Tag Archives: Seabird

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.

New Footprints – Sean Rohan


Sean took this photo of a beached Snow Goose on Nunivak Island during a NOAA groundfish survey of the Eastern Bering Sea Shelf in June 2011. Once a COASSTer, always a COASSTer!

What paths do interns take once their time at COASST comes to an end? As part of our “New Footprints” series, we caught up with one of our past interns, Sean Rohan, and asked him what he’s been up to.

“After finishing my internship at COASST and graduating from UW, I had a short stint at Wild Fish Conservancy. I conducted snorkel surveys in support of a project monitoring anadromous fish passage above the Leavenworth, WA hatchery on Icicle Creek,” Sean mentions.

In October of 2010, he was hired to be a stomach analyst in the Food Habits Lab at Alaska Fisheries Science Center in Seattle for NOAA-Fisheries.

Sean spends 10 months out of the year “nose to the lab bench” identifying the stomach contents of numerous Alaskan groundfish species (Walleye Pollock, Pacific Cod, Atka Makerel, Sabelfish, Halibut, Lingcod). He’s given the task of creating new taxonomic identification protocols for the stomach contents, similar to how COASSTers use Beached Birds to identify finds that aren’t in the best shape. As you might expect, intact prey items are a rare find, halfway digested in the stomach of a cod!

When summer arrives, he spends 2 months at sea participating in annual/biennial groundfish surveys. He’s been to the Bering Sea twice and the Gulf of Alaska once throughout his time with NOAA so far. He says the biggest perk of going out to sea every summer is the ability to see live seabirds for a change!

Visitors to the Food Habits Lab often ask, “what’s the strangest thing you’ve found in the stomach of a fish?” Sean replies, “the strangest thing I’ve ever found was a murre foot in a Pacific Cod stomach, which I stumbled across during my first month on the job.”  He recognized it immediately thanks to his years at COASST. “For better or for worse, it seems dead birds just won’t leave me alone!” It is the only one found in the 30-year history of the program’s data set (from 150,000+ stomachs). “Fortunately, that at least suggests that Pacific Cod aren’t regularly feeding on murres.”

And the best part of his new job? “I have an opportunity to see the cogs of the ecosystem turning in front of me everyday,” says Sean, “pretty cool.”

Refuges For Endangered Hawaiian Seabirds

The West Maui Mountains between Kajakuloa and Makamakaole has historically been home to many breeding seabirds, but in recent years this population has been in steep decline. Habitat conservationists are hoping that next year they will begin to hear the songs of native seabird species in these hills again.

Two bird enclosures are in the process of being built by First Wind, a Boston-based renewable energy company that operates the Kaheawa wind farms above Maalaea. The enclosures are for the endangered Hawaiian Petrel (uau) and the Newell’s Shearwater (ao). First Wind agreed to put the conservation plan together in order to offset potential impacts of the wind farms and ensure a “long-term net conservation benefit”.

A Hawaiian Petrel, an endangered species that this project is hoping to help.

A Hawaiian Petrel, an endangered species that this project is hoping to help.

The already installed shearwater enclosure has a predator-proof fence around 3-4 acres of breeding habitat. Many predators were trapped and removed and the fences will be checked each week for any breaches in security. Additionally, artificial burrows will be placed in each enclosure. The second enclosure will be installed within the next couple of weeks, and both enclosures are to be fully completed by fall.

Why is there a need for these enclosures? Native seabirds were first driven to near extinction after early seafarers used the birds as food. More modern day threats mainly include introduced island predators. “We know that there are shearwaters here, but they’re being (preyed upon) by mongoose and cats,” said Steve Sawyer, president of EcoWorks New Zealand, which designed the enclosures for First Wind and has built similar enclosures on other Pacific islands.

Sawyer brought two specialists with seabird detecting dogs to help search for remnant Hawaiian petrel burrows. After weeks of hiking all over the mountain, the search team found only dead petrels.

Attempts will be made to draw in the seabirds through the use of a solar-powered, weatherproof sound system that broadcasts recorded bird calls as well as the use of life like-decoy birds that were made by the same New Zealand company that created props for “The Lord of the Rings” movies. The enclosures will be kept in place indefinitely and biologists will monitor the project for the next 20 years.

For more information and photos of the enclosures click here.

What’s Washed In

With all this great summer weather, we hope you are enjoying lots of time on the beach (for a survey or for fun)! Our inbox keeps filling with new and exciting COASST finds. Here are a few things that have washed ashore recently:

Greater White-fronted Gooose

A Greater White-fronted Goose found by Tom and Connie on the South Coast of Washington. This is a rare find for COASST (less than 40 documented!). You won’t find this species in the field guide. However, those three webbed front toes and bulbous forth toe will put this bird in the “Waterfowl: Tippers and Geese” category.

Pacific Loon

A Pacific Loon found by Melissa in Humboldt. Check out those wide flattened-like-a-knife tarsi: definitely a loon! Looking up the LO section in Beached Birds, we see that small loons (Pacific and Red-throated) can be separated from the Common Loon by their wing size. The Pacific Loon can be distinguished from the Red-throated Loon by its straight (as opposed to upturned bill – second photo shows this best), and limited spotting across the back.

Brandt's Cormorant

A Brandt’s Cormorant found by Olli, Carolyn, and Keith in Oregon North. The dark bill and a tan chin rule out the smaller, Pelagic Cormorant (featured in our last email) and the Double Crested Cormorant (stout orange bill or black bill with white face plumes).

Pacific Lamprey

Pacific Lamprey – part of a class of animals (Agnatha) without jaws, ribs or paired fins.

A Pacific Lamprey found by Candace, in Oregon South. A first-ever find for a COASST survey! Although this fish won’t be winning any beauty contests with its mouth full of yellowish paired (or tripled) teeth, it is pretty important conservation-wise.

Lots of yellow rope found by Heidi and team out on the North Coast of Washington! These 30cm (12in) fragments of small diameter polypropylene could have a couple of possible origins. Rope like this is often used in recreational fisheries, perhaps from a larger length encountered at the surface, wound around, then cut from a propeller. This type of rope is also used in oyster culture and cut as the crop is harvested. With rope, larger loop fragments pose and entanglement hazard (especially to seals), fragments pose an ingestion threat, based on length, to many marine species.

Some Good News for Atlantic Puffins

Atlantic Puffins have once again arrived in Maine for the breeding season, and, unlike last year, are finding plenty of food for their chicks.  Last year, there was a shortage of hake and herring that resulted in the deaths of many puffin chicks, but this year it seems like there is enough food.  However, researchers are still concerned.  The number of puffins on the islands of Maticinus Rock and Seal Island has decreased by a third, even though these two islands are closely monitored by the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Audubon Society.

Atlantic Puffin

Atlantic Puffins numbers are doing better this year. Photo: USFWS.

Atlantic puffins are beautiful birds with a unique lifestyle.  Their bills are brightly colored, with a mix of reddish stripes and yellow spots.  They are a diving bird, and will dive down as far as 200 feet below the surface in search of food.  Like penguins, they use their wings to “fly” under the water for 20-30 seconds and can carry several fish at a time due to the sharp, tooth-like structures on the roof of their mouths.  These birds are becoming a major tourist attraction in the Gulf of Maine, but a hundred years ago the population was nearly wiped out as people hunted them for their eggs, meat, and feathers.

Research suggests that puffins are more sensitive to environmental changes than other seabirds because they are less able to adapt.  While stopping their decline is difficult, this sensitivity can help scientists study the changes in ocean climate.

Learn more about this research here.

Helpful hints: data notes and photographs

COASST data depend on two things: detailed notes and high-quality photographs. So we (Scott, Jessica and An, students with COASST) went digging! Thanks to some great examples sent in by COASSTers, we’ve compiled some helpful tips.

What are “Good” Notes?
Good notes are legible and complete. If a space in the data sheet asks for information pertaining to something not present or not applicable to the situation, put a slash (/) in the box, a “N/A” for not applicable, or a “U” for unknown (can’t be determined). “N” means no, “0” means none. When a survey sheet is returned with all the boxes filled, we know it’s complete. 


Data example 1: Paul’s data sheet. Note how paul has filled in all the appropriate boxes legibly.

Data example 2: Chet’s data sheet. Note Chet’s comment at the bottom of the survey – this way we can be doubly sure someone didn’t just forget to fill out the backside.


Data example 3: Michelle’s data sheet. Again, everything filled out clearly, comments include notes on an unusual number of invertebrates found (sea stars in this example, but could include crab, clam, krill, etc)


Data example 4: Bird data from Cindy on Mad River Park North (Humboldt region). Note how all boxes are complete, a dash fills the second to last box noting that there is no distinguishable difference between Brown Pelican males and females.

What are “Good” Photographs?
Good photographs include three simple things 1) Specimen/bird/bird part(s): make sure the whole specimen fills the frame 2) Scale: black and yellow photo ruler placed near the bird for scale! (for most, included on the top of the chalkboard) 3) Chalkboard/slate: record the beach name, date of survey, cable tie number (Tag ID#) on the chalkboard (if possible, the species ID and bird number as well)

2) and 3) above are found in each COASST volunteer toolbox, 1) you’ll have to find on your own!

Photographers also pay attention to 1) Light (enough light, flash used in low-light conditions, no photographer shadows (check out “Here Comes the Sun” blog), bird stands out against background 2) Camera/camera settings/photographer movement (photos taken on high resolution setting, “beach scene” setting is chosen on bright days, photographer is stationary, camera is positioned over bird, camera lens is dry)

COMU Found by Jerry Chadwick & Carol Sanders (Bastendorff ) 2011-12-12

Photo example 1: Jerry & Carol’s murre on Bastendorff (Oregon South region). Slate/chalkboard is complete, bird is in the sun, shadows are minimal, bird takes up almost entire frame, camera is positioned over bird (not at sand-level or weirdly angled, for instance).

WEGU Photographed by Mariann & Doug Croucher (Oregon Mile 101) 2011-12-02

Photo example 2: Mariann & Doug’s gull photographed on Oregon Mile 101 (Oregon South region). Photo has scale, chalkboard is neatly filled out, light  is good, shadows minimized, wings are spread and take up most of the frame.

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).

New Footprints – Erin Tomaras

Everyone knows our student interns keep the COASST office buzzing along. We took a step back and realized over 150 University of Washington undergraduate students have been part of the COASST effort, committing over 13,500 hours to the program in total!

Today, and in posts to come, we highlight what some of our graduated students are up to.

Erin Tomaras, COASST Intern (later, Senior Intern) contributed a whopping 390 hours of service, March 2009-June 2012. With her heart set on field work from the day she graduated, she’s now working for a non-profit on South Padre Island, Texas called Sea Turtle Inc. “On my non-patrol days I work in the clinic helping sea turtles that have been hit by boat propellers, attacked by predators, caught in fishing line, or are sick with infection. I also educate visitors about the different species of sea turtles, what impacts humans have in sea turtles, and the condition of turtles in our care.”

Erin, "with my first momma Kemp's Ridley sea turtle"

Erin, “with my first momma Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle!”

And on the patrol days?  No, she doesn’t wear armor or dress in camo, “I monitor 64 miles of beach on an ATV for nesting Kemp’s Ridley mommas. This is harder than it sounds because this species is the smallest type of sea turtle and it only nests on windy days – tracks often disappear in the course of a half hour.” COASSTers, of course, are well aware of the difficulties of finding birds in sand, let alone tracks!

"This was 2 weeks ago - injured Least Tern from the beach road on one of my patrols."

“This was 2 weeks ago – injured Least Tern from the beach road on one of my patrols.”

When you’re around COASST that long, you can’t help but look out for birds on the beach. In fact, she sent us this email, and true to COASST form, a quiz to our current students (and all of you):

“Hi Jane, Since I have been down here in Texas, I have spotted a few beached birds during my sea turtle ATV patrols. It seems I’ve still got my eyes subconsciously peeled for them. I thought you might be interested to see some beached birds from the Gulf. You should try these photos on the interns!”

So we share them (careful, only one is in the Beached Birds guide, none of these are in the Beached Birds-Alaska guide).

Texas/Gulf Coast mystery bird #1 from Erin.

Texas/Gulf Coast mystery bird #1 from Erin.

Texas/Gulf Coast mystery bird #2 from Erin.

Texas/Gulf Coast mystery bird #2 from Erin.

Texas/Gulf Coast mystery birds #3 from Erin.

Texas/Gulf Coast mystery bird #3 from Erin.

St. Paul Students Create Seabird Documentary

Funded by the North Pacific Research Board, 10 middle school students from St. Paul Island in the Bering Sea had the opportunity to make a short documentary in order to feature the importance of seabird research as well as the significance of seabirds to their home. Throughout the school year, students learned how to identify the 11 common seabirds of the region, seabird behaviors, specific facts about the birds and also the effects of marine debris on seabird populations. As the year came to a close, students left the classroom and went out into the field to gain firsthand experience of observing seabirds, applying what they had learned in the classroom.

In addition, together with St. George Island, these students have established the Seabird Youth Network. The network is designed to provide awareness and opportunities related to seabird ecology, scientific research and conservation biology.

Click here to watch St. Paul Island Seabirds.

Using unmanned aircraft systems to monitor seabirds

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has won permission to test an unmanned aircraft system (UAS) off the Olympic Coast of Washington.  But don’t worry; they’re not using them to spy on us.  Instead, NOAA is planning to use the UAS to take high-def video of seabird colonies, as well as to search for tsunami debris.  The 9-foot unmanned aircraft is better suited for this than traditional aircraft because it makes much less noise and is therefore less disruptive to the seabirds.  In addition, the drones are much less expensive and much safer than manned aircraft.

NOAA drone in flight. Photo Credit: Ed Bowlby / NOAA

NOAA drone in flight. Photo Credit: Ed Bowlby / NOAA

Murre Colony

Photos of Common Murre colony taken by the NOAA drone. Photo credit: NOAA

Oregon’s Department of Fish and Wildlife has acquired a similar UAS in hopes of also doing seabird colony research. However, that project is currently facing difficulty obtaining a permit from Federal Aviation Administration and remains on hold.