Category Archives: Beached Birds

Participant Profile: Wendy Williams

by Eric Wagner

Drive along Highway 101 down the Oregon coast to Lincoln County, and a little bit north of the city of Newport you will come to Agate Beach. The beach is an official state recreation site, and according to the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department, it gets a few more than 172,000 visitors each year. Those people can surf if they want, but razor clams are the main attraction. “Diggers, this park’s for you!” the state website proclaims.

For Wendy Williams, that description doesn’t capture the full appeal of Agate Beach. “It’s basically a big sandy beach, but it’s pretty amazing for a lot of reasons,” she says. The beach is backed by a creek, which has a tendency to wander, its course meandering over the sand with the years. During the summer, when the northwest winds are steady, sand dunes will build up, some of them eight feet tall. “The place is just so dynamic and lively,” she says. “There are a lot of stories in the sands of Agate Beach.”

Williams knows her share of those stories because she has been walking the beach monthly since 2007 as a volunteer for COASST. In this, she has learned not only Agate’s particular rhythms, but also how they are linked with those of its influential surroundings. Sitting at the beach’s northern end is Yaquina Head, site of a well-known and well-studied murre colony. “I used to find lots of murres, until bald eagles and peregrine falcons started to cut down on fledging success,” she says, of the raptors’ return to the area. “But I’m still always bracing myself: how many chicks am I going to find come August or September because of death or nesting failure?”

Williams is more than passingly familiar with murres, in part from finding their bodies every so often, and in part from having earned a graduate degree from the Oregon Institute of Marine Biology in Coos Bay for her studies of their diving physiology. It was during her time at the OIMB that she learned to be a seabird observer, helping with aerial surveys along the coast and farther offshore. That work helped get her through school (both financially and spiritually, it sounds like), and also brought her in touch with the environmental consulting company with which she enjoyed a varied career as a seabird biologist. (Varied in more ways than one: “I ended up living in North Dakota for three years,” she says. “But I still called myself a seabird biologist!”)

Any seabird biologist will tell you—even those outside of COASST—that dead birds are part of the trade, but Williams has taken that maxim to a certain extreme. She has worked on the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound in 1989, and the BP Deepwater Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, as well as several smaller scale oil spills. In all instances, Williams participated in the effort to understand what happened to birds once they died, so a spill’s fuller ecological cost could be better calculated. “Often with these spills, there’s chaos and everyone’s desperately trying to rescue and clean up the oiled birds,” she says. “However, the number of birds rescued or found dead doesn’t tell us what we really want to know, which is how many birds died from this spill event.”  To address this question, she was involved in many projects on carcass persistence: radio-tagging seabird carcasses, distributing them widely, tracking the carcasses to see if they drifted to shore, and if so, documenting how long they lasted (i.e., were they scavenged, rewashed into the water, etc.).

“A lot of the questions we were asking in Alaska and the Gulf were similar to the ones COASST is asking,” Williams says. “It shows why it’s so important to have background numbers in case of big mortality events.” And so in that way it makes sense that she started volunteering with COASST after she went to Agate Beach one day more than ten years ago and saw some dead birds marked with the ubiquitous COASST colored zip-ties. “We were just enjoying ourselves,” she says, “and there they were.” She contacted COASST and learned that the volunteer who had been responsible for Agate Beach was leaving. The beach was only about an hour from her home in Corvallis. “So I just picked it up,” she says.

At the same time, and considering the breadth of her experiences with dead birds in some of their more soul-wringing circumstances, it might seem a little odd that in her spare time Williams would choose to watch for more dead birds, spending as much as five hours at a time meticulously searching for them. But that is not the case at all. “Whatever has happened in my life, no matter how intense some of the projects have been, I have always enjoyed having this work to do,” she says. COASST gets her outside, and she feels like she’s making a contribution, and that’s something she’ll always love. “I would go out to Agate Beach two or three times a month if I could,” she says.

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?

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.

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?

Continue reading

The what, why and future of bird tagging

We need your input! COASST is looking for a new way to track individual birds over time — an alternative to plastic cable ties.

Why do we track individual birds anyway? Tagging prevents re-counting a bird on subsequent surveys as though it were a “new” find, and allows us to document re-find rates, persistence, and scavenging of individual carcasses—all pieces of information that are used to estimate deposition and mortality of birds given what was encountered during surveys.

Colorful wool yarn can form a sequence similar to zip ties that stays in order when tied as shown above.

The effort to identify a new tagging solution was catalyzed by a letter and sample wool yarn kit from Mendocino COASSTer Deb. For the past year, COASSTers on the Kenai Peninsula (AK) and near Sequim (WA) (communities that were especially eager to use a new material) have been testing and providing feedback on kits modeled after Deb’s.

This bird was re-found three months after originally tagged—with the yarn still readable as “orange, grey”

Initial result: yarn provides the right balance of durability and readability, but is quite difficult to apply with gloved hands and in windy conditions.

We’re not yet convinced that transitioning to yarn COASST-wide will work, and are hoping to identify a system that is environmentally responsible and practical on the beach.

Actually, the solution needs to meet a few criteria:

  • Easy to source
  • Inexpensive–we tag thousands of birds a year
  • Unique-ability
    • How can we distinguish one tag from other tags? (e.g. color, number, writing)
  • Durability—lasting but not forever
    • Unique and “readable” for at least 6 months, and doesn’t fall off easily
  • Easy to use in COASST survey conditions (windy, damp, cold hands, gloves)
  • Low environmental impact– what happens to the material after the bird is fully decomposed and washed away?
    • Biodegradable
    • Not mistaken for food by other animals

Two new interns, Lex (left) and Yunbo (right) have joined COASST to help develop and implement an alternative to cable ties.

Enter Lex and Yunbo, two University of Washington Program on the Environment Students who are taking on this challenge for their senior capstone project. The duo will be evaluating potential materials over the upcoming winter quarter.

Right now, they are assembling a list of potential bird tagging materials, and would like to hear from you!

If you have an idea in addition to the starting list below, contacts for potential manufacturers, sources of potential solutions OR If you have an interest in trialing materials that pass the Lex and Yunbo test…

please leave a comment on this blog or contact us by email at coasst@uw.edu with subject: BIRD TAGGING SOLUTION

We will be ordering samples before the start of winter quarter (next week)—so please send us your thoughts as soon as possible!

Below is the current list.

Most promising ideas:

  • Colored hemp twine – natural material that biodegrades, but stiffer and potentially easier to use than yarn
  • Colored waxed cotton yarn – stiffer and potentially easier to use than un-waxed yarn
  • Biodegradable flagging tape – comes in different colors, easy to tie

Ideas with obvious draw-backs:

  • Sci-Ties – biodegradable cable ties that have been patented but are not yet in production
  • Pipe Cleaners – colorful options are made of plastic. Cotton comes in only one color. May not stay on bird
  • Wikki Stix – made of synthetic fiber, heavily coated with food grade wax — may last too long in the environment
  • Paper Twist Ties – have a small metal wire center and have a paper covering. The paper would most likely degrade sooner than 6 months and would leave a metal wire
  • Metal Tags – tags with pre-stamped number sequences are available from a variety of sources but are cost prohibitive
  • Nail Polish – would be difficult when wet and rainy and would require feet. The applicator may get contaminated with sand etc.
  • Dyes/paint – messy, may/may not be durable, expensive
  • Compostable Stickers – will most likely not stick due to sandy or gritty surface of birds

A common (murre) story of life and death

 

Murres, like other alcids, have round “football-shaped” bodies. Credit: K. Mack

Common Murres (Uria aalge) are one of the most fascinating marine birds in the North Pacific.  As adults, these “footballs with wings” can fly as easily under the water as they can on land.  Murres have been found diving as deep as the continental shelf (~200m), zooming around after forage fish and krill.  Especially during the breeding season, it takes two parents fishing for most of each day to sate the demands of their single hungry chick.  One of the reasons is because parents bring back one fish at a time, and always head in, tail out.

Murres feed their chicks one fish at a time. Credit: J. Dolliver

Fortunately for the parents, young murres leave the colony after a scant three weeks.  Early in the evening, as the sun tips below the horizon, a murre chick will leave the safety of the colony and walk to the edge of the cliff, accompanied by the male parent.  Dad and chick often engage in an extended conversation – it’s impossible to watch and not pretend that Dad is giving his chick a last few bits of advice.

Well heeded!  A murre chick actually fledges before its wings have grown flight feathers.  Essentially a fuzzy tennis ball with winglets, these chicks take a leap into the unknown.  Will they hit the water, or the rocks below?  Turns out that it doesn’t matter.  Although you might think this is a “dinosaur waiting to happen” survival strategy, the worst imaginable (a splat) doesn’t happen.  Instead, young murres bounce on the rocks, pick themselves up and run for the waves, avoiding marauding gull predators on the way.

Once safe on the water, each chick begins calling loudly: Cheep! Cheep! Cheep! If you’re within sight of a murre colony, it’s a sound you can hear from the mainland during the fledging season (July in California and Oregon; August/September in Washington, British Columbia and Alaska).  And it’s a good thing fledglings have a loud voice because they’re announcing their presence to Dad, who returns the call with a guttural: Eh! Eh! Eh! Eh! Eh!

Against all odds, most Dad-chick pairs find each other and swim away from the colony. Credit: COASST

They will spend the next several weeks together, until the fledgling learns to fish.  Of course this is an especially dangerous time: pairs can get separated and storms can make fishing difficult.  COASSTers know that the post-breeding period is the time to expect murres to wash up on the beaches.  And this got us wondering, is there a signal in the beached bird data that might tell us something about how successful breeding was on the colonies?

Where and when, on average, we expect to see adult and juvenile common murres on COASST beaches.

To figure that out, we turned to Rob Suryan, Associate Professor at Oregon State University, who maintains a long-term database on the Common Murre colony at Yaquina Head Outstanding Natural Area, immediately north of Newport, Oregon.  Rob and his team spend the early summer in the Yaquina lighthouse surveying the murre colony and counting the eggs, then chicks, then fledglings.  This gives them a measure of the breeding success of each pair: the average number of fledglings per pair.  Given that murres only raise a single chick, the very highest this number could ever get is 1.0 (if every single pair was successful).  In reality, something above 0.70 signifies a good year.  In poor years, numbers below 0.40 are common.

We reasoned that in a really good year, colonies would produce a lot of fledglings, filling the nearshore with Dad-chick pairs.  And COASSTers might see that signal on the beach as more than the usual number of juvenile murres, because juvenile mortality is always higher than adult mortality.

By contrast, in poorer years, fewer chicks would even reach fledging stage, and adults would likely be stressed and thinner, more susceptible to the ravages of early fall storms.  In these conditions, COASSTers might see relatively more adults.  That is, both relatively more than juveniles, and absolutely higher encounter rates than “normal” years.

Turns out, we’re right! The graphs below show the relationship between breeding success on the Yaquina Head colony (on the horizontal, or X axis), and measures of COASST data (on the vertical, or Y axis). Each point is a different year, colored so you can easily find each one.

Left: the relationship between how many adult murres are found per kilometer of beach surveyed over the August-September post-breeding season in Northern Oregon. The solid line shows that there are more carcasses when breeding success is truly poor, fewer when breeding conditions are good. Prediction confirmed! Right: the relationship between the proportion of all murres found that are juveniles (for math geeks: juveniles/(adults + juveniles)) and breeding success. Again, our prediction – that good years would yield higher numbers of juveniles – is confirmed!

What does all of this mean?  Basically, that beached bird data can stand in as a proxy for breeding success on the colony.  And this is really good news, because most of the murre colonies in the Pacific Northwest are not regularly monitored, either because they are too far from shore to see (like the Yaquina colony), or because the island or spire where the murres nest is literally unscalable.

If you’re a Pacific Northwest outer coast COASSTer, take special care on your late summer and fall surveys – your murre data are showing us that death is part of the life of the ecosystem.

Gooney Birds? Mollymawks? Albatross!

A recent spate of Black-footed Albatross finds along the north outer coast of Washington in May and June got us wondering about these majestic birds.

With a wingspan of two meters (!) or longer, albatross are the largest members of the Tubenose Foot-type Family (Procellariidae). In the North Pacific there are three species: the dark-bodied, dark-billed Black-footed Albatross; the light-bodied, Laysan Albatross with a “smokey eye”; and the larger, Short-tailed Albatross, distinguished from Laysan and Black-foots by an over-sized bubblegum pink bill (plumage of Short-tails varies with age).

What else might a COASSTer mistake an albatross for? Bald Eagles, Brown Pelicans, Great-blue Herons and Sandhill Cranes are all COASST finds with overlapping wingspans. But each of these birds can easily be distinguished by foot-type, and bill size and shape.

All of these large-bodied COASST finds have distinctively different feet.

A long-lived, monogamous bird, albatross begin breeding at age 5-10, and it takes two parents to raise a single chick. New pairs may require a few years of practice to “get it right.  After that, mates meet annually for a long breeding season: courtship and “re-acquaintance time” starts in November, eggs appear before the turn of the year, and chicks don’t fledge until mid-summer!

Like all members of the family, albatross have a keen sense of smell and can literally smell their prey from tens of kilometers away, a talent that suits these open ocean birds. Dinner for an albatross?  Neon flying squid, flying fish eggs (tobiko in sushi restaurants), and a range of small fish and shrimp-like organisms that come to the surface of the ocean at night.

Unfortunately, smelling their way to food puts albatross in harm’s way. Fishing vessels smell like floating restaurants, attracting albatross and their smaller relatives – shearwaters and Northern Fulmars – some of which become entangled or hooked in gear. Marine debris can also be deceptively appealing, as some plastics, after floating in the marine environment, adsorb and emit the same chemical (dimethyl sulfide) used by procellariiforms as a cue to identify prey. Not only that, floating debris can look like albatross prey (could you tell the difference between a squid mantle and a red lighter floating at the surface?). Young birds are especially susceptible. Dependent on their misled parents for food, chicks ingest plastics, filling their stomachs with indigestible objects they cannot regurgitate.

Photo: Claude Gascon. One theory to explain why albatross consume marine debris is prey mimicry. Oblong, ~5cm floating objects in the yellow to red color spectrum are squid mantle look-alikes.

Populations of Black-foots and Laysans number in the hundreds of thousands.  In contrast, Short-tails number less than ten thousand and are listed as “vulnerable” on the IUCN Red List (International Union for Conservation of Nature).

With a body that mimics a glider, albatross have the ability to soar tremendous distances.  Even while breeding on islands in the Hawaiian Island chain (Laysan and Black-foots) or southern Japan (Short-tails), breeding adults regularly visit North American waters.  Laysan’s appear to prefer coastal Alaska, whereas Black-foots fly due west to the Lower 48.

Breeding so far from our shores, and preferring the open ocean, you might think COASSTers would never find an albatross.  Not so!  In fact, Black-foots are among our top 30 species.  Peak Black-foot deposition is in the summer: May through August, just when adults are finishing breeding and chicks are coming off the colonies.  But the annual pattern is “irruptive.”  That is, in some years COASSTers are much more apt to find an albatross than in others.  In northern Washington, 2012 and 2017 were break-out years; in southern Washington, 2003, 2007 and 2012 were big.  The good news is that there doesn’t seem to be any trend towards higher numbers.

Although you’d have to walk pretty far, on average, to find an albatross on the beach, they do wash up regularly. Along the West Coast, Black-foots are about three times more prevalent on Washington outer coast beaches than along beaches to the south in Oregon and California. And Laysans are a truly rare find (photos are scaled to encounter rate). On the Aleutian Islands, the opposite is true.

Across the COASST dataset, albatross species wash up exactly where you would expect them to given at-sea sightings: Black-foots along the West Coast, and Laysan along the Aleutian Islands in Alaska. Although the total body count favors the lower 48 (note only 3 Laysan have been found in Alaska), it’s actually the encounter rate (carcasses per kilometer) that is important.  Remember, there are many more COASSTers along the outer coast of Washington, Oregon and California than there are in the Aleutian Islands!  The photographs in the figure above are scaled to species-specific encounter rate the—the chance of finding an albatross in the Aleutians is about the same as along the outer coast of Washington.

A closer look at Black-foot deposition pattern on the West Coast reveals two distinct aggregations: one associated with the entrance of the Strait of Juan de Fuca (we’re guessing these birds are associated with the Juan de Fuca eddy – an oceanographic feature south of the Strait), and a second larger aggregation surrounding the Columbia River.  Both the eddy and the “plume” of river water exiting the Columbia River into the Pacific Ocean are highly productive locations where a hungry chick or exhausted post-breeding adult can hunt pelagic prey.

When Black-foot encounter rates are broken down into smaller lengths of coastline (half a degree of latitude, or about 55 kilometers), it’s clear that some locations attract many more.

Moral of this story? If you hope to see an albatross on a COASST survey, head to the south outer coast of Washington during the summer and take a stroll along the sand.

The Risk of Chronic Oiling

When Michael, one of our new COASSTers, found oil on his survey at Jacobsen Jetty South (Tokeland, WA) last month, we decided to take a closer look at the oiled birds in the COASST dataset. How many oiled birds has COASST found over the years, and where? What is the risk of chronic oiling, the type of oiling that might result from small spills like the one Michael documented?

Since 2000, COASSTers have documented 125 oiled birds: 3 in California, 4 in Alaska, 15 in Oregon and a whopping 103 in Washington. But absolute numbers don’t tell the whole story! There are also a lot of unoiled birds found along the outer coast of Washington. To generate an index of chronic oiling risk, we divided the number of oiled carcasses found by the total number of carcasses found, per state. Washington is still in the lead, but Alaska is now second!

Oiling rate by state (separating out Salish Sea and Outer Washington locations) with higher rates indicative of relative risk of chronic oiling, regardless of how many carcasses have been found overall. This analysis allows direct comparisons between birdy states, like Washington, and states like Alaska where the chance of finding a beached bird in some locations is basically zilch. (For the statistically-minded, we’ve subtracted the mass mortality events out of the baseline signal, so we’re truly comparing baseline to oiling).

What’s the story in Washington? Why so many oiled birds relative to elsewhere (3 times higher risk than Alaska, 6 times Oregon and 11 times California)? The map below indicates that almost all of the oiled birds found by COASSTers in Washington have been along the outer coast (only one oiled bird has been found in Puget Sound, just at the entrance of Admiralty Inlet), and most of those have occurred on the Long Beach peninsula and in the Gray’s Harbor/Ocean Shores area. A second smaller cluster of oiling can be seen on the beaches immediately south of Cape Flattery. We suspect a combination of shipping activity concentrated at the Columbia River and at the entrance of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, boating activity in the vicinity of the two large southern estuaries, and coastal oceanography bringing Columbia River water close to shore along the southern half of the Washington coastline (but not the Oregon coastline).

What washes in oiled and where in Washington, the state with the overwhelming majority of oiled carcasses (82%) COASSTers have found. Jacobsen Jetty South, where Michael recently reported an oil spill, is right in the middle of the highest oiling region, the southern outer coast. Circles are scaled to the number of oiled birds found – a few beaches are approaching 30 oiled carcasses, in total!

What washes in oiled and where in Washington State – the state with the overwhelming majority of oiled carcasses (82%) COASSTers have found. Jacobsen Jetty South, where Michael recently reported an oil spill, is right in the middle of the highest oiling region, the southern outer coast. Circles are scaled to the number of oiled birds found – a few beaches are approaching 30 oiled carcasses, in total! Of course, the spill Michael encountered at Jacobsen Jetty South reminds us that chronic spills are not necessarily the result of a vessel actually discharging oil, or oily bilge water, but can be the result in inadvertent loss of oil-filled containers, or even malicious dumping once the debris reaches shore. Although large oil spills get most of the press, the vast majority of spills in any year are small ones. One study released by the Washington Department of Ecology showed that between 1991 and 1996 there were 100 documented oil spills. Only 4 were large (>100,000 gallons). Half were 100 gallons or less, and three-quarters were 1,000 gallons or less.

And finally, which species are oiled? Not surprisingly, murres, fulmars and gulls top the list, accounting for ~80% of all oiled carcasses found. We’re not surprised by this because murres, fulmars and gulls also collectively rank as the top three species or groups in the COASST dataset. In fact, there is a pretty strong relationship between oiling numbers and total numbers. The only species that falls outside of this relationship is Black-footed Albatross. At 186 Black-foots found to date, we’d not expect to see even a single oiled carcass, let alone two.

Wondering what to do if you find a fresh oil or hazardous material spill on your beach? Check out this post for details on how to make a report!

Silent Winter

All quiet on the western front? Lower 48 Outer COASSTers, and our data verifier Charlie Wright, have – after breathing a huge sigh of relief! – been reporting that it’s been a little too quiet this winter. In fact, COASST surveys from November 2016 to February 2017 from Washington down to California recorded the lowest encounter rates of beached birds we’ve seen since we started!

The “heartbeat” graphs below show the long-term (starting in 2001 for WA and OR; 2006 for CA) baseline (solid black line) and a measure of variability around it (yellow wash). The gray bars are the average monthly values for that region of the coastline. We’ve rolled up the COASST data by state, so realize that there are a lot of beaches represented by each bar.

In this graphic, it’s easy to see the recent mass mortality events – these are the gray bars that are way over the baseline (and just a note for the statistically geeky – COASST deletes all of the mass mortality event months, which we define as more than 4 times the baseline, from the baseline calculation).

But check out what’s been happening most recently. We’ve expanded the last four months and displayed them as a percent of the baseline. Only December in Washington and February in California reach ~100%. All other region-month combinations are at less than half of the number of birds we would expect over the same period. Of course, compared to the death and destruction of recent winters along the outer coast, too few birds doesn’t ring alarm bells. But we have been wondering, who is missing?

The bar graph indicates the number of carcasses, by species or group, in a 100 kilometer stretch across the entire lower-48 outer coast. The blue bars are the baseline encounter rate, (statistical geeks take note: calculated as the median across years from 2006 on so that WA, OR and CA are equally weighted). No surprise – fulmars, murres (within the large Alcids), large grebes (mostly Western Grebes) and gulls make up the vast majority of the “usuals.”

The red bars are what is happening this winter, from Nov-Dec 2016 in the top panel, to Jan-Feb 2017 in the bottom panel. With some exceptions (check out Northern Fulmars, phalaropes in November-December and kittiwakes in January-February), most groups are drifting in at lower rates. We’ve boxed “top 5” contributors that have dropped this year by more than half. Large Alcids – mainly murres – were much less abundant than usual, with rates ten times below normal for January-February. Rates for gulls, cormorants and small Alcids (primarily Cassin’s Auklets) were also much lower than normal.

Both large and small Alcids have been having a rough time recently, with significant mortality events effecting Cassin’s Auklets in the winter of 2014-15, Common Murres in the winter of 2015-16 and Rhinoceros Auklets in the summer/fall of 2016. In fact, this is the first winter in three years that lower 48 outer coast COASSTers haven’t responded to a major die-off event.

Where post-breeding birds disperse to is an important factor in determining whether and how many will end up on shore. Should they die in a winter storm, birds that have taken up their wintering residence far offshore have little chance of floating to the beach before they sink or are scavenged at-sea. This is usually the case with Cassin’s Auklets, as geolocation tagged birds have ranged throughout the eastern half of the North Pacific in winter. Undoubtedly, some of the birds are simply way out there.

But the simplest explanation is that fewer birds are dying. Across the board declines in the rate at which COASSTers are encountering carcasses is usually indicative of milder conditions, and/or plentiful food. The winter storm conditions were fairly average compared to the long-term average, and with ocean temperatures approaching near-normal levels off of the whole of the west coast by late 2016, conditions may finally be returning to some level of normalcy.

Should we be worried about the lack of dead birds on beaches? With the tumultuous last several years, COASST has come to expect a “new normal.” Whether that now includes a return to the “wreck years” is an open question. In the meantime, COASSTers should relax into their next survey and enjoy the respite!

Photo Credit: S. Beck

Grebe Time

COASSTers surveying along the Lower 48 West Coast know that winter brings cold, darkness, rain… and grebes. This winter season, COASST has received a flurry of messages about an uptick in beachcast grebes. Is this normal? Is something going on? The answers are yes, and yes.

Grebes breed inland on freshwater lakes and ponds throughout western North America, migrating to coastal locations post-breeding from the Gulf of Alaska south to Mexico, and including inside waters like the Salish Sea, San Francisco Bay, and the Gulf of California. By November, the chance of encountering a grebe along the Pacific Northwest outer coast has risen from essentially zero to about one grebe per 5 kilometers. And that’s the average, some places and some years see much higher spikes.

The black line traces the average or “baseline” pattern of how many grebes are found per kilometer of beach length over the year (where numbers less than one mean you would need to walk more than a kilometer to find a grebe). The yellow area to either side of the line is the range over which 95% of the actual variability in that central signal lies. If we record a month and year that is absolutely lower (or higher) than the yellow area, we pay attention.

Most of the grebes washing ashore on COASST beaches are large grebes, and most of those are Western Grebes. The pie charts in the map graphic indicate the proportion of grebes found in each region identified to species. Dark blue is Western, turquoise is Clark’s, and light blue is when we can’t tell the difference.

What?!? Are we really that bad at identification? Nope. Turns out that a headless large grebe is impossible to differentiate as Western or Clark’s. And that’s because the best character is whether the dark|light plumage line on the face puts the eye in the dark feathers (Western) or the white feathers (Clark’s).

Side note: headless grebes, or more commonly a grebe with the neck skin inverted and pulled over the face so that only the bill is poking out from this macabre inside out turtleneck are the victims of raptors who literally skin their dinner to expose the breast meat. Light blue pie slice? – that’s a raptor signal.

There are several really cool patterns to note in this graphic:

  • First, the proportion of the grebe pie that is Western or Clark’s is HUGE – almost every grebe found along the outer coast is one or the other.
  • Second, the “raptor signal” is also pretty large, especially in California.
  • Third, the chance of finding a beachcast grebe is vastly different, depending on where you are. From November-February (i.e. the peak season for Grebes) you need only walk ~3 km in California to find a grebe on average, whereas in Puget Sound it’s a much longer trek: 115 km of beach before finding a grebe. And there’s a south to north pattern – more towards the south, less as you go north, and a serious decline as you round the corner into the Salish Sea.
  • Fourth, while the Salish Sea may not have as many grebe carcasses on beaches, the variety – the biodiversity – of grebes is much higher. Horned Grebes, Pied-billed Grebes, even Eared Grebes wash in. Want a chance of finding a Red-necked Grebe? Eschew the outer coast and head for the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

When the days start to lengthen and winter loses it’s grip on the Pacific Northwest, grebes stop washing in. By March-April, a grebe carcass is a very rare occurrence on a COASST beach. And that’s because these long-necked divers have left their seaside wintering grounds for their freshwater breeding sites, where they’ll build a floating nest, raise a brood, and start the migratory cycle all over again.