COASST volunteers track birds

By Donna Barr

The Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team hit the Hobuck Beach, Friday, May 24, to locate and record bird remains.


Citizen Science coordinator Heidi Pedersen, based out of the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary in Port Angeles, headed the team. Volunteers Nancy Messmer, National Resources class student Karsten Turrey, from the North Olympic Skills Center, Neah Bay’s Sally Parker and former CSC Janet LaMont were out at low tide on a beautiful, partly cloudy morning. The team goes out during the two times of the year when the most birds die — right after nestlings fledge and take off on their own and during winter storms.


This story started when Forks Forum freelancer Donna Barr found the carcass of a cormorant on the Slip Point Beach at Clallam Bay, on Feb. 17. Noting the red tag around one of the withered wings, Barr photographed the bird then and again on May 8, as a wing-bone cleaned by scavenging birds and dropped on the road — but still retaining its telltale tag. A regular listener to KPLU’s broadcast of the “Birdnote” program, she sent the photo of the tagged carcass to the program and quickly was directed to COASST.


The bird was a Brandt’s cormorant originally tagged by LaMont, who, during the Friday beach walk, exclaimed in delight, “You found my cormorant!”


Thanks to COASST’s Jane Dolliver, who e-mailed very complete answers to interview questions:

Dolliver wrote, “The Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team (COASST) program is a citizen-science program based at the University of Washington in partnership with state, federal and tribal agencies, community organizations and volunteer groups. One of our long-time partners on the north coast of Washington is the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary.”


Dolliver continued, “Like many organizations, we began small. The program began in 1999 with 12 original participants from Ocean Shores. Four of those original 12 are still with the program, almost 15 years later.”


Funding sources

Funding for COASST comes from a variety of state, federal and private foundation sources. Current partners include the the National Science Foundation, NOAA-Fisheries and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. In-kind funds are donated through the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary, the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge and Kenai Fjords National Park.


Asked about COASST’s mission, Dolliver said, “We look to answer a simple question — what’s washed in?” For Washington coastal beaches, late summer brings local breeders (mostly common murres) exhausted and thin after providing for their chicks, and come late fall and early winter, long-distance migrants (mostly northern fulmars) unable to survive the winter. “At least once a year, somewhere along the beaches we monitor (northern California to Alaska) we see a big spike of birds coming in or ‘wreck.’” This was the case in the fall of 2009 when COASSTers found hundreds of sea ducks (white-winged and surf scoters) on local beaches. The cause? A tiny dinoflagellate, Akashiwo sanguinea, that bloomed, died and “foamed” birds. Similar to the way oil interacts with feathers, birds lost their waterproofing and became hypothermic.


Asked about COASST’s successes, Dolliver responded with deserved pride: “The very first Beached Birds guide proclaimed ‘a target of 35 monitored beaches in Washington State.’ With 580 beaches in four states, I think we can check off that milestone!”


Dolliver continued, “Seabirds are elusive — it’d be rare to see them from the highway or happen by one on your way to work. Participating in COASST gives folks an up-close look. One (we joke) that doesn’t require waking up at the crack of dawn, an expensive pair of binoculars or a 6-hour car drive!


“We think of citizen science as a partnership between citizens and scientists — you need both to be successful. COASSTers provide observations from hundreds of beaches to create a map of what is happening with seabirds across the entire North Pacific — that’s pretty cool. Citizen science can capture the big picture, which is especially important for migratory seabirds that cross state and international boundaries.”


Dolliver admitted the difficulties of such a large project. “With a lot of participants — about 750 in 2013 — we tend to “burn the candle at both ends” with the mail, e-mail and phone!


“For participants, there are some long surveys in the cold, rain and wind. Processing all the birds on the beach can take time (several hours). But as one of our longtime participants always reminds us, ‘There’s no such thing as bad weather, just inappropriate clothing!’ COASSTers are go-getters who sometimes remind our students that jeans aren’t rain pants, windbreakers and hoodies aren’t raincoats and rain pants are best worn over, not tucked into, your boots.”


All in fun

Dolliver said she has fun at her job. “To see the first time a new COASSTer stares intently at a foot, goes through the Beached Bird foot key and turns their head to say, “Alcid?!” (a bird family) — that makes my day. COASST is all about having participants ‘do’ the science. COASSTers are incredibly observant — recall, some of them having been doing ‘their’ COASST beach for over a decade — they can tell you all about it — when the common murre chicks first appear (August), where fresh birds are found (at the surf line), why some finds are headless and footless (usually raptor leftovers).”


Remembering the West End enjoys the advantages of being an official Audubon Area, Dolliver added, “COASST participants have a broad range of ages (8-90) and many of the teams are multigenerational (parents with children, or grandchildren with grandparents, teachers with students). It’s a great way to share science and stewardship, to view the world through the science lens. A lot of folks tell us, ‘We never see dead birds on our beaches,’ but it turns out, once you start looking, you can’t stop. And you do find birds. And then you’re hooked.”


Dolliver added, “We (Heidi, Liz and I) have learned so much from doing surveys with COASSTers — it’s their beach, their favorite spot — the place where they choose to spend their time. Everyone in Forks knows these beaches are special places, ones that people travel from across the globe (really!) to see and admire. COASST is a way of connecting to that place, of turning a beach walk into point on a graph, into a pattern.”


And not only in Forks. More and more on the Olympic Peninsula, from school children tracking water currents, to residents taking samples for red tide alerts, to folks turning out to clean beaches of ugly and hazardous debris, people are learning what really makes the natural systems tick and how to save their own future through supporting the environment.


Paul Bowlby, a Clallam Bay school bus driver, once noted that, although he grew up hearing that mergansers “ate fish” and needed to be destroyed, he has seen mergansers catching and devouring freshwater lampreys. Leaving the shy chestnut-crested and green-headed toothed ducks alone helps keep the level of parasitic fish to the level where the lampreys only need to prey on wounded, sick or otherwise stressed fish.
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