Tag Archives: Seabird

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.


Fisheries and Seabird Mortality

A new study has come out detailing the effects of gillnet fishing on bird populations.  Gillnets, which are designed to trap fish by the gills, will also catch birds. Eyewitness reports are one of the main ways gillnet caused seabird mortality is analyzed. Now a Canadian research team is taking a new approach to analyzing the affects of this type of fishing.

On the east coast of Canada, most fisheries were shut down in 1992 when the stocks collapsed.  This gave ecologists a perfect location to study the effects of gillnetting on the populations of murres and gannets, diving birds often caught in these nets. They compared the population trends between 1968 and 2012 with data on gillnet use between 1987 and 2012, and found that the murre and gannet populations have increased after the decline of commercial fisheries in Canada. This study provides evidence to support the theory that net fishing is harming seabird populations.

Due to the results of this study, the ecologists are suggesting a switch from gillnet fishing to pot-trap fishing for the remainder of Canada’s fisheries.  Pot traps, which allow fish to swim in but not out, are harmless to birds.  In addition, they are recommending Canada establish more marine protected areas in which all commercial fishing is banned.

Read more about this research here.


Using the Bones of Seabirds to Study Commercial Fishing

Scientists have found a new way to assess the impact of large-scale commercial fishing; by studying the bones of open-ocean predatory birds like the Hawaiian petrel. Researchers at Michigan State University and the Smithsonian institute have analyzed the bones of both ancient and recent petrels to determine their diet. This works because what they eat is recorded in the chemistry of their bones. Specifically, scientists can analyze the ratio of nitrogen-15 and nitrogen-14 isotopes and determine whether or not their prey is high or low on the food chain. In general, a larger ratio indicates larger prey higher on the food chain.

Picture of the Hawaiian Petrel

Bones of endangered Hawaiian petrels are helping scientists analyze the impacts of commercial fishing on open-ocean food webs. Photo: National Park Service

What they have found is a little alarming, especially for an endangered bird like the Hawaiian petrel.  Between 4,000 and 100 years ago, the isotope ratio was high, meaning the petrels had been eating animals higher up on the food chain. Then in the 1950s, the ratios started to decline suggesting that the petrels shifted to smaller prey lower on the food chain. This shift corresponds with the boom of industrial fishing. It appears that human activity may have caused a decline in animals high on the food chain leading to a large-scale shift in open-ocean food webs.

Petrels act as a canary in a coal mine for open-ocean food webs because they forage from the equator to near the Aleutian Islands. We don’t yet know how this shift in diet will affect them, nor how other predators are responding to changing food webs. What we do know, is that the choices we make as consumers–such as what fish we choose to put on our dinner plate–affect our entire marine ecosystem.

Read more about this study 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.

Seabirds from an Artist’s Perspective – Part 2

Last week we heard from artist and COASST intern Rose Beede about how she views and sketches seabirds. This week, we hear from another very talented COASST intern, Chelsea Starr. We are so fortunate to have two very talented artist on the COASST team who each bring in their own unique perspective. 

As a biology enthusiast and COASST intern, and I often enjoy making study-type watercolors of different fascinating animals. Recently, I decided to paint the Brandt’s Cormorant.

Why you ask? I found the Brandt’s Cormorant (specifically the breeding birds) to be incredibly versatile visually with a very wonderful and dominant presence. Their casual posture reflects an aura of wisdom while the jet-black plumage nicely reflects their stoic and ruthless resolve for life. The Cormorant’s iridescent sapphire eyes and throat poach contrast with this serious demeanor in a whimsical way. They are dark and brilliant all at the same time. Lastly, the light whiskers on the sides of cheeks gives a much needed sense of humor to their appearance, especially when viewed from the right angle. When you add all of these observations together, you get a beautiful and visually complex seabird that can represent very powerful aspects of life that I consider very important…. Wisdom, Determination, Beauty, and Humor.


Brandt’s Cormorant painting by Chelsea Starr

Seabirds from an Artist’s Perspective – Part 1

“And now for something completely different…” as Monty Python would say. What is it like to look at seabirds from an artist’s perspective?

First of all I, the writer, would like to introduce myself. My name is Rose, and I’m one of the student interns here at COASST. I answer emails about seabirds, enter data about seabirds, and I draw seabirds. As an artist, I specialize in pets and wildlife, and do custom portraits and odd job commissions when I’m not too busy with school here at the University of Washington.

Of all the possible subjects, why would I draw birds?

A delicate hummingbird drawn by Rose

Birds have always been aesthetically fascinating to me. This fascination is a little bit hard to articulate, but I will try my best. There is a certain lightness to them that touches me, sort of like a gust of wind touches a leaf and lifts it for a moment. Very often gulls and turns gliding on a playful breeze will catch my imagination, and I will imagine myself as one of them dancing upon the wind. There is something so beautiful and sleek about the smooth curves of a streamlined bird that give me such deep satisfaction to emulate on paper.

Seabirds are a supreme design. For a designer, it is extremely difficult to create an object that is both fully aesthetically pleasing and functional. If you think about all the objects you use in your daily life – your phone, or your vacuum cleaner – all these things are made up of compromises between beauty and functionality, yet in seabirds both are one and the same.

A Marbled Murrelet sketch showing the balance of beauty and functionality

In reality, at least for me, seabirds from and “artist’s perspective” and seabirds from a “scientist’s perspective” aren’t terribly different. Aesthetically beautiful wing curves can be described mathematically in terms of lift and airflow, which can then be analyzed statistically to determine fitness during winter months. Birds are fascinating to me. This is the reason I draw them, and it is also the reason I peer at them through binoculars, or trek out to the beach in the rain to log their carcasses. When you get down to it, I’m simply exploring what I love, with the skills that have been given to me.


The cover to a planner designed by Rose also features a seabird

Tracking Pink-footed Shearwaters

Pink-footed Shearwater. Photo by Caleb Putnam

The Pink-footed Shearwater’s (PFSH) population is in decline. In an effort to better understand their declining numbers, a team of scientists from Chile, the United States, and Canada are investigating the migratory habitats and behaviors of the PFSH by tracking their movements throughout the year. This real-time tracking project involves six breeding shearwaters, four of which have already begun their long migration from the Chilean mainland and Isla Mocha to Peru and North America. Ten more PFSHs will be deployed with trackers from California this summer. This satellite tracking technology is being used to map and better understand their foraging behaviors and important feeding locations.

Incorporating this information with wind patterns and oceanographic conditions can help scientists to better understand these birds’ dynamic and circumstantial behavior. “Satellite tracking data will shed light not only on current at-sea threats but also provide preliminary information about the relationship of these birds with conditions at sea that may respond to variation in marine climate,” said Valentina Colodro, a biologist with Oikonos Ecosystem Knowledge, who attached the transmitters in early April. Evaluating these locations may also reveal where the PFSH may be most at risk of mortality from human interactions. The transmitters are expected to operate until this fall when the PFSH reach their breeding grounds once again in Isla Mocha.

During the non-breeding season, the PFSH ranges from Chile all the way up to Canada and transverses territorial waters of 13 different countries. However they can only be found on 3 Chilean islands during breeding season (Isla mocha, Robinson Crusoe, and Santa Clara). Their biggest known threats include predation by non-native mammals, entanglement/hooking by fishing gear, habitat destruction, and the illegal harvesting of eggs. Because of this, the Pink-footed Shearwater is a listed as a species of concern in several countries.

This project is a collaboration between Oikonos Ecosystem Knowledge, Chile’s Corporación Nacional Forestal (CONAF), Environment Canada’s Canadian Wildlife Service, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), Hawai’i Pacific University, American Bird Conservancy, and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.

Click here to visit the tracking website to see where the birds are now.


Seabirds Help Scientists Monitor Ocean Pollution

Scientists are beginning to realize that an effective way to test for marine pollution is through seabirds. Birds like pelicans and gulls are at the top of the food chain, meaning they can accumulate large quantities of the toxins in marine ecosystems through a process called bioaccumulation. In addition, many seabirds will return to the same spots every year to breed after covering large expanses of the ocean during migration. This makes them ideal for studying pollution in marine environments, as the birds essentially take samples every time they stop to feed. Scientists at the University of Manitoba are taking advantage of this phenomenon and have begun using non-lethal sampling methods, such as drawing blood or taking a feather, to analyze the toxin levels in the tissues of seabirds.

Birds like this Brown Pelican that spend a large part of the year out on the open ocean are helping scientists study ocean pollution.

Seabirds—both alive and dead—are providing a way to analyze the effect of plastics and other contaminants on the marine environment. Plastics continue to be one of the biggest threats to the oceans, with many of the chemicals found in them either leaching into the oceans or poisoning the animals that accidentally eat them. Plastics can also form a platform for other pollutants such as oil and industrial by-products to attach. Steps are being taken to regulate the use of certain chemicals found in plastics, but regulation can be tricky once the chemical is already on the market. Wildlife and environmental monitoring programs have already provided enough evidence to improve regulations on certain chemicals, a feat that would not have been possible without the cooperation of the birds.

For more information about this research click here.


Spotlight on Burke Ornithology

COASST volunteers may think they’re the only people that pay attention to dead birds, but it turns out they’re not alone!

Recently our local NPR station, KUOW, profiled citizens collecting dead birds (with proper permit) from their backyard (and surrounds) for the Ornithology Collection at the Burke Museum. Each year, the collection receives about 500 birds from citizens (window strikes, vehicle strikes, cat kills etc). As a whole, the specimens (all 99,000 of them!) – archived as skins, outstretched wings, and tissue samples – provide a valuable resource to scientists.

Seabird scientists, too! Dr. Ann Edwards used the collection to answer, “have fisheries discards shaped the diet of Laysan Albatross?” by sampling Laysan feathers from museum specimens, current NW Hawaiian Island breeders and bycatch specimens from Hawaii and Alaska longline fisheries.

Rob Faucett, Collections Manager, helps assist a variety of outreach and education projects, in addition to research. In the creation of Beached Birds-Alaska and more recently, the Wing Key, we’ve accessed the collection to answer our own questions – can you really tell Thick-billed and Common Murres apart by wing alone (answer: no). Can you separate a storm-petrel wing from a small alcid (answer: yes, the outermost primary is more than a feather’s width shorter than the next). And after hours of pouring over these birds, we can’t resist having a little fun (see below).

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