Category Archives: Staff Profile

Who are the COASST Interns?

by Eric Wagner

Allison DeKerlegand helps with the marine debris side of things. She studies environmental science and resource management, and did a study abroad in Australia, in North Queensland, near Cape Tribulation. Apparently its name is apt. “The beaches there have just as much debris as our local beaches,” she says.

Maddy Hoiland took a course in environmental studies and liked it, but she wanted to apply the things she was learning in it in the real world. She emailed Jackie Lindsey last spring, and has since helped with data entry and mailings.

Jess Quinn is a second-year student in the School of Aquatic and Fisheries Sciences. Her roommate was a COASST intern before she was, which was how she learned more about the program. She has what she describes as a “whiteboard enthusiasm” for population genetics research, but she also feels it is important to see and understand the natural world. (Not that these impulses are mutually exclusive, of course.)

These are just a few of the current crop of COASST interns who help to keep the program humming. Interns are vital to the COASST enterprise, and COASST has had over 250 since it began almost twenty years ago.

Left to right: Andrew, Andrew, Emily, Bailey, Tim, Jane, Justin, Abby. (COASST dog Freya, front and center). 2018 COASST intern field trip 2018.

Nowadays, all student interns start out in COASST as generalists, helping with data and participant questions, and crafting survey materials. They learn about every piece of the program, and begin to see how those parts come together as a whole. After a quarter or two they begin to focus more on their favorite aspects of COASST. Some stay with data entry, or help put together survey kits, and others lead outreach and email projects.

In the first quarter of their internship, students will spend about eight hours per week in the COASST office learning the ropes, but after that the commitment can be more flexible. “COASST couldn’t run without our interns, so it’s great for us,” says Jackie Lindsey, the Participant Coordinator. “And the students learn a lot, too, about data management and processing, about communicating science and engaging the public.”

Monisha and Adrienne, COASST interns 2013

Even if they do not stay in citizen science, former interns have found their COASST experience can help in unexpected ways. Chris Biggs, for example, was an intern about nine years ago. “Interning with COASST just sounded like an interesting opportunity that was different from a lot of the other internships that were available at the time,” he remembers. “I didn’t know much about citizen science, but was intrigued by it, and I thought I could learn more that way.”

Learn he did. Biggs helped with data entry from the seabirds surveys, he did some work on seabird ID quizzes, he represented COASST at the annual shorebird festival at Grays Harbor. “It was a lot of fun,” he says. He is now at the University of Texas at Austin, finishing his Ph.D. in fisheries ecology. (You might have heard of him—he is New York Times-famous.)

Chris Biggs conducting research on seatrout for his graduate program at the University of Texas at Austin.

Although his work has nothing to do with seabirds or marine debris—he studies fish spawning—Biggs says the experience definitely helped in other ways. Part of his research has him interacting with local recreational fishers, so he can get information on the reproductive status of the fish they are catching. “I learned a lot about working with the public and non-scientists,” he says. “These days, it’s important for scientists to know how to talk to people who might be interested in what you do but are not necessarily trained in that field. So yeah, in that way it was a big help.”

Staff Profile: Charlie Wright

by Eric Wagner

Sakuma Point is an unprepossessing park along Boat Street, near the University of Washington. Not quite half an acre in size, the park is sandwiched by a popular restaurant and canoe rental shop on the left, and a storage warehouse on the right. Visitors can sit at a bench or table overlooking a small stretch of Portage Bay and relax or eat their lunch. Or, if you are Charlie Wright, you count birds for ten minutes.

“I try to make it out here every day,” Charlie says on a bright spring afternoon. He is standing at the water’s edge with a pair of binoculars, calling out species almost the instant he sees or hears them. “There’s a crow,” he says. “Another crow… six lesser scaup over there.” Something behind him chirps. “Song sparrow,” he says without looking back. Another chirp. “White-crowned sparrow.” A few gulls drift in the distance. “Glaucous-wing or hybrids,” he says. “They’re too far away for me to tell.” Ten minutes of this pass, and then he calls time. “Now I upload the list to eBird,” he says, “and that’s the survey.”

Yes, hard as it may be to believe, Charlie—COASST’s stalwart data verifier, he who scrutinizes almost every single photo volunteers send in—likes live birds too. A lot. “I’ve been watching birds in general pretty much since I started having memories,” he says. He was leading birding trips for the Rainier Audubon Society in southern King County by the age of eleven, and has done field work with birds all over the world, from Alaska to Peru. A few years ago, he was part of a team that drove all over Washington, ultimately breaking the state record for greatest number of species seen in a twenty-four-hour period. “Birds are kind of my muse,” he says.

Charlie started as the COASST data verifier in 2010. He performs the vital function of confirming the identity of every dead bird COASSTers find on their surveys. Each fall, he starts to work his way through the backlog of volunteer submissions from the previous year. Most of the time he has no reason to doubt what a volunteer sends in: he cross-references the datasheet with the photos and concurs with the ID. It takes him all of thirty seconds, tops. “It’s rare for me to spend more than five minutes on anything,” he says. “COASST volunteers are pretty amazing at IDs. They know their birds and how to use the COASST field guide.” In fact, COASSTers correctly identify beached birds to species 89% of the time.

But everyone gets stumped once in a while. Last December, a team of COASSTers surveying a beach up near Hobuck, Washington found a bright, iridescent wing. They puzzled over it. Was it a Steller’s jay? They did not think it was, so they sent it in as “unknown.” Charlie spent a few minutes with it before he made the ID. “It was a purple gallinule,” he says. “It was the first time the species was documented in Washington.”

Even with his lifelong interest in birds, IDing a dead bird still is not completely intuitive for Charlie. “With some of the tough ones, you have to take body parts and key them out,” he says. He might use the COASST database of photos—“the largest collection of dead bird photos in the world,” he says—or some of the more technical guides at his disposal. After all, even though COASSTers have found 181 species to date, five or six still show up each year that no one has ever found on a survey before. “Those rarities are always in the back of my mind,” Charlie says. “This body is probably a common murre, but it could be… something else.”

In May, once Charlie has brought the annual backlog of roughly ten thousand photos down to zero, he and his wife head off to Alaska to do field work for the summer, reveling in the realm of living birds, helping monitor their populations and whereabouts. As you read this, they might be in the midst of a point-count survey (a method similar to his hobby activity at Sakuma Point) in the Yukon-Kuskokwim National Wildlife Refuge, camping eighty miles from the nearest town. Or they might be sailing around the Aleutian Islands on a research vessel, helping on a seabird survey. Or they might be even farther north, in the Chukchi Sea. “My COASST work is really complimentary with the Alaska work,” he says. “There’s a seasonality to both of them, ID challenges. It’s just that one is with live birds and the others are dead.”