Monthly Archives: April 2013

Spotlight on Burke Ornithology

COASST volunteers may think they’re the only people that pay attention to dead birds, but it turns out they’re not alone!

Recently our local NPR station, KUOW, profiled citizens collecting dead birds (with proper permit) from their backyard (and surrounds) for the Ornithology Collection at the Burke Museum. Each year, the collection receives about 500 birds from citizens (window strikes, vehicle strikes, cat kills etc). As a whole, the specimens (all 99,000 of them!) – archived as skins, outstretched wings, and tissue samples – provide a valuable resource to scientists.

Seabird scientists, too! Dr. Ann Edwards used the collection to answer, “have fisheries discards shaped the diet of Laysan Albatross?” by sampling Laysan feathers from museum specimens, current NW Hawaiian Island breeders and bycatch specimens from Hawaii and Alaska longline fisheries.

Rob Faucett, Collections Manager, helps assist a variety of outreach and education projects, in addition to research. In the creation of Beached Birds-Alaska and more recently, the Wing Key, we’ve accessed the collection to answer our own questions – can you really tell Thick-billed and Common Murres apart by wing alone (answer: no). Can you separate a storm-petrel wing from a small alcid (answer: yes, the outermost primary is more than a feather’s width shorter than the next). And after hours of pouring over these birds, we can’t resist having a little fun (see below).

All About Refinds!

Ever wondered what happens to the birds you tag on COASST surveys? And why do we tag them, anyway?

Much of the time, the carcasses are swept away with the next high tide, or are carried away by scavengers. Most times, a bird is never seen again. Think of all the others that are deposited once and for all on unsurveyed beaches – we are none the wiser!

Other times, we know exactly what happens to a beached bird. We have good evidence that they’re more mobile than you might think. In January, Bonnie Wood and Janet Wheeler at Salt Aire North found a Pacific Loon. Later that same day, Amy and Jack Douglas happened upon the very same bird on the neighboring beach, Bonge. Is that possible? Turns out, carcasses do move–by dogs, humans, or raptors. Without a unique tag combo, we’d never be able to trace such refinds.

Those dead birds untouched by animals and tides remain right where they are. Certain beaches are well known among COASST staff as “bird keepers.” These are often the most expansive sandy beaches, where a bird may be buried by blowing sand for many months, only to be uncovered and refound months later. The tags, then, are the only way to tell that such birds should not be counted as a “new” find.

We ask our volunteers to collect data on refinds each time they’re encountered. We don’t require measurements or photos after the original find, but we do ask for a few fields: where found, body parts, species, tie number and color sequence. Some volunteers do choose to take photos each time, and they allow us to make some fun “before-and-after” comparisons. In combination with refind data, this gives us an idea of which parts last– the feet and wings (the basis for the COASST guide).

This intact Rhinoceros Auklet was reduced to just a sternum, the tagged wing bones, and a few other bones after 6 months on Agate Beach, in Oregon.

This Northern Fulmar was one of 24 found on December 3, 2010. A month later, it was found again, only slightly degraded. Then in September 2012, amazingly, it turned up again a whopping 21 months after its original find date!! A new persistence record for COASST!

All photos by Wendy Williams

New Service Learning Students

Last weekend we welcomed two more students, Katie and Carrie, to the COASST team. Both will temporarily adopt, or “spot weld” into COASST beaches in and around Seattle during the University of Washington’s spring quarter (April 1- June 14).

Katie (left) and Carrie (right)

Dressed for the weather, we headed out to Golden Gardens, which also happens to be a local BBQ/sand volleyball hot spot, but only during the summer months. We counted tens of people, not hundreds. No birds found (last quarter we found a Great Blue Heron, so you never know), but some predicable marine debris items: caps, lids, cans and straws.

A flock of Brant (geese)

We’re seeing signs of spring – a flock of approximately 120 Brant landed out near the surf at the northern end of the beach. But winter is still “phasing out.” We returned just in time to miss a rather impressive ice pellet shower in the evening (see below, the view from our office).

The ice covered awning outside the COASST office window



Marine Debris Update

Spring is here and many of you have taken to the beach in search of new marine debris items. As of today, we have 4,560 images! We are well on our way to our goal of 5,000 photos. We might even be able to get there by the end of April, so keep those photos coming. As a reminder, anyone can participate in the marine debris photo project, and you do not have to take the photos during your COASST survey. So grab your friends, grab your camera, and head out to the beach! Thanks again for all your work with this project. We couldn’t do it without you!

This week’s featured photos:

Dungeness crab pot found in Washington

Large metal structure found in California

A coffee beverage found along the Strait of Juan de Fuca (Washington)

A toy arrow found in Oregon

‘Sticky Birds’ Found in England

Over in England, dead birds are washing ashore in large numbers on beaches in Devon and Cornwall for the second time this year.  The birds, mostly guillemots (i.e., murres), but with a smattering of gannets, razorbills, and cormorants, are coated with a white, gluelike substance.  So far there have been an estimated 200 birds affected by this substance since last week, with more suspected to wash up as prevailing winds and currents drive the carcasses to shore.

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) has been taking in birds found coated in the substance that are still alive and using toothbrushes, “washing-up liquid,” and margarine to try and clean them.  So far they have rescued 95 birds, but 25 have died as of Monday.

This kind of thing is tragic for both the birds and for the human population in the affected areas.  Besides the emotional trauma of finding dozens of dead birds, there are economic implications for those areas where tourism is a large part of the economy.

Unfortunately, this is not the first time this year a weird sticky substance has been found coating dead birds.  In February, an estimated 300 shorebirds were found covered in what is believed to be the same substance.  Tests run during the February incident determined that the sticky stuff was polyisobutene, a relatively common chemical aboard ships.  Although testing is still in progress, it seems likely that this is the same thing.

Currently, polyisobutene can be legally released into ocean waters under certain conditions.  In light of these events, the RPSB has called for polyisobutene to be reclassified and its discharge into ocean waters outlawed.  The British coastguard has been working to determine the source of the chemical, but has been unable to do so.

More information from the BBC can be found here.


Fin Whale Washes Up in Seahurst Park

Seabirds aren’t the only animals that wash up on the beach.  On Saturday, a fin whale washed ashore a Puget Sound COASST beach! The animal was found in Seahurst Park in Burien, Washington.  The carcass was torn in half and had red paint on it, suggesting that a ship struck the whale several days to a week ago.  It has drawn crowds to Seahurst Park, coming to get up close and personal with the second-largest animal in the world, despite the health risks and the stench.

Dead whale draws hundreds to the beach (Photo: Seattle Times, Greg Gilbert/Associated Press)

Aquaria, museums, and zoos will sometimes collect skeletons from beached whales for educational purposes, but this specimen is incomplete–only the first 52 feet of the 65-foot animal washed up on shore. No one has expressed interest in the remains, leaving the city of Burien with the challenge of disposing of the carcass.  The process is estimated to cost tens of thousands of dollars.

Fin whales can grow up to 75 feet and are the second largest whale after the blue whale.  A federally endangered species, fin whales are usually only found in the deep ocean. The only time these whales enter Puget Sound is on the bow of a ship.  This is the eighth fin whale carcass showing evidence of a ship strike to appear in Washington in the last ten years. Ship strikes are an emerging problem for large whale species up and down the West Coast.

More information can be found here.

Marine Debris Update


Great work this March with marine debris photos! We set a new monthly record – 1018 photos taken in March. Well done! The collection continues to build, with lots of new and interesting debris found from all states. As we’ve mentioned, these photos are being categorized in a database based on attributes (color, size, material, etc). Attributes can then be directly related to marine debris’ harm to wildlife. For example, soft translucent plastic is known to be harmful to sea turtles because they ingest it more frequently than any other kind of plastic. A database of debris and linked attributes could help to direct clean-up efforts to the most harmful areas, create maps showing harm to wildlife, and understand current and weather patterns bringing debris ashore.

Marine debris photos: A stuffed flamingo toy found in the Puget Sound (top left), caulk found in California (top right), Coast Gaurd-related material that washed ashore in Puget Sound (bottom left), and an algae covered duckie from Oregon – match of the UW Huskies bowl (bottom right).

Rat Poison on Kodiak Beaches

A Kodiak Island Beach

The morning of March 31, two empty rat poison canisters were found on Afognak Island in Kodiak, AK. Rat poison usually comes in pellet form, used to fumigate grain ships. The aluminum phosphide containing pellets, when exposed to the moisture in the air, produce the poisonous gas phosphine which is powerful enough to kill rats and even humans (with enough exposure). It turns out that the canisters, found by local Kodiak resident Ian MacIntosh, were pellet containing. Luckily for MacIntosh he knew to be cautious with the containers due to public awareness campaigns created by the Washington Department of Ecology between 2008 and 2012 after nearly 100 of these containers washed up. The origin of these containers remains unknown, however they have also began to wash up along the coast of Oregon and Vancouver Island as well. The best thing to do is to avoid contact with the containers and instead, report the canisters immediately.

For further reading:


Foot-type Moment: Ostrich

Checking in with former COASST staff finds Annie Woods very much absorbed by her passion for farming. After leaving us Annie joined Local Roots, an sustainable urban farm owned by Jason Salvo and Siri Erikson-Brown. An intense growing season featured everything from beets to broccoli. Come winter Annie accepted an internship at Green String Farm in Petaluma, California where she joined 10 other interns from around the country with a similar goal of starting their own farms. Planting, pruning, composting, baking, irrigation, integrated pest management, butchering, candle-making, fat-rendering, ostrich wrangling – Annie did it all.

Annie and the ostrich foot

Ostrich wrangling?!? You bet. We won’t go into details, but here’s Annie showing off an ostrich foot. Yeow baby! Now that is a tarsus. With a measurement of 40-50 cm (yup, in COASST units that would be 400-500mm), ostrich tarsi are pretty much as long as it gets. And take a look at the feet – 2 front-facing extremely fleshy toes, and only the longest has a nail. Big padded toes and a long tarsus are a recipe for running really fast – they’ve been clocked at over 70 kilometers per hour. In fact, ostrich feet are a model for above-the-knee amputee prosthetics.


Check out those toes!


Although that nail might not look too dangerous compared to the talons of an eagle or a large owl, there’s quite a punch behind it. At 300+ pounds, the force behind an ostrich kick is enough to slice open an approaching predator – or unlucky person. Ouch! Given how fast they can run, best to stay away.

COASSTers might not be seeing this on the beach (we can only hope), but we thought we’d share a “foot-type moment.” Got a rare one? Send us a photo and your foot-type story.

Weekend on the North Coast

April 26th to 28th COASST Volunteer, Barbara Blackie, is taking out her Western Washington University Marine Ecology class to do COASST surveys on several beaches in the North Coast; Hobuck, Waatch, Shi Shi, Sooes East and West. Jane will be joining in on the fun. If you would like to come along for a refresher let Liz know. It should be a great time!

Looking for birds in the drift wood of Kalaloch South.

2011 group of  Western Washington University students at Ruby Beach, on the north coast of Washington.