Welcome to a new volunteer!

29 10 2013

Massachusettsan Warren Mumford has just begun Seanetting for us down Chatham way in the Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge. He’s been most kind to share his thoughts on his first foray, and his writing needs little introduction. I am certain many, if not most, of you can relate. And regarding the question posed in the last line, You couldn’t get yourself fired if you tried. What’s the worst you can do, kill a bird? They’re already dead. Er…”beached.”

Beached Bird Hunt Number 1
10/21/13

The SEANET (Seabird Ecological Assessment Network) coordinator (Sarah) gave a talk at the Wellfleet Audubon Center a few weeks ago. Her description of this program was given with a flair and a sense of humor. She cheerily asked for volunteers to help look for “beached” birds on Cape Cod.

Somehow, being recently retired, I was attracted to this sunny prospect as a way to spend quality time outside on the beautiful Cape. Today, my wife, Mary, and I made our first excursion to search my chosen beach at the Morris Island National Wildlife Refuge in Chatham, MA. Our first find was a nondescript wing, a complete wing, but only a wing nevertheless. A complete wing constitutes a “beached bird” to be recorded according to the SEANET protocol. I was hoping for a more dramatic beginning for my first entry into the annals of SEANET and tried to suggest to Mary that we skip this puny item and perhaps record this avian body part on the way back in case we did not find anything more juicy. Mary unkindly chided me into following the protocol.

The directions say to place a 3X5 card next to the carcass of interest with descriptive info like my name, beach, date and alas, a four letter code indicating the species. To my consternation, I had no idea what ornithological name to apply to this forlorn wing. I am only a beginning birder, and the new copy of Sibley in my backpack would be no help to this neophyte eyeing an arbitrary collection of black, grey and white feathers on bone. Eating humble pie, I penciled “UNKNOWN” on the card and snapped the required pair of pictures: wing face up, wing face down.

MA_27, Warren's beach.

MA_27, Warren’s beach.

Further down the beach we stumbled upon another “beached” bird. This one possessed all body parts. It didn’t hit home to me till then, that the term “beached” is really a soft front for the more exact and macabre adjective, “dead.” I nervously donned my surgical gloves to adjust the bird into the prescribed model position in preparation for a photograph, however, I ran into a problem. There was no flexibility to this bird. It was in an advanced state of decomposition and therefore was afflicted with an advanced state of arthritis. As I struggled to create the Nazi eagle pose described in the protocol, black spiders abandoned the avian scull through the eye sockets and gullet. Mary peered down with a look of disgust, saying “I don’t know about this?” I soldiered on and abruptly broke off one stubborn wing. When I began to record culmen, wing chord and tarsis lengths, still wearing my plastic gloves, Mary raised the question that some kind of disease might be spread on pen, clipboard and into my trusty backpack. I mumbled that I needed a better system for posing the specimen, snapping photos, measuring body parts and recording numbers. For Pete’s sake, I had never been trained in taking biological data. (The last time I performed a dissection was of a frog in freshman high school bio class and my partner, Sarah, did most of the cutting. Funny how two Sarahs are associated with my ventures into the bio world.) Again, I had trouble with the ID for the index card. The best I could muster was “GULL?” with a big question mark.

We trudged on in our quest, finding two more “GULL?” specimens which I dutifully photographed, measured and banded, all the while avoiding the fleeing spiders in the process. Eventually we reached the end marker on my assigned length of beach. We were then able to enjoy the colors of the sunset sky and return to our car. I wonder if the program coordinator will be cruel enough to fire this eager volunteer after the very first mission.





Down the data rabbit hole

28 10 2013

At the prompting of several people, not least beached bird surveyor Doug McNair, I am delving into our data from years past. Being so consumed by volunteer recruitment, retention, and this blog, I tend to put off data analysis. This is also because I have no training in it. However, even without knowing anything elaborate about stats and such, I can at least get you all some general patterns that have emerged from all the data you’ve been collecting.

I will be focusing my efforts on the years from 2008 to the present as that’s about when we made several changes in our methods (including introducing a requirement for photos of all beached birds). I started working on this project this morning, and I’m inordinately proud of this graph I made for 2008 (click on it to view a larger version):

Comparison of beached birds found on west shores of Buzzard's Bay vs. Cape Cod Bay beaches in 2008.

Comparison of beached birds found on west shores of Buzzard’s Bay vs. Cape Cod Bay beaches in 2008.

I know, it’s not much, but it does show what we always suspected–that the number of carcasses found along Cape Cod Bay is quite a bit higher than that found along the west shore of Buzzard’s Bay. It also raises the question of what results we might get if we had volunteers walking the east shores of Buzzard’s Bay. This means I will need to do some more Cape Cod recruiting, of course; never a hardship for me.
I’ll keep plugging away and sharing the data with you as I work. I plan to break down the data by species of birds found as well. If there are additional analyses you’d like to see, or some data item you’ve always been curious about, let me know! I will try to muddle through it. Wish me luck, Seanetters!





Dead seabirds slowly fade away

21 10 2013

Since we began tagging birds with individually numbered tags, it’s been fascinating to see how carcasses persist for months on one beach while they’re washed away almost immediately on others. We’re beginning an in-depth data analysis for the state of Massachusetts this month, and one thing we’re keenly interested in is exactly this sort of persistence data on individual birds. Though not a case from Massachusetts, the pair of photos below, taken by Paula Gillikin on her North Carolina beach, demonstrate the changes a carcass can undergo, especially during high decomposition season, summer. The bird’s tag, number 399, was still clearly legible, though the bird itself was basically unrecognizable. Because we have an individual number on the bird, we know it’s a loon, and can even use such photos to help us identify unknown carcasses that are well decomposed–we have a known reference.

The other item of note–this carcass was barely visible by the time September rolled around, yet the aluminum tag and orange cable tie protrude above the sand like a small but conspicuous little flag. All the more reason to be sure we fully mark all carcasses!

Common loon tagged in mid-June.

Common loon tagged in mid-June.

The same Common Loon, barely visible, in September.

The same Common Loon, barely visible, in September.





Dead Bird Quiz answers: despair over jaegers

17 10 2013

Once again, I am grateful that Wouter found our blog once upon a time and saves me from my ignorance. The two birds Dennis found in Provincetown represent two of the typical challenges we face here at SEANET: the decomposed bird that retains few identifying characteristics, and the unusual bird that we see only very rarely.

Bird A’s bill is intact, but most of the feathering on the face is gone, so it’s hard to see what it’s profile really looked like in life. I vaguely thought maybe grebe at first, based on what looked like a relatively short bill, but I didn’t feel great about that answer. Wouter suggests it may be a murre, and as soon as I saw his comment, I very nearly smacked my forehead for missing it. What’s left of the feathers on the head seems to show the black and white pattern characteristic of murres. Take a look at Bird A’s bill versus the bill of a known Thick-billed Murre:

Bird A

Bird A

Thick-billed Murre, in slightly better shape.

Thick-billed Murre, in slightly better shape.

Great. We’ve got Bird A fairly well pinned down. But Bird B…oh, Bird B. The good news is, Dennis thought it was a Long-tailed Jaeger, which gave me a starting point. I looked at my Sibley guide and felt good about that i.d. Not certain by any means since I’m not all that familiar with jaegers, but it looked promising. Then Wouter weighed in and wrote that it looked like a Long-tailed Skua. You can imagine my despair when I had what I thought were two diverging opinions. Then, my spirits were yanked abruptly back up again when I looked up that species and discovered that’s what the Long-tailed Jaeger is known as outside of the United States. So both Dennis and Wouter thought it was Stercorarius longicaudus. All praise to Linnaeus.

OK, so what’s a jaeger/skua and what makes our Bird B one of them?

On first glance, the bird looks gull-like, though with a strange plumage pattern, which alerts us that something’s fishy. Looking at the bill of Bird B, we see that part of the keratin sheath has sloughed off, as happens with advancing decomposition. What’s clear though, is that the mid-portion of that sheath (the saddle) was an entirely separate plate from the nail, or the bill tip. In a gull, though the overall bill shape can be quite similar, the bill sheath is one continuous structure that sloughs all at once. These separate plates are what make our Bird B clearly a jaeger or skua and not one of their cousins, the gulls. (All three groups are members of the Laridae family.) Skuas have the separate plates, but they are generally bigger and bulkier than the jaegers. It also appears, from my recent reading, that skuas generally show a striking white flash at the bases of the primaries on the upperwing. Though our Bird B is quite beat up, I am fairly convinced that no such patch is present, here so we’ll set skuas aside.

Upper surface of Bird B.

Upper surface of Bird B.

Within the jaegers then, how do we figure out which sort this is? Evidently, it’s not easy. My sources, the Sibley guide and Peter Pyle’s Identification Guide to North American Birds, volume II, both use the word “caution” rather frequently with regard to putting forward a firm i.d. “complex, confusing and subjective” are additional terms utilized. Fabulous. Where to begin.

One thing that jumped out at me in our Bird B is the bold barring on the undertail. That appears more consistent with either a Long-tailed or a Pomarine Jaeger. Less so with Parasitic Jaeger. If we look at the bill, the proportions of that may help us as well. Here’s what Sibley has to say on that:
IMG_4923
Clearly, these rules cannot be hard and fast. Our Bird B’s bill is rather slender, and the nail appears to cover less than half the length of the bill. Those points argue for Parasitic Jaeger. Yet the gonydeal angle in our Bird is basically mid-bill. That’s more consistent with a Long-tailed Jaeger.

Bird B's bill.

Bird B’s bill.

Overall, I am persuaded firsthand of what I had only read about: identifying juvenile jaegers is difficult. I suppose I might come down on the side of Parasitic Jaeger, all things considered, so I am curious what features persuaded other folks that this bird is a Long-tailed. Won’t you enlighten me?





Dead Bird Quiz: what did Dennis find? edition

12 10 2013

Dennis Minsky is back on the beat in Provincetown, and on his recent survey, he turned up these intriguing specimens. The first is little more than a skull and string of vertebrae, and the second, though more intact, is quite well rotted. Still, I have faith that you Seanetters may have some ideas.

Bird A: culmen reported as 35mm, but it can be hard to tell when all the feathers and skin are gone...

Bird A: culmen reported as 35mm, but it can be hard to tell when all the feathers and skin are gone…

Bird B

Bird B. Wing chord: 29cm

Bird B, tail and feet

Bird B, tail and feet. Tarsus 45mm

Bird B: culmen 35mm

Bird B: culmen 35mm





More on trying out the wing key

7 10 2013

I’m getting some feedback on the wing key, and while it’s never encouraging to get a litany of the things that are wrong with it, I knew there would be problems and I am most grateful for the assistance in finding them!

I had a couple of requests for the underwing of Bird 1, so here that is:

underwing, Bird 1.

underwing, Bird 1.





We’re playing a new game!

4 10 2013

I need your help readers! You need not be a Seanetter to play this game, or even know a single thing about seabirds. In fact, it may be better if you don’t.

What I need is help testing out my new Key to Severed Seabird Wings. You can view the beta version of this key as a Powerpoint at this link. Once you have that in front of you, I would be delighted if you could run through the key using these wings and see what you come up with. If, along the way, you hit dead ends, or other clear errors, please note them and let me know either via email or via public shaming in a comment on this post.

This set of wings is only the first; if this goes well, I’ll give you another set. Feel free to try them all, or just one. The more eyes on this the better, so recruit all your friends and family too! And also, even if you know what the wing is right away, please try the key anyway to make sure it works and gives you the right answer.

Now go!

Bird 1. Wing chord 27 cm.

Bird 1. Wing chord 27 cm.

Bird 2. Wing chord: 26 cm.

Bird 2. Wing chord: 26 cm.

Bird 3, upper. Wing chord: 38 cm.

Bird 3, upper. Wing chord: 38 cm.

Bird 3, underwing.

Bird 3, underwing.

Bird 4, upper. Wing chord: 33 cm.

Bird 4, upper. Wing chord: 33 cm.

Bird 4, underwing.

Bird 4, underwing.

Bird 5, upper. Wing chord: 50 cm.

Bird 5, upper. Wing chord: 50 cm.