Happy Thanksgiving, Seanetters!

28 11 2013

You are always in my thoughts, Seanetters, and today, I am thankful for all the time, dedication, curiosity and good humor you bring to our project. Here’s a bit of that lattermost quality:

The elusive marine turkey, Turkus marinus. Thanks to Steve and Roberta Brezinski for the sighting.

The elusive marine turkey, Turkus marinus. Thanks to Steve and Roberta Brezinski for the sighting.

Enjoy your feast, and to those who celebrate, Happy Hannukah as well!


Dead Bird Quiz answers

27 11 2013

As if it were not clear before, this quiz once again drives home the fact that I could just turn this whole thing over to dead bird quiz expert Wouter, who is always right and who generally does a nice job walking us through how he arrives at his i.d.

This time, he nailed both species. Our first, Bird A, from down south, is a Royal Tern. The most conspicuous feature on this specimen is that rather large, bright orange beak. Who has such a beak? Well, Royal Terns, Caspian Terns and Elegant Terns all come to mind. How to narrow it down though. First, the color of the crown of the head. In our specimen, we see a broad white forehead with a black fringe at the back of the head. Caspian Terns are ruled out, therefore, as they have at least black streaking over the entire crown year-round. Elegant Terns and Royal Terns both have white foreheads in the non-breeding season, so how do we tell which Bird A might be? First, bill shape. Elegant Terns have a thinner bill with a slight downward droop to the tip. Royals, by contrast, have a more robust, and straighter bill. There’s also the matter of the black on the head. The black patch extends farther forward toward the forehead in Elegant Terns, and from what I can see of Bird A, it has more extensive white than most Elegants.

Incidentally, I’m not sure if it’s mainly the apparent frown, or the receding hairline with a wild fringe about the ears, but I think Royal Terns look a lot like John Adams.

Royal Tern (photo: Alan Vernon)

Royal Tern (photo: Alan Vernon)

President John Adams (painting: Asher Durand)

President John Adams (painting: Asher Durand)

Both Wouter and relative newcomer to the DBQ, known only as “capteagleyes” identified Bird A as a Royal Tern. I doubt John Adams would appreciate being linked with a Royal anything, given his stint on King George’s “to be hanged” list of traitors, but I digress.

Now, for Bird B. Both Wouter and Captain concur that this is a cormorant. That tell-tale beak gives it away for sure. But is it a Great Cormorant, or a Double-crested? Really, it could be either based on this photo. Double-cresteds are decidedly more common, at least in reports from Seanetters, and they are also smaller, though there is a good deal of overlap between the two species in measurements. If we had more of the plumage and skin coloration intact, we could use the color of the throat patch to determine species, and the color of the belly and chest to get to age. Wouter spotted some lighter feathers over the body, and those are more consistent with the brownish-gray wash over the belly in young Double-cresteds. I would lean toward that as an i.d., though we cannot entirely rule out Great Cormorant either.

Here is a Great Cormorant. Note the yellow chin patch with white behind it. (photo: Dick Daniels)

Here is a Great Cormorant. Note the yellow chin patch with white behind it. (photo: Dick Daniels)

And here is a Double-crested. No white on the throat. All yellow. (Photo: "cuatrock77")

And here is a Double-crested. No white on the throat. All yellow. (Photo: “cuatrock77”)

Dead Bird Quiz

21 11 2013

Apologies for the slowed pace of my posts of late. I’m closing in on the end of my teaching semester, and after that, you can look forward to several weeks of restored vigor here on the SEANET blog. For now, here’s a Dead Bird Quiz, just to keep your minds sharp:

Bird A: found by Lynda Zegers in South Carolina this month.

Bird A: found by Lynda Zegers in South Carolina this month.

Bird B: Found by Jerry Golub in New Jersey last  month.

Bird B: Found by Jerry Golub in New Jersey last month.

Who? What? WHER!

14 11 2013

I field a great many questions about reporting dead wildlife of all stripes here at SEANET. While we are dedicated to the formal, regimented collection of beached bird data on designated beaches and planned surveys, we are, nonetheless, always keenly interested in what people find on unmonitored beaches, or off in the woods, or in their suburban backyards and grocery store parking lots. Whenever I get such a query, I steer the inquirer to the Wildlife Health Event Reporter, an aggregator of wildlife illness or mortality from any cause, in any species, and of any magnitude anywhere on the globe.

When members of the public contact me to report a dead animal that no one in their local or state government seems interested in collecting, it’s easy for me to explain the merits of WHER. People like knowing that their report, however seemingly minor, might contribute to our overall understanding of wildlife health, or even help us detect the next outbreak or the newest emerging disease.

Sometimes, however, I am contacted by people who have found dead animals, and the local fish and game folks, or the environmental police, or even the federal authorities have responded. In those cases, it can be hard for me to persuade these finders to report their sightings to WHER. After all, they say, if the authorities responded and are testing the animals, surely there must be some central reporting system that will collect all that data in one place?

In fact, there is not. Or there wasn’t until WHER came along. Certainly the authorities responding to a wildlife mortality event will collect extensive data on the scope, timing and extent of the event. They may accumulate test results or other information. But the fate of that data and those results is highly variable. Some agencies may make them publicly available, others keep a spreadsheet in their internal databases, inaccessible to the public, still others keep paper reports in a file cabinet.

Flyer While WHER cannot necessarily share every detail of every event and every test, it can serve to collect all the vital information on the timing and geographic scope of the event. As more and more people use the program, we will see a more and more refined picture of what’s happening across the country and across the globe.

I am a great believer in the power of WHER, and I am, as its creators say, one its enthusiastic cheerleaders. But I am not its developer or its coordinator, so in preparing for this post, I asked Megan Hines and Cris Marsh, who actually do run the thing, to help me explain just why WHER is so important. One resource they steered me toward are the several documents on their About page. There, you can find quick summaries as well as more in depth explanations of what WHER is and why it matters. Megan also provided me with what I find to be an exceedingly helpful explanation of Why WHER is necessary, including the many reasons why data on wildlife mortality may be lost, whether because it was never reported in the first place, or never shared, or never deemed important.

The major message WHER and I would both send you is that every report of a sick or dead wild animal is valuable. Even if it’s a finch by your bird feeder with a swollen eye, or a dead chipmunk in your shed, please report it. When enough people start to do that, the patterns emerge. And the beauty of WHER is that you can follow those patterns and view all the data and all the maps at wher.org. This program is democratic in the data it accepts, and in the data that it shares, so take advantage of it, public!

Under the rug: the limitations of dilution

5 11 2013

I’ve noticed this image making the social media rounds lately, and find it to be a striking depiction of the plastics problem.

It's getting harder to make things disappear in the ocean.

It’s getting harder to make things disappear in the ocean.

For decades, we’ve been dumping trash into the waters, swearing by the adage “dilution is the solution to pollution.” In some respects, it’s still true. The world ocean has a vast capacity to dilute toxic substances and render them less harmful. As usual, however, we’ve either underestimated or chosen to ignore our vast capacity to alter our environment. While plastic pollution is a particular interest of mine, this week I’m focused on a different sort of problem–the impact of runoff on the marine environment.

Harmful algal blooms are increasingly in the news, and I was just reading of a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggesting that these blooms are no longer to be treated as extreme or unusual events, but rather as our new normal. While the paper describes a bloom of toxic algae in Lake Erie, the problem is not limited to freshwater bodies. These blooms are driven by a process called eutrophication, where fertilizer runoff from the land gives algae in the water a huge growth boost. These algae overgrow, then die, and are broken down by bacteria that consume oxygen in the process. Huge numbers of algae feed huge numbers of these decomposing bacteria, and before long, those bacteria have sucked most of the oxygen out of the water creating a dead zone that cannot support fish or anything else that needs oxygen to survive. Strong ocean currents may dissipate the runoff, diluting the fertilizer, but in more sheltered areas like bays, the problem can become quite severe. Cape Cod in Massachusetts is dealing with this problem as  septic systems leach excessive nutrients into the sandy soils and thence out to the bays.

NASA satellite image shows  a bloom of toxic algae as green scum on the surface of Lake Eerie.

NASA satellite image shows a bloom of toxic algae as green scum on the surface of Lake Eerie.

The problem is not new, though the scale of it continues to grow. I have been participating in an online workshop for community college instructors this week, and today’s web video explained the process of retrieving deep sediment cores from the seafloor. Dr. John Kirkpatrick of the University of Rhode Island pointed to a dividing line in a core of sediment from off the New England coast. There was an abrupt shift from a pale gray sediment to a dark, almost black column. That shift, dating back to the advent of intensive clear-cutting and agriculture in the region, resulted in widespread erosion of soils and other debris no longer held in place by tree roots. Manure from livestock also flowed into the sea in a similar, though less industrial version of what we see today.

It’s the nature of humans to forget what we can’t see. Out of sight, out of mind has long been our approach to ocean health. I have the same tendency, and the image of that sediment shift struck me quite strongly. Not only does it drive home the fact that nothing discharged into the ocean really disappears, it underscores the fact that the ocean’s memory is long, and we are a very young species. What we do matters to the oceans, and we can make a shift. This particular problem is manageable, and solvable.  There’s still time, though, as the poem goes, it’s later than you think.

Scenes from a SEANET beach

1 11 2013

Earlier this week, I let new volunteer Warren do most of the talking on this blog. Today, it’s 70 degrees here in New Hampshire, and may well be the last such day I see until Spring. So, I am posting a few shots from my own SEANET walk with my sons this week, on MA_23 in Salisbury, Massachusetts, and then I’m going outside to play in the leaves. Happy weekend, Seanetters!

Getting started around 4pm.

Getting started around 4pm.

Mid-way along.

Mid-way along.

Scanning the horizon from atop the seawall.

Scanning the horizon from atop the seawall.

Finishing up just as the sun set.

Finishing up just as the sun set.