Category Archives: Participant Profiles

Participant Profile: Mark Miranda

When a person spends a lot of time searching for things that have washed in with the tide, and those things are often dead, certain metaphors tend to offer themselves up. One that has become semi-regularly associated with COASST is CSI. (That’s Crime Scene Investigative unit, for those of you who, like me, do not regularly watch the show.) COASST has been variously described, often by COASSTers themselves, as “CSI for dead birds,” or “CSI for garbage.”

For Mark Miranda, the metaphor hits a little closer to home than it might for most COASST volunteers. Where many of them have a background in biology and have to learn the finer points of ecological forensics, Miranda’s expertise comes from the other direction. “In junior high school I dissected a frog, and that’s about it as far as biology training goes,” he says. “But crime scene training, I’ve had a lot of that over the years, just doing search warrants and things like that.”

Miranda recently retired as the Chief of Police for the Newport Police Department, after a career in law enforcement that spanned forty-six years. He was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay area, in California, and first joined the police department in Tucson, Arizona. Then, in 1981, he and his wife moved to Newport, Oregon, and there they stayed. He had heard about COASST several years before he became a volunteer, and while he was intrigued by it, he just didn’t have the time at first. But once he retired, he was looking for things to do, and he saw a flier for a training session at the Hatfield Marine Science Center. He went and signed up to search for marine debris. He now surveys Seal Rock beach, a few miles north of Newport. The beach is quiet and secluded, and on a typical Oregon summer day, surveys are quite pleasant. “I pick up after people, and I pick up after the ocean,” Miranda says.

So is surveying for marine debris really the same as working a crime scene? “The techniques are basically the same,” Miranda allows. “You see something, you photograph it, you measure it, you collect it, try to identify what the object it is. So it is kind of what I would do in my job.” As for whether he has ever thought of adding beached birds to his surveys, which would seem a natural extension from his old line of work, here Miranda demurs. “I’ve been dealing with dead things all my life, so it’s nice not to need to anymore,” he says.

The debris can more than stand up in its own right ecologically. Miranda likes that he is adding a small piece to a potentially enormous puzzle, and he knows from experience how small puzzle pieces can be the key to the whole thing. Also, scrutinizing debris that may have been drifting for months or even years presents its own special challenges, its own mysteries. “Most of what I find is pretty weather-beaten, just broken bits or plastic, things like that,” Miranda says. “So I’m never too sure what it was.”

Participant Profile: Charlene McAllister

In 2014, Julia Parrish, COASST’s executive director, was looking to expand the program farther down into northern California, in the Mendocino area. An Audubon chapter there was discussing the possibility—they liked it very much—and so one of their more involved volunteers was asked to meet with Julia when she came to visit.

“That was how I met her,” says Charlene McAllister, now a COASST volunteer, “and then it just kind of took off.”

A nurse by profession, Charlene had been involved with birds in a variety of ways for years. There were the weekly shorebird surveys (“I’ve been doing those for about seven years”), the black oystercatcher breeding surveys, the Christmas bird counts. So, really, what was one more bird-centered pursuit? Granted, it was walking the beach and looking for dead birds, but that was hardly dissuasive.

“Being a nurse, I’ve been around death before,” Charlene says. “I know that death is a part of life.” The question for her hinged on knowing to the greatest extent possible whether the dead birds were normal, or indicators that something big and abnormal was afoot. “That’s what makes finding out how the birds died so important,” she says.

Indeed, Charlene has lived on the Pacific coast long enough to know it is in the midst of some big changes. She grew up in Humboldt County, and went to high school in Crescent City, about an hour north of where she surveys now. Then as now, she spent a lot of time on the ocean, and could often be found at the beach at least three days a week. “I was a real tidepooler,” she says.

Charlene has surveyed a few beaches in her four years with COASST, but the one she has done most consistently is, as she says, a “very, very popular beach” called Virgin Creek. The section is named for the creek that emerges from the woods and sometimes flows all the way to the ocean, or sometimes does not, depending on the season. A typical survey has her meeting up with her partner, and then they gossip all the way down to the water. They mark off their zones, and then start walking. As a pair they sometimes dawdle a bit, take in the living birds, enjoy the sand. “You’re on the beach, after all,” she says.

But that does not distract her from her larger purpose. “I think citizen science is really important,” Charlene says. Given the size of the world, the challenges facing it, there is simply no way for scientists themselves to collect everything in this day and age. (“Even with interns,” Charlene adds.) But what is really important is that COASST is opening the eyes of people who might not have thought that going out to the beach and handling dead birds was something they might want to do. Around Mendocino, there is a volunteer who is a first grade teacher, and she is so excited she can share the things she learns on the beach with her students. And there are all the people who stop to see what she is doing, and when she tells them, ask her why.

“It’s critical,” Charlene says, “to use citizen science not just to gather data, but also to reach a larger audience.”

Participant Profile: Amanda and Mallory Millay

Participant Profile: Amanda and Mallory Millay

by Eric Wagner

In late 2015, thousands of common murres began to wash up along west coast of the U.S. and Canada. The highest concentrations were in southern Alaska, where the species breeds in abundance. Reports of sickened and dying birds came in from the Aleutians, from Juneau, from as far inland as Glennallen. In some places, dead murres lay in neat, unbroken lines among the wrack following a high tide, body after body after body. The wreck would continue into 2016. In the thick of it, the Fairbanks office of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game was taking up to seventy calls per day from concerned citizens. Alaska wildlife officials said the murre die-off was the largest in state history.

It was in the midst of the wreck, during January of 2016, that Amanda and Mallory Millay happened to be walking along a beach near Kenai, Alaska, where they live. The twin sisters saw their share of dead murres that day, and like everyone else they wondered how widespread the problem was. When they read news articles about the wreck, they often saw, in addition to the expected quotes from government scientists, accounts from people who were part of a volunteer group. This group sent people out to different beaches once a month to survey for dead birds, and the data these people collected were proving critical to understanding the scope of the die-off.

“That was what brought us to COASST,” Amanda says. “It seemed like a great program for extensive data gathering.”

Continue reading

Participant Profile: Diane and Dave Bilderback

Participant Profile: Diane and Dave Bilderback

by Eric Wagner

Flip through any calendar devoted to Oregon landscapes, and you can be reasonably certain you’ll find somewhere in it a picture of Haystack Rock, usually backlit by a glowing sunset. The 235-foot-tall basalt coastal monolith presides just off of Cannon Beach. With its extensive network of tide pools, as well as the large seabird colony that calls it home in the summers, it is one of the more popular tourist destinations in the state.

But there are actually three official Haystack Rocks along the Oregon coast. One of them happens to be a bit farther south, just offshore of the town of Bandon. Admittedly not quite as picturesque as its northern namesake, this Haystack is 105 feet tall, tabular, and inaccessible from shore. It is, however, the Haystack that marks Diane and Dave Bilderback’s survey beach: OR Mile 99.

Diane and Dave Bilderback on Oregon Mile 99

Continue reading

Participant Profile: Jeanne Finke

by Eric Wagner

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

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

Continue reading

Participant Profile: Paul Allan

by Eric Wagner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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