Tag Archives: Alcids

Sounds of the Marbled Murrelet

Breeding plumage Marbled Murrelet in the Salish Sea. Copyright A. Barna

Breeding plumage Marbled Murrelet in the Salish Sea. Copyright A. Barna

The Marbled Murrelet (Brachyramphus marmoratus) is one of four seabirds in the COASST range with listing status under the Endangered Species Act. Just a few days ago, some lucky members of the Audubon Society of Portland rose at the crack of dawn (literally, as in be there at 4:30AM) to hear the “kerr kerr kerrs” of the endangered Marbled Murrelet.

Paul Engelmeyer, Manager of Ten Mile Creek, a National Audubon Society sanctuary and Kim Nelson, Senior Faculty Research Assistant hope annual trips like these (Eight years and counting) might include portions of the MAMUs historic range, where monitoring surveys have not been conducted (or not in a very long time). See the full story here.

Not a morning person, but just have to hear for yourself? You can click here to listen to a high-definition recording from Big Basin, Redwoods State Park (yes, that is 6:00AM Thomas is referring to on the 5th of May – not quite light).

Puffins in Peril

The Atlantic Puffins just can’t get a break.  First, they were so over-hunted for food, eggs, and feathers in the 19th century that by 1901 there was only one breeding pair left in Maine. Now, after ecologists have spent the last century successfully repopulating the state, puffins face a new threat: climate change.


Atlantic Puffins struggle to cope with climate change.

Puffins, like many seabird species serve as indicators of ecosystem health. This spring, 3,500 puffins were found dead on Scotland beaches after strong storms, and survival rates of fledglings plunged in the Gulf of Maine. Experts say that they are not finding enough food to maintain their body weight and feed their chicks.  As ocean temperatures rise, the fish populations shift, meaning the seabirds have trouble finding the prey they need to survive.

These strandings and unusual behaviors by puffins, razorbills, and other seabirds are a sign that all is not well. They are coinciding with warmer water temperatures and abnormally big storms like Superstorm Sandy last fall. Large storms can cause damage to puffin nesting sites, and warmer waters are causing the fish communities to change. Butterfish, a southern fish that is becoming more common in the north, are replacing herring as the primary food source for puffins. Unfortunately, butterfish are too big for puffin chicks to swallow. As a result, chick survival rates are plunging as the adult puffins struggle to find enough food.

Puffin colony

Razor bills and Atlantic Puffin come ashore to breed each spring.

Conservation groups are working to keep the public interested in the plight of the puffins. Puffins are charismatic, adorable little birds that attract more than 10,000 people to their breeding colonies in Maine each summer. The puffin has been held up as a poster-child of seabird conservation because of its charismatic appearance. It is a good reminder for all of us that we don’t need to hunt them to do them harm. The choices we make in our everyday lives–paper bag or plastic bag, drive or take the bus–can have just as much of an impact.

To learn more about this story, click here.


Protecting an Endangered Seabird–with Vomit?

A cool tactic is being employed to help protect the marbled murrelet, a seabird with a very unique breeding strategy.  Although they are seabirds, marbled murrelets breed in old-growth redwood forests up and down the west coast.  After laying a single egg, the murrelet parents will fly as much as 50 miles from the nest to the sea and back to bring food. Because they rely on these old-growth redwood forests to breed, their numbers are down 90 percent from their 19th-century numbers.  Historically, deforestation, fishing, and pollution have been the bulk of the problem, but nowadays, with the redwoods protected by national parks, the threat comes from other sources.

An adult marbled murrelet. About the size of a robin, they nest in California’s old-growth redwoods. Photo from USFWS.

The marbled murrelet population in central California is at the most risk, and this is largely due to the increase of Steller’s jays. These jays will steal the eggs and eat them, and have been responsible for the loss of up to 80 percent of each year’s brood. Because of this egg-stealing, the central California population of murrelets is threatened with extinction within the next hundred years.

The jays are found throughout the west, but have been booming in redwood forests because of the trash and food debris left over in campgrounds. These omnivorous birds will then find and eat murrelet eggs once they have established themselves in the redwoods. Because the jays are very smart and have very good memories, they will return to the same place multiple times looking for food. This is bad news for the murrelets, who use the same nesting sites year after year. Killing jays is not an option, because they are a natural part of the ecosystem. Instead, park biologists have come up with a smart way to deter the jays from eating murrelet eggs.

Although training wild animals might seem weird, in this case it is exactly what is being done.  The jays are being trained to associate murrelet eggs with vomiting.  Chicken eggs are painted to look like murrelet eggs and inoculated with carbachol, an odorless, tasteless chemical that induces vomiting.

These eggs are then fed to the jays, who vomit within five minutes of eating them, in order to teach the jays to avoid that particular kind of egg.  So far, the testing phases of this unusual method of control have been very successful, reducing egg-stealing by 37 to 70 percent.  This reduction is enough to keep the murrelets at a sustainable population size and decrease their chance of extinction in the next hundred years from 96 to 5 percent.

Stellar Jay populations are booming as they take advantage of crumbs and trash left behind by humans. Photo from USFWS.

There are a number of reasons why this program is so successful.  First of all, jays are smart, long-lived, and have long memories, so once they learn that the distinctive murrelet egg coloration means vomiting, they will avoid them. Second, Steller’s jays are highly territorial, so untrained jays will stay away. Finally, murrelet eggs look like nothing else found in a redwood forest, so the jays are unlikely to confuse them.



While this innovative program is a very good start, the sheer number of Steller’s jays is still an issue. As parks open up more and more space to humans, the population of jays will only increase.  Opportunistic animals like jays thrive in areas where humans leave trash and crumbs. Therefore, a number of parks are encouraging visitors to “keep it crumb-free” in an effort to educate the populace about the dangers of feeding wildlife. So the next time you’re camping in central California, remember the marbled murrelets are depending on you. Dispose of your trash correctly, clean up after yourself, and above all, don’t feed the jays.

Click here to read more about this unique project.

Olympic Peninsula Field Trip

Amazing trip out to the COASST with Barbara Blackie’s “Topics in Marine Ecology” class at Western Washington University. Barbara, a former COASST Volunteer Coordinator, uses COASST surveys as a learning opportunity for numerous college students. As all COASSTers know, you can’t head out to the beach without looking for (dead) birds!

COASST finds made up for the less-than-ideal weather – a couple of Black-footed Albatross, a Rhinoceros Auklet (complete with white leading edge), and a Sabine’s Gull (distinctive white upperwing triangle).

Bill (BFAL), wing (PHAU), wing (SAGU) from the WWU field trip weekend.

Occasionally, new recruits ask whether “Wrack: Thick >1M wide” refers to wrack height or spread across the sand. At Sooes, we actually found wrack almost one meter tall – incredible.

Students from Barbara’s class show just how much wrack can accumulate.

We followed up COASST surveys with a walk on the Cape Flattery trail, with some stunning views of Gray Whales, Tufted Puffins, and migrating geese. After all that, how could you not want to become a marine biologist?

View from the Cape Flattery Trail, with Tatoosh Island in the background.


All About Refinds!

Ever wondered what happens to the birds you tag on COASST surveys? And why do we tag them, anyway?

Much of the time, the carcasses are swept away with the next high tide, or are carried away by scavengers. Most times, a bird is never seen again. Think of all the others that are deposited once and for all on unsurveyed beaches – we are none the wiser!

Other times, we know exactly what happens to a beached bird. We have good evidence that they’re more mobile than you might think. In January, Bonnie Wood and Janet Wheeler at Salt Aire North found a Pacific Loon. Later that same day, Amy and Jack Douglas happened upon the very same bird on the neighboring beach, Bonge. Is that possible? Turns out, carcasses do move–by dogs, humans, or raptors. Without a unique tag combo, we’d never be able to trace such refinds.

Those dead birds untouched by animals and tides remain right where they are. Certain beaches are well known among COASST staff as “bird keepers.” These are often the most expansive sandy beaches, where a bird may be buried by blowing sand for many months, only to be uncovered and refound months later. The tags, then, are the only way to tell that such birds should not be counted as a “new” find.

We ask our volunteers to collect data on refinds each time they’re encountered. We don’t require measurements or photos after the original find, but we do ask for a few fields: where found, body parts, species, tie number and color sequence. Some volunteers do choose to take photos each time, and they allow us to make some fun “before-and-after” comparisons. In combination with refind data, this gives us an idea of which parts last– the feet and wings (the basis for the COASST guide).

This intact Rhinoceros Auklet was reduced to just a sternum, the tagged wing bones, and a few other bones after 6 months on Agate Beach, in Oregon.

This Northern Fulmar was one of 24 found on December 3, 2010. A month later, it was found again, only slightly degraded. Then in September 2012, amazingly, it turned up again a whopping 21 months after its original find date!! A new persistence record for COASST!

All photos by Wendy Williams

‘Sticky Birds’ Found in England

Over in England, dead birds are washing ashore in large numbers on beaches in Devon and Cornwall for the second time this year.  The birds, mostly guillemots (i.e., murres), but with a smattering of gannets, razorbills, and cormorants, are coated with a white, gluelike substance.  So far there have been an estimated 200 birds affected by this substance since last week, with more suspected to wash up as prevailing winds and currents drive the carcasses to shore.

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) has been taking in birds found coated in the substance that are still alive and using toothbrushes, “washing-up liquid,” and margarine to try and clean them.  So far they have rescued 95 birds, but 25 have died as of Monday.

This kind of thing is tragic for both the birds and for the human population in the affected areas.  Besides the emotional trauma of finding dozens of dead birds, there are economic implications for those areas where tourism is a large part of the economy.

Unfortunately, this is not the first time this year a weird sticky substance has been found coating dead birds.  In February, an estimated 300 shorebirds were found covered in what is believed to be the same substance.  Tests run during the February incident determined that the sticky stuff was polyisobutene, a relatively common chemical aboard ships.  Although testing is still in progress, it seems likely that this is the same thing.

Currently, polyisobutene can be legally released into ocean waters under certain conditions.  In light of these events, the RPSB has called for polyisobutene to be reclassified and its discharge into ocean waters outlawed.  The British coastguard has been working to determine the source of the chemical, but has been unable to do so.

More information from the BBC can be found here.


Wreck on the UK Coast

In early April, an alarming number of dead birds washed up on the east coast of the UK – a large majority of the birds were puffins. It is the worst “wreck” of birds for over 50 years. Researchers have speculated that the event was caused by recent extreme weather. There have been no signs of pollution in the regions in which they were found. It is thought that the birds expended more energy on staying alive in the recent North Sea storms, making feeding impossible. To makes matters worse, the success of the breeding season for many of these birds (which is quickly approaching) could be impacted from this event. The majority of the deaths have already surfaced, but the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, alongside volunteers, will proceed to monitor said beaches in the upcoming spring and summer months.

For further reading visit:
The BBC News
Arbroath Herald

Dead Bird ID Terminology

One of the challenges of making the COASST Beached Birds Field Guides was avoiding much of the technical jargon found in other scientific resources. So where possible, we prefer “overlapping” to “scutellate” and “four webbed” to “totipalmate.” Those words can be fun to know, but they have no place in a guide for bringing clarity to bird identification.

With bird ID, there are a few terms that are necessary in order to be specific. The glossary in the COASST Field Guide helps with these, but we still field questions about some of the more obscure ones. Here is a closer look at some of the more challenging terms:

Puffin “stripe” or “smudge”

Unique to puffins and the closely related Rhinoceros Auklet, this is the subtly paler coloration on the leading edge of the wing. Sometimes this can look like the feathers are “worn away”, but it’s actually a plumage pattern.


White spots surrounded by dark, found on the outer wing feathers (primaries) of adult gulls (but not kittiwakes) are referred to as windows.


Many gull species have white tips to their primary feathers, which we call “fingernails.”


When the secondary feathers are colored differently from the rest of the wing they are referred to as a speculum. Often these are iridescent. This term is commonly applied to ducks, for example this Northern Shoveler wing with a green speculum. Presence and coloration of the speculum can be the key to getting that waterfowl wing down to species.

Wing stripe

This is an area of contrast going through the middle of the wing, with darker or lighter color both before and after. In shorebirds, this is often a white “stripe.” Pigeons show a dark wing stripe.

Inner cut/outer cut primaries

Some birds have oddly shaped edges to their outer primary feathers. The leading edge of the feather may taper gradually towards the tip. This is called an outer cut feather. When the tapering is present on the trailing edge of the feather, it is called inner cut. This can be a good way to tell those cormorant wings from scoter wings!

Alcid Mortality Events on the East Coast

Razorbill at bird cliff in Westfjords, Iceland. Photo taken/uploaded by Gsd97jks (Wikipedia user).

Check out some recent and intriguing alcid mortality events documented by SEANET, the Seabird Ecological Assessment Network. In case you didn’t know, SEANET is a citizen science project that conducts beached bird surveys on the east coast of the United States.

Since December of 2012, SEANET has documented an unusually high number of dead Razorbills, almost 30 as opposed to the usual 3-5 reported dead. The Razorbills, which are usually found in the Northeastern coasts have been recovered in areas as far as North Carolina and Florida.

Another strange incident observed by SEANET is the high Atlantic Puffin sightings, both dead and alive, in the Cape Cod area. Considering reports of Atlantic Puffins are rare, this high number of reports is being linked with the antecedent storm that occurred in the area. SEANET is currently watching for further effects of the storm on the puffins.

Finally, increased mortality of Dovekies in the Long Island area has been observed. SEANET has not documented abnormal mortality rates elsewhere.

For more information, please visit the SEANET blog here

December 2012 Dovekie Wreck in New York

In December of 2012 a bird wreck was reported along the coast of New York. The unlucky species was the dovekie, also known as the little auk. Beached dovekies were reported along the shore, in parking lots, fields and even yards. Wildlife rehabilitation centers as well as local veterinarians reported admitting record numbers of dovekies that had injuries ranging from neurological dysfunction to severe trauma. Unfortunately aquatic birds are difficult to rehabilitate as they require special housing, feeding and handling due to their adaptations for life at sea instead of on land. Of the 22 injured dovekies one wildlife rehabilitation center sheltered, only one survived to be released back into the wild.

In an effort to better understand the origin of massive bird wrecks such as this, wildlife health specialists advise recording all conditions present at the time of a wreck so that these observations can be used to better understand and predict future wrecks. One way that you can get involved in monitoring the health of your local environment is by volunteering with a wildlife health monitoring network, such as WHER. WHER stands for “Wildlife Health Event Reporter” and is an online application that allows you to report observations of questionable wildlife health in your area. For more information visit their website at http://www.wher.org.

For more articles and pictures concerning the December 2012 dovekie wreck see links below!