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Wednesday, February 16, 2011

San Juan Island Beached Birds: Then and Now

I went down to Fourth of July Beach to do a COASST survey this afternoon. I've been conducting these surveys for almost two years here in the San Juan Islands, but have yet to find a beached bird on my beach. In general, beached bird numbers for the San Juan Islands are very low, probably the lowest of anywhere COASST surveys along the west coast of North America.

The other day I came across an article that mentioned beached bird surveys that were conducted on San Juan Island in 1989 through the Department of Fish and Wildlife's Adopt-A-Beach Program. They reported finding a whopping 69 birds on San Juan beaches over the course of 10 surveys, which was the highest number reported in the state. The second highest was 32 birds found in Grays Harbor. Curious, I e-mailed COASST to see if they had any insight into what was going on and/or what has changed.

It turns out they have the old Adopt-A-Beach data in their office and they took a look at the San Juan 1989 surveys, and they were kind enough to share some of what they found with me. A single survey on Jackson Beach in August of that year had 11 common murres, 7 rhinoceros auklets, a California gull, and a tufted puffin. Another survey around that time noted that many of the birds were very decomposed and that the gill net fishery was open at that time. The COASST folks concluded that the  use of gill nets probably had something to do with the spike in beached bird numbers.

Fishing is more restricted now than it was in the 80s, but it still goes on. Last year during August I found a dead common murre on South Beach, which also coincided with a fishery opening, though it was mostly purse seiners on the water at that time. I recall others reporting murre carcasses out on the water and requesting reports to try an monitor affects of the fishery on bird populations. It's a stark reminder of one of the many ways human activity influences marine bird populations.

But today, there were no dead birds on my beach, so I paid attention to the live ones. In the brambles near the trail to the beach I saw a fox sparrow, as well as several song sparrows. The trees in the field across from the parking area held a trio of American robins and a northern flicker. Out in Griffin Bay were about 40 bufflehead, 20 surf scoters, 7 double-crested cormorants, 6 horned grebes, and 5 common loons. In the lagoon were 11 mallards, a pair of American wigeon, and a single male gadwall.

It's hard for me to be at the south end of the island and not head over to South Beach and Cattle Point to see what's going on bird-wise, especially with potential for the white-winged scoters, long-tailed ducks, and Pacific loons that have still eluded me for a tally on the year list. South Beach was quiet, but there was a bit more activity at Cattle Point today.

A flock of about 35 red-winged blackbirds provided a constant soundtrack for my visit there. There were about 8 red-breasted mergansers patrolling the shoreline, and a single horned grebe, a single pelagic cormorant, and a few more surf scoters out in the channel. I could see about a dozen or more Steller sea lions hauled out over on Whale Rocks. Goose Island was empty compared to the summer, but there were  a couple pairs of Canada geese, a few immature double-crested cormorants, and a black oystercatcher hanging out, along with the seemingly resident harbor seals that were hauled out on the north end of the island. A few other harbor seals were fishing in the currents. 

I walked down to the cove near Cape San Juan and was rewarded with finding a single black turnstone (125) to add to the year list. In the cove itself were half a dozen harlequin ducks and about ten more bufflehead. 

No photos today - too dreary and no close encounters. They're forecasting potential snow showers from tonight through the weekend, so we'll see if any of that accumulates. Next up will most likely be reports from the Great Backyard Bird Count this weekend. If you're in North America, you too can participate in this citizen science project!

1 comment:

Warren Baker said...

125 now, well done Monika :-)

We've already had our big backyard count, it's good fun, and a good way to get people involved in wildlife :-)