going by is partly the tail, which is not as long and forked as I might expect in an adult, and also the time of year. On average, adults should still be mostly in their breeding plumage in summer, and breeding birds have red legs, red bills and black foreheads. Bird A has no trace of red on either legs or bill, so I think this bird is an immature. And Wouter agrees! Which always helps me rest easier.

I want to state for the record that I am terrible at identifying live terns. But I hope my dead bird i.d. skill has served me well in this instance.


Bird B: underside of wing.

Bird B: underside of wing.

Now, for Bird B, which is really quite close to a lost cause in terms of identification. It’s a wing, but not a complete wing. All the secondaries and secondary coverts are gone. So all we know is that the primaries are dark, and the underwing (at least out at the wingtip) is quite strikingly white. This is not a common feature and few species of birds have it. The ones that came to mind for me when I saw that white were shearwaters and loons. Wouter also thought loon. Here’s a link to an image of the underside of a Red-throated Loon wing, by way of example. The wing chord on my Bird B is pretty small for any of the loons though, at a mere 21 cm.

When I really thought about shearwaters, I decided I’m not so enthusiastic about them. Their underwings are generally white, but seem to kind of fade to gray well short of the primaries, unlike this bird.

A lot of alcids have white underwings, but they have black upperwings, not the dark grayish brown that this bird has.

Then there’s Dennis’ guess: a Red-necked Grebe. Grebe also crossed my mind, and drives home one of the great difficulties in this case of Bird B. Lacking any of the secondaries or the rest of the wing, we cannot assess many of the characteristics that would argue for grebes: a white speculum or a white patch near the shoulder; a pale trailing edge to some of the secondaries; or other such features. We can only speculate regarding the speculum (groan). Take a look at the Red-necked Grebe’s underwing and see what you think. I think it’s a real contender.

In short, I’m not sure.

Dead Bird Quiz: aw, c’mon!!!

13 09 2013

What’s everybody, all wrapped up in back to school? No time to take a Dead Bird Quiz? No time to help a Seanetter out?

Well, I’m giving you another chance. I’ll wait to post answers until next week. And since Bird B was nothing but a wing, I think this is a good time to unveil a work in progress. I have been laboring over the Field Guide to Beached Birds of the Southeastern U.S. for more than a year now. One of the features of the book will be a Wing Key–a step by step guide to identifying dead seabirds based only on a wing.

Slide02Right now, it’s more than half finished, and I want you to be able to access it, and especially try it out. To get to the key, follow this link. I know it’s not the prettiest or slickest thing around right now, but I welcome your thoughts, suggestions, edits, corrections, and so on. As I get it closer to finished, I would love it if some of you would test it out by running through it with a wing you’ve found or a picture of a wing. I know there must be mistakes, but I need help to find them!

Thanks to all of you for reading, and for taking a peek at my bizarre labor of love.



Dead Bird Quiz: MA_23 edition

10 09 2013

Fellow Seanetter Dan Tracey and I share responsibility for MA_23, a stretch of beach along the northern bank of the Merrimack River right where it enters the Atlantic between Salisbury Beach and Plum Island. The birding is good here, and this past month, the dead birding has also been good. Dan was the lucky one who actually found an intact carcass in August. On my walk at the end of the month, I found only a mostly defleshed wing. But the pair makes for a nice Dead Bird Quiz, to my mind. So here it is. What do you think, dear readers?

Bird A: wing chord 25.5 cm; culmen 37 mm; tarsus 25 mm.

Bird A: wing chord 25.5 cm; culmen 37 mm; tarsus 25 mm.

Bird B: upper surface of wing. Wing chord 21 cm.

Bird B: upper surface of wing. Wing chord 21 cm.

Bird B: underside of wing.

Bird B: underside of wing.

Where have all the razorbills gone?

4 09 2013
A Razorbill fitted with a solar powered satellite tag!

A Razorbill fitted with a solar powered satellite tag! (photo by L. Welch)

Do you lie awake at night wondering where alcids go when they’re done raising their young? Given this winter’s mortality events in puffins and razorbills, I sometimes do. And thanks to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, I can slake my curiosity. Linda Welch and her team at the Maine Coastal Islands National Wildlife Refuge have deployed satellite tags on ten Razorbills, and it looks like all but one are still going strong. (That bird, known as “Roosevelt,” has, evidently, not been heard from in weeks.) You can track the individual birds at this study link, and even sign up to get daily updates from the project. The purpose of the work addresses a perennial problem in seabird research; for a short and focused period during breeding, the birds are accessible and relatively easy to study. Once they leave the breeding colony, however, they are largely lost to follow up and our knowledge of their behavior and ecology becomes hazy indeed.

With the satellite tags, each bird’s precise location can be determined instantaneously, giving information on both small scale, daily movements, and large scale migrations. After this past winter’s unprecedented irruption of Razorbills all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico, it will be most intriguing to see where these birds go this winter. By tracking their movements, and knowing more about where they like to spend time foraging and which areas they only pass through briefly, these researchers can be in a better position to advise developers of offshore wind projects how best to site these farms. Welch and the USFWS team recognize the immense value in renewable energy, but they also want to do right by seabirds. And SEANET applauds them!