Monthly Archives: May 2013

Protecting an Endangered Seabird–with Vomit?

A cool tactic is being employed to help protect the marbled murrelet, a seabird with a very unique breeding strategy.  Although they are seabirds, marbled murrelets breed in old-growth redwood forests up and down the west coast.  After laying a single egg, the murrelet parents will fly as much as 50 miles from the nest to the sea and back to bring food. Because they rely on these old-growth redwood forests to breed, their numbers are down 90 percent from their 19th-century numbers.  Historically, deforestation, fishing, and pollution have been the bulk of the problem, but nowadays, with the redwoods protected by national parks, the threat comes from other sources.

An adult marbled murrelet. About the size of a robin, they nest in California’s old-growth redwoods. Photo from USFWS.

The marbled murrelet population in central California is at the most risk, and this is largely due to the increase of Steller’s jays. These jays will steal the eggs and eat them, and have been responsible for the loss of up to 80 percent of each year’s brood. Because of this egg-stealing, the central California population of murrelets is threatened with extinction within the next hundred years.

The jays are found throughout the west, but have been booming in redwood forests because of the trash and food debris left over in campgrounds. These omnivorous birds will then find and eat murrelet eggs once they have established themselves in the redwoods. Because the jays are very smart and have very good memories, they will return to the same place multiple times looking for food. This is bad news for the murrelets, who use the same nesting sites year after year. Killing jays is not an option, because they are a natural part of the ecosystem. Instead, park biologists have come up with a smart way to deter the jays from eating murrelet eggs.

Although training wild animals might seem weird, in this case it is exactly what is being done.  The jays are being trained to associate murrelet eggs with vomiting.  Chicken eggs are painted to look like murrelet eggs and inoculated with carbachol, an odorless, tasteless chemical that induces vomiting.

These eggs are then fed to the jays, who vomit within five minutes of eating them, in order to teach the jays to avoid that particular kind of egg.  So far, the testing phases of this unusual method of control have been very successful, reducing egg-stealing by 37 to 70 percent.  This reduction is enough to keep the murrelets at a sustainable population size and decrease their chance of extinction in the next hundred years from 96 to 5 percent.

Stellar Jay populations are booming as they take advantage of crumbs and trash left behind by humans. Photo from USFWS.

There are a number of reasons why this program is so successful.  First of all, jays are smart, long-lived, and have long memories, so once they learn that the distinctive murrelet egg coloration means vomiting, they will avoid them. Second, Steller’s jays are highly territorial, so untrained jays will stay away. Finally, murrelet eggs look like nothing else found in a redwood forest, so the jays are unlikely to confuse them.



While this innovative program is a very good start, the sheer number of Steller’s jays is still an issue. As parks open up more and more space to humans, the population of jays will only increase.  Opportunistic animals like jays thrive in areas where humans leave trash and crumbs. Therefore, a number of parks are encouraging visitors to “keep it crumb-free” in an effort to educate the populace about the dangers of feeding wildlife. So the next time you’re camping in central California, remember the marbled murrelets are depending on you. Dispose of your trash correctly, clean up after yourself, and above all, don’t feed the jays.

Click here to read more about this unique project.

Dirty Beaches

Thanks to Alice, COASSTer from Puget Sound for bringing our attention to this article from the Seattle Times, “Dirty beaches make sick oceans, says group.”

Just like COASSTers photographing items for the marine debris project, the Ocean Conservancy coastal clean up volunteers found an assortment of odd items (mattresses, candles, toothbrushes) in addition to the common ones (cigarette butts, wrappers, beverage bottles and plastic bags). What about plastic pieces, or Styrofoam? COASSTers see a LOT of this debris on North Pacific beaches, something we’re included in the photo database and hope to link to wildlife harm.

Styrofoam pieces this size (and smaller) show up regularly on COASST beaches – this one photographed by Kathy, Ocean City beach (WA).

What’s the best step towards decreasing marine debris? Nicholas Mallos, from the Ocean Conservancy, remarks that picking up trash is not the only answer: avoiding single-use consumer products and opting for reusable water bottles, mugs and shopping bags, slows the pipeline of debris entering our oceans.


Seabirds from an Artist’s Perspective – Part 2

Last week we heard from artist and COASST intern Rose Beede about how she views and sketches seabirds. This week, we hear from another very talented COASST intern, Chelsea Starr. We are so fortunate to have two very talented artist on the COASST team who each bring in their own unique perspective. 

As a biology enthusiast and COASST intern, and I often enjoy making study-type watercolors of different fascinating animals. Recently, I decided to paint the Brandt’s Cormorant.

Why you ask? I found the Brandt’s Cormorant (specifically the breeding birds) to be incredibly versatile visually with a very wonderful and dominant presence. Their casual posture reflects an aura of wisdom while the jet-black plumage nicely reflects their stoic and ruthless resolve for life. The Cormorant’s iridescent sapphire eyes and throat poach contrast with this serious demeanor in a whimsical way. They are dark and brilliant all at the same time. Lastly, the light whiskers on the sides of cheeks gives a much needed sense of humor to their appearance, especially when viewed from the right angle. When you add all of these observations together, you get a beautiful and visually complex seabird that can represent very powerful aspects of life that I consider very important…. Wisdom, Determination, Beauty, and Humor.


Brandt’s Cormorant painting by Chelsea Starr

Earth Day Fair

A big thanks to Shannon, COASST intern, for helping out with the Washington State Parks/King County Housing Authority/Federal Way Public Schools AmeriCorps Team Earth Day Fair at Saltwater State Park. The event drew families, school children, teachers and the general public for a day of investigating Washington’s watersheds, from mountains to sea.

Shannon shows two students how to identify a grebe foot using the COASST “Beached Birds” field guide.

Molt Time! (for crabs)

Long Beach Peninsula COASSTer Paul Watersrat reminded us we’re heading into “dungie season,” a time when COASST participants on the outer coasts of Washington, Oregon, and California can expect to find some (or lots of!) Dungeness Crab molts.

At Paul’s beach, Ocean Park South, molts make up most of the wrack line.

Dungeness Crabs begin as tiny, shrimp-like zooplankton, that live throughout the water column. At the onset of downwelling in the fall, ocean currents push larval crabs inshore, where the bigger, tail-less versions become important prey for larger predators like salmon.

From there, the tiny crabs (looking much more crab-like now!) settle down in protected areas, hopefully out of site of snacking adult crabs. In the first two years of life, these tiny guys molt as many as six times per year. Adult females molt in the spring (now!), males in the late summer, usually all-at-one, which gives the impression of a big crab die-off. But make no mistake! These lightweight leftovers are either upper body shells only, or some combination of shells, legs gills, antennae, and mouthparts, but no guts.

The most striking instance we’ve seen occurred on Shi Shi (northern Washington Coast) in July 2011, with thousands to tens-of-thousands of molts were found on a single beach. Seen something like this on your beach? Lay down your ruler and snap a photo – we’d love to see.

Sue documented this molting event on Shi Shi in the summer of 2011.

Seabirds from an Artist’s Perspective – Part 1

“And now for something completely different…” as Monty Python would say. What is it like to look at seabirds from an artist’s perspective?

First of all I, the writer, would like to introduce myself. My name is Rose, and I’m one of the student interns here at COASST. I answer emails about seabirds, enter data about seabirds, and I draw seabirds. As an artist, I specialize in pets and wildlife, and do custom portraits and odd job commissions when I’m not too busy with school here at the University of Washington.

Of all the possible subjects, why would I draw birds?

A delicate hummingbird drawn by Rose

Birds have always been aesthetically fascinating to me. This fascination is a little bit hard to articulate, but I will try my best. There is a certain lightness to them that touches me, sort of like a gust of wind touches a leaf and lifts it for a moment. Very often gulls and turns gliding on a playful breeze will catch my imagination, and I will imagine myself as one of them dancing upon the wind. There is something so beautiful and sleek about the smooth curves of a streamlined bird that give me such deep satisfaction to emulate on paper.

Seabirds are a supreme design. For a designer, it is extremely difficult to create an object that is both fully aesthetically pleasing and functional. If you think about all the objects you use in your daily life – your phone, or your vacuum cleaner – all these things are made up of compromises between beauty and functionality, yet in seabirds both are one and the same.

A Marbled Murrelet sketch showing the balance of beauty and functionality

In reality, at least for me, seabirds from and “artist’s perspective” and seabirds from a “scientist’s perspective” aren’t terribly different. Aesthetically beautiful wing curves can be described mathematically in terms of lift and airflow, which can then be analyzed statistically to determine fitness during winter months. Birds are fascinating to me. This is the reason I draw them, and it is also the reason I peer at them through binoculars, or trek out to the beach in the rain to log their carcasses. When you get down to it, I’m simply exploring what I love, with the skills that have been given to me.


The cover to a planner designed by Rose also features a seabird

Kite Board Washes in from Canada!

On April 30th, while walking along the beach just south of Yellow Banks (on the north coast of Washington), COASST volunteer Dave Easton found a kite board washed up on shore. The board had the owner’s E-mail on it, so Dave contacted him. It turns out the owner had lost it on April 6th in Canada after a bad wipe out about 400 meters off shore. As Dave puts it, it’s “amazing how the currents and wind work; choreographed chaos.” Next time you’re out scouring the beach for marine debris, keep in mind the potential origin of the debris and the long journey it took to get there. The two are now working to reunite the owner with his lost board. 

The start and end point of this kite board’s grand journey.

The kite board from Canada found along the Washington Coast

Tracking Pink-footed Shearwaters

Pink-footed Shearwater. Photo by Caleb Putnam

The Pink-footed Shearwater’s (PFSH) population is in decline. In an effort to better understand their declining numbers, a team of scientists from Chile, the United States, and Canada are investigating the migratory habitats and behaviors of the PFSH by tracking their movements throughout the year. This real-time tracking project involves six breeding shearwaters, four of which have already begun their long migration from the Chilean mainland and Isla Mocha to Peru and North America. Ten more PFSHs will be deployed with trackers from California this summer. This satellite tracking technology is being used to map and better understand their foraging behaviors and important feeding locations.

Incorporating this information with wind patterns and oceanographic conditions can help scientists to better understand these birds’ dynamic and circumstantial behavior. “Satellite tracking data will shed light not only on current at-sea threats but also provide preliminary information about the relationship of these birds with conditions at sea that may respond to variation in marine climate,” said Valentina Colodro, a biologist with Oikonos Ecosystem Knowledge, who attached the transmitters in early April. Evaluating these locations may also reveal where the PFSH may be most at risk of mortality from human interactions. The transmitters are expected to operate until this fall when the PFSH reach their breeding grounds once again in Isla Mocha.

During the non-breeding season, the PFSH ranges from Chile all the way up to Canada and transverses territorial waters of 13 different countries. However they can only be found on 3 Chilean islands during breeding season (Isla mocha, Robinson Crusoe, and Santa Clara). Their biggest known threats include predation by non-native mammals, entanglement/hooking by fishing gear, habitat destruction, and the illegal harvesting of eggs. Because of this, the Pink-footed Shearwater is a listed as a species of concern in several countries.

This project is a collaboration between Oikonos Ecosystem Knowledge, Chile’s Corporación Nacional Forestal (CONAF), Environment Canada’s Canadian Wildlife Service, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), Hawai’i Pacific University, American Bird Conservancy, and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.

Click here to visit the tracking website to see where the birds are now.


Volunteer Mosaic

Last month we went to a talk by climate scientist Dr. Kevin Wood – he’s a part of the “old weather” team at the NOAA-University of Washington Joint Institute for the Study of the Atmosphere and the Ocean (JISAO – rhymes with cow), and saw this really cool visual which displays total volunteer effort (in this case, logbook pages digitized) in one rectangle.  Each box within the rectangle is a participant and the size (or area) of the box is scaled to the percent of total effort. Colors allow the viewer to distinguish one box from another.

For the COASST visual, we decided to use color to display the year each COASSTer joined. Here’s a simplified version:

click here for large version

Colors indicate when each person joined (year 1, year 2 or year 3). The size of each box is scaled to the total amount of time each person has surveyed. At the top left is someone who joined in Year 1 and contributed LOTS of time, about 20% of all survey effort shown (over all 21 squares). Toward the bottom right are participants with less time invested in surveying, including one we point out who joined in Year 2 and has contributed about 1% of the total survey effort. Standing back, it’s easy to see a color gradient which reflects that participants who began in Year 1 (red) tend to have contributed more – on average – than those who only just started in Year 3 (yellow).

Here’s what the actual COASST survey effort visual looks like, over the last fifteen years and all 2,112 people who have gotten out there to collect data for us:

Click here for large version

Green and blue years are earliest, so it is not surprising that these “old folks” dominate the upper left.

The very largest box represents about 1.8% of the total time, and you can see that there are plenty of folks who joined in the late 2000s and have already racked up the hours!  Harmful algal blooms, puffin die-offs, grebe mortality – there is always something pulling COASSTers out to do extra surveys.

Small boxes don’t mean slackers!  Lots of incoming COASSTers (yellow) are toward the bottom right – our program continues to grow.  Many of the small boxes are inside waters COASSTers – with short beaches and nary a bird in sight, it’s just not possible to amass the hours of the “birdy beach” volunteers.

In fact, each COASSTer contributes their piece to the COASST whole – all of us together make COASST successful and sustainable, and now, colorful!


Here Comes the Sun!

With springtime upon us, and summer quickly approaching, a COASSTer may, on occasion, encounter the elusive sun! As we enter this wonderful time, it is a good idea that we fine-tune our surveying skills. So here is your ultimate guide to surveying in the sun!

1 – Avoid pesky shadows that may hinder species verification.

Shadows, especially in full sunlight, can either make parts of the bird much darker (left photo) OR washed out (right photo). This can lead to a loss of detail and make it challenging to verify the species, and the chalkboard may be difficult to read.
When taking pictures in the sun, it is easy to overlook shadows from grasses, logs, rocks, sign posts, etc. Be sure to double check for these shadows.
It is also very easy to ignore human-made shadows by either the photographer or the assistant.
If shadows are taking over your photo, simply rotate and move the bird.

A simple way to get the correct exposure is to set the camera to the full-auto mode (green box setting). Then, just focus the green box on the bird, and take the picture.

SNAP! You have a shadow free picture.

 2 – Be prepared! Planning ahead will prepare you for almost anything during this somewhat unpredictable season, and ensure your surveys go as smoothly as possible.

Proper protection from the sun can make the difference between a a nice walk on the beach and a surprisingly painful reminder that it is no longer winter. Sunscreen, lip balm, and sunglasses, are essential when preparing for a sunny survey. Bringing lightweight (preferably waterproof) layers will also help you transition from sun to rain if the occasional surprise drizzle occurs.
Being in the sun for an hour or two can quickly zap your energy and dehydrate you, so be sure to bring various treats with you and plenty of water. HYDRATE!

A few sheets of parchment paper are a great last minute alternative to waterproof paper during unexpected showers. Just record your data on the parchment paper with pencil and transfer the information onto a data sheet when you get to a dry location.

Lastly, bringing a backpack will make the process much easier, especially when you need to discard a few layers when the sun comes out! Yay!