COASST volunteers collect data on dead birds to help others live

  • By Sharon Wootton Special for The Herald
  • Wednesday, November 26, 2014 7:30pm
  • Life

When Julia Parrish, founder of the citizen-science Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team (COASST) began the program through the University of Washington, she wasn’t thinking about rubber ducks.

Parrish, now executive director of COASST and professor at the UW School of Aquatic and Fishery Science, was concerned about the lack of baseline data on dead birds washed onto beaches on the Pacific Coast against which human- or nature-caused impacts could be weighed.

“COASST volunteers have collected some unusual specimens, including owls and the wing of a macaw and some rubber ducks,” said Jane Dolliver, seabird program coordinator.

On a more serious note, the common murre (31.2 percent) and the Northern fulmar (17.8 percent) account for 49 percent of the 35,663 carcasses collected from the beaches of four states since 1999.

The rest of the top-10 are the large immature gull, rhinoceros auklet, sooty shearwater, glaucous-winged gull, Western gull, surf scoter, Brandt’s cormorant and Western grebe.

Percentages vary from year to year. In 2014, for instance, common murres made up 41 percent of all dead birds; northern fulmars only 7 percent.

Two species that always rally from die-offs are the murre and fulmar, Dolliver said.

“Both species have different life histories but are constantly in competition for the top dead bird of each year. They drive a lot of baseline patterns we see every year because they are the top players, they make the biggest peaks,” she said.

The peaks that occur in July, August and September are post-breeding peaks, mostly murres; those that die in October, November and December represent the winter-kill peak, mostly fulmars.

“Most murres that die die after the breeding season because they are exhausted, and because of inept juveniles. Then the fulmars get out of Alaska because no one is crazy enough to spend the winter there, so they arrive exhausted,” Dolliver said.

There’s an irony to the peaks and valleys.

“Often a really successful breeding year means there are a lot of juveniles and exhausted adults hitting the seas and we see a lot of mortality. But some years we see few juveniles, which is troublesome, because that means there weren’t as many chicks so we don’t see dead ones on the beaches,” she said.

Sometimes dramatic events are nature’s doing, such as the huge 2009 algae bloom that was particularly hard on scoters along Washington’s northwestern coast.

“An early fall storm whipped up algae into foam, the foam foamed the birds and made them hypothermic and caused them to die. That was a natural event that caused a big die off. There was a huge peak above the baseline,” Dolliver said.

“We’re always interested in human causes of mortality. Every bird is marked whether it’s about oil or it’s entangled in manmade material. In the Strait of Juan de Fuca in 2013, a big net washed ashore with sooty shearwaters trapped in it. Normally on that beach we see zero birds, not 30.”

COASST started with 12 volunteers, but now has about 800. In Washington, volunteers survey beaches on the outer coast as well as the Puget Sound, San Juan Islands and the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

“Nearly half of the monitored beaches are in Washington, partly because we are located here, so travel time and less expensive cost are involved with training and working with volunteers,” Dolliver said.

Volunteers participate in a six-hour hands-on training session in their area. They select a site and survey it once a month, spending anywhere from an hour to four or five hours, Dolliver said. They stay in contact with their trainers, and cover about 80 kilometers (50 miles) of the state’s coastline.

For more information, go to depts.washington.edu/coast, call 206-221-6893 or email coasst@uw.edu.

Columnist Sharon Wootton can be reached at 360-468-3964 or www.songandword.com.

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