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Surf’s up on the Salish Sea

Wednesday, November 2nd, 2011

Leave the board on your woodie though.

Surf scoters near the Southworth Ferry dock. Photo: Jeff Adams

Surf scoters (one of my top five most beautiful ducks) have moved in for the winter. The dramatic contrast of black/white/orange on the male surf scoter’s head is strikingly beautiful, though the Halloween colored heads are not the only reason I connect with these birds.

Surf scoters and several other ducks (including two other scoter species: white-winged and black) are winter only residents, flocking to our shores after the tourists take flight. They join us only for the short days, clouds, wind and rain that define our region from October to May.

I and lots of other moldy, web-footed folk love Western Washington winters. However, others mourn the passing of our sunny summer and begin to pine for sun, fine sand and warm air shortly after the rains set in.

Surf scoters as a species have similar and very strong preferences. While a large population migrates from their Northwest Territories breeding grounds to the Salish Sea, many bypass our area and spend the winter in California and Mexico. Most of the southern birds then spend some time in southeastern Alaska before flying to the breeding grounds.

Male surf scoters near an encrusted ladder and pilings, from which they might nibble a snack. Photo: Jeff Adams

The Salish Sea birds are true devotees to this place. Just as a summer visitor might return to their favorite cabin or campground, about 90% of the birds that return for the winter to hang out in the exact same spot they spent the previous year. They also stay here until they’re ready to go to their breeding grounds.

When the tide’s out, you may see the surf scoters nibbling on the community of critters that’s developed on pilings, targeting small mussels and crustaceans. You might also see them diving, sometimes in unison as they search for similar fare on the seafloor or in eelgrass beds. When herring spawn, scoters fatten up on the eggs in preparation for the breeding season.

The Puget Sound population of scoters once represented about 2/3 of the total West Coast population, but the number of birds declined precipitously in the 1980′s and particularly in 1990. They seem to have leveled off in numbers but represent about half the number of birds that were here 30 years ago (pollution? herring problems? hunting?). The decline also represents the greatest loss of Puget Sound marine bird biomass in the last 30 years.

Surf scoter foraging on a piling. Photo: Jeff Adams

You can find more information with calls and maps at Seattle Audubon’s BirdWeb. The 2007 Puget Sound Update also has a nice section on scoters.

If you and a flock of scoters share a favorite shoreline haunt (whether a ferry, pier or bit of beach), take some time to get to know them. When they take flight in the spring, you can wish them well and holler “See you next year!” Those that survive will return to share the winter love with you once again.

Jeff Adams is a Washington Sea Grant Marine Water Quality Specialist, affiliated with the University of Washington’s College of the Environment, and based in Bremerton. You can follow his Sea Life blog, SalishSeaLife tweets and videos, email to jaws@uw.edu or call at 360-337-4619.


Express your inner scientist

Friday, July 8th, 2011
  • Get home from a day’s labor, crack a beer, sit on the porch and appreciate a butterfly nectaring on a nearby flower and the evening summer sun that makes a dragonfly glow while it hunts with incredible speed and precision, eating on the fly.
  • Is that bush blooming already?
  • You just won a tough case and you’re doing your best Leonardo DiCaprio against the forward fence of the ferry observation deck, a smile on your face, the wind rushing by. You look into the water… SMACK! (no, not sea gull poop to the side of the head or a disgruntled defendant… we’re talkin’ jellies!).

What do these scenarios have in common? Citizen scientists. Elements of science may remain in an ivory tower, but in ever-increasing numbers and in very accessible ways, scientists and managers are harnessing the interests and time of every Tom, Dick and Jane to explore difficult issues like climate change, water quality and habitat loss. We can also add to the understanding of the what, where and when for our favorite groups of critters in ways we were never able to in the past.

All fair game for easy reporting by citizen scientists. Clockwise from top left: lion's mane jelly, hermit thrush, small magpie moth (non-native) and common whitetail dragonfly. Photos: Jeff Adams

There are lots of opportunities out there, but I’ll highlight a few of my favorites. Under the unofficial category of “report what you see, where you see it, when you want to”…

Don’t have experience in identifying critters? No worries. Some programs simply require you to know/report on a single species or, in the case of Sound Citizen, to collect and return a sample. For butterflies, birds, dragonflies and jellies, there are excellent physical and online guides and identification resources available. On top of that, people like me love to get the email with a subject line “what’s this?”.

I recently posted a YouTube video that should help with common jellyfish ID’s. With all the ferry riders, dock and beach visitors, boaters, divers, harvesters, anglers and shoreline homeowners in the Puget Sound and Salish Sea… we should be able to help scientists at jellywatch.org better understand jellies and blooms in our region. It’s an area of increasing interest as our climate and ocean activities evolve.

The opportunistic reporting of the list above can give a scientist valuable information in part by sheer volume of data. Volunteers willing and able to put in more time can get involved in a project that typically includes some form of training and standardized protocols and reporting. Some excellent examples in our region include…

Bainbridge Beach Naturalists (part of the Kitsap Beach Naturalist program) conduct a profile assessment of the beach slope, substrate, plants and animals. Amazing what you see when you look close! Photo: Jeff Adams

Other programs like  Nature Mapping are geared toward schools, but also give individuals an opportunity to report findings. You can even explore lots of potential projects on your own at sites like scienceforcitizens.net and citizensciencecentral.org or like citsci.org for projects geared specifically toward invasive species.

Washington Sea Grant will go live with a Washington-specific citizen science clearinghouse some time in the next year. Or you can just contact local organizations to explore opportunities. In Kitsap you might start with me at Washington Sea Grant (contact info below), or with organizations such WSU Beach Watchers or the Stillwaters Environmental Education Center.

The best of the citizen science networks provide something in return for our efforts. No, not a key chain or a shopping tote (although some provide those as well). We get maps and checklists and image collections and newsletters and data analysis and publications… All of which reflect our contributions to scientific exploration and the greater body of scientific knowledge. None of which would have happened without our participation.

COASST is an excellent example of providing feedback to volunteers. In return for their dead bird surveys, COASST volunteers receive a newsletter explaining some of the trends in the data and featuring natural history information about sea and shoreline birds. … Plus, volunteers get cool bird postcards (pictures tend to be of the live birds and a bit more attractive then the dead ones). A free COASST training will be hosted by Washington Sea Grant and WSU Kitsap Extension in Bremerton on July 28th (RSVP to info@coasst.org). Other dates and opportunities are available on the COASST calendar.

Thanks for your interest in contributing to the body of scientific knowledge that we need to make informed decisions and to effectively care for the Puget Sound, Salish Sea and beyond. … Oh, gotta go… I need to chase down a dragonfly!

Jeff Adams is a Washington Sea Grant Marine Water Quality Specialist, affiliated with the University of Washington’s College of the Environment, and based in Bremerton. You can follow his Sea Life blog, SalishSeaLife tweets and videos, email to jaws@uw.edu or call at 360-337-4619.


Wonderful winter wigeon

Wednesday, March 30th, 2011

Pelagic cormorant with its touches of mating season bling (red face, white haunches, wispy white neck feathers). Photo: Jeff Adams

I love spring! However, some of my favorite winter commute companions will soon be departing. Our Salish Sea feathered friends are turning their focus from sitting out the winter in our  relatively calm and rich inland waters to getting busy on this summer’s crop of young’uns. For many birds, that means leaving central Puget Sound for points north or inland. Many are changing dramatically into their winter plumage (the flashy reds, blues and whites of grebes and cormorants are some of my favorites). The winter birds of which I am most fond, however, are the wigeon.

The large overwintering flocks can be appreciated day and night from September through April. Many grassy shoreline parks host their own band of wigeon that offer you a good look during the day. During the long dark hours of winter, the large flocks rest on quiet waters. Waiting for a foot ferry to shuttle across Sinclair Inlet to Bremerton on a dark, wet morning may treat you to a  chorus of peeping and whistling. (YouTube video of whistling wigeon.)

Many nearshore homeowners may disagree with my attraction to wigeon. Wigeon love short green grass and can poop, stomp and nibble a manicured lawn all winter long. I’ve seen flashy objects in some shoreline lawns that I imagine are intended to keep wigeon off (if you have experience with this, I’m curious how well it works).

Eurasian and American wigeon at Evergreen Park, Bremerton. Photo: Jeff Adams

A large flock of wigeon typically affords an ornithological treat. Actually, it’s more like a treasure hunt. When you find the treasure, you get the treat.

Like a needle in a duck down pillow, a male Eurasian wigeon (rust colored head) can often be found among the hundreds of American wigeon (speckled head with a green stripe) in a large flock. This winter guest to our shores typically breeds in northern Europe and Asia. Then flies far to the south to enjoy more temperate winters. Those that we see just happen to migrate down through Alaska instead of Siberia.

In mid-March, the flock of wigeon at Evergreen Park in Bremerton made it a little easier to find the needle. At least 4 handsome, brown headed lads were pulling up grass with gusto. If you wish to see them, you might head down to Evergreen Park to scan the flock and wish them well on their long flight to the breeding grounds. However, it’s possible that some Eurasian wigeon temporarily defect to North America.

American, Eurasian and hybrid? wigeon at Evergreen Park, Bremerton. Photo: Jeff Adams

There’s some debate among birders that a few wigeon ladies might find themselves swooning for the fancy feathers of a male from the other species, resulting in hybrids that share some characteristics of each. There also appears to be some variability in each species that may lead to the speculation of hybridization.

Wherever they go, these large flocks will soon depart, and I’ll just have to look forward to September when the wonderful wigeon return. In the meantime, my arguably less charismatic commuting companions of summer are just around the corner… Go big jellies!

Jeff Adams is a Washington Sea Grant Marine Water Quality Specialist, affiliated with the University of Washington’s College of the Environment, and based in Bremerton. You can follow his Sea Life blog, SalishSeaLife Twitter, email to jaws@uw.edu or call at 360-337-4619.


Emperors of the air, stuck in the mud

Thursday, March 17th, 2011

Albatross in flight off Washington coast. Photo: Jeff Adam

Albatrosses are birds that few of us ever get to see or fully appreciate. They avoid the mainland, nesting on remote islands, and foraging in the open ocean. We certainly don’t find them in the Salish Sea. A Puget Sounder’s best bet is to head out to the Washington coast, jump on a boat (Westport has a great pelagic birding charter) and ride the waves for a few dozen miles out to sea. Once out of sight of land, you may be in sight of albatrosses.

These unique birds are build for long trips at sea, soaring so efficiently that their hearts beat about the same when they’re soaring for hundreds or thousands of miles as when they’re resting. And these are big birds! Wingspans of North Pacific albatross are between 6 and 7′.

Ironically, the wings that makes them soaring superstars also makes them pretty poor flapping fliers. Relatively stiff wings aren’t very effective when winds that are essential to their flight are calm. While we sit out a storm, albatrosses sit out the calm, floating on the sea’s surface until the wind picks up.

Amid the devastating human tragedy of Japan’s recent earthquake and tsunami, albatrosses and other island nesting birds in the Pacific have also faced challenges. I thank John Williams of Still Hope Productions for turning me onto Midway Atoll wildlife biologist Pete Leary’s blog. In a March 12, 2011 posting Pete shared experiences and dramatic images of the tsunami displaced birds he and many others rescued from debris, mud and open water. It’s amazing that the birds captured in his images were the survivors, some buried with only their head above the debris. Unfortunately, Pete suggested 10′s of thousands of albatross chicks were washed out to sea.

Albatross species, most of which are considered threatened, face a number of other, more chronic threats.

  • Albatrosses see an easy meal as bait in longline fisheries sinks slowly behind a boat. The result is 10′s of thousands of albatross bycatch deaths each year. Washington Sea Grant staff and others are working with longline fisheries to reduce seabird bycatch. Just distracting birds until the bait sinks below their diving depth can reduce seabird contact with the bait by 70%.
  • Invasive rats and cats prey easily on eggs and chicks and may attack adults. These birds evolved to breed on islands without terrestrial mammals and lack the necessary defenses. Invasive plants and overgrazing have impacted habitat for some species.
  • Plastic garbage is a problem of deepening concern. Plastic debris is now a prominent component of the oceans’ surface water. Mistaking these materials for food, albatrosses pack their gizzard and stomach with the undigestible plastic, creating blockages or reducing the space that should be taken up by food. They also regurgitate plastics for their own chicks, likely causing the chicks to feel full and increasing physiological stress. Steps to reduce plastic consumption and increase proper disposal are worth taking.

When even the emperors of the air are unable to avoid the crushing force of runaway water, the consequences of a tsunami for those held firm by gravity become all the more sobering. My heart and hopes for recovery go out to all. JEff

Jeff Adams is a Washington Sea Grant Marine Water Quality Specialist, affiliated with the University of Washington’s College of the Environment, and based in Bremerton. You can follow his Sea Life blog, email to jaws@uw.edu or call at 360-337-4619.


Knot your average flight

Monday, October 11th, 2010

You’ve probably seen different shorebirds flit short distances here and there on the beach, walk the mudflat probing unceasingly or do their funny little dance up and down the beach just at the wave’s edge. There are a lot of different species, most relatively small and most not overly flamboyant.

Now imagine a flock of shorebirds taking off from southern Brazil for a seemingly non-stop, 6-day flight to their first layover in North Carolina. That’s about a 5000 mile trip – an average of 35 miles per hour, for 144 hours. Red knots (Calidris canutus rufapictures) do this year in and year out, many flying a distance farther than the Earth to the Moon during their lifetime.

If we were to take a trip to southern Brazil, it would probably be an 8 or 10 hour flight. We would have been fed two meals and had a several drinks. We’d still be tired and a little cranky, but thrilled to hear the pilot put down the landing gear. A red knot would probably have knotted muscles or a knot in its stomach, but would surely share the thrill of the landing…

Maybe knot a thrill, but that moment of seeing the coast emerge from the Atlantic blue means likely survival. These birds weigh less than 1/2 pound when well fed. They arrive at their eastern US feeding grounds sometimes less than half that weight! Their little bird brain and emaciated body must be dreaming of horseshoe crab eggs. The forage for which their flight is perfectly timed. Red knots typically forage on shellfish spat, but the high energy horseshoe crab eggs allow them to really pack the ounces back on before heading to their arctic breeding grounds.

Not sure why a bird would subject itself to such a tortuous migration (maybe it brags to the other subspecies of red knot who opt for slightly shorter distances). Still, it is a great example of how critical certain marine shoreline habitats can be and how complex the relationship can be between multiple species, habitat, water quality, environmental conditions and global human communities.

The population of the birds that travel to Argentina dropped by more than half between the mid-1980′s and early 2000′s. International efforts are underway to conserve these travelers and this remarkable life history that connects people from the entire Western hemisphere.

The subspecies Calidris canutus roselaari migrates down the West coast from the Alaska’s north coast. Apparently they aren’t many of them, but you might have a chance of seeing them on the outer coast in the spring.

I’ve included a few links below if you’re interested in more info… Here’s to a lifestyle that does knot require me to lose and gain 100 pounds every year! JEff

Red Knot – The Birds of North America Online
US Fish and Wildlife Service – Red Knot factsheet (pdf)
Red Knot – An Imperiled Migratory Shorebird in New Jersey (amazing before/after photos of weight gain in Delaware Bay)
Shorebird Researchers Document Red Knot’s Record-breaking Flight

Jeff Adams is a Washington Sea Grant Marine Water Quality Specialist, affiliated with the University of Washington’s College of the Environment, and based in Bremerton. You can follow his Sea-life blog, email to jaws@uw.edu or call at 360-337-4619.


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