Dead Bird Quiz: back to school edition

30 09 2015

Hi Seanetters! I am back in the throes of teaching now, so much of my days are consumed by teaching, grading, listening to people whine, and all the usual teaching related stuff. Please forgive me, therefore, if I only manage one post a week for the next couple months. One thing is certain though: it is high time for a DBQ. Here it is.

Bird A, found by Lynda Zegers on her South Carolina beach in August.

Bird A's underside

Bird A’s underside

Upper surface of Bird A.

Upper surface of Bird A.

Bird B, found by Gil Grant on his North Carolina beach, also in August.

Statelessness and decline in seabirds

23 09 2015

This week, I read an article in the Guardian about global, severe declines in the majority of seabird species. The impacts have been worst in open-ocean birds like albatross, petrels, and shearwaters. Though the causes of such a broad and precipitious decline are myriad, one particular factor caught my eye–the remarkable globe-trotting of these birds and their utter lack of respect for political boundaries. People marvel at feats like the globe crossing migrations of terns, or the zig-zag path of Greater Shearwaters as they bounce from North America over to Africa and down to the farthest south Atlantic. But this fligth prowess puts there birds at risk. While they may be well protected under one nation’s conservation policies, as soon as they pass into another country’s waters, those protections may fall away. This is not to mention the lawlessless of the high seas–the open ocean where many of these birds must make a living. Plastic pollution, overfishing, entanglement: these mutiple factors all converge on the open ocean species.

In my biology classes, I like to show my students, many of whom are immigrants from the Dominican Republic, this image of the island of Hispaniola.

The border between Haiti (left) and the Dominican Republic (right) where forest protections are much more stringent.

The border between Haiti (left) and the Dominican Republic (right) where forest protections are well enforced.

In many cases, we know what we need to do to protect seabirds; longline fishing techniques, for instance, can be modified to avoid catching albatross. But issues of compliance and enforcement are myriad. We know that overfishing can be addressed and that fish populations can rebound quickly in some cases. Several years ago, Senegal banned the export of fish caught in its waters and rescinded the fishing licenses of many EU and Asian boats. This was done mainly to protect subsistence and artisanal fishing in that country, but it has successfully boosted fish stocks. Each nation makes its own laws, of course, and even then, the ability to enforce those laws varies wildly between nations and continents. Threading their way through all these borders are the seabirds. Unless we can get some semblance of an international approach, it seems we can anticipate further declines across these species groups. I am congenitally optimistic, but my realist side does wonder…

Empty nests

11 09 2015
Songbird bander Lindsay Herlihy helps my elder son release a cedar waxwing!

Songbird bander Lindsay Herlihy helps my elder son release a cedar waxwing!

This week, I went back to school, meeting several classrooms’ worth of new students. The campus, which had been a veritable ghost town, is now bustling again with bewildered and lost students, nervous students, and the feeling of optimism that comes with a new school year no matter how old you may be. Over the summer, I was focused on SEANET, and on spending time with my kids, and on the gull project on Appledore Island. For the first time, I combined those last two and brought my two sons out to Shoals Marine Lab for a meeting with the Director there, Jennifer Seavey. I’ve been out for gull banding just about every year since 2008, but I had never visited the island when the gulls were not breeding. It was a strange feeling, then, to encounter gulls loafing about near their tousled old nests, not trying to dive bomb or defecate on me. It was quiet and weirdly calm. The breeding birds were slowly departing, and the young almost all fledged and gone too. Lovely as it was, I couldn’t help but feel like the soul of the island was missing, not only because the gulls were going, but because there were no boisterous undergrads running around, working on projects, mucking around in tide pools,  or lying in the hammocks during downtime from classes. I won’t deny, it was pleasant to see this quiet side of Appledore, but it was undeniably strange to see all those abandoned grass nests where before I’d been chased off by individual gulls that I’ve known for years.

Broken eggs litter the ground on Seahorse Key. (Photo: AP)

Broken eggs litter the ground on Seahorse Key. (Photo: AP)

It got me thinking about another island with a whole lot of empty nests. Shoals Director Jenn Seavey previously worked on Seahorse Key in Florida. On that very island this year, thousands of waterbirds in the middle of the breeding season, disappeared. Many left eggs behind in their nests. Researchers say the birds were there on the 19th of May, and all gone when they checked again on the 21st. Was it a predator? Someone flying a recreational drone over the island? Hypotheses abound, but whatever it was, the disturbance had to have been profound to cause such extensive abandonment. Biologists found only a fraction of the birds from Seahorse had re-nested on other islands. The rest seem to have lit off for parts unknown. Whether they will come back next year is unknown. We will be in suspense until the breeding season rolls around again next spring.

Back on Appledore, we were also focused on filling up an island next summer. My colleague at Northern Essex Community College, Ken Thomas, and I, were meeting with Jenn Seavey and Julie Ellis about expanding opportunities for NECC students to take courses through the lab, and also potentially to help out with the gull project beyond the banding weeks in May and July. I came away from the meeting with a long list of people to see and things to do, and money to find, but I am optimistic that we will see community college students on the course rosters on the island next summer.

These shearwaters ain’t foolin’ nobody!

1 09 2015
These GRSH show off their competitive natures and their field marks. The birds in the background look like Wilson's Storm Petrels to me. (Photo: DickDaniels via wikimedia commons)

These GRSH show off their competitive natures and their field marks. The birds in the background look like Wilson’s Storm Petrels to me. (Photo: DickDaniels via wikimedia commons)

As anticipated, pro dead bird identifiers like the readers of this blog recognized the three species in the last post immediately. Bird A is a Greater, Bird B a Sooty, and Bird C a Cory’s Shearwater. Luckily for me, shearwater i.d. tends to be straightforward, and I have a few quick features I look for to make the call at a glance. For the Cory’s, it’s that yellow bill. As the field guides say, that is “distinctive” once you’ve established you’re looking at a shearwater. And the wacky tube nose is a giveaway on that. For the Sooty, the dark breast and belly are the decisive factor here; other shearwaters have white on the underside. The most common shearwater we get on SEANET beaches though is by far the Greater. When looking at a light bellied shearwater with a dark bill, it’s almost always a Greater. But I check every time for what I find the most reliable indicators. GRSH have a dark, smudgy patch on the belly. To the uninitiated, it can look like dirt, or even oil. You all, of course, are initiated, and know that. That is, however, why I chose Bird A particularly. The smudge is variable between individuals, and I found it interesting that it is basically absent in this bird. That did give me pause, so I double-checked with another of my go-t0s for GRSH, the undertail coverts (dark in Bird A). Among the white-bellied shearwaters, the Manx has white undertail coverts, while both the GRSH and Audubon’s have dark. So we should at least entertain Audubon’s when looking at a shearwater that has a white belly and seems to lack any dark smudging.

Though I didn’t provide a picture of the upper side of Bird A in the original post (not that any of you needed it), so I will do so now:

Other side of Bird A. Photo courtesy of L. Ries.

Other side of Bird A. Photo courtesy of L. Ries.

This Bird looks brownish overall on its upper surface. This is definitely a GRSH characteristic; Audubon’s shearwaters are much blacker above. Finally, if you look at the upper surface of the tail, you can see a disheveled pale band in evidence. This is also a GRSH feature; Audubon’s have an all dark rump and tail. The pale tail band also brings up one last species to keep in the back of our mind, though it very rarely turns up; the Black-capped Petrel is not a shearwater at all, but it is a tubenose with a white belly and dark upper side. What sets it apart, however, is a broad, clearly white band on the upper tail, and a sharp black band on the underside of the wing. I am always hoping such rarities will turn up, so I try to keep my mind open to them, and my oddball i.d. skills honed.