State of Wellfleet Harbor Conference on November 8th

4 11 2014

Let us continue the Wellfleet theme just a bit longer, shall we? SEANET ally Jenette Kerr sent along word of a great way to spend this Saturday should you find yourself on Cape Cod. Pertinent points to consider: the conference is free and open to the public AND includes a complimentary continental breakfast!

The 12th annual State of Wellfleet Harbor Conference will be held Saturday, November 8 from
8:30 AM–2 PM at the Wellfleet Elementary School. The conference is free and open to the public.

Diamondback terrapin feels that you should attend this conference. (USDA photo by Jenny Mastanuono)

Diamondback terrapin feels that you should attend this conference. (USDA photo by Jenny Mastanuono)

This year’s event features research and other activities related to the planned restoration of tidal flow to the Herring River as well as surveys aimed at learning more about animals that make a living in and near Wellfleet Harbor—oysters, river herring, horseshoe crabs, diamondback terrapins, and ocean sunfish. Among this year’s presenters will be Nauset High School students who’ve teamed up with fifth graders from Wellfleet and Truro to compare oyster growth and mortality in various locations of the Herring River and Mayo Creek.
“I think this year’s conference offers great examples of how our community of scientists, citizens, and organizations are using scientific inquiry at all scales, from satellites to test tubes, to meet our local natural resource challenges,” notes conference founder Abigail Franklin Archer. “I’m also looking forward to hearing from the youngest researchers we’ve ever had present!”
The conference also will feature a field trip on Sunday from 9:30–11:30 AM, a tour of upper Herring River culverts and road crossings led by some of the scientists and conservationists involved in the river’s planned restoration. Details about the conference and field trip can be found at

Contemplating the Wellfleet area ecosystem from a hammock. Also a good way to spend a Saturday. (Photo by S. Courchesne)

Contemplating the Wellfleet area ecosystem from a hammock. Also a good way to spend a Saturday. (Photo by S. Courchesne)

Sponsors of this year’s State of Wellfleet Harbor Conference include Cape Cod Five Cents Savings Bank, Mid Cape Home Centers, the town of Wellfleet, the Wellfleet Conservation Trust, Friends of the Herring River and Mass Audubon. Food donations are being made by Mac’s Seafood, the Wellfleet Box Lunch, Dunkin Donuts, the South Wellfleet General Store, and PB Boulangerie.

For more information, contact conference coordinator Jenette Kerr at or

Update on eider research

30 10 2014

It’s fall, and on Cape Cod, that often means piles of dead eiders rather than piles of rustling leaves. In the multi-year investigation into why so many common eiders turn up dead around Wellfleet most years, the USDA, USFWS and numerous other groups have partnered up and pooled their skill and resources to try to get to the bottom of what’s happening. Right now, the researchers are wrapping up the live bird sampling phase of this fall’s work; they have been trapping birds as they arrive from their breeding islands–some from as nearby as Boston Harbor, some from nearer the Arctic. The idea is to sample their blood and feces to see if they arrive in Cape Cod Bay already having been exposed to, and possibly even shedding the virus. The birds are also banded so that if they ultimately die (of any cause) and are found, we will know what their viral status was as of the beginning of the overwintering season. The Cape Cod Times has posted an article with some rather delightful photos of this work.

Cape Cod is a SEANET hotspot, luckily for us, and many of our dedicated volunteers have offered to help in any way they can. Up to now, biologists were interested in hearing where and when eiders were arriving from the north. With the sampling work completed, the focus will now shift to documenting and collecting dead birds. Anyone, Seanetter or not, can help with this effort, so if you see more than a few sick or dead eiders (and this is not just for Cape Cod), please contact Randall Mickley (randall.m.mickley”at” or 413-658-7113).

The other critical thing to report is any banded bird found dead. Here is a timely time to reissue our dead bird flyer! Please encourage all your friends and neighbors to jot down any band numbers they find and report them. I can’t emphasize enough how valuable those data are!



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.

The decimation of ducks

4 03 2014
A sampler pack of scoter wings mostly with attached sternae found in Brewster MA. (photo: Diana Gaumond).

A sampler pack of scoter wings mostly with attached sternae found in Brewster MA. (photo: Diana Gaumond).

Winter is a grand time for viewing sea ducks near shore. Along my SEANET route, I routinely see bufflehead, common eider, scaup, common goldeneye, red-breasted merganser, and a handful of other occasional visitors. Not surprising then, that winter is also the time that we see the peak of duck mortality along the beaches as well. This winter, it looks like we may be seeing an uptick above typuical mortality among white-winged scoters (WWSC) on Cape Cod in particular. A quick glance at our numbers shows somewhere between double and triple the number of WWSC we saw last winter on SEANET beaches (though that number was never very large itself–fewer than a dozen.) Outside SEANET surveys, we have also been getting reports from Doug McNair, who surveys the outer Cape independently, that WWSC mortality seems well above normal.

Rare intact WWSC found by Warren Mumford in Chatham, MA.

Rare intact WWSC found by Warren Mumford in Chatham, MA.

One thing we tend to notice in duck carcasses is their incomplete nature. While other birds are often found intact, most duck species seem to be found in pieces. Doug raised the question of whether this might be anthropogenic; perhaps hunters strip off the breast meat and toss away the rest of the carcass? I can’t know for sure, but having looked at many pictures of carcasses in various states of disarray, it seems, to my mind, more likely that ducks turn up well scavenged in the average way, but that perhaps ducks are tastier than other carcasses?

And here we see a scoter head, spinal column and foot striking out on their own. (Photo by Jack Hooper).

And here we see a scoter head and neck striking out on their own. (Photo by Jack Hooper).

[I don’t have a clear answer on this, but in tracking individual carcasses over time on SEANET beaches, there does tend to be a typical pattern to their gradual dissipation. First, the entrails are dug out (typical gull behavior, that). Then, the pectoral muscles are stripped from the sternum. As the carcass further decomposes, the wings tend to stay with the sternu, the head goes off with the neck vertebrae, and the ribs, united with the lower vertebrae and fused pelvis eventually drop the legs and roll off by themselves. Given enough time, it appears, all carcasses (or most, anyway) will weather down to the most durable parts: bon, and the strong primary flight feathers that anchor into the bone.  This is merely my personal observation at this point, but it does give me yet another little project to delve into when time permits. I welcome your thoughts on what organisms are doing this stripping away of the meat. On my beach, I suspect the gulls. On southern beaches, I ave been impressed with the diligent scavenging of the ghost crabs. But people may be involved in certain cases too. Have any observations, Seanetters and other beach enthusiasts?

“Why are eiders dying?” talk well attended on the Cape

14 01 2013
Bird enthusiasts scan Wellfleet Harbor with the expert assistance of Mark Faherty.

Bird enthusiasts scan Wellfleet Harbor with the expert assistance of Mark Faherty.

This past Saturday, I drove out to Wellfleet, Massachusetts on Cape Cod to give a lecture at the Massachusetts Audubon Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary. This Sanctuary is close to my heart as it’s one of the places my family and I camp each summer, and to visit in another, less populous season is always a pleasure too. Beyond the beauty of the place, it was most gratifying to find a room full of people eager to hear about the Wellfleet Bay Virus (WFBV) and its impacts on Common Eiders. Several of those in attendance were Seanetters: Mary Myers and Diana Gaumond were there, and I got to meet Jerry Hequembourg and Steve Gulrich for the first time. Two prospective volunteers approached me about taking on Great Island and Jeremy Point for SEANET, and I was barely able to contain my excitement, given our lack of regular coverage there since the departure of Seanetter Dick Jordan.

To top off an already fine day, I signed up for the “Searching for Seaducks” program led by Mass Audubon’s Mark Faherty. We stopped at Wellfleet Harbor, where we saw Horned Grebes, Common Eiders that were alive (!), Bufflehead, Red-breasted Mergansers, and Common and Barrow’s Goldeneye (a first for me). Then we headed for the ocean side of the Cape and watched the surfers in their ninja-like dry suits, as well as Razorbills, scoters, and loons of two varieties. A one hour program turned into a two hour tour, but no one was complaining. Finally, we headed back and made my trek back home to New Hampshire.

Searching for the elusive Razorbills in Wellfleet.

Searching for the elusive Razorbills in Wellfleet.

I hope to have more breaking news for you, dear readers, and for everyone interested in the progress on Wellfleet Bay Virus research. The various labs and universities involved in the research are scheduled to hold a conference call on their work next month, and I will report on that as soon as it occurs. All the more reason for you to keep an eye on this blog, friends. We are a font of seaduck knowledge!

Breakneck tour of Cape Cod ends with exhaustion for Courchesnes.

29 07 2012

I’m sure all of you have been wringing your hands and rocking back and forth wondering where the SEANET blog went last week. It was inconsiderate of me to take off and leave not a note, not a word of explanation, but we had places to go and beaches to see.

My kids seeking calico crabs on the tide flats.

My family and I blissfully joined the hordes of dopey tourists aggravating those of you who actually live on the Cape. We made a very fine investment in a Cape Cod National Seashore season pass, and then embarked on a berserk, headlong expedition exploring as much of the Seashore as we possibly could in a week. Based at our beloved Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary and our tent at their utterly perfect campground, we hiked, ran, swam and got dumped off the back of waves at a total of eight beaches. Six of these were SEANET beaches, including First Encounter (WB_04), Coast Guard (WB_07), Coast Guard/Nauset Spit (WB_10), Herring Cove (WB_39), Great Island (MA_21), and Duck Harbor (WB_13). Plus Race Point in Provincetown, and Marconi Beach in Wellfleet. Holy guacamole.

The Wellfleet mascot: a mummified eider.

I could not help but feel fortunate to head a program studying the goings-on at such places as these. I wore my SEANET t-shirt to go people-watching in Provincetown, and I even found a dead eider (surprise, surprise) up in The Gut at Wellfleet Bay. Seems my work follows me wherever I go. Or maybe I follow it. But when a job involves some of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been, and a volunteer force of some of the coolest people I know, it’s hard not to mix business and pleasure. Sometimes, it’s even hard for me to tell the difference.