Update on shearwater mortalities

26 08 2015

Reports of dead shearwaters continue to come in from both Seanetters and non-SEANET affiliated folks. All summer, this has been a decidedly northern phenomenon; of the 16 Greater Shearwaters reported to SEANET, three were found in North Carolina, and all the rest were spotted between Long Island and Provincetown at the tip of Cape Cod. We have also received word of dead shearwaters from National Parks Service personnel, wildlife rehabilitators, and members of the public. We even had a shearwater banded in Spain (!) turn up dead on a beach in Winthrop, Massachusetts. Thanks to Susannah Corona for that report, and I will share with you the history on that bird when I hear back from the European banding lab.

I had planned to post a Dead Bird Quiz today, so I will throw in a shearwater themed one amidst this post. Easy peasy for you Dead Bird Identifiers extraordinaire, but humor me.

What kind is this? (Found on Long Island)

What kind is this? (Found on Long Island)

And this one? (Found by J. Powell in NC)

And this one? (Found by J. Powell in NC)

How's about this guy? (Found by T. Lee, brand new volunteer in NC!)

How’s about this guy? (Found by T. Lee, brand new volunteer in NC!)

We know that summer shearwater mortality is a fairly typical phenomenon, though the magnitude does vary year to year. Last year was extremely quiet on the shearwater front, with only four reported to SEANET, and nothing that raised anyone’s eyebrows outside SEANET either. This year is rather a different situation. Fifteen Greater Shearwaters were found on beaches in Eastham, Massachusetts alone, with perhaps a total of another dozen birds found on various other beaches on the ocean side of Cape Cod. Several agencies and non-profits have collected carcasses, so we may have some necropsy results by fall. If nothing else, we can get a glimpse into the general body condition and stomach contents of these birds.

In some of the back and forth on email amongst wildlife biologists, veterinarians, rehabbers and seabird researchers, this request was put forward by Kevin Powers: “I would recommend that the napes of the necks of any Great Shearwater cadavers be photographed because there is some limited ability to age birds to their 3rd year based on the amount of brown feathers on the nape using Peter Pyle’s Handbook to North American Birds (Vol 2). I would be more than willing to participate.” Any of you who find these birds, whether on a SEANET walk, or just while out and about, please do consider taking a photo as Kevin described. It could get us a little closer toward understanding the demographics (zoographics?) of this die-off.

Beware the citizen scientist!

21 08 2015

This week, an editorial in Nature addressed the now well established use of citizen science generated data. Though the line “Some professional scientists are sniffy about the role of amateurs,” the piece points out the general acceptance of the value of volunteer-driven science. But even though scientists are using or at least accepting these data (some grudgingly, perhaps, or even sniffily), the editor points out some potential pitfalls to be considered. A major one is the potential for bias introduced by a self-selected team of citizen scientists. In a program like SEANET, we know our volunteers tend to be conservation minded, outdoorsy types. Nothing wrong with that, but as the editorial describes, an interest in conserving the subject of a given study could change the behaviors of the data collectors. People’s personal predilections and preferences can also skew data. This could be deliberate, or, perhaps more likely and more difficult to detect, subconscious. In projects like eBird, researchers learned early on of the tendency of many birders to overreport rare birds and underreport common ones. Overreporting the rare birds does not mean the birders record birds they don’t actually see, just that they may report it every time they see a rare bird, and not bother to report a bird they see everyday even if it was sitting side by side with the rarity. eBird now asks the question,
“are you reporting all birds you saw/heard?” to make sure you aren’t cherry-picking, or, if you are, that they can account for it in their analyses.

img_3208For Seanetters, that particular type of skew might not seem relevant since Seanetters go out for a beach walk and record every dead bird they see, regardless of species. We don’t accept incidental reports of oddities like an albatross in the backyard. But we still wrestle with these issues. Many of our volunteers join up thinking that finding the most dead birds is the goal, and that a “good” beach is one that turns up many carcasses. Some volunteers ask if they should modify their walk schedules to coincide with the aftermath of a big storm in the interest of finding wind and wave-tossed bird bodies. That’s why we try very hard to instill in all our volunteers the value of a true baseline (or as close as we can get). For our purposes, a beach that never turns up any birds is no more or less valuable than a beach stacked high with carcasses. For the volunteers who rarely or never find dead birds though, the chance to finally  record one can be tempting. Seanetters will email from time to time saying they’ve been tipped off to the presence of a dead bird on the beach on a day when they had no walk scheduled, asking if they should go out and record it as a walk. I understand the temptation, but sticking to the set schedule of monthly, twice-monthly, or weekly walks is critical to our attempt to get at that baseline.

lc_feb2012_3The editorial closes with a mention of “increased scrutiny […] on the reliability of the work of professional scientists,” a reference, I can only assume, to recent stories of trained scientists fabricating data or even entire careers. Some of these stories are truly egregious, like that of Dutch sociologist Diederick Stapel, whose falsifications ramified down into the careers of his graduate students too. This sort of extreme case is fortunately rare, but what it points to is the possibility to get away with even a massive fraud if no one ever checks on the work. Replicating scientific studies to verify the findings of other researchers is not as common as it ought to be, and the tendency of scientific journals to preferentially publish positive results put pressure on scientists to generate the right kind of study. Most scientists, and most citizen scientists, resist that tug, but we also do whatever we can on our end to make our program as rigorous as possible. As the editorial mentions, volunteers may not be expert in identifying, say, plants. Or dead birds. We want anyone to be able to volunteer with us, so we apply to everyone equally the requirement to take a photo of every dead bird found, whether the volunteer is a total newbie to birding, or a wildlife biologist. We reduce the impact of inter-observer variation in bird identification by having one person (me) do all photo verification. And when I’m not sure of an i.d., I send it out to you, my crack team of bird identifying experts. Sometimes, science requires relinquishing some ego. But the better job we do, the more our data will stand up to rigorous inspection, and the more the profile of you, the army of citizen scientists, will rise in the world. In defiance of those who would sniff.

Back in the saddle!

18 08 2015

I spent the first two weeks of August on vacation in Maine. We were well away from the coast, staying on Long Pond in scenic Rome. We did run into a few waterbirds, including bald eagles harassing loon chicks, an osprey seizing fish, and the usual ring-billed gulls loafing about. We also saw a young and confused looking double-crested cormorant sitting atop a pine tree.

The flashiest bird we saw was this one, in Wilton, Maine, where we stopped off for their Blueberry Festival and town wide yard sale. We couldn’t resist pulling off the road for a photo op.


The boys astride their glittering mount.

Now, the fun is over, and I am back at my computer getting back to work on SEANET and prepping my syllabi and materials for the beginning of the fall semester. Lovely to be with you all again.