Who? What? WHER!

14 11 2013

I field a great many questions about reporting dead wildlife of all stripes here at SEANET. While we are dedicated to the formal, regimented collection of beached bird data on designated beaches and planned surveys, we are, nonetheless, always keenly interested in what people find on unmonitored beaches, or off in the woods, or in their suburban backyards and grocery store parking lots. Whenever I get such a query, I steer the inquirer to the Wildlife Health Event Reporter, an aggregator of wildlife illness or mortality from any cause, in any species, and of any magnitude anywhere on the globe.

When members of the public contact me to report a dead animal that no one in their local or state government seems interested in collecting, it’s easy for me to explain the merits of WHER. People like knowing that their report, however seemingly minor, might contribute to our overall understanding of wildlife health, or even help us detect the next outbreak or the newest emerging disease.

Sometimes, however, I am contacted by people who have found dead animals, and the local fish and game folks, or the environmental police, or even the federal authorities have responded. In those cases, it can be hard for me to persuade these finders to report their sightings to WHER. After all, they say, if the authorities responded and are testing the animals, surely there must be some central reporting system that will collect all that data in one place?

In fact, there is not. Or there wasn’t until WHER came along. Certainly the authorities responding to a wildlife mortality event will collect extensive data on the scope, timing and extent of the event. They may accumulate test results or other information. But the fate of that data and those results is highly variable. Some agencies may make them publicly available, others keep a spreadsheet in their internal databases, inaccessible to the public, still others keep paper reports in a file cabinet.

Flyer While WHER cannot necessarily share every detail of every event and every test, it can serve to collect all the vital information on the timing and geographic scope of the event. As more and more people use the program, we will see a more and more refined picture of what’s happening across the country and across the globe.

I am a great believer in the power of WHER, and I am, as its creators say, one its enthusiastic cheerleaders. But I am not its developer or its coordinator, so in preparing for this post, I asked Megan Hines and Cris Marsh, who actually do run the thing, to help me explain just why WHER is so important. One resource they steered me toward are the several documents on their About page. There, you can find quick summaries as well as more in depth explanations of what WHER is and why it matters. Megan also provided me with what I find to be an exceedingly helpful explanation of Why WHER is necessary, including the many reasons why data on wildlife mortality may be lost, whether because it was never reported in the first place, or never shared, or never deemed important.

The major message WHER and I would both send you is that every report of a sick or dead wild animal is valuable. Even if it’s a finch by your bird feeder with a swollen eye, or a dead chipmunk in your shed, please report it. When enough people start to do that, the patterns emerge. And the beauty of WHER is that you can follow those patterns and view all the data and all the maps at wher.org. This program is democratic in the data it accepts, and in the data that it shares, so take advantage of it, public!

Still time to help our friends at WDIN!

30 08 2013

Many of you Seanetters have personally corresponded with Megan Hines about some snag you’ve hit with data entry. Many of you may subscribe to the excellent Wildlife Disease New Digest put together by Cris Marsh and company (and if you don’t, you should).  Still others may have submitted data directly to the Wildlife Health Event Reporter, an aggregator of sick or dead wildlife sightings from anywhere on the globe. And if you SEANET, then your data is automatically sucked up into the WHER so the public can see what you’ve been seeing.

tald8iNone of this would be possible without the Wildlife Data Integration Network based in Madison Wisconsin. Now, the WDIN is on shaky financial footing. Perilously shaky, in fact. I don’t genuinely know what we would do without Megan, Cris and their team, and right now, they desperately need your support. They are seeking funding from multiple sources, but they need your testimonial. They need evidence of the public benefit of what they do. You can help, whether you have money to donate, or a letter to share. Not sure what to write? You can use the template provided. But whatever you do, please hurry; they have a looming deadline on Sunday, September 1st. Your letter will still be used in future endeavors if not received by then, but if you have a few moments, please try to do it today. You can email your letters to wdin@wdin.org.

Here’s the one Julie Ellis and I have submitted, and it does not even come close to expressing how critical WDIN is to SEANET’s continued success. I hope you too will come to their aid!


August 26, 2013


To Whom It May Concern:


We write in full and enthusiastic support of the WDIN’s continued work for the Seabird Ecological Assessment Network (SEANET). The level of technical support, advice, and responsiveness we receive from Megan Hines and WDIN are critical to the survival of our project. Without it, our study would almost certainly not survive. Our study produces consistent, baseline data on seabird mortality along the eastern seaboard on a scale of years, and I have included below some of the most current and pressing needs that our data are helping to meet.


We certainly appreciate the difficult financial situation facing WDIN, and we hope that the examples given below will help demonstrate the strong justification for retaining the support for this project.


Cris Marsh and WDIN are also providing an invaluable service in their outreach and education efforts through the Wildlife Disease News Digest; not a day goes by that we do not use the Digest to learn of new wildlife disease developments, and we have not found any other single resource that is so consistent, comprehensive, and overarching in its coverage of the subject. We very genuinely could not do the work we do in citizen science, public education, and seabird mortality study without the constant and broad support of WDIN.


If you have any questions, or would like any additional information, please do not hesitate to contact us.



Julie Ellis, PhD

SEANET Executive Director


Sarah Courchesne, DVM

SEANET Project Director


Offshore development proposed for U.S. Atlantic waters requires that regulatory agencies such as the Bureau of Energy Management, Regulation, and Enforcement (BOEMRE) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) assess the effects of activities such as the construction and operation of wind turbines on marine bird populations.  In 2011 budget justifications for the USGS, the Secretarial (DOI) Initiative for “New Energy Frontier – Wind”  directs the USGS to “… establish a comprehensive data management structure, facilitate collaboration, and ensure long-term viability of information products that contribute to the Nation’s understanding of the management and effects of wind energy infrastructure and products.”(USDI-USGS 2011).  To meet these goals, information on the occurrence, distribution, and behavior of seabirds and factors influencing their distribution is needed to adequately assess the potential for impacts, especially for species considered threatened, endangered, or in decline.

The concern over potential bird mortality due to offshore wind turbines has led both developers and regulators to seek sources of baseline bird mortality data before wind projects are initiated. SEANET is the only coordinated beached bird survey on the east coast of the United States, and this unique dataset dating back several years is proving ever more valuable in the research phase of proposed wind projects, such as the Cape Wind project in Massachusetts. The data entry interface developed by WDIN has been praised by our large volunteer base for its ease of use, which is essential to a program whose volunteers often possess only the most rudimentary computer skills. SEANET is a dynamic program with constant (almost daily) data reporting, and it has been critical to have a database manager responsive to our needs and those of our volunteers. Megan Hines has been remarkable in both the speed and thoroughness with which she responds to questions and problems. In many cases, she anticipates issues or makes suggestions that have substantially improved our data. We are also proponents of making our data and other citizen science data publicly available, and WDIN, through the Wildlife Health Event Reporter, has fully automated that process for SEANET. The public can download all our information on beached birds and even map them. It has been an incredible real time research and education tool.


SEANET has received requests for data from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for use in their assessment of bird mortality in the wake of the Gulf oil spill. As with the introduction of wind turbines, it is crucial to know the baseline bird mortality in a region before the event of interest occurs in order to make an accurate comparison. The data provided by SEANET is aiding the USFWS in doing this. The SEANET database was also central to the development of the Beached Bird Field Guide to the North Atlantic, a guide used in the field not only by SEANET volunteers, but also by US Fish and Wildlife Law Enforcement agents in the wake of the Gulf spill, and also by government workers monitoring legal and illegal seabird bycatch (accidental entanglement in fishing gear). The SEANET database of photographs and measurements of beached birds has also been critical to the development of a companion volume covering the southeastern U.S. due to be published next year.


In response to the clamor to make seabird datasets more centralized and more accessible to the public as well as the federal government, the USGS (Patuxent Wildlife Research Center) has developed the Atlantic Seabird Database (ASD), a database of marine bird occurrence information for the Northwest Atlantic between Maine and Florida (O’Connell et al. 2009, Spiegel and Johnston 2011).  The database, complete with a dataset catalog (i.e., meets federal metadata standards and requirements) currently includes 60+ datasets, over 400,000 records and survey effort information related to both aerial and boat surveys for the entire study area. The database represents ~ 85% of the available seabird occurrence information for the region and takes in surveys dating backing to the 1920’s, is geo-referenced, can now be linked to a variety of biophysical variable information useful for modeling bird distributions (e.g., Zipkin et al. 2010), and has been developed in a PostrgreSQL format to allow for quick access, use on a variety of different operating systems and serving the database to the public.  SEANET data is included in the Atlantic Seabird Database so that it can be readily accessed and used for spatial modeling and marine planning efforts, while the interface in Madison remains in place for the continued collection of SEANET data. The ASD cannot provide the level of service, support, and responsiveness that Megan Hines and WDIN have consistently given.