DBQ Answers

22 03 2016

Well, the return of the DBQ was a simple affair with only two mystery birds. The same day of the DBQ, capteagleeyes replied Bird #1 (aka Bird A) is a Black-Legged Kittiwake and Bird #2 (aka Bird B) is a Red-Breasted Merganser.  A few days later, our very own SEANET Project Coordinator, Dr. Sarah Courchesne replied “I concur”.  Lets review some key characteristics of these mystery birds and see if we can confirm their species identification.

Bird A looks tern or gull-like in winter plumage. However, none of the terns have a squared off tail. Most terns have distinct forked tails or some degree of forking in their tails. Thus, this directs us to the gull family (Laridae). Relative to the pebbles on the beach, this gull appears to be a smaller gull (less than 17″ total length). Next, bill and leg color are good clues its identity.  The yellow bill points to Ring-Billed Gull, Common Black-Headed Gull (1st year, nonbreeding) or a Black-Legged Kittiwake. Bird A is lacking a black ring (Ring-Billed Gull) or a black tip (Common Black-Headed Gull) which leaves us with a Black-Legged Kittiwake.

Black-Legged Kittiwake (nonbreeding)


Bird B provides us wings, feet and a sternum.  I immediately look at the speculum (i.e. Secondaries) and the color of the webbed feet.  Only two species of bay and sea ducks have solid white in their secondaries and secondary coverts.  They are the female Red-Breasted Mergansers and the female Common Mergansers. The feet of the Common merganser are deep red in color. The male Red-Breasted Merganser has deep red feet as well while the female has lighter red feet. It appears to me the feet are a lighter red color in the picture. Therefore, we have enough clues without exploring the sternum that point to a female Red-Breasted Merganser.



Red-Breasted Merganser, Female


There  you have it. The evidence points to Bird A as a Black-Legged Kittiwake and Bird B as a female Red-Breasted Merganser, therefore, we can conclude the identification of the mystery birds are confirmed! Stay tuned for a future DBQ right here on the SEANET Blog.

DBQ is back!

10 03 2016

The Dead Bird Quiz (DBQ) is back by popular demand. This is my first DBQ post – a first of sorts?!. Just two birds, one from a northern beach and one from a southern beach. Something for everyone to test their bird identification skills. Let the quiz begin!



Bird A,  found by Caroline Itzler on a beach in January on Cape Cod.


Bird B, found by Wendy Stanton on her North Carolina beach last month.


SEANET “Southern-style”

24 02 2016

As the new, “official” SEANET blogger and a resident of the southeastern United States, I wanted to bring a story from the South to all Seanetters.   This is what I am calling SEANET “Southern-style”.  So, let’s get started. The mission of SEANET is to bring together interdisciplinary researchers and members of the public (i.e. citizen scientists) in a long-term collaborative effort along the eastern seaboard to help identify and mitigate threats to marine birds. A big part to realizing SEANET’s mission involves the support from members of the public (i.e. citizen scientists). To this end, the North Carolina national estuarine research reserve’s coastal training program hosted a workshop entitled “Recruiting Citizens to conduct Science & Monitoring” on February 3, 2016 in Beaufort, North Carolina.  The workshop objectives were to: learn about citizen science and monitoring projects occurring in coastal North Carolina;    discuss what makes a successful citizen science project; and discuss managing project volunteers.  At this workshop, I had the pleasure of presenting the SEANET program to the workshop participants and sharing the lessons we have learned the last few years expanding SEANET into the Southeastern Atlantic States.  In a nutshell, what we have learned is that through a series of SEANET workshops that we hosted in North and South Carolina resulted in a 5X increase in the number of SEANET routes being surveyed from 2012-2015 which helped us detect an atypical die-off event in razorbills and dovekies during this period that may have gone largely unnoticed if not for SEANET volunteers! However, by the end of this three year period the number of active SEANET routs had declined by ~40%.  In addition, we felt that because of general lack of frequent communication with the newly established SEANET volunteers during this time period it may have played a big role in the decline. Lastly, we concluded that volunteers (i.e. the use citizen scientists) is a relatively new practice that conservation organizations and natural resource agencies are utilizing to collect data on natural resources and there is still a lot more we need to learn to realize its full potential! But one thing is for sure, SEANET “Southern-style” is trying to do its part to help SEANET meet its mission. And it goes without saying; a big thank you goes out to Seanetters everywhere! Go SEANET volunteers!

A Workshop: Recruiting Citizens to Conduct Science & Monitoring

(featuring SEANET!)

February 3, 2016

Beaufort, North Carolina


The workshop presentations, discussion notes and citizen science resources from the workshop can be found here: http://www.nccoastaltraining.net/web/ctp/past-workshops.


The SEANET Blog lives on!

10 02 2016

Hello my name is John Stanton. I am a migratory bird biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and a longtime supporter and contributor to SEANET!

I have decided to take over the SEANET Blog to continue to communicate the good work of Seanetters; to continue the Dead Bird Quizzes that have developed a strong following, and to promote SEANET.  Sarah Courchesne, SEANET’s original SEANET Blogger has set the bar high, but I will strive to rise to the challenge!john

Feel free to contact me at john_stanton@fws.gov and together we will make the SEANET Blog the best it can be!

Blogger says farewell

28 01 2016

When I started this blog in 2008, I would never have imagined it would have the kind of longevity or enthusiastic readership that it has. I thought it would be an outlet for occasional news and information and might not last all that long. Instead, it became my connection to many of you Seanetters, to collaborators, to students of dead bird identification on either side of the Atlantic.

Photo on 1-28-16 at 2.18 PM

Farewell from my accustomed blogging spot, alone in the dining room.

Because it has come to mean so much to me, it’s been difficult to come to my present decision. Since 2014, I have been a full time professor at my local community college. Because SEANET doesn’t count as one of my responsibilities in that role, I have to pursue any SEANET activities outside of my obligations to the college. This, as you might imagine, leaves very few hours in the week. Keeping the blog while also responding to your emails, and trying (trying) to analyze some of our data from time to time, has proven untenable. Since I do not want to stop corresponding with volunteers, or dredging up data for people who request it for their research, I concluded that the blog must be what I let slip overboard to lighten this little craft.

I want to say thank you to all of you, everywhere, who have read the blog, written comments, played the Dead Bird Quiz game, and otherwise made my solitary work a little less solitary. I feel what seems a disproportionate sadness over this; this blog has combined three of my great loves–writing, science, and education.

If I may flatter myself that some of you would follow my writing outside the proscribed bounds of seabird science, I do keep an intermittent naturalist’s/outdoor/ecology blog that you are welcome to stop into from time to time.

Thank you, thank you, thank you for over seven years of your company, your time, and your interest. I won’t ever forget it. -Sarah

Scrounging for cash

22 01 2016

For an impoverished outfit, we don’t go begging for funds nearly as often as we ought, here at SEANET. I mean to rectify this, in part, today, with a specific plea.

Regular readers of the blog will know that I help out every summer banding gulls on Appledore Island in Maine. Each year, we are fortunate to have generous private donors who fund students to come out and assist us. This year, we are trying something new, and much more ambitious. Of the students who came out to the island for banding last week, we selected two extremely talented young women to spend an entire summer on the island not just banding gulls, but studying their diet, reproductive success, and a host of other ecological parameters. It’s something we’ve long talked about, and this is our pilot year.

Again, we have benefited from the incredible generosity of private donors in paying the steep fees to keep a person on the island for 10 weeks, but that brings me to why I’m here scrounging for cash.


Mary (right) and Taylor on island–these two are our chosen interns for 2016!

The internship funds we currently have cover room and board, transportation, and a very small stipend. We want our internship to be open to students of any means, and one of the students we selected (full disclosure of nepotism here) is my sister, Mary Everett. Mary is a full time student and she and her husband also have to work a substantial number of hours to keep the rent paid, groceries bought and all that. If Mary is to take 10 weeks of her summer off work to do this internship, she has to raise substantial funds to do so. Not only will she continue to have bills come due, but she is giving up the prime earning time of summer when she could normally make some extra money to get them through the school year.

If you can help out in any way, even a few bucks, we’ve set up an easy and secure site for you to do so. It’s the only time I’ll be on here asking, and every little bit counts. Please, help me ship my sister off to an island for a couple months!

Flashy color and honest signals

19 01 2016

After the last Dead Bird Quiz featuring blue wing patches, it seems an apt time to address the structure and function of such color in birds. Blue is, of course, not the only color a bird may display; even outside the outrageous coloration seen in many tropical species like parrots, we here in North America are treated to many birds in these color classes:


Male scarlet tanager in Illinois (photo: CheepShot via Wikimedia)


Baltimore oriole depicted in the Wisconsin Bird Bulletin, 1906. (photo via Harvard’s Ernst Mayr Library)

In such cases, the colors in the feathers are built from dietary pigments, particularly carotenoids. Because the brightness of the color in the feather depends on the quality of the diet, such reds and oranges are termed “honest signals” of the quality of the individual–birds that are better foragers sport brighter colors. A female selecting a mate can use the brightness of a male’s plumage as an indicator of what sort of provider he will be, both in terms of genetic contribution, and, in species where males contribute parental care, how well he will provision the chicks.

Blue pigments, on the other hand, are not derived from diet, but are instead what are known as structural pigments. Proteins in the feather, when aligned properly, will reflect blue light back at the observer. These proteins typically “self assemble” and a more genetically fit bird would not be bluer than a lesser individual. Blue feathers either are, or they aren’t, as the conventional wisdom goes, and there is no spectrum of brighter or duller blue jays, or ducks, or what have you. There has been work to challenge this, focusing on what can affect the brightness of structural color. Feather mites, for instance, could damage or dishevel the feather, leading to a loss of brightness. A more fit individual might have fewer such parasites, and so the blue in these birds might appear brighter than a heavily infested bird. So a duller bird might be less fit, but is there any such thing as a “super blue?” A blue that is brighter than the average because that bird is fitter?


Turquoise-browed motmot (photo by Katja Shulz, via Flickr)

I encountered a study done on turquoise-browed motmots in Mexico on this subject. In this species, both males and females sport a blue tail with a racket shaped projection at the end, though the tail feathers are longer in males. The researchers analyzed the brightness of the tail feathers across the sexes and within the sexes, between individuals. They were interested in determining whether the brightness of the blue could, in fact, be linked to fitness in either or both sexes. Not only did the study address the variation in brightness across individuals, they also measured how quickly the feathers grew. Growth rate is considered an indicator of fitness since a bird’s energy reserves, and thus diet, determine how much new feather a bird can lay down in a day.

The research team indeed found that the brightness of the blue in the tail feathers was greater in birds whose tails grew faster, but only in males. In females, no link between the two was identified. It seems that, in males, blue may indeed be an honest signal of fitness. In females, the tail is shorter overall, and there is no correlation between brightness and growth. This is consistent with the hypothesis that the tail in female motmots is not used to signal fitness, but may serve a different purpose, like distracting predators while the bird makes a swift escape, or may simply be a genetic holdover between the sexes.

This subject of honest signaling also came up while I was preparing notes for a new course I am teaching this semester. My students will be looking at the dominance hierarchy in house sparrows. In these birds, the size and darkness of the bib in males is an indicator of his position in the hierarchy. Both males and females will defer to larger-bibbed males, and the dominance extends not only to access to mates, but to nest sites and food. Researchers have understandably been interested in what underlies these bibs. The black color of the bib is caused by the pigment melanin, which is expensive to manufacture. Because of this, black coloration is considered an honest signal, much as reds and oranges are, since only a well fed, highly fit individual, would have the spare energy to lay down that pigment. Since the bibs are tied to dominance behavior in males, testosterone seemed a likely target for analysis in this case. Interestingly, I found one study that showed no link between high testosterone and large, dark bibs. That study also noted that the bib is produced in fall when the birds molt, but is not used in terms of mate selection until the following spring. Testosterone levels can fluctuate substantially over that time, so birds that had high circulating testosterone in fall when they grew the bib may well have lower levels than their rivals come spring. So if females use those badges to select mates, and if rivals are choosing not to challenge another male based on badge size, they are not using a reliable indicator of testosterone at the time of breeding either.


A modest throat patch. Dark bills, unlike badges, DO show a clear link to testosterone levels. (photo: Adamo, via Wikimedia)

A more recent study following up on this work looked at testosterone again, but measured it at night rather than during the day. The results indicated that testosterone was, in fact, linked to badge size. Over the course of 24 hours, testosterone levels peak at night while the birds are asleep, and fall off rapidly as soon as the birds wake up. When measured at night, peak testosterone levels did correlate with individuals with the largest bib size. Perhaps, suggest the researchers, badge size reflects peak production of testosterone, rather than average level. This still leaves the question of seasonal changes–does this nighttime testosterone production hold true for the time of year when the badges are being grown, or only during the season when they are being used for breeding signaling? The plot thickens. Or, since we’re talking about dark splotches on birds, shall we say, the blot thickens? Sorry.