Plovers and priorities

29 04 2014

A few weeks ago, I started getting emails from Seanetters wondering how to deal with the annual beach restrictions for breeding piping plovers. It’s a tricky subject, and one we have to manage beach by beach as conditions dictate. When I first began walking for SEANET in 2005, my beat was the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge on Plum Island in Massachusetts. The beach there, however, is closed to the public along nearly its entire length and width from April through July or so. A four month gap in data collection is no good, so I changed beaches to one that remains accessible year round.

The Refuge is for (p)lovers!

The Refuge is for (p)lovers!

This is also the time of year that public griping over the plovers begins. Beachgoers frustrated by the restrictions buy bumper stickers reading “Piping Plover: tastes like chicken” and hail as their anthem the spoof song produced by a Boston radio station called “50 Ways to Kill a Plover.” My own students often question me about why so much of a beach has to be closed for such diminutive birds. The answer is that it doesn’t always have to be, but it does appear to help.
Parker River is a National Wildlife Refuge. As such, its first and primary allegiance is to wildlife. Human concerns and recreation are well down on the priorities list there. Keeping people entirely off the often narrow beaches of Plum Island reduces stress on the birds, allowing them to incubate eggs, rear chicks, and feed along the water’s edge without constantly dodging human feet, or boisterous dogs, or careening kites plummeting down on them from the sky. Though the birds be but small, their range for feeding can be quite large, and the general recommendation is to give the birds 55 yards of space at all times. On a very narrow beach, this may become entirely impossible, subjecting the birds to greater stress and risk than is healthy or conducive to chick-rearing.
Other beaches try to strike more of a balance between human and plover uses, excluding humans from areas near the dunes where nests are most frequently located. At other beaches, restrictions are limited to small fenced in areas around known nests. As one might expect, the greater the degree of protection, the greater the breeding success of the plovers, as a general rule. By way of example, Parker River’s beaches support an average of 12 pairs a year. Nearby Salisbury Beach, which is a state park that remains open to human use through the spring and summer, has a very similar landscape and habitat but supports none or perhaps 1-2 pairs per year.
While piping plovers have had a harder time making a comeback in their Great Lakes breeding grounds, the birds are doing quite well here on the East Coast, through the efforts of federal and state managers and non-profits (like Mass Audubon’s Coastal Waterbird Program here in my neck of the woods). The tradeoff, then, is that as more plovers survive and come to breed on our beaches, more of those beaches are restricted, in full or in part, to protect those additional animals.
For our part, as Seanetters, we readily admit that the protection of live plovers trumps access to dead birds any day. We are always hopeful that our volunteers will continue to be able to at least walk the full length of their routes, even if they cannot reach up to the wrack line or the dunes on some of them. We handle these restrictions on a case by case basis, so if your beach is a plover love nest and you’re not sure if you should continue walking there for SEANET or not, let us know and we can help make that decision.

A gull carcass tantalizingly close by, but off limits. Can you spot a plover? (photo by D. Cooper)

A plover at the edge of the frame and a gull carcass tantalizingly close by, but off limits. (photo by D. Cooper)

Above all, and I know you all do, respect all fencing, signage and beach closures! Tempting though it may be to just lean across to snag that dead gull just beyond the fencing, don’t do it! We’re quite happy with a photo snapped from a distance. Better a safe and stress free plover than an ill-gotten photo.

Happy breeding to the little guys, and to all our Seanetters, watch your step, and brake for plovers!

What’s happening to the dolphins?

23 04 2014

I am saved this week! I had been trying to come up with a blog post for you all, but in my current frenzy of grading exams, presentations and projects in these waning weeks of the semester, I was feeling rather swamped. Luckily, our new and enthusiastic assistant (and now guest blogger), Marissa Jenko, rode to my rescue with this post! Enjoy, Seanetters, and welcome Marissa to the blogosphere!

A stranded dolphin in New Jersey.

A stranded dolphin in New Jersey. (photo: Marine Mammal Stranding Center)

“Every now and then, a Seanetter will discover something other than a bird carcass during his or her beach walk. Since the summer of 2013, a large number of bottlenose dolphins have been showing up on beaches along the east coast. What is behind all of these dolphin strandings?
An Unusual Mortality Event (UME) has been declared for bottlenose dolphins on the east coast because of a deadly outbreak of cetacean morbillivirus. Different species of morbillivirus can cause measles in humans, canine distemper in dogs, and rinderpest in cattle. Cetacean morbillivirus infects dolphins, porpoises, and whales and causes pneumonia and respiratory issues, skin lesions, and brain infections. It is passed between individuals through respiratory particles in the water and direct contact (as we know, dolphins are very affectionate!).
Since July 2013, over 1,200 dolphin carcasses of all ages have been sighted and reported on beaches along the east coast. Of these 1,200, 209 dolphins have been tested for morbillivirus, with 200 testing positive or suspect positive. The investigation into this outbreak is ongoing and other possible factors such as different pathogens or biotoxins are being looked at as well.


source: NOAA


Increased mortality was generalized up and down the coast

Increased mortality was generalized up and down the coast. (source: NOAA)

While cetacean morbillivirus is not currently known to infect humans or dogs, other species of morbillivirus can. If anyone comes across a stranded dolphin during his or her walks, do not touch or approach it and keep pets away from the animal! Report the sighting to your local marine mammal stranding network.
Investigating UMEs are important, as they give insight into larger ocean health issues that may also affect human health (just like Seanet!). If you are ever in doubt as to whether or not to report any animal sightings, never hesitate to ask!”

Dead Bird Quiz answers

14 04 2014

I’m never quite certain whether I favor the DBQs that result in lively debate as to species, or the ones that end quickly in a clear and general consensus. This particular DBQ falls into that latter category, which means I feel much more confident about the accuracy of the i.d. Both Wouter and Mary Wright replied, writing that Bird A was a Little Gull and Bird B an Atlantic Puffin. Indeed, Gil Grant and Dennis Minsky who found the birds, respectively, had correctly identified them when initially found, and I am glad to get additional confirmation. Bird A, in particular, the Little Gull, is not at all common in our database. In fact, it appears to be the first of its kind reported to SEANET: so rare, in fact, it is not even included in our drop down menu of species.

Mary and Wouter are always quite good about giving us a sense of how they make their identifications, and both pointed out Bird A’s pale gray upperwing with a white border, along with a darker underwing. The overall size is important here too, as the Little Gull is quite aptly named and is dwarfed in size by our more common gulls. For me, what stood out after many, many hours looking at Herring Gull and Ring-billed Gull wings and having their image burned onto my retinas was the lack of black wingtips in this Little Gull. Its upperwing has an overall pale cast in part due to that lack of black and white contrast. The only other real contender given these characteristics might be, as Wouter suggested, Ross’s Gull, which also has a gray underwing, though not quite as dark as Bird A’s. In addition, The Ross’s Gull is a rarer find, and would be quite a sensation if found in the Carolinas.

eBird data from all years and all locations for Ross's Gull.

eBird data from all years and all locations for Ross’s Gull.

Compare with these sightings of Little Gull.

Compare with these sightings of Little Gull.

As for Bird B, the most common dark wings to be found on Cape Cod where Dennis walks are the scoters. This Bird B, however, does not fit that mold. The wings are smaller and narrower, lacking the broad shape of a duck wing. The shape overall looks alcid-like. The wing is all dark, including the underwing, which rules out murres and razorbills which both have white borders to their secondaries and a white underwing. Dovekies have a somewhat dark underwing, but lighter through the secondaries, and the overall size is smaller than Bird B as well. That leads us to the conclusion that this is an Atlantic Puffin. Also rather a rare find, with the exception of the winter of 2012-2013 when they seemed to raining down on beaches throughout the north Atlantic. Whether this Bird B died recently, or is merely a long dead and only recently found specimen, I could not say. We do know that Provincetown serves as a hook to pull in all manner of flotsam and jetsam, living and dead, organic and man-made, so who’s to say how far these stalwart wings traveled before they reached the beach? SEANET is ever good for philosophical ponderings.

An obliging puffin displays its silvery gray underwing. Photo by Boaworm, Wikimedia Commons.

An obliging puffin displays its silvery gray underwing. Photo by Boaworm, Wikimedia Commons.

Dead Bird Quiz: just wings! edition

9 04 2014

One from the north, and one from the south for you, my dear Seanetters. Bird A was found in March in North Carolina by Gil Grant. Bird B, by Dennis Minsky in Massachusetts this month. Dennis, I am also pleased to announce, has just found his 300th dead bird for SEANET! Would we were all so lucky in our searchings.

Bird A. Wing chord 24cm.

Bird A. Wing chord 24cm.

Bird A: Underside of wings.

Bird A: Underside of wings.


Bird B. Wing chord 14cm.

Bird B: underside of wings.

Bird B: underside of wings.

How many ducks is a normal amount of ducks?

2 04 2014

After independent beach walker Doug McNair raised the alarm about an increased number of White-winged Scoter carcasses on Cape Cod this winter, I felt even more drive to work up some of our data from that area. With a particular eye toward the annual counts of scoters and Common Eiders from month to month, I generated some very simple, rough and ready, back of the envelope charts for your perusal. I disclaim: I am a veterinarian and not a scientist. My capacity to analyze data is that of a commoner. Still, I find these rather interesting to look at.

By way of a bit of guidance, the y-axis here is measured in carcasses/km, which we refer to as an “encounter rate.” We know we aren’t finding every bird that washes up dead in any given month; at best, we get a snapshot. Some species turn up more commonly, and some are found more commonly when they do. Those can be two distinct issues we have to deal with. Additionally, different beaches generate different numbers of birds, which can skew things. Some of our beaches come and go from year to year as volunteers join or retire, so the year-to-year comparisons are not perfectly apples to apples in that respect either. Given those caveats, and the knowledge that there are many others, give a look at these three charts, showing encounter rates for a handful of either the most common species found (gulls, eiders, scoters) or species of particular interest given recent die-offs (alcids). Click on each chart to view a larger version.




An additional factor to consider is the scale involved. Some years, the encounter rates all remain low, barely exceeding 1.00 carcasses/km for any species. Other years, the encounter rate for a particular species may approach 1.6 carcasses/km (Common Eiders in 2011, for instance). So keep an eye not only on the lines themselves, and the peaks and valleys, but also the magnitude from one year to the next.
As for scoters, their general profile is that their numbers increase in winter (to be expected given their life history and migration patterns). But some winters are particularly bad for them, and others seem fairly mild. 2010 and 2011 didn’t see many, for instance, but January and February 2012 show higher numbers. Whether that’s actually a trend is far beyond the power of these very rudimentary charts to determine. But I will certainly be looking forward to seeing what 2013’s data show us for the scoters, given that we’ve gotten a handful of reports from beachwalkers and wildlife rehabbers that they do seem to be beaching more commonly of late.

So, Seanetters, tell me, have any questions about this stuff? Any sorts of data you’d particularly like to see? I’m at your service.