I divulge the secrets of quality control

20 10 2015

Many thanks to Dennis Minsky who wrote me with questions about the process by which a bird identified as one species by the volunteer mysteriously changes to a different species in the database. Dennis even suggested it might be a worthy blog post, and I concur. So here it is, the secret sauce.

When you folks submit a walk report, dead birds or no, I look it over. The only things I really look at in terms of the environmental data you report is to see if the time seems correct (did you really walk at 3am, or did you just slip when entering am/pm?) and check if there are any notes you left me about your walk.

If you do find a dead bird, the process of verifying your data is necessarily more involved. We are proud of the fact that we can present our data with assurances as to the accuracy of the species reported, because, as you know, we require you all to take photos of every bird you find. Many of you are experienced birders, so I appreciate very much that even the most knowledgable among you still take the time to snap those pics. Because of that, we can say confidently that every beached bird is reviewed by a second level referee beyond the person who found the bird. That referee is, and has been since 2008 or so, me. If you submit a beached bird report, and you don’t include photos, your report will still be verified, but your beached bird i.d. will be changed to “Other, Unknown” and in the notes box at the bottom of the screen, you will see this:


Screen Shot 2015-10-20 at 3.03.12 PMI am not always confident in my i.d., especially with the carcasses in really rough shape. Anyone who reads this blog knows that, since my uncertainties are usually paraded in front of you as Dead Bird Quizzes. But not every beached bird photo makes it to a DBQ.

In many cases, you submit your beached bird report and photos, and then you check again in a day, a week, or, more likely, a few months, and that report has been checked off as verified, your bird i.d. confirmed. In some cases, you may go into an old report and find that your i.d. has been changed and no one told you. When that happens, it’s because I have gone in and reviewed the report, any measurements, and the photos, and come to a different conclusion than you did. I realize this is a somewhat opaque process since there is nothing to alert you that this has happened.

At the prompting of Dennis’ email, I have been thinking of how better to communicate with you about these cases. These revisions come frequently enough that individual emails are not possible, but what I can do is to use that “Notes about carcass” field to let you know how I came to a different conclusion than you did. Sometimes it will be a particular field mark or coloration pattern, sometimes a skeletal clue, sometimes it’s the measurements. I can appreciate that it will help you be a better birder of dead birds if I provide some explanation of that thought process. I will start giving that a try on my next round of verifications, which is already overdue. The beached bird reports wait for no man, nor for any college professor in the throes of mid-semester stress. My gratitude for your patience, Seanetters!

Back home, post-gulling

5 06 2015

On one of our last banding days, a group of birders showed up on the island. We gave them the whole gull banding dog and pony show, and it turned out that one member of the group was a reporter for New Hampshire Public Radio. Though his story focused mainly on the songbirds migrating through, he did include a clip of me describing gull-inflicted injuries. While this is not positive for those hoping to raise public opinion of gulls, I still think the story is worth sharing.

I also wanted to share some photos of our gull banding team–Bill Clark, longtime gull banding volunteer, took some really great photos of our group and the work. Take a look at his collection on Flickr, and please indulge me while I share two pictures that I find very funny.

A gull regards Bill’s camera head on. This is always funny.


Julie sets a trap while Peggy Friar staves off attack.

I am set up at my dining room table right now, where I am working on SEANET encounter rate data from 2010-2014. I am swearing never to permit such a backlog again. It’s going faster than I had expected, though it remains tedious work. Soon, I will have numbers for Cape Cod Bay at least, and you can be sure, you will be the first to know.

Return from Appledore

1 06 2015

The rains descended on our last morning of gull banding week this year, but fortunately, we had already wrapped up most of our work while the sun was still shining the previous evening. In the end, we managed to capture and band over fifty adult gulls, and later this summer, a second team will head out to band hundreds of pre-fledglings. As you can see, the adult banding is much slower going, but the advantage is that the adults are far more likely to return than any given juvenile, which suffer substantial mortality in the first year. So, we hope to cover our bases by doing both types of banding.

We were fortunate that Julie Ellis made it out for a couple days this years, wrestling free of her children for 48 hours or so. Hilarity ensued, naturally.

Julie and UNE student Taylor Ouellette take measurements on a gull. If these are their game faces, we're in trouble.

Julie and UNE student Taylor Ouellette take measurements on a gull. If these are their game faces, we’re in trouble.

The team gradually gained in skill over the course of the week, going from the skittish neophytes you see here to the confident gull-stalkers they were by week’s end.

Ally Pittman watches a trap from a rocky vantage point.

Ally Pittman watches a trap from a rocky vantage point.

They were also extremely good at relaxing.


From left: Alisa Povenmire, Bill Clark, Peggy Friar, Jamie Zananiri, and Ally Pittman (foreground).

Jamie was our diligent and detail-oriented data recorder, and Chandler Maagoul was Chief Sitter and Snacker.

Jamie was our diligent and detail-oriented data recorder, and Chandler Maagoul was Chief Sitter and Snacker.

Of course, even while working with live birds, my heart is with the dead ones, so I share with you this carcass we found on one of the rocky beaches of the island between two raucous gull colonies:


Luckily I snapped a photo of this Great Cormorant since Superstar Bird Nerd and Ornithology Professor David Bonter publicly called my i.d. into question. Take THAT, David Bonter!

Now, it’s back to computer work. Feast or famine around here, when it comes to the outdoors, it seems.

Annual Gull Fest on Appledore underway!

28 05 2015
From left: Mary Everett, Alisa Povenmire, and Jamie Zananiri, all of Northern Essex Community College.

From left: Mary Everett, Alisa Povenmire, and Jamie Zananiri, all of Northern Essex Community College.

This week I am on my annual idyll, banding gulls on Appledore. We have an excellent team this year (and I don’t say that every time. Or if I do, I do not mean it). It’s a mixed group of students in terms of their institutions of origin, four of them being my recruits from Northern Essex Community College. They, of course, are the best of the best.


Jamie and University of New England student Taylor Ouelette draw blood from a Herring Gull.

We are focusing mainly on Herring Gulls, which are notoriously difficult to trap, but the team’s spirits are high despite it all.
We’re working long days, but I did want to let you know what’s happening before I stagger off to bed. Tomorrow, it’s another day of banding and patrolling the island for any previously banded birds. So far, we’ve banded around twenty birds, and we hope to at least double that by the end of the week. Wish us luck!

A single Herring Gull in the heart of Black-backed territory--intrepid.

A single Herring Gull in the heart of Black-backed territory–intrepid.

Another morbid website, and goings on in the Gulf of Maine

19 05 2015

You may already be familiar with WHER, the Wildlife Health Event Reporter, where members of the public can submit their reports of sick, injured, or dead wildlife. Your SEANET beached bird data gets hoovered up by that very site, so you can see what birds your neighbors, or distant SEANET kin are finding. Now, there’s an additional tool out from USGS National Wildlife Health Center, conspiratorially named WHISPers. This site draws together wildlife mortality reports from government agencies and other partner groups. Though you, as an individual citizen (scientist) cannot contribute to this particular database, you can see what’s turning up. Here’s a screenshot of the results I got when I searched for events in my home state of New Hampshire:

Screen Shot 2015-05-19 at 10.25.57 AM

Cool, huh? One gets not only geographic information, but in many cases, a confirmed or suspected diagnosis. Take a look around the site when you have a chance.

Now, I abruptly turn to some happenings here in the northern SEANET reaches over the next couple weeks. First up is our annual pilgrimage to Appledore Island to band gulls for the ongoing work of our own Julie Ellis. Through the generosity of a private donor, I was able to select four worthy students from my institution, Northern Essex Community College, to join our Gull Team this May. They are packing their bags and borrowing binoculars in preparation for the trip, and truly, none of them have any idea what they’re getting into.

Finally, in June, I will be meeting with faculty and administrators from my college and from the Gulf of Maine Institute to discuss possible collaborations and partnerships for our students. This is an exciting prospect and I will, no doubt, have some news on that front as the summer progresses. Never a dull moment, Seanetters. Though sometimes I do wish for a bit of a breather…

The surprising durability of wings

29 01 2015

While reviewing this month’s walk data, I came upon a resighted bird reported by Warren Mumford on his Cape Cod beach. The bird was nothing but a single wing and some gnawed bones, but still with a bright, shiny, aluminum tag affixed reading 588. I looked back through our records to determine when Warren first found and tagged 588, and was impressed to find that this bird has been on his beach almost a year, having been seen initially in March 2014. Here is a series of photos documenting 588’s decline:

First seen in Macrh, 2014. (photo: W. Mumford)

First seen in March, 2014, already just a set of wings. (photo: W. Mumford)

August 2014. (photo: W. Mumford)

August 2014. (photo: W. Mumford)

November 2014. (photo: W. Mumford)

November 2014. (photo: W. Mumford)

January 2015. (photo: W. Mumford)

January 2015. (photo: W. Mumford)

First off, I can’t resist even a mini-DBQ, so, can you tell what species this is? Second, this case got me thinking about how we count dead birds and how to account for their persistence (or lack thereof) on beaches. As I begin analyzing data from the past two or three years, I am interested in looking at these tagged birds in particular. Once we instituted the numbered aluminum tags, how many of them were resighted on later surveys? How many were never seen again? How does this differ across beaches? And moreover, 588 shows us how long wings can stick around. Who knows how long dead 588 was when it turned up on Warren’s beach in the first place? How long can a set of wings and a sternum drift around before landing on a beach? And if wings can stick around for so long, are they really useful in trying to track mortality through time? If a set of wings might be from a bird that died a year previous, should it be counted, for instance, in an acute mortality event, or should only intact carcasses be used for that?

Lucky for me, there are actual trained scientists with trained scientific minds who can help me sort this out as I tackle the data. We shall see what it all yields.

Dead Bird Quiz plus live bird bonus!

8 01 2015

One dead bird for you today: a wing and sternum combo out of South Carolina courtesy of Doug and Gina McQuilken from just about this time last year. It’s in pretty rough shape, but I can make out a few features that could help us make this i.d. Tell me what you think.

DGMCQUILKEN6329-11067-1Upper surface (partly anyway. it’s rather twisted up.) DGMCQUILKEN6328-11067Underside of wings.

And now, for a decidedly livelier bird. This one was spotted by Tom McFeely of Beaufort, SC. He spotted this bird in Port Royal, South Carolina. I found this photo so striking, I thought I’d share it with you all.

We passed along this sighting to Dan Clark here in Massachusetts, who runs the tagging study on these Ring-billed Gulls, and he told us the history on this bird. Evidently, it is a male, initially captured 3/28/2013 at Webster Lake in Massachusetts using a net launcher baited with bread, crackers, and French fries (the classic gull trifecta). Since then, the bird seems to spend summers in Quebec and winters in South Carolina, passing through New England during the trips in between.