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Monday, November 23, 2009

Windy and Wild Oregon COASST Survey

Yesterday I went to the Oregon coast with my dad to conduct a beached bird survey. COASST, or the Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team, is a citizen science program where people monitor beaches and report all seabird strandings. I've been doing surveys on a beach in the San Juans, and while I've had some cool sigthings, I haven't ever actually found a dead bird there. I also got my dad interested in the program, though when I did a survey with him we didn't find any birds either. More birds tend to wash up on the outer coast than in the interior waters like where the San Juan Islands are, often in the fall. My dad has found a total of seven birds on his recent surveys, so when I joined him yesterday I thought chances were good that I might find my first stranded seabird. Little did I know what I was getting into....(a couple of these photos aren't for the faint of heart if you don't like seeing dead things)

The weather has been fairly stormy and very unpredictable lately, and yesterday was no exception. On the drive through the beach we had nearly every kind of weather imaginable - sun, clouds, rain, hail, and snow. Luckily when we arrived at the beach the sun was shining again, though it was very windy. Here you can see the dry, lighter colored sand blowing over the wet, darker surface of the beach:

We didn't have to walk far before we found our first bird of the day: a northern fulmar. When we find a bird we measure its beak, wing chord, and tarsus on its foot. We also assess its overall condition, note where it was found on the beach, and if it is associated with any oil or entanglements. The bird is then tagged and photographed.

By the time we finished recording the required data for this fulmar, we could see a squall moving in. We half-ran back to the parking lot, getting caught in the first of the rain before reaching the shelter of the car. Luckily it only lasted about 15 minutes before the clouds moved on. Here you can see the squall moving to the left, and the nicer weather returning on the right:

Luckily we stayed dry after that, because we had a lot of work ahead of us. Not far after where we found the first northern fulmar, I spotted a western gull entangled in some wrack. Here's my dad measuring the beak:

I think it was then that we realized there could be a lot of birds on our beach that day. In the end, we found a whopping ELEVEN birds: five northern fulmars, two brown pelicans, one western gull, one western grebe, and an unidentifiable wing that may have been from another fulmar. I think one reason there were so many birds is because of the stormy weather we've been having, which both takes the lives of some weaker birds and causes bigger waves to wash them up on shore.

If you're a little bit grossed out by some of these photos, I don't blame you. I almost am too, looking at the photos. I'm not the kind of person you would expect to spend time looking at or handling dead animals, but I have to admit in the field it is actually pretty fascinating. A bit of the naturalists' curiosity takes over when you get a chance to examine some of these animals up close. Take this brown pelican:

I never would have imagined that I could say something dead was beautiful, but this pelican was pretty close. First of all, check out this wing-span!

Brown pelicans have wing spans of 6-8 feet, and I'd have to say this guy was towards the larger end of that spectrum. Just seeing the sheer size of the bird was amazing, but being that close gives you a chance to notice other details as well, like this hook on the end of its beak:

Or how about these beautiful feathers:

We weren't the only ones out on the beach yesterday afternoon, either. Check out this guy, who nabbed himself a live pelican!

It turns out it had an injury and he was taking it to a wildlife rehab center. He only stopped briefly for a quick photo because he said the bird was pretty heavy (they can be upwards of ten pounds). He said it was the second one he had gotten that day, and we saw a third injured juvenile later on. While its sad to see dead and injured brown pelicans on the beach, we did actually see several thousand live pelicans while we were out there too. The brown pelican was listed as endangered mostly due to issues arising from DDT, but they were actually delisted just ten days ago due the amazing recovery they've made!

Above is the western grebe we found right at the boundary of our survey area. It provides another example of some of the cool observations you can make by seeing a bird like that up close. Grebes actually have lobed feet, which is something I didn't know until I took the COASST training. The lobed toes look very bizarre to me:

The northern fulmars also gave us a chance to see why they're in the tubenose family. I've seen fulmars on a couple of occasions before, but never close enough to really see the tubular nasal passage on top of the bill. This part of their anatomy has several functions, including being an olfactory organ they use to smell prey at sea. It's also the site of a gland where they excrete salt, since when they spend their whole lives at sea they actually drink salt water:

It wasn't just birds we found on the beach, either. These last two I want your help identifying. First is this pirhana-like fish. Anyone know what it might be?

Second is this huge light bulb. Any ideas as to what it may have been used for?

You just never know what you're going to find when you walk on the beach. It took us three hours to complete our survey, but we learned a lot, saw even more, and got to participate in a cool citizen science project.


Tom Arbour said...

Hi Monika- I've been following along with your blog for a few months, but I don't believe I've commented before. I enjoy walking along the shore of the ocean to see what has washed up- living in Ohio- I don't get to do this very much, so thanks for your photos and narrative!


Keith said...

I love that first picture, Monika. It looks like an alien landscape. I've experienced those crazy coastal weather changes before when I was at Ecola State Park. Pretty cool. I didn't realize pelicans had a wingspan quite that big. It's good to see they have been taken off of the endangered species list. Keep up the good work!

BuckMountain said...

Your bulb looks like a 750 or 1000 watt mercury vapor bulb. Used in street lighting for one thing. Could also be high pressure sodium vapor which replaced the older technology.

Toxic waste most likely. Supposed to be recycled in California anyway.


Lancashire and Lakeland Outback Adventure Wildlife Safaris said...

Hi Monika - Really love it when the wind blows the top surface of the sand like that, its almost mesmerising! Don't often get a chance to 'do' our local strandline and the beach here is mechanically cleaned every day.
That fish looks similar to our (rare) Ocean Sunfish (Mola mola) but is a diminutive version.



whidbeywoman said...

Wonderful pictures, interesting post. As always, I am mesmerized by your blog.

Larry Jordan said...

Very interesting post Monika. It makes me wonder just how many birds die on our coasts every year.

How often can you actually discern the cause just by looking at the birds?

Great work you are doing here!

Monika said...

Tom - Thanks for following along and for commenting! Glad you're enjoying the blog.

Keith - Thank for your first comment too! Ecola State Park is one of my favorite places along the Oregon Coast.

Ron - Thanks for the insight on the bulb. My dad and I have done a little research too and it looks like it might be a bulb from a 1000 W diving lamp.

Dave - Mechanically cleaned by whom? And I think you may be right about the diminutive mola! Thanks for that.

Whidbey Woman - Thanks for your kind comments!

Larry - I wonder how many of the birds die on the beach versus dying at sea and washing up. The great thing about this type of long-term coastal monitoring is that if something unusual starts happening A) There will be people out there to see it and B) They'll be able to compare it to past trends using all the baseline data that's being collected.

It's not too often the cause of death is determinable, often because the bird has been dead for some time and has been heavily scavenged. During the training, the one instance they described where cause of death is obvious is for peregrine falcon predation events (on alcids and the like) since the back of the skull will be smashed in.

The K said...

This isn't conclusive, but after cleaning up the bulb and comparing it photographically in size to a flash light bulb, I think it is very similar to the underwater floodlight bulb shown on this link.

Jeanne said...

What an awesome encounter and thanks for taking your readers to the Oregon Coast!

Zoologist in Oregon said...

Hello, Monika. The fish in the photo is a juvenile MOLA, also sometimes called a sunfish. This is a harmless species that grows very large. They are usually seen at or near the surface of the water as if enjoying the warmth of the sun. I was on the Bay Ocean Spit yesterday and found 6 Brown Pelican carcasses within a 100-yard stretch of beach: 5 adults and one juvenile.

Heather said...

Wow, this was some fascinating stuff. For one thing, awesome citizen science project. And wow, how cool to be able to check out the details on those birds. I know what you mean about normally being grossed out by dead things, but then becoming enthralled once you start to examine them. We had a dead deer on our property very early this year, and it was quite scavenged by the time I found it, but it was pretty cool to check out.

Monika said...

Zoologist - That's kind of what I had zeroed in on. Thanks for confirming!

Heather - Citizen science projects are so much fun, aren't they? I've seen several people blog lately about dead creatures. It sure is interesting from a naturalists' perspective once you get over the "eeww, it's dead" moment.

peacewriter said...

Hey :)
That fish is a baby sunfish.