Category Archives: Uncategorized

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.

Uses and Users of COASST Data

What do the following things have in common?

They are all uses of COASST data — and the list goes on!

Data are summarized and appear in outlets that range from reports, to peer reviewed publications, to media articles.

From 2008 (when we started keeping track) to today (Feb 26 2018), 207 requests for COASST data have come to the office. Most requests come from partners at resource management agencies like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, United States Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service, and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, but we also hear from academic researchers, non-profit organizations and the media.

Most of the 207 requests for COASST data have come from government agencies. Of those, the majority are federal partners.

Although the beached bird program was designed to generate a baseline against which the impact of catastrophic events, such as oil spills, could be measured, there have been myriad other uses of the high quality information that COASSTers collect!

Of course, the most common use of our data is in defining, tracking, and explaining deviations from the “normal” pattern of beached birds at specific times and places. With a serious uptick in frequency and magnitude since 2014, die-offs are keeping all of COASST busy!

Information about UMEs (Unusual Mortality Events) is in high demand. Requests for recent local information are also popular, “what’s been happening in my area lately?”

So how are COASST data used in “real time”?

During an unusual mortality event, COASST keeps the pulse coming in from surveys and anecdotal reports, and provides regular updates to the agencies with jurisdiction over the affected species and locations. These agencies make decisions about things like whether to collect carcasses for necropsy, closure of public lands, and hunting/harvesting of seabirds and their eggs.

Collectively, we pull together the puzzle pieces as they unfold: Where, when, who and how many birds? Do we know why they died? What precautions should be taken? Are there other unusual things happening in the ecosystem at the same time?

We attempt to answer these questions, and collaboratively craft the fact sheets that wind up on our respective websites.

COASST surveys are a valued and varied source of information. If you find yourself wanting to know more about how COASST data are used, be sure to check out COASST Stories.

A note to our intrepid marine debris participants: it takes some time to gather enough data to detect patterns and uncover stories. Because this program is so new, we’re just starting to be able to do these things, and plan to feature what we find very soon!

Unsolved Mysteries – April 2018

Can you help us identify the following mysteries from recent COASST surveys? Leave a comment here, or reach out to us at coasst@uw.edu.

Jan found this small mystery during her September marine debris survey of Davison Head Isthmus and noted, “It has a plastic top with a round opening. The plastic is attached to a wood dowel. There is yellow tape around the dowel attached with string.”

Ruthanne and Harry found this item a year ago on Cliff Beach — it just caught our eye!

This item was found by Sandy during her large marine debris survey of Hastie Lake Rd. S in January. It is 59cm across.

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 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.

How do you report an oil spill?

On April 5, 2017, Michael started his very first beached bird survey on Jacobsen Jetty South near Tokeland in Pacific County, WA. April is usually a quiet time of year for COASST and COASSTers, with few beached birds other than the occasional Common Murre. However, in Michael’s first survey he literally found a smoking gun – a small oil spill on the beach. Fortunately, he had the presence of mind to document the spill with careful photos and description, which were transmitted to the COASST office, and from us to the WA Department of Ecology, the state agency in charge of handling these types of spills.

Photo Credit: M. Heikkinen

Dave Byers, the Oil Spill Response Section Manager at the WA Department of Ecology, informed us that two spill responders were dispatched to investigate and size-up the scene. Due to the large amount of oiled sediment and debris, Ecology hired a clean-up contractor to respond, remove and safely dispose of the contaminated material. Here they are in action!

Photo Credit: WA Dept of Ecology

The spill responders believe that the oil was from a waste-oil container that was tossed or washed overboard from a vessel.  It also appeared that oil from the container was intentionally emptied on the beach after the container washed ashore. It’s very lucky that Michael was there to document and report, and it’s a great reminder to always proceed with caution if you find a chemical container.

What should you do if you find a fresh oil or hazardous material spill on your beach?
Dave Byers at the WA Department of Ecology suggests documenting your location, the type and approximate volume (or areal spread) of oil, distance from the water, and what coastal resources are impacted by the oil. As always, carefully photo-document!! You can also use the COASST protocol for oiling (page 2-11, protocol version 3.0). All of this information will help authorities determine what resources are necessary for responding to the incident.

Any of the numbers below can be used to report the spill:

  • 1-800-OILS-911 works anywhere along the coast of North America.  It is a 24-hour hotline which will recognize where the call is originating and connect with the appropriate state or province Emergency Management Office.  This works in Alaska, British Columbia, Washington, Oregon and California.
  • 1-800-424-8802 connects you to the U.S. National Response Center. Information taken from callers is passed to the appropriate state and federal response agencies.
  • 1-800-258-5994 connects you 24/7 to Washington Emergency Management which serves as the after-hour dispatcher for Ecology Responders.

And of course, you can always call or email COASST, and we will also pass on your information.

Happy Holidays from COASST!

It’s amazing to us that we’ve zoomed through another year!  In fact, COASST is approaching our 20th year (if you count from the year of our first grant – 1998), and we’re stronger and better than ever.

Those decades have seen real changes.  We started with 12 pilot volunteers in Grays Harbor, Washington, before we had a protocol or a website, before our field guide was invented, and long before our office filled with students, staff and science collaborators.  Who knew that we’d last so long, grow so large (over 800 participants this year alone, and more than 3,000 trained since we started), or be able to contribute to so many fundamental issues in coastal ecosystem health and science?

Today, we are one of the most well-known citizen science programs delivering top notch science to the research and natural resource communities, and – importantly – back to the coastal communities from which all of our data come.  In fact, our model of citizen science – from our trainings to our data verification to our data visualizations to our holiday card (!) – has become the gold standard.

So hats off to all of you!  Without your passion for your beach, your love of the natural world, and your curiosity regarding how the coastal environment is changing (for better or worse), COASST wouldn’t exist.  This holiday season, bundle up and take a walk on your beach to celebrate our collective achievement, and remember there are hundreds of people like you in dozens of coastal communities up and down the West Coast of North America doing the same thing.

Happy Holidays!

Julia, Erika, Hillary, Tim, Charlie, Katie, and the COASST Interns

A Rare Marine Mammal Washed In

What do COASST staff do on their time off?  Walk the beaches, of course!

And it was on such an excursion that Charlie Wright, the COASST verifier, and his wife Linnaea – both expert birders and natural historians – happened upon a Blainville’s beaked whale.

The dolphin-like "beak" and absence of large teeth helped us conclude that this was a female Beaked whale.

The dolphin-like “beak” and absence of large teeth indicate that this is a female beaked whale.

A what?!?

Beaked whales are one of the oldest and most speciose lineages of cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises), with 22 species documented to date.  Smaller than the large whales, and sometimes mistaken for dolphins, beaked whales have, as the name implies, a dolphin-like “beak” (or rostrum).  Vaguely sausage-shaped, they also sport short stubby flippers (front limbs), a small dorsal (back) fin, and a plain un-notched tail (also known as a fluke).  Males have two enormous teeth that look more like spade-shaped tusks, which they apparently use to fight other males for access to females.  These teeth vary by species and allow easy identification of males.  With no teeth to examine, the whale Charlie and Linnaea happened upon was a female.

Note the small dorsal fin!

Note the small dorsal fin.

Relatively unseen and unknown animals that range widely across the world’s oceans, beaked whales are deep divers that can submerge in the hunt for squid and deep-sea fish for over an hour.  No wonder people don’t often see them.  But they do wash ashore.  In fact, in 2014 a previously unknown species of beaked whale washed up on Zapadni Beach on St. George, Pribilof Islands (a COASST beach!).

All of the excitement over this rare find got us wondering, what kinds of marine mammals have COASSTers been recording over the years?  Although COASST doesn’t “officially” collect marine mammal data, since 1999 COASSTers have often reported what they find.  From 2000 through the present, just over 1,200 marine mammals were reported, most to group, like “seal” or “dolphin/porpoise.” Just over half (644) were identified to species.  In our new COASST protocol, we’ve added specifics about how to record and take photos of any beached marine mammal observed.

What can we say about these data?

First, we focused on the marine mammal carcasses identified to species.  These data are presented with numbers in parentheses under each photograph indicating the total count.  The winner?  Harbor seals, followed by sea otters and California sea lions.  Not a single beaked whale!  Notice that although there are slightly more species of cetaceans (8 in total compared to 7 pinnipeds), COASSTers are far more likely to find a pinniped (420 individuals versus only 63 for cetaceans).

Marine mammals reported by COASST volunteers and identified to species from 2000-present.

Marine mammals reported by COASST volunteers and identified to species from 2000-present.

Second, we mapped all of the species groups, from large whales to sea otters, as a function of location, from northern California north to the Bering and Chukchi Seas.  The “image collage” adjacent to each mega-region (we’ve combined the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Puget Sound and the San Juan Islands into “Salish Sea”) shows which species groups are found where.  The size of the photograph is proportional – bigger photos literally mean more of that group is found, and the image indicates which species in the group was identified most often.

In California, the group “sea lions and fur seals” dominate, with the vast majority of identified finds being California (of course!) sea lions.  North in Oregon and coastal Washington, “true seals” become more abundant in the finds identified to species.  In the Salish Sea, as many COASSTers can attest, harbor seals dwarf all other marine mammal finds. In fact, the chance of finding a harbor seal is not that much different from the chance of finding a beached bird (the recent Rhinoceros Auklet mortality event being an exception).

Sea otters, unknown from our California beaches and a true rarity along Oregon, become relatively more abundant along the Washington outer coast, and dominate the Gulf of Alaska beaches.

And then there are the finds in the Bering and Chukchi Seas.  Notice that the only photograph in common with the other COASST mega-regions is the sea otter, everything else is different.  “True seals” dominate, but the species isn’t harbor, it’s spotted.  Rather than sea lions, COASSTers in these regions are more likely to find fur seals.  Not surprising when you consider that the Pribilof Islands (home to 8 COASST beaches) support breeding rookeries of Northern fur seals numbering in the hundreds of thousands.

Marine mammal species abundance as a function of location, from northern California north to the Bering and Chukchi Seas.

Abundance by location, from northern California north to the Bering and Chukchi Seas.

Documenting beached marine mammals is an important objective for COASST.  So keep an eye out for the odd flipper, fluke or paw as you’re searching the beach.  With marine mammal populations shifting in abundance throughout the COASST range, we’re in the perfect position to create the definitive baseline.

A Lingering Summer on Lopez Island

jp-friend(Photo Credit: Gene Helfman)

Last weekend, amidst a blaze of late summer sun and warmth, I had the privilege to deliver a talk at the Lopez Library as part of the National Public Lands Day celebration co-hosted by the San Juans National Monument on Lopez and Kwiaht, among others, on COASST findings.  Our bird verifier, Charlie Wright, made an appearance the next day at the “Beer and Birds” event in Lopez Village.  Between us, we had the island well-covered.

COASSTers throughout our geographic range can attest to upticks in beachcast carcasses over the last several years, from Cassin’s Auklets along the outer coast of the lower 48, to Common Murres in Alaska, to Rhinoceros Auklets in Puget Sound and the Strait of Juan de Fuca.  There is really something serious going on, what with marine heat waves (aka “The Blob”) and El Niño shifting the marine food-web out from under the birds.

The graph below shows the long-term average “baseline” – the black line that looks like a heartbeat signal – annually from 2001 through to present for the outer coast of northern California through Washington state.  The pale gray bars represent the actual monthly signal across the years.  When the gray bars soar above the heartbeat baseline, that’s a “mass mortality event”.  You can see two things right away:
1. the frequency of mass mortality events is increasing – the time between them is decreasing.
2. they are getting more severe.

image001

COASST data have been essential in telling these stories – how many birds of which species are found where, and when.  Only the super-human efforts of many COASSTers, often toiling in adverse weather conditions, makes it possible to find out how far from normal things have become.  Then COASST staff and scientists leap into the next phase of working with our science and resource management colleagues to figure out what killed the birds.

For residents of the San Juan Islands, and other localities surrounding the eastern Strait of Juan de Fuca, this year’s big event has been untoward Rhinoceros Auklet mortality.  From Victoria to Orcas to Whidbey to Dungeness, Rhinos have been washing ashore.  COASST and all of our science partners have been closely following this event.  You can get the latest information here.  Saturday morning I went out with Lopez Island COASSTers Cathy and Daphne on a tour of some amazing and special sites along the southern headlands of that island.  A mix of National Monument, Park, and private land, these cliffs interspersed by pocket beaches offer a gorgeous view of the Olympics and Vancouver Island, and a beautiful late summer landscape of burnished grasses and wind-pruned Douglas firs.

This weekend we found exactly what COASSTers would predict – Rhinos!!  What was interesting was where we found them.  Rather than on the beach, all of the (many) carcasses we found were on the headlands overlooking the Strait of Juan de Fuca.  Large waves?  A better explanation was provided by Daphne and Cathy, who let me know that Bald Eagles regularly perched on the spots.  We had found a raptor “fast-food” restaurant littered with the well-plucked leavings of small Alcids.  How did we know they were Rhinos?  Of course, the telltale bill horn gave some carcasses away, as did the diagnostic pale stripe (looks like worn pipping on a well-loved couch) on the leading edge of the wing stretching from wrist to elbow.
img_1446 The diagnostic pale stripe is clearly visible along the edge of these two Rhino wings, which are from two different birds; which I discovered by looking carefully at the wingchord measurement and feather wear pattern. (Photo Credit: Julia Parrish)

unknownAlthough this bird is too-far gone to be a COASST bird (because the bill length can’t be accurately measured), it’s still easy to identify as a Rhinoceros Auklets by the prominent horn.  (Photo Credit: Cathleen J. Wilson)