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!

Unsolved Mysteries – April 2018

Can you help us identify the following mysteries from recent COASST surveys? Leave a comment here, or reach out to us at coasst@uw.edu.

Jan found this small mystery during her September marine debris survey of Davison Head Isthmus and noted, “It has a plastic top with a round opening. The plastic is attached to a wood dowel. There is yellow tape around the dowel attached with string.”

Ruthanne and Harry found this item a year ago on Cliff Beach — it just caught our eye!

This item was found by Sandy during her large marine debris survey of Hastie Lake Rd. S in January. It is 59cm across.

Participant Profile: Jeanne Finke

by Eric Wagner

In Jeanne Finke’s kitchen sit a pair of binoculars and bird guides, which she tends to reach for, as she says, in the way others might reach for salt and pepper. For Jeanne, they are just as necessary. She lives on the North Bay of Grays Harbor in southwest Washington and sees birds through her window all the time—pelagic birds, shorebirds, the latter sometimes in great numbers during migration. She’s taken classes on bird biology and feels she has a good handle on her local avifauna, but she’s always curious to know more about what might be around, whether in view or out of sight, living or dead.

Jeanne Finke on survey in December 2017. Photo credit: Susan Kloeppel.

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Unsolved Mystery – January 2018

Marine debris COASSTers Jenny and Jesse encountered this “Big gooey blob that could not be pulled apart (Stunk!!!)” during their November survey of Oceanside.
As you can see from our ideas, this item has the COASST office stumped:

“Undead woolly blanket”
“No idea”
“Chunk of flesh”
“Wildling robe fragment”
“Sheep’s clothing shed by a liberated wolf”

Do you know what it is? Please post a comment here or send a message to coasst@uw.edu.

Rarities: A Short Tale about Long-tails

In September last year, our data verifier Charlie got quite excited about the Long-tailed Jaeger found by Margaret and Nancy on Oregon Mile 309. This bird is so rare in the COASST dataset, it’s only the second one COASSTers have found in 18 years of searching the beach!

Typical measurements – Tarsus: 34-46 mm, Wing: 29-32 cm, Bill: 26-31mm.

In the same family as gulls and terns (Larids), jaegers make their living swooping in and stealing prey from less agile fliers. And the long tail? Just an ornament, rarely seen outside of the breeding season. An easy way to tell a Long-tailed from the other jaegers? Check those outermost primary feathers: 2 bright white feather shafts in Long-tailed, 4-6 in the other species. Photo Credit: Lucas DeCicco/USFWS.

We tell you a lot about the birds frequently found by COASST: at over 24,000 finds, Common Murres are comfortably in the #1 spot on our species list. And the top 5 species (Common Murres, Northern Fulmars, Cassin’s Auklets, large immature gulls – we know that’s not a real species, but still! – and Rhinoceros Auklets) account for an astonishing 71% of the 68,700 marine bird finds to date.

But what about the rarely found birds?

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Participant Profile: Paul Allan

by Eric Wagner

Most COASSTers, once they have been at it for a while, get to know their beach pretty well. They become attuned to the subtle shifts and changes of its features—the eroding bluffs, say, or beach grass as it creeps across the dunes. These features are proxies for time: not only a way to witness the natural world’s inherent dynamism, but also a visual measure of a volunteer’s commitment to a place.

Paul Allan on survey at Bishop’s Beach West. Photo Credit: Louise Ashmun

For Paul Allan, the feature that best marks his time on Bishop’s Beach West is a rusted van someone pushed off the bluff. “It was just lying there, so we had to report it as a large piece of marine debris,” he says. That was four years ago. Since then, he has watched the van slowly disintegrate, watched the waves and tide push it around and partially bury it. “It’s like Mother Nature is bringing it back into the fold, little by little,” he says.

Paul and his wife, Louise Ashmun, started volunteering with COASST in 2014, when they moved to Homer, Alaska. For them, it was a return to the last frontier; they had lived in Alaska for twenty-odd years before heading south to Seattle, Washington, so Louise could train as an engineer. After graduation, she got a job with the U.S. Forest Service in Moscow, Idaho, while Paul continued working in science education. As a classroom teacher, he mostly taught physics, but also oceanography, chemistry, and math through calculus. He ended his career at the University of Idaho, where he was the program manager for the university’s GK-12 program, an initiative run by the National Science Foundation that helps graduate students hone their communication and teaching skills. Then one of Allan’s daughters started working as an environmental toxicologist for NOAA in Anchorage, so in 2013 Paul and Louise flew up to visit.

“My wife said, ‘We just have to move back here,’” Paul says. Which was how they ended up retiring in Homer. Once there they looked for ways to get involved with the community, and joined the Kachemak Bay birding group. “COASST was a natural extension from that,” Paul says. “A lot of people were already involved, so we jumped right in.”

They were given their stretch of Bishop’s Beach. The beach proper starts where Homer ends, along the shores of Kachemak Bay on the Kenai Peninsula. Its main part is a popular hangout for town residents, but head farther west and you come to a more isolated section called The Bluffs. Here you will see huge sandy cliffs, some of which tower more than one hundred feet above the beach. (You can also see what’s left of the aforementioned van.) “We really enjoy sort of being forced to go on this section of the beach,” Paul says. “It’s not a place we would necessarily walk regularly.”

Bishop’s Beach West is not the most active beach on the COASST roster; Paul and Louise usually find a measurable carcass three or four times a year, and while one of them was “really gross and maggoty and clenched our stomachs,” most are clean. Not that they mind either way. “Both of us having done so much science, we were used to dissecting frogs and worms,” Paul says. “The dead body thing doesn’t bother us too much.”

That said, during the most recent die-off of Common Murres, Paul and Louise were finding ten to twenty-five carcasses on each visit. “We followed the protocol and went out twice a month a couple of times,” Paul says. And while measuring and tagging all the dead murres could get a little dreary, it was the protocol that ultimately provided some measure of solace, for it is in the consistent taking of data that changes in the Gulf of Alaska and beyond can be best quantified and explained. “I like that we’re keeping our finger on the pulse of real research,” Paul says. “It feels good to contribute to the data that researchers are actually using.”