Monthly Archives: August 2013

What’s Washed In – 8/26/13

We just wrapped up the summer quarter here at UW and bid farewell to our awesome team of interns (An, Adrienne, Chelsea, Hilary, Matt, Monisha, Jessica, Shannon, Stephanie, and Tom). As the UW summer break begins, the COASST office will continue to be a hub of activity, especially since the fall post breeding mortality spike isn’t too far away. August has brought lots of interesting finds out on the beach. Here are a few of the many photos that have landed in our inbox recently:


A Heermann’s Gull found by Jerry and Carol in Oregon South. Since the feet aren’t visible, let’s use the wing (sorry Alaskan’s – this one prefers south of 55°N). Our wing chord measurement is about 34cm, which puts this in the “Extra Large” category. Mantle is gray, wing tips are gray, so we have either a Glaucous-winged Gull or Heermann’s Gull – only one has a red bill with black tip – that’s the Heermanns’s. If you’re using the new wing key, select gray mantle, wing tips about the same color, no white trailing edge or windows in the outer half of the primaries.


A Sooty Shearwater found by Linda and Dini on the South Coast, Washington. Three webbed toes and one tiny fourth toe (actually just a nail) – Tubenose! From the family page select dark, thin, long bill (and for Alaska – white underwing linings). The bill size (39mm) rules out Short-tailed Shearwater (29-35mm). COASSTers surveying this area know we’ve seen a wave of SOSH this August. Drawn to the productive waters off the Columbia River, mouth of Grays Harbor, Willapa Bay and Tillamook Bay, Sooties are “tanking up,” about to make their journey south (WAY south) to areas off Chile, Argentina, Australia and New Zealand in the Southern Hemisphere.


A Brown Pelican found by Terry and Kimberly in California. It’s hard to mistake this large bird! Four webbed toes puts it in the Pouchbill family and with a bill length of 34cm(!) it could only be a Brown Pelican. The head, neck and throat are brown; the breast white, so this is a juvenile bird (hatched January-June 2013 in Southern California or Baja California-Mexico).

mono-filament line

A ball of monofilament line found by Heather in Oregon North. Fishing line is the most commonly recorded type of entanglement on COASST surveys. If you see some of this on your beach, it’s a good idea to clean it up.

Researcher Profile: Selina Heppell

What do sea turtles, sharks, sturgeon, and rockfish all have in common? Dr. Selina Heppell, marine fisheries ecologist and a professor in the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife at Oregon State University, would tell you that these marine creatures all have long lifespans, mature at a late age, and are threatened by over-harvest and habitat loss (the typical story of a top predator). COASST Intern, An Huynh, had the opportunity to ask Selina some questions about her research.

Heppell uses computer models and simulations (i.e. some pretty complex math) to assess how their populations change in response to environmental factors and applies those results to aid conservation and management decisions. Her passion for marine biology takes Heppell all over the world: to teach conservation of biodiversity in the sea in Iceland, help international partners develop sustainable fisheries policies in the Mediterranean, work with high school teachers in Mississippi.

Selina Heppell explains her dissection of a Humboldt squid to a group of students on the coast.

Selina explains her dissection of a Humboldt squid to a group of students on the Oregon coast.


me on 2 computers

How many computers does it take? In this case, two. A lot of Heppell’s research is done using models and simulations to assess how marine populations change in response to environmental factors.

A native to the Pacific Northwest, Selina dove into marine biology early, as a volunteer at the Seattle Aquarium when she was only 12. Her sense of wonder and amazement continues, “I love to tell people about cool stuff in the ocean.” So what’s the coolest thing she’s learned? “Sea turtles have finger-like projections in their throats to help them retain and swallow food while spitting the water back out. Unfortunately, it also means that that they can’t throw up very easily – whatever goes in has to pass all the way through. This is one reason why plastic bags and balloons are a big problem for them!” As COASST expands into marine debris, we’re lucky to have Selina’s expertise on our advisory board, as we examine which characteristics make certain debris harmful to specific marine species/species groups.

Even if you eliminated the marine debris threat, Sea turtles aren’t “out of the woods,” so to speak. Marine turtle populations are also highly sensitive to bycatch, or unintended fisheries take. Although protective measures have been put into place to mitigate bycatch effects (e.g. modifying trawl nets with “turtle excluder devices“), it still takes a long time to see a response in sea turtle populations. Due to this delayed response time, there are growing efforts to monitor sea turtles in the ocean instead of just protecting them on the beaches where they nest.

Heppell measures a sea turtle in the field.

Measuring a sea turtle in the field – carapace length.

Besides her field/at-sea time, as a professor, Selina spends a bunch of time with graduate and undergraduate students at Oregon State University’s Department of Fisheries and Wildlife. Does all the field “work” in her lab involve snorkeling at tropical locales? Selina reminds our youngest COASSTers that the road to becoming a marine scientist is hard work: “it’s a discipline that relies on rigorous data collection and evaluation of evidence.” (COASSTers have some familiarity with the difficulty of evaluating evidence, on a small scale, using the keys, measurements and photos in the Beached Birds guide). Far from a “Discovery Channel degree,” prospective students “need to be dedicated to learning the scientific method and how to contribute data and results to conservation problems objectively,” adds Selina.

Beyond the typical classroom, Heppell sees value in any projects that boost public awareness in conservation biology and marine ecosystems, “COASST is particularly valuable because it gets people thinking about what is ‘natural’ and what is ‘not so natural’ and how systems change through time over very large areas.” After many years of involving and engaging the public through lectures, teacher workshops and citizen science programs, for Selina the benefit to marine conservation efforts is two-fold, “getting people to think about connections in nature can help marine conservation indirectly, and/or directly through political action or contributions to conservation and science efforts.”

selina teaching teachers 3 ketchum

Selina Heppell speaks to a group of teachers about marine policy at Oregon State University’s Hatfield Marine Science Center.



Oh Charlie, Where Art Thou?

The Diomedes Islands

The Diomedes Islands

Has anyone noticed a lack of bird ID e-mail from our one and only Charlie? That’s because he has temporarily departed the COASST office to conduct arctic research in the beautiful Alaska region. After the COASST training in Unalaska, he departed on the Healy, an icebreaking research boat, and headed on a journey across the Chukchi Sea. In the short time that he has been in transit, he has seen some pretty spectacular wildlife sightings. In a recent e-mail to our COASST office, he described some of these experiences.


A walrus on the the ice

“It’s been quite a trip so far… I’m currently surrounded by thousands of walruses (we have seen over 7000 in the last 3 days) and so many miles of sea ice. On Saturday we saw four polar bears,” Charlie recalls. Bird sightings include a few Black-Legged Kittiwakes, Pomarine Jaegers, and Glaucous gulls that follow their ship around as it cuts through ice.


One of several polar bears Charlie has spotted

Before they reached the ice in the Chukchi Sea, there were a lot of birds and Gray Whales to be seen. “We saw nearly 300 whales in one day. In binoculars it looking like the International Fountain at Seattle Center, except it went all along the horizon. Red Phalaropes were associated with the whales there, big flocks of them descending on the footprint like sand fleas every time an animal would blow.”


Keeping track of the findings

He continues by adding, “The true bird show, though, was before we got to the Chukchi. We arrived at the Bering Strait and the Diomede Islands at the ideal time to experience an other-worldly, bizarre, incredible, unbelievable show of Crested and Least auklets returning to their nesting slopes as the sun set. I have no way of describing what I saw there. My photos just look like my lens was completely covered in pepper, no matter where I pointed it in the sky or on the water for 360 degrees. I wouldn’t have believed anything like it to be possible.”


Huge flocks of auklets

While Charlie is missed around the office, we cannot deny that he experiencing some pretty remarkable events. We cannot wait for him to return with even more stories!




Welcome new Forks COASSTers!

This past Saturday Heidi and Liz ventured out to Forks, WA to train a new batch of COASSTers. These volunteers are on top of their game and ready to hit the beach in search of birds. Thanks to this group, five inactive COASST beaches needing surveyors have been filled!

After the training, Heidi joined several North Coast volunteers on surveys of two area beaches. It was a great weekend to be out on the Olympic Coast!

Heidi shows Caty and Janis how to identify just a wing.

Heidi shows Caty and Janis how to use the foot key.

Ellie and Babs work to key out birds from the teaching collection

Ellie and Babs work to key out birds from the teaching collection.


DO-IT scholars visit COASST!

It has been an exciting past few weeks here at COASST!

Recently, we had the opportunity to host the DO-IT scholars and teach them a little bit about what we do here at COASST!  The DO-IT (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology) program encourages young adults with disabilities to pursue secondary education and helps them in establishing successful careers.  Our eight scholars, matriculating from different schools around the Seattle region, were a part of the science track. They came to the fisheries building to get their feet wet in the wonderful world of citizen science!

DO-IT scholars identifying feet and wings.

DO-IT scholars identifying feet and wings.

At the start of the day, the bright-eyed students trekked to COASST and were thrown straight into the mix!  They were shown what COASST strives to achieve each and everyday, and how the program works with local communities to provide useful beached-bird baseline.  In addition, the scholars were given a tutorial on how to identify birds using the COASST guide.  Then the real exciting part began.  Once the students became familiarized with the guide, Liz and Shannon took the group to the necropsy lab to test their skills. They had to identify birds like the Rhinoceros Auklet, Black-footed Albatross, Large Immature Gull, Common Loon, Common Murre, American Crow, etc.  It was such a great experience, and most importantly the kids got to participate in hands on science learning!

Shannon and a DO-IT scholar identifying a bird.

Shannon shows one of the scholars how to use the foot key of the COASST guide.

Click here to learn more about the DO-IT program.



What’s Washed In

The COASST office continues to be a buzz of activity as our summer quarter wraps up. Recently, we trained new North Coast and Aleutian Island volunteers in addition to our many ongoing projects. There have been lots of interesting finds this summer. Here are a few of the many photos sent in by volunteers:


Large Immature Gulls (LIGU) found by the Hobuck crew in Washington, Carl in California, and Caren in Oregon. We’ve been seeing a lot of LIGUs lately as the post-breeding mortality spike begins. As you see in the photos, the coloration on these birds can really vary. Chances are, if you find mottled brown mantle with an extra large wing cord (more than 33cm) you’re looking at a Large Immature Gull.


A Marbled Murrelet found by Nancy and Barbara in the Puget Sound. This species is listed as US Fish and Wildlife ESA Threatened in California, Oregon and Washington, and a rare find for COASST surveys (only 65 found since 1999). Three webbed toes put it in the Alcid family, and a short wing chord leads to Common Murre chicks, Marbled or Kittlitz’s Murrelet, Least or Whiskered Auklet. A dark underwing and mottled brown underparts point us to Marbled Murrelet, since the Kittlitz’s bill is less than 14mm(!).


These two Pigeon Guillemots (adult on the left, chick on the right) were found by Elizabeth in Oregon and Govinda in the Puget Sound. Another member of the Alcid family, PIGUs have bright red feet (hidden in chick photo) and a white patch on their upperwing (just barely showing on the inner portion of the chick’s left wing).


This pallet was found by Carol in Alaska. Koito, the brand printed in red, is a Japanese automotive and aircraft lighting manufacturer. This pallet could have traveled from Japan or come from a boat shipping Japanese products.

COASST welcomes new Alaskan volunteers!

Recently, Charlie Wright, COASST data verifier, headed to Alaska to conduct field work for the summer season (more on this in a future post). Before he boarded the research vessel, he spent a few days in Unalaska, AK out on the Aleutian Islands to lead a training for new COASST volunteers.

COASSTers try their hand at beached bird identification

COASSTers try their hand at beached bird identification

Six individuals (and one four-legged companion) attended the training. All were excited to learn about the program and beached bird identification. There was even time to complete a survey; no birds found. It was a great group and we are thrilled to be filling a few vacant beaches in the area as well as staring a new survey beach!


New volunteers take to the beach to practice their skills




New Footprints – Sean Rohan


Sean took this photo of a beached Snow Goose on Nunivak Island during a NOAA groundfish survey of the Eastern Bering Sea Shelf in June 2011. Once a COASSTer, always a COASSTer!

What paths do interns take once their time at COASST comes to an end? As part of our “New Footprints” series, we caught up with one of our past interns, Sean Rohan, and asked him what he’s been up to.

“After finishing my internship at COASST and graduating from UW, I had a short stint at Wild Fish Conservancy. I conducted snorkel surveys in support of a project monitoring anadromous fish passage above the Leavenworth, WA hatchery on Icicle Creek,” Sean mentions.

In October of 2010, he was hired to be a stomach analyst in the Food Habits Lab at Alaska Fisheries Science Center in Seattle for NOAA-Fisheries.

Sean spends 10 months out of the year “nose to the lab bench” identifying the stomach contents of numerous Alaskan groundfish species (Walleye Pollock, Pacific Cod, Atka Makerel, Sabelfish, Halibut, Lingcod). He’s given the task of creating new taxonomic identification protocols for the stomach contents, similar to how COASSTers use Beached Birds to identify finds that aren’t in the best shape. As you might expect, intact prey items are a rare find, halfway digested in the stomach of a cod!

When summer arrives, he spends 2 months at sea participating in annual/biennial groundfish surveys. He’s been to the Bering Sea twice and the Gulf of Alaska once throughout his time with NOAA so far. He says the biggest perk of going out to sea every summer is the ability to see live seabirds for a change!

Visitors to the Food Habits Lab often ask, “what’s the strangest thing you’ve found in the stomach of a fish?” Sean replies, “the strangest thing I’ve ever found was a murre foot in a Pacific Cod stomach, which I stumbled across during my first month on the job.”  He recognized it immediately thanks to his years at COASST. “For better or for worse, it seems dead birds just won’t leave me alone!” It is the only one found in the 30-year history of the program’s data set (from 150,000+ stomachs). “Fortunately, that at least suggests that Pacific Cod aren’t regularly feeding on murres.”

And the best part of his new job? “I have an opportunity to see the cogs of the ecosystem turning in front of me everyday,” says Sean, “pretty cool.”

Marine mammals on surveys

This has been a big week for COASSTers and marine mammal finds. First, Oregon volunteers Jacqueline and Steve found a dead almost fully intact sea otter washed ashore on their beach. They reported it to the marine mammal stranding network, who performed a necropsy, and determined that this male adolescent otter died of a shark bite!

Sea OtterSea Otter Close Up

A few days, later Washington volunteers Larry and Patti stumbled upon a massive, recently beached Gray Whale. The initial necropsy shows that this 39-foot mature adult female died in a collision with a vessel “smaller than a container ship.”

Gray WhaleGray Whale 2

As a reminder, stranded live or dead marine mammals should be reported to your local Marine Mammal Stranding Network coordinator. For more information on this, see our previous post on reporting.