Saturday, December 18, 2010

Endangered Species

Another Friday, another COASST survey, a (very) different beach. Vast lots of red clouds before sunrise, but when I got to the park-and-ride lot at Laird's Corner the sunrise part of the sky was behind the foothills of the Olympics. (Way south. In fact, within a few days of as south as it gets.) The view north looked peaceable across the still rural fields toward the Strait: slowly brightening sugarplum sky. I waited in the frosty beautiful morning for MS and JL to pick me up.

Strait of Juan de Fuca from Laird's Corner, Before Sunrise. December 17, 2010 (Click for larger image.)

We headed out to Hobuck Beach (map). SP was waiting for us there. It was dry, but gray and a bitter wind. All four of us wore our raingear for warmth and windbreak.

Hobuck Beach (Click for larger image.)

We had lots of birds to identify. There usually are, at Hobuck, that's why JL and MS use it for training volunteers. Unlike 'my' beach at Rialto, Hobuck is an accumulation zone, and we had 22 or 23 dead birds. It helps a lot to have a team: one to do data, one to measure, one to tag and take photos, one to work the book and diagnose what it is we've found. Last month JL did it alone, in rain; she was very glad to have dry weather and company...

Since I was the datakeeper and writing on the report sheets, I wasn't keeping a separate list in my notebook, but we had something like:

fork-tailed storm petrel (one wing of)
green-winged teal (one wing of)
bufflehead (just the head)
marbled murrelet
northern fulmar (6 or 7, all dark phase)
common murre
rhinoceros auklets (2)
California gull
Brandt's cormorant
American crow
whitewinged scoter
black scoter
large immature gull .

The treasure of the day was the marbled murrelet. It's endangered. It was very fresh, and very small and perfect. On the datasheet you must fill out the box for 'foot condition': is it pliable, stiff, rotten, no feet at all? "Foot condition?" I asked. "Very very soft," said SP, caressing the little feet.

JL Tagging the Marbled Murrelet (Click for larger image.)

We were not in the Park, so I could cheerfully pick up limpet shells and small sand dollars and sponges and things. MS found me a chiton plate (so now I have two on the kitchen table), and a very small sea urchin (ditto). MS and SP agreed there was more wood on the beach than they had seen there before, and MS thought it was noteworthy that we were seeing a kelp called Pterygophora. There were lots and lots of sand dollars, mostly big ones, more than I've ever seen there; some wave or swell condition must have shoved across their beds out in Makah Bay and pushed them ashore. I wrote them down in the margin of one of the datasheets. Some flocks of kildeer; I wrote them down. We also had two harbor seals, a California sea lion, and a river otter. (Corpses of.) Wrote those down too. One of the harbor seals was cut open, had been necropsied by a biologist working out of Neah Bay(?). Towards the end of the day he came jogging along the beach in skimpy running clothes, stopped to say hello to MS and introduce himself to the rest of us; but it was too cold and he soon had to resume his run or freeze.

MS travels for NOAA now, in the international marine protected area capacity building program, and she was oh so happy to be on the beach doing birds. When the sun would try to break through she would skip a few paces and wave her arms, calling out "Shadows!!" As the other three of us became colder, slower, more clumsy, she led us cheerfully through the identifications. I promise you, by ourselves we could not have gotten the storm petrel from one wing, or the green-winged teal from one wing. Or the bufflehead when all we had was the tiny head and some naked neck bones.

About half the birds were re-finds, had been tagged the month before, or even two months before; they were not in good shape but you don't have to remeasure those that have already been recorded. Some of the 'new' ones were also awfully deteriorated. The next to the last bird of the day was up in the grasses at the back of the beach. It looked more like weeds than a bird carcass. Icky weeds. That one I entered on the form as a 'northern fulmar, dark phase, very rotten'; MS of course knew at a glance what it was, and said we didn't have to measure or tag it. JL did take a photo. It counts, it's recorded.

PS. I always love to be out on the beach with JL and SP, adding our scratchy notes about the beached birds we find to what is known about the world. When we get to do it with MS, watching her doing science every minute all day long, listening to her tell what she knows, learning while adding a tiny bit to the scientific record—that's... wow.

Sand Dollar (Click for larger image.)

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