Today I attended a Coastal Observation And Seabird Survey Team (COASST) training here in Friday Harbor. COASST is a citizen science program run through the University of Washington that trains volunteers from Alaska to California to monitor beaches, especially by identifying beached sea birds. Sea birds are a numerous group of species, they are widespread, and span a variety of trophic levels, making their survival or death a great indicator of overall oceanic health.
It turns out identifying beached birds is much different than identifying live ones. For starters, the bird is often damaged or beat-up, either by predators, scavengers, weather, surf, or otherwise. You won't often find neat, clean plumages, or even a body fully intact. On the other hand, the bird will stay put for you and allow you to examine it closely, allowing you to approach identification in a completely different way.
We learned how to use the COASST field guide to beached birds, which focuses on very different elements than a traditional bird field guide. The easiest characteristic to narrow down the type of bird you're looking at is foot type - either free, lobed, or webbed - and each category has its associated subcategories that can easily guide you to the bird family you're looking at. You can further use three measurements we were taught to make - bill length, wing chord, and tarsus (ankle bone) - to figure out which species you're looking at.
We practiced our ID and measuring skills on several specimens in the classroom. I'm not normally fond of handling deceased animals but it really is amazing what you can learn about seabirds up close that you would never be able to observe in the wild. For instance, cormorant feathers are shaped so that each individual feather appears to be outlined, all members of the puffin family have a pale leading edge to their wing, and some groups of birds have amazingly shaped "outercut" primaries that look very different from typical feathers when you examine them up close.
This rhinoceros auklet clearly isn't interested in letting me measure its tarsus.
As a result of my training I've signed up to be a COASST volunteer which involves surveying a local beach once a month. Unfortunately (or fortunately, I suppose) there aren't nearly as many birds reported here in the island as they get on the outer coast (but I wanted to use my new skills!). While some outer coast survey teams encounter dozens of birds every trip, only three San Juan surveys out of 219 recorded beached birds in 2006-2007. I asked about why this is and our instructor believes there are several reasons for the decreased number of beached birds here: calmer more protected waters, so there are fewer waves to wash birds up; smaller "catcher" beaches that are likely to be the final resting places of birds that have died (there are very few long sandy beaches here); and steeper drop-offs off our beaches which also affects the likelikhood of things washing up on shore.
In any case, I'll be starting my surveys this week and will definitely report any interesting things I find - bird or otherwise!