Author Archives: coasst

Unsolved Mystery – January 2018

Marine debris COASSTers Jenny and Jesse encountered this “Big gooey blob that could not be pulled apart (Stunk!!!)” during their November survey of Oceanside.
As you can see from our ideas, this item has the COASST office stumped:

“Undead woolly blanket”
“No idea”
“Chunk of flesh”
“Wildling robe fragment”
“Sheep’s clothing shed by a liberated wolf”

Do you know what it is? Please post a comment here or send a message to coasst@uw.edu.

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

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.”

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

COASST Seeks Interns

The Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team (COASST), a citizen science program based at the University of Washington’s School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences, is recruiting undergraduate interns for the upcoming academic quarter.

COASST interns work as a team directly with staff and gain valuable, hands-on experience with citizen science programs and the complexities of volunteer-collected data.

Internship tasks may include:

  • Recruiting, tracking, and communicating with citizen science participants
  • Managing incoming data and photos from beach surveys
  • Entering beached bird, marine debris, and social science data
  • Preparing materials for beached bird and marine debris trainings
  • Representing COASST at outreach events

Interested students should send an email to: Jackie Lindsey, Volunteer Coordinator at coasst@uw.edu

Unsolved Mystery 10/4/2017

COASSTer Rick found this biofouled item during his survey of Moore Creek South (Oregon) in September. If you know what it is, share your thoughts in the comments or by e-mailing coasst@uw.edu.

Here’s Rick’s description: “A cylinder with a rounded bottom and a detachable top.  Length is 16cm; lid is 4cm tall; diameter is 7cm.  Material is thick (4mm) translucent plastic.  A set of 3 vertical holes on the four sides with a hole in the top and bottom.  Has two attachment points on one side.”

Top view

Side view B

Side view A

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.

Unsolved Mysteries – September 2017

Gary encountered this metal buoy at Diamond Creek near Homer, Alaska during his first survey in August. We’re wondering where and how this kind of buoy would be used.

Steel buoy found on the Kenai Peninsula, August 2017.

Craig documented this crab trap float fragment in May. Noticing the abundance of variably colorful foam buoys encountered during marine debris surveys made us wonder—do the colors signify anything? Are they painted for easy recognition by the owners?

Colorful float fragment found May 2017, Half Moon Bay Beach, WA.

Ann and Michael encountered this large plastic drum during their August survey of Flat point on Lopez Island, WA. What would this drum have contained?

Plastic drum found August 2017 on Lopez Island, WA.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Please share your ideas in the comments!

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.

A Closer Look at the Wrackline

The presence and composition of wrack (the seaweed and other material washed in on high tide) varies from beach to beach, day to day, and season to season. Looking through the kelp, crab molts, wood chips, or Velella velella that wash in provides a dynamic and fascinating window into the world just offshore.

Wrack piled high and in big lumps can obscure the likelihood of finding what we look for during COASST surveys. That’s why COASST keeps track of the proportion and continuity of beach zones, and in which zone birds or debris are encountered. With this information, we can better estimate the quantity of what washes in.

fir needles, feathers, plastic nurdles and fragments

So what’s in the wrack zone anyway, and how does it get there?

Much of what we find once grew and lived in the ocean. Macroalgae (seaweed) includes species that either float freely or are anchored to the seabed. The latter can be broken by waves during high energy storms, freeing it for transportation onshore by wind and tides.

Other material that ends up in the wrack lives or has sunk to the seabed, such as crab molts. Large waves can disturb the seabed and refloat these objects, which are then transported onshore. This is why wrack is thickest, and often contains the most variety, after large winter storms. At certain times of year, the wrack zone may also consist of a thick band of Velella vellela, the result of onshore wind that pushes these “by-the-wind sailors” onto beaches.

Velella velella, by-the-wind sailors

As wrack decomposes, it can stink. But it also provides the building blocks – nutrients and substrate – for the dune grasses that stabilize our beaches and provide habitat for nesting shorebirds. Additionally, it provides habitat and food for invertebrates like insects, crabs and sand-hoppers, species that are in turn eaten by birds and other critters up the food chain.

Clumps of wrack are surrounded by a cloud of beach hoppers. Yet, high-use tourist areas sometimes remove wrack, to the detriment of abundance and diversity of beach flora and fauna.

Here are a few of the species that COASSTers encounter in the wrack zone:

Gigartina exasperata, Turkish towel

Postelsia pamaeformis, sea palm

Zostera marina, eelgrass

 

Special thanks to Steve Morey, of theoutershores.com for sharing his beautiful photos with COASST. To see more of Steve’s photos of what washed into Oregon beaches, visit his website.