Tag Archives: California

Cassin’s Auklet Die-off Continues

For the full story, see the North Pacific Cassin’s Auklet Wreck fact sheet, posted to our website.

Following the Dec 20/21 weekend, COASST participants have seen a wave of Cassin’s Auklets hit the beaches, from Clallam County, Washington to Humboldt County, California. Combining reports from beached bird programs across North Pacific (see previous blog) preliminary estimates suggest that tens of thousands of these birds are washing ashore, at the rate of 10-100 times “normal.”

Cassin's Auklet off the Washington coast. (c) R. Merrill

Cassin’s Auklet off the Washington coast. (c) R. Merrill

The Cassin’s Auklet, Ptychoramphus aleuticus is a small (about 200g, or 7 oz) krill and larval fish-eating seabird that breeds along the West Coast of North America from Alaska south to Baja California, Mexico. A majority of birds ( ~80% of the world’s population) breed in the Scott Island group, off the Northwest tip of Vancouver Island. Need more info? Check out BC’s Coast Region Species of Conservation Concern Fact Sheet.

Over 50 birds documented by a COASST team outside of Lincoln City, OR. (c) COASST

Over 50 birds documented by a COASST team outside of Lincoln City, OR. (c) COASST

As of Jan 6, 2015, the northern coast of Oregon (Columbia River south to Heceta Head) has had the highest regional per kilometer counts, at 4.3 Cassin’s Auklets/km (Nov) and 5.2 Cassin’s Auklets/km (Dec). The highest per kilometer encounter rate on a COASST survey is from Bayocean Spit (near Tillamook, OR) at 71 birds/km.

Cassin’s Auklet Wreck

Cassin's Auklet wreck data as of November 21, 2014.

Cassin’s Auklet wreck data, October 1 – November 21, 2014.

Beginning in late October and continuing through mid November, we've witnessed an uptick in Cassin's Auklets. In collaboration with West Coast beached bird partners Beach Watch (San Francisco - GFNMS) and BeachCOMBERS (Monterey Bay - MBNMS), and British Columbia Beached Bird Survey we know this event extends from Washington State south to Monterey Bay. The highest per kilometer counts occurred in Oregon North (30 Cassin's Auklets per kilometer at McPhillips Beach in Tillamook County). 

Why Cassin's, why now? Cassin's Auklet colonies in British Columbia (75.9% of the North American population) fared well this season with high (the highest?) reproductive output recorded from decades of monitoring. Lots of young-of-the-year out in the Pacific this year! Ocean conditions, may (though we don't have evidence yet) be deteriorating more than normal. Storm activity November 15/16 preceded a wave of beaching - not unusual - the combination of young birds and difficult conditions predictably lead to wrecks, like those we see most years, at the end of a good Common Murre breeding season.
Just two of the 179 birds Patty counted on 12/23 near Neskowin, OR.

Just two of the 179 birds Patty counted on December 23 near Neskowin, OR.

UPDATE: A new wave of Cassin's Auklets hit the coast of Washington and Oregon beginning Sunday, December 21 with up to 100/km on some beaches. These small, fist-sized birds have a dark bill (pale spot at base), dark back and wings, white belly. Fresh specimens show blue-ish feet (3 webbed toes, no hind toe).

What’s Washed In – December 3, 2014


Hope you had a great Thanksgiving holiday with family and friends. Thank you for all of your data over the long weekend and, of course, for all of your staged “turkey on the beach” photos too!

It was great to see some of you at the Olympia and Port Angeles (WA) classroom refresher trainings on the 21st and 22nd. Erika and Heidi really enjoyed it!

Thank you to all of you for hard work, especially during these colder months. It is very appreciated.

Let’s take a look at What’s Washed In recently:











Steamboat Rock (CA) 11/15/14 found by Gene and Keith

Wing: 31 cm
Tarsus: 55 mm

Alaska wing key (page 44):
Choose gray (go to Q25), gray wingtips with no windows or fingernails: Northern Fulmar, wahoo!

West Coast wing key (page 33):
Choose gray (go to Q10), gray, same as mantle (go to Q11), uniformly gray: Northern Fulmar – excellent!

West Coast wing table (page 32)
Choose row = large (wing chord 29-32cm) and column “dark upperwing” – no pale/white underwing linings, no primaries outercut. We’re left with:
Northern Fulmar (TN3)
American Crow (PE1)
Parasitic Jaeger (LA25)
Long-tailed Jaeger (LA31)

The jaegers are out – the tarsus of this bird is too long. Crows have “completely black plumage” so we’ll opt for Northern Fulmar.

Natural history notes: Peak beaching for Northern Fulmars in Alaska (where they breed) is July/August. Along the West Coast (where they spend the winter) November/December can be particularly high. In December 2003, COASST participants in Oregon North found an average of 11 fulmars per kilometer!










Wayside Beach (OR) 11/12/14 found by Janis and Jody

Bill: 65 mm
Wing: 18.5 cm
Tarsus: 74 mm

Alaska foot key (page 34), West Coast foot key (page 22):
Lobed (go to Q14), large foot, single lobes, tarsus>50mm: Grebes.

Alaska participants – stop here – this bird is found farther south.
West Coast guide GR1 – wing chord > 18cm, so we’re down to Clark’s Grebe (GR1), Western Grebe (GR1) or Red-necked Grebe (GR4). RNGR has a much tinier bill and between the CLGR and WEGR, the Western Grebe is the one with the eye surrounded by dark facial plumage.

Natural history notes: Western Grebes also peak on the West Coast a tad later in December/January. Like scoters and loons, Western Grebes breed along lakes in the interior and migrate to the coast during the winter. Concern continues about declining numbers of Western Grebes in Puget Sound – this paper uses Christmas Bird Count data (citizen science!) to look at shifting distributions of Western Grebes along the West Coast.

























How often are land based vehicles found as marine debris? Only once that we know about on a COASST survey. Marine debris pilot testers Paul and Louise conducted their first survey on 11/13/2014 and found encountered this rusted van on Bishop Beach West. A little ways down the beach, the radiator fan was in their medium debris sample.

































Take a look at this gumboot chiton that washed in near Cape Mendocino.  This species is the largest of all chitons, growing up to 14 inches in length and weighing over 4.4 pounds! Gumboot chitons inhabit rocky coastlines from California to Alaska, across the Aleutian Islands and south to Japan. What’s unique about this species is that the 8 plates on their body are hidden by their reddish-brown skin, or girdle. The underside is bright orange or yellow, consisting mainly of a large foot. They also have a retractable radula with rows of teeth to help them consume marine vegetation, such as sea lettuce and kelp.

Seen something on the beach you’ve always wondered about? Send us a photo!

Erika, Julia, Jane, Hillary, Charlie, Heidi, Jenn, and the COASST Interns

Lucky Duck #245

Over spring break, marine debris student intern, Abby, spent the day hunting for petroglyphs and marine debris on the three-mile stretch of beach from Cape Alava to Sand Point.

By far the most interesting find was a weathered blue plastic duck, found among some seaweed in the wrack, with a large sharpie-marked “#245” on the bottom of it. Abby guessed it might have been a part of some project, so she brought it back to the COASST office to investigate. 

Blue Duck Profile

Maybe #245 is its race number and this little guy made it a lot farther than the finish line.

Was #245 its race number and this guy made it a lot farther than the finish line?

Curtis Ebbesmeyer, a local oceanographer whose work revolves around modeling ocean currents, popularized the use of marine debris as a type of tracking movement of water on the ocean surface. He got his start after a large shipment of 29,000 plastic “Friendly Floatees” bath toys were dumped into the Pacific Ocean in 1992 and for the next 15 years or so people were finding toys from this specific spill washing up on beaches all over the world.

Photo credit A. Larson. Another example of a beached duck. You won't find this guy in the COASST field guide.

Photo credit A. Larson. Another example of a beached duck, but you won’t find this guy in the COASST field guide!

Picking up on this idea, schools, cities, and various non-profit organizations have taken to releasing batches of rubber ducks into streams and oceans, and relying on helpful beachcombers to report where and when they’re found. While COASST won’t be releasing any ducks or wood blocks (the slightly more eco-friendly version), future marine debris participants will collect information on where and when an object was found, material size, markings and identity to provide insight into source and movement patterns for all debris.

As to the little blue duck? After some CSI sleuthing on Google we found a “vintage” duck of the same style for sale on Etsy. Heidi did mention the Annual Great Olympic Peninsula Duck Derby, a good and local contender, but recent releases feature classic, yellow ducks. Finally, a potential match – could it be from the San Clemente (CA) Ocean Festival, about 1,740 kilometers south of the spot Abby found it on the North Coast of Washington?



What’s Washed In

Hope that you’re all enjoying Spring! We’ve had a lot of interesting photos in our inbox, including some iconic species. Here’s a look at what’s washed!

MalelN 2014 SUSC 778bCalifornia-to-Washington: Look at that bright red/orange foot! Front toes are webbed, hind toe is lobed: Waterfowl: Diving Ducks. All dark wing and no white plumage – Surf Scoter or Black Scoter. (In the Alaska Guide, without a head, we’ll turn to the Wing Key… see below) For the Black Scoter, the last primary is much shorter – not the case here – “normal” wing with the last primary longest – SUSC! (Found by Sara and Peter, Humboldt, California)

Alaska: Dark upperwing (trust us on this). Upperwing simply dark, and underwing linings not white. Wing chord is 24cm, and wing is “simply dark” no outercuts, innercuts, smudges, bright primaries or short outer primaries. NOW we can use the foot. Harlequin Duck, shearwaters, Northern Fulmar, Black Oystercatcher, Surf Scoter  – only one with a redish foot – SUSC!

Wa-atch 2014 0327b

All regions: Okay! This one is certainly recognizable, but let’s go through the steps to verify our answer: four free toes, 3 in front and 1 in back. No toes fused, and the tarsus is less than 150 mm. We definitely have claws here (= nails as long as toes = talons)! The bare tarsus tells us that this is a raptor (as opposed to an owl) – a Bald Eagle. (found by Paul and Sally, North Coast, Washington)

OcnPrkSth 2014 0409 DUNL 079 a

OcnPrkSth 2014 0409 DUNL 079 b
All regions: This is a great example of countershading (dark on back, light on tummy).  Looking closely at this tiny wing: white stripe along the mantle edge when the wing is outstretched and the innermost secondaries are predominantly white. With a wing chord of 12 cm, this is a Dunlin (rare in Alaska). The long (39 mm), droopy-tipped bill separate this DUNL from two other common shorebirds: Sanderling and Western Sandpiper. (found by Paul and Janet, South Coast, Washington)

What’s Washed In

The COASST office continues to be a buzz of activity as our summer quarter wraps up. Recently, we trained new North Coast and Aleutian Island volunteers in addition to our many ongoing projects. There have been lots of interesting finds this summer. Here are a few of the many photos sent in by volunteers:


Large Immature Gulls (LIGU) found by the Hobuck crew in Washington, Carl in California, and Caren in Oregon. We’ve been seeing a lot of LIGUs lately as the post-breeding mortality spike begins. As you see in the photos, the coloration on these birds can really vary. Chances are, if you find mottled brown mantle with an extra large wing cord (more than 33cm) you’re looking at a Large Immature Gull.


A Marbled Murrelet found by Nancy and Barbara in the Puget Sound. This species is listed as US Fish and Wildlife ESA Threatened in California, Oregon and Washington, and a rare find for COASST surveys (only 65 found since 1999). Three webbed toes put it in the Alcid family, and a short wing chord leads to Common Murre chicks, Marbled or Kittlitz’s Murrelet, Least or Whiskered Auklet. A dark underwing and mottled brown underparts point us to Marbled Murrelet, since the Kittlitz’s bill is less than 14mm(!).


These two Pigeon Guillemots (adult on the left, chick on the right) were found by Elizabeth in Oregon and Govinda in the Puget Sound. Another member of the Alcid family, PIGUs have bright red feet (hidden in chick photo) and a white patch on their upperwing (just barely showing on the inner portion of the chick’s left wing).


This pallet was found by Carol in Alaska. Koito, the brand printed in red, is a Japanese automotive and aircraft lighting manufacturer. This pallet could have traveled from Japan or come from a boat shipping Japanese products.

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).

Krill – have you seen?

Have you seen me? Small (~2cm), red-orange, 16 legs, big eyes.

Thanks to Gary Lester (Humboldt COASSTer), Amber Transou (Redwood State and National Parks) and Bill Peterson (NOAA) for alerting us to a sporadic series of krill beaching events from central Oregon to northern California. If your survey beach is between Newport, Oregon and Eureka, California, and you were out during Father’s Day weekend (June 15/16) or before, let us know – have you seen krill? Our earliest reports come from Dave and Diane, on Oregon Mile 99, near Bandon, May 11, 2013.

Krill on Gold Bluffs Beach, Humboldt, California. Credit: Amber Transou, California State Parks, North Coast Redwoods.

Krill on Gold Bluffs Beach, Humboldt, California. Credit: Amber Transou, California State Parks, North Coast Redwoods.

Some COASSTers have replied to mention an absence of krill, but lots of first and second year “instars,” or juvenile Dungeness crab (molts), washing ashore during the same time (see below).

Tiny Dungeness Crab instars on Clam Beach, June 17, 2013. Thanks Linda, for the photo!

Tiny Dungeness crab instars on Clam Beach (CA), June 17, 2013. Thanks Linda, for the photo!

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.

Julia’s Travels – Arcata, California


A fabulous visit with CJ and Carol Ralph at their amazing house sandwiched in-between the salt marsh of upper Arcata Bay and the Lanphere dunes.  CJ is a consummate bird biologist who has studied Marbled Murrelets (MAMUs) for the Forest Service for many decades.  We went for a morning beachwalk – no beached birds – on Saturday morning.  As befits the season, totally foggy, but also fairly warm and no wind.  And also, no wrack – just a clean-swept beach.  Made me realize that the “search for birds on one leg (narrow beach) vs both (wide beach)” rule of surveying might be seasonally dependent: when there’s no wrack it’s pretty easy to see “bumps” across the entire width of the beach even if it is wide (this one was easily 75 meters).  Anybody out there have thoughts on that?


What we did find on the beach was fishing gear, namely a crab pot, and a set of buoys, freshly deposited.  Dragged the latter up above the dune grass line, as it was too heavy to haul off the beach.


Saturday afternoon was a great refresher session with Humboldt COASSTers – we had a spirited discussion of the COASST protocol as regards survey techniques.  Thick versus thin, patchy versus continuous, surveying one way versus out-and-back – these essentials of survey technique were debated over cookies from Los Bagels in Arcata (the corn-lime cookie, kind of a zippy snickerdoodle, was fantastic).  Gary and Lauren Lester mentioned how the Humboldters might have been mis-recording wrack and wood, backed up by Kimberley Pittman-Schulz who learned the COASST “ropes” from her partner Terry Schulz.  Bottomline?  COASST needs to put together a simple one-page “how to” sheet for everyone to take out on the beach.  Stay tuned for that!

Saturday night was the Redwood Region Audubon Society banquet – we had bird, of course.  What a fun, inspired, and knowledgeable group; and full of beached bird aficionados.  Cindy Moyer played chamber music; turns out music professors are also good COASSTers…  I sat next to an art history professor from Humboldt State named Julie Alderson who came to see whether science and art could come together.  Great thought.  I’m all in—it’s something I’ve done quite a bit of thinking about.

I “sang for my supper” with a banquet speech focused on a retrospective of my life in research.  Really fun to put together and deliver, and just a little scary to note that I’ve been at it for almost 30 years.  Everyone loved the photographs of Tatoosh Island, and especially the ones from the UW archives taken by Asahel Curtis of life in Neah Bay at the turn of the last century.  There is a wonderful photo of Neah Bay COASSTer Paul Parker’s dad examining a whaling harpoon.  It’s impressive to realize that this tradition lives on, passed down through centuries of family and community knowledge.

Of course, everyone was also struck by the COASST story and message: this IS the century of citizen science – make no mistake.  Things are just changing too fast to not get everyone involved in collecting rigorous data about the condition of our natural environment.  And COASST is at the forefront of that movement.  Based on the warm reception, I’m sure we’ll get a few more Humboldters (Arcatians and Eureka-ites?) signing up.

Sunday morning I joined marine mammalogist and Humboldt State Professor Dawn Goley for a great walk to the top of Trinidad Head.  We talked about the need to get coastal citizen science programs up and down the West Coast working together.  Sitting in the shelter of wind-pruned coastal scrub looking out at waves breaking over the outer rocks I was struck by what a hardy and fragile place our coastline is.  Resilient against waves, wind and weather; totally susceptible to climate impacts or oiling.  This is the reason we started COASST – to create the baseline that allows us to say what is normal here, what we need to protect.  And how great to work with Dawn to add marine mammals to the roster of things COASSTers and others will be able to collect information about.  Stay tuned for that as well!

Finished off my visit with a quick lunch at Seascape on the Trinidad Pier with Dawn and newly appointed California Sea Grant Marine Advisor Joe Tyburczy, his wife Karen and their new son Jonathan.  Joe is keen to meet COASSTers, and to work to expand rigorous citizen science in Humboldt County.  We’re there Joe!