Birds of a Feather Flock Together

Come late fall into early winter, Northern Fulmars start to appear on Pacific Northwest outer coast beaches. The #2 species in COASST, this denizen of Alaska is virtually absent from the Lower 48 during the spring-summer breeding season. And that’s because they are busy on colonies from Gareloi Island in the Western Aleutian Islands to St. Matthew Island in the northern Bering Sea.

Fully ~1,250,000 are thought to breed in Alaska, mostly on offshore islands with steep cliffs where they scrape out a shallow depression to lay their eggs. The pulse of fulmar on Alaska beaches is actually during the breeding season! But once that season has ended, adults and young-of-the year alike take off for points south.

Well, at least that’s the usual pattern.

In the 2017-18 winter, fulmars were notably absent from Lower 48 beaches. What’s weirder, they suddenly appeared in late winter-spring. In late April, usually the quietest time of year for COASSTers, Jane and Makenzie found 14 Northern Fulmars on their survey of Nye South near Newport in Oregon. Charlie, COASST’s stalwart verifier, noted that across Oregon beaches, not only were there more fulmars than usual, but many of them were light morph birds.

Morph? What’s a morph?

At first glance, fulmars are boring-looking birds. No difference in plumage between adults and immatures, breeders and nonbreeders, or males and females. But the traditional plumage differences in birds just doesn’t tell the story of fulmars. 

These birds have two different plumage patterns, which appear to map onto where they breed. So called “dark morph” birds, resembling their Tubenose relatives the shearwaters (but note the stocky, pale bill of the fulmars!), principally breed in southern Alaska. Light morph birds, resembling gulls (but note the telltale plates on their Tubenose bill versus the smooth, featureless bill of the gulls), breed farther north, in the Bering, Chukchi and Arctic. What’s cool about this difference is that COASST can get a sense of where fulmars are coming from based on their plumage.

Most Lower 48 COASSTers find the dark morph. Light morph birds do wash up where they breed during the breeding season, and then migrate down the “other side” of the ocean towards Japan, Taiwan and Korea. But not in 2017-18.

In fact, turns out light morphs have graced Lower 48 beaches in previous years, most notably in 2008 and 2009. Some years – like 2009 and 2018 – have no fulmars during the usual peak, but display a peak in the following spring, whereas other years – like 2006 and 2008 – have a double pulse: once when they’re supposed to arrive, and a second spring peak. Guess which morph arrives in the spring … in both 2008 and 2018, the ratio of light morph fulmars was much higher than usual. Of course the vast majority of fulmars found on Lower 48 beaches are dark morphs, occasionally loads of them, as was the case in 2003/2004.

Since COASST discovered this “light-spring” pattern, we’ve been wondering about it. Who are these guys? And where are they coming from? Given the spring migration timing, it would seem that these birds are actually on the way back north to begin the breeding cycle. So, do light morphs occasionally migrate up the eastern side of the ocean? Or do they always do that, and only sometimes wash ashore? And would that be a weather signal? An ocean circulation signal? A climate signal? Or… We remain mystified!

What’s your prediction as we head into the 2019 fulmar season: dark morphs in winter, or light morphs in spring?

Oil and Seabirds Don’t Mix

Exxon Valdez, Deepwater Horizon – these oil spill disasters have been devastating for marine wildlife, especially seabirds and marine waterfowl.  Once oiled, the body feathers of a seabird lay slick against the skin, losing the insulating properties that keep birds warm and dry.  At the same time, the added weight of the oil often prevents the bird from taking off.  And the toxins birds ingest while attempting to preen?  Well, suffice to say that oil and seabirds don’t mix.

Oiled secondary feathers of a Black-legged Kittiwake found on Griffiths Priday State Park (WA) in early 2018

And even a little bit of floating oil can be deadly.  One gallon of oil can contaminate hundreds of gallons of water.  Floating oil can be carried hundreds of miles from the spill site. Oil leaking from the Exxon Valdez tanker in Prince William Sound was swept by currents southwest out of the Sound along the Kenai Peninsula past the entrance of Cook Inlet to the Alaska Peninsula, almost 500 miles away from the spill site.

On Tuesday (14 August), a 700 gallon spill of diesel fuel was reported in Yaquina Bay, in the marina housing the fishing fleet.  Stories in the Oregon news show aerial shots of the sheen from the spill, complete with a flock of gulls.  While the oil seems to have been largely contained, will there be oiled birds?  COASSTers from Newport and environs got out on their beaches immediately to record a baseline survey.  At this time of year, murres, cormorants and gulls nesting at nearby Yaquina Head are ready to fledge their chicks.  The Coast Guard – acting quickly  – helped boom the area, preventing the oil from spreading in the Bay and getting out into the ocean.  But that doesn’t prevent birds from flying into the Bay.

The vast majority of COASST surveys are oil-free, no oil on the birds or on the beach.  In fact, COASSTers find most evidence of oil impacts from chronic sources – small bits of oil on birds unconnected to a reported oil spill.  Extremely rarely, COASSTers come upon an oil spill.  Quick reporting to the local authorities can save the day.  In the case of the Yaquina spill, we’re standing by waiting to hear from local COASSTers whether anything untoward washes in to nearby ocean beaches.

As of this posting, no oil or oiled birds have washed up on beaches near Yaquina Bay.

Unsolved Mystery – August 2018

This float congregation was recently discovered on Washaway Beach (WA).
Does anyone recognize this assemblage of uniquely-shaped floats? We would like to use the information in an effort to identify the encrusting organism!

You can see two boots in the next photo for scale:
Reply below or email coasst@uw.edu with your guesses and suspicions. Thank you as always for sharing your expertise!

Mummy Mysteries

A dried squid arm? A plastic who-knows-what? A monster?COASSTer Maddie Rose sent in this intriguing photo from Rialto Beach, WA with a “got a clue?” question.

We were on it! University of Washington Fish Curator Luke Tornabene took only a minute or two before returning this intriguing answer:

“Based on spines and dorsal fins towards the end of the tail, it’s some sort of skate, probably genus Raja or Bathyraja. People used to make deranged looking dolls from dead, dried out skates like this, contorting them to look like alien-like demons. They called them Jenny Hanivers.”

The long, spiny appendage in this photo is actually the tail. What looks like a skull with an elongated beak is the body and shriveled nose, or more properly rostrum, of the skate; probably a long-nosed skate according to Fish Collections Manager Katherine Maslenikov. The wings of this fish are long gone.

Longnose skate (Raja rhina), photograph from Monterey Fish Market.

Skates are slow-growing, bottom-dwelling fish that make their living “flying” just above the sandy substrate, occasionally digging in to “pounce” on a buried shrimp, crab or small fish. In a twist of fate, the egg cases of these fish are known as a mermaids purse.

But,… what?!? Jenny Hanivers??

Photograph of a Jenny Haniver from Noelle Stevenson @Gingerhazing

Turns out one of the weirder ways skates and rays have been used by people is as curiosities. These cartilaginous fish, related to sharks, were flipped over and “shaped” into gruesome likenesses of imagined sea devils or maybe evil-looking mermaids. After being dried out and shellacked they were sold in port cities and seaside towns as far back as the 16th century. The origins of the name are obscure, but some articles reference jeune fille d’Anvers which translates as girl from Antwerp.

Intentionally fishing and drying out sea creatures as tourist trinkets, whether sea stars, sea horses or Jenny Hanivers, has fortunately fallen out of fashion. But beach combing is still a great way to come upon all sorts of interesting bits and pieces brought in on the tide and tossed ashore by a wave to dry in the sun.

Keep ’em coming!

COASST Interns Wanted!

The Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team (COASST), a citizen science program based at the University of Washington’s School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences, is recruiting undergraduate interns for the upcoming academic quarter.

COASST interns work as a team directly with staff and gain valuable, hands-on experience with citizen science programs and the complexities of volunteer-collected data.

Internship tasks may include:

  • Recruiting, tracking, and communicating with citizen science participants
  • Managing incoming data and photos from beach surveys
  • Entering beached bird, marine debris, and social science data
  • Preparing materials for beached bird and marine debris trainings
  • Representing COASST at outreach events

Interested students should send an email to:

Jackie Lindsey (Participant Coordinator) at coasst@uw.edu

Staff Profile: Charlie Wright

by Eric Wagner

Sakuma Point is an unprepossessing park along Boat Street, near the University of Washington. Not quite half an acre in size, the park is sandwiched by a popular restaurant and canoe rental shop on the left, and a storage warehouse on the right. Visitors can sit at a bench or table overlooking a small stretch of Portage Bay and relax or eat their lunch. Or, if you are Charlie Wright, you count birds for ten minutes.

“I try to make it out here every day,” Charlie says on a bright spring afternoon. He is standing at the water’s edge with a pair of binoculars, calling out species almost the instant he sees or hears them. “There’s a crow,” he says. “Another crow… six lesser scaup over there.” Something behind him chirps. “Song sparrow,” he says without looking back. Another chirp. “White-crowned sparrow.” A few gulls drift in the distance. “Glaucous-wing or hybrids,” he says. “They’re too far away for me to tell.” Ten minutes of this pass, and then he calls time. “Now I upload the list to eBird,” he says, “and that’s the survey.”

Yes, hard as it may be to believe, Charlie—COASST’s stalwart data verifier, he who scrutinizes almost every single photo volunteers send in—likes live birds too. A lot. “I’ve been watching birds in general pretty much since I started having memories,” he says. He was leading birding trips for the Rainier Audubon Society in southern King County by the age of eleven, and has done field work with birds all over the world, from Alaska to Peru. A few years ago, he was part of a team that drove all over Washington, ultimately breaking the state record for greatest number of species seen in a twenty-four-hour period. “Birds are kind of my muse,” he says.

Charlie started as the COASST data verifier in 2010. He performs the vital function of confirming the identity of every dead bird COASSTers find on their surveys. Each fall, he starts to work his way through the backlog of volunteer submissions from the previous year. Most of the time he has no reason to doubt what a volunteer sends in: he cross-references the datasheet with the photos and concurs with the ID. It takes him all of thirty seconds, tops. “It’s rare for me to spend more than five minutes on anything,” he says. “COASST volunteers are pretty amazing at IDs. They know their birds and how to use the COASST field guide.” In fact, COASSTers correctly identify beached birds to species 89% of the time.

But everyone gets stumped once in a while. Last December, a team of COASSTers surveying a beach up near Hobuck, Washington found a bright, iridescent wing. They puzzled over it. Was it a Steller’s jay? They did not think it was, so they sent it in as “unknown.” Charlie spent a few minutes with it before he made the ID. “It was a purple gallinule,” he says. “It was the first time the species was documented in Washington.”

Even with his lifelong interest in birds, IDing a dead bird still is not completely intuitive for Charlie. “With some of the tough ones, you have to take body parts and key them out,” he says. He might use the COASST database of photos—“the largest collection of dead bird photos in the world,” he says—or some of the more technical guides at his disposal. After all, even though COASSTers have found 181 species to date, five or six still show up each year that no one has ever found on a survey before. “Those rarities are always in the back of my mind,” Charlie says. “This body is probably a common murre, but it could be… something else.”

In May, once Charlie has brought the annual backlog of roughly ten thousand photos down to zero, he and his wife head off to Alaska to do field work for the summer, reveling in the realm of living birds, helping monitor their populations and whereabouts. As you read this, they might be in the midst of a point-count survey (a method similar to his hobby activity at Sakuma Point) in the Yukon-Kuskokwim National Wildlife Refuge, camping eighty miles from the nearest town. Or they might be sailing around the Aleutian Islands on a research vessel, helping on a seabird survey. Or they might be even farther north, in the Chukchi Sea. “My COASST work is really complimentary with the Alaska work,” he says. “There’s a seasonality to both of them, ID challenges. It’s just that one is with live birds and the others are dead.”

Participant Profile: Amanda and Mallory Millay

Participant Profile: Amanda and Mallory Millay

by Eric Wagner

In late 2015, thousands of common murres began to wash up along west coast of the U.S. and Canada. The highest concentrations were in southern Alaska, where the species breeds in abundance. Reports of sickened and dying birds came in from the Aleutians, from Juneau, from as far inland as Glennallen. In some places, dead murres lay in neat, unbroken lines among the wrack following a high tide, body after body after body. The wreck would continue into 2016. In the thick of it, the Fairbanks office of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game was taking up to seventy calls per day from concerned citizens. Alaska wildlife officials said the murre die-off was the largest in state history.

It was in the midst of the wreck, during January of 2016, that Amanda and Mallory Millay happened to be walking along a beach near Kenai, Alaska, where they live. The twin sisters saw their share of dead murres that day, and like everyone else they wondered how widespread the problem was. When they read news articles about the wreck, they often saw, in addition to the expected quotes from government scientists, accounts from people who were part of a volunteer group. This group sent people out to different beaches once a month to survey for dead birds, and the data these people collected were proving critical to understanding the scope of the die-off.

“That was what brought us to COASST,” Amanda says. “It seemed like a great program for extensive data gathering.”

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Behind the Scenes with the COASST Specimen Collection!

by Eric Wagner   (who has a new book out: “Penguins in the Desert“)

In addition to writing for COASST from time to time I’m also a volunteer, which means I went to a training, which means that, midway through said training, I watched Hillary Burgess, COASST’s Science Coordinator and the trainer for the day, pull out a big plastic bin full of bird specimens for all of us to practice measuring and identifying. And as I was measuring the chords of variably patterned wings, or examining the webbing between the toes of a foot, I found myself wondering: Where exactly did they come from?

It was to get an answer to this question that I found myself not long ago in a basement lab of the UW Fisheries Science Building in Seattle with Hillary and Jackie Lindsey, COASST’s Volunteer Coordinator. When not in a plastic tub or suitcase, the bird teaching collection resides in two large freezers—a miniature natural history museum dedicated to the practice of using COASST’s field guide, Beached Birds. Inside the freezers are scads of small tubs, all of which are have labels with names like “COMU feet,” “Waterfowl: Diving Duck Feet,” and “Pouchbill feet,” among others. (There is also one called, memorably, “Heads” – remember bill measurement practice?)

The foot collection, organized by Foot Type Family, occupies a freezer in the COASST lab.

As any COASST volunteer knows, the teaching collection is central to their training. But teaching birds get handled and measured, frozen and thawed and frozen again on a regular basis, so their shelf life can be limited. Fresh specimens are needed at a fairly steady rate, and the collection needs to include the range of shapes, sizes and patterns encountered in Beached Birds. But COASST can’t simply repurpose carcasses that COASSTers find on their surveys. Permits are required from the relevant state and federal agencies. So are non-food freezers to keep specimens sufficiently cold. When certain species are scarce, COASSTers have occasionally been added to permits so that they can take on this above-and-beyond task, but COASST also has a network of contacts to whom they reach out. Happenstance rules the day—they can’t just ask the birds to fall out of the sky, Jackie points out—so mostly what comes back are Alcids and large immature gulls. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a wish list of a sort. “We’d really like a Pigeon Guillemot wing,” Jackie says, “but those are surprisingly hard to come by.” A useable specimen must be collected fresh and intact, after all, as if it did just fall out of the sky.

On this day, Hillary and Jackie are preparing several Common Murres that had washed up on the beaches of Seattle’s Discovery Park the previous October. With great precision, Hillary and Jackie remove the relevant parts: the wings at the shoulder, the feet just above the ankle joint so the tarsus can be accurately measured. The next step was adapted from processes used to prepare specimens at the Burke Museum of Natural History, a museum on the University of Washington campus that maintains the largest spread wing collection in the world. In fact, Ornithology Collections Manager Rob Faucett has mentored COASST staff and students in the practice of identification, preparation and care of specimens over the years. Hillary and Jackie take the wings and feet to a “setting station” (a large, flat piece of Styrofoam) and carefully position the specimens so that the tarsus and wing chord can be measured, and all the characteristics used in identification can be easily viewed–like number and shape of toes, and any pattern in the secondaries. The specimens will remain here for a few days to fix into these positions, before being labeled according to species and added to the appropriate Foot Type Family or upperwing pattern bins in the freezer.

Preparation of a Rhinoceros Auklet wing.

In addition to the murres, there are a few other specimens already laid out: a pair of Black-legged Kittiwake wings and feet collected by Hillary and her father while on a COASST training trip to the Long Beach Peninsula of Washington, a couple of Rhinoceros Auklets (Alcids) from the recent die-off off the Washington COASST, and two cormorant feet, one with a thick yellow band on it and the sequence JH8. The band catches my eye. I ask Hillary if she knows anything about it, if there was any information on the bird to which it belonged. “Whenever a banded bird comes to COASST (as a specimen or is reported on a datasheet) we enter the relevant information into the North American Bird Banding Laboratory database maintained by the USGS. If the researcher who banded the bird has entered the original banding data, it is shared with COASST and we wind up with a window into that bird’s life—I’ll check our records.”

A fresh Rhinoceros Auklet foot specimen (Foot Type Family: Alcids)

A day later Hillary sends me an email. The bird had been found deceased on a beach in Whatcom County, Washington in 2017, but had been banded four years earlier—in the spring of 2013 on the Oregon coast, Clatsop County. The bird was at least six years old. And now, almost dry, it’s feet were ready to take their place in a bin on a shelf in the freezer, to become objects of a different COASST fascination: examples of feet with four webbed toes.

Pinned into position so that all four webbed toes can be easily seen, this banded cormorant foot has a story to tell.

Participant Profile: Diane and Dave Bilderback

Participant Profile: Diane and Dave Bilderback

by Eric Wagner

Flip through any calendar devoted to Oregon landscapes, and you can be reasonably certain you’ll find somewhere in it a picture of Haystack Rock, usually backlit by a glowing sunset. The 235-foot-tall basalt coastal monolith presides just off of Cannon Beach. With its extensive network of tide pools, as well as the large seabird colony that calls it home in the summers, it is one of the more popular tourist destinations in the state.

But there are actually three official Haystack Rocks along the Oregon coast. One of them happens to be a bit farther south, just offshore of the town of Bandon. Admittedly not quite as picturesque as its northern namesake, this Haystack is 105 feet tall, tabular, and inaccessible from shore. It is, however, the Haystack that marks Diane and Dave Bilderback’s survey beach: OR Mile 99.

Diane and Dave Bilderback on Oregon Mile 99

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Uses and Users of COASST Data

What do the following things have in common?

They are all uses of COASST data — and the list goes on!

Data are summarized and appear in outlets that range from reports, to peer reviewed publications, to media articles.

From 2008 (when we started keeping track) to today (Feb 26 2018), 207 requests for COASST data have come to the office. Most requests come from partners at resource management agencies like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, United States Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service, and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, but we also hear from academic researchers, non-profit organizations and the media.

Most of the 207 requests for COASST data have come from government agencies. Of those, the majority are federal partners.

Although the beached bird program was designed to generate a baseline against which the impact of catastrophic events, such as oil spills, could be measured, there have been myriad other uses of the high quality information that COASSTers collect!

Of course, the most common use of our data is in defining, tracking, and explaining deviations from the “normal” pattern of beached birds at specific times and places. With a serious uptick in frequency and magnitude since 2014, die-offs are keeping all of COASST busy!

Information about UMEs (Unusual Mortality Events) is in high demand. Requests for recent local information are also popular, “what’s been happening in my area lately?”

So how are COASST data used in “real time”?

During an unusual mortality event, COASST keeps the pulse coming in from surveys and anecdotal reports, and provides regular updates to the agencies with jurisdiction over the affected species and locations. These agencies make decisions about things like whether to collect carcasses for necropsy, closure of public lands, and hunting/harvesting of seabirds and their eggs.

Collectively, we pull together the puzzle pieces as they unfold: Where, when, who and how many birds? Do we know why they died? What precautions should be taken? Are there other unusual things happening in the ecosystem at the same time?

We attempt to answer these questions, and collaboratively craft the fact sheets that wind up on our respective websites.

COASST surveys are a valued and varied source of information. If you find yourself wanting to know more about how COASST data are used, be sure to check out COASST Stories.

A note to our intrepid marine debris participants: it takes some time to gather enough data to detect patterns and uncover stories. Because this program is so new, we’re just starting to be able to do these things, and plan to feature what we find very soon!