Volunteers help UW scientists understand the story behind the dead birds that wash ashore


Thanks to the Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team of community volunteers, UW scientists can better understand the health of fragile marine ecosystems, predict the impact of a changing climate or of potential oil spills, and see the devastation of harmful algae blooms.

Story by: Jackson Holtz // Video by: Kiyomi Taguchi

More than a decade ago, Jeanne Finke’s friends invited her to join them for a walk on a stretch of beach known as South Pacific.

Researchers from the University of Washington were asking for more volunteers to scan the shore for birds — dead birds.

She signed up and attended a training at the Coastal Interpretive Center in Ocean Shores. Shortly afterward — on April 3, 2010 — Finke and her friend, Susan Kloeppel, conducted their first official survey.

Sometimes Finke, Kloeppel and other volunteers will discover a detached bird wing. Other times, an entire specimen. After a big storm, there may be 10 carcasses.

two people look at a dead bird by the ocean.

Volunteers Susan Kloeppel, left, and Jeanne Finke examine a dead seabird as part of their beach survey for COASST.

They’ve found some unusual birds on their monthly surveys: pelicans and two species of albatross.

Once, the two women observed nearly 30 dead Northern fulmars constituting what birders call a “wreck,” or a mass mortality event.

“It’s pretty stunning, actually, and sad, to know that they met their end and in some strange way,” Finke said.

Curious and drawn to science, Finke still walks the beach year-round with some of the same people who first encouraged her to volunteer. She enjoys the company, being outdoors and monitoring changes to the shoreline.

The volunteers use simple tools — measuring tape, calipers, a camera phone — to examine what they come across. Then, they answer basic questions: Where was the carcass? Was it entangled? Were there signs of an oil spill? How many birds did they spot? What else was on the beach?

Back in the comfort of her home, Finke logs onto her computer and shares the data with the UW’s Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team, or COASST. Contributing to a body of knowledge that’s shared with scientists worldwide makes Finke feel “part of a bigger picture.”

Started in 1999 with a dozen volunteers in southwest Washington, today COASST has trained more than 4,500 community scientists known as COASSTers. The territory monitored covers the entire Washington coast as well as shorelines from Northern California to Alaska, about 480 sites in all.

It is the largest beached bird network in the world.

Thanks to the COASSTers, scientists at the UW can better understand the health of the fragile marine ecosystem, predict the impact of a changing climate or of potential oil spills, and see the devastation of harmful algae blooms.

The data collected by these volunteers have been published, again and again, in leading scientific journals and shared with researchers around the world.

julia parrish leads a training“We depend on coastal residents, people who live near a beach, who probably walk the beach for many reasons, and they just add COASST as one new dimension of their life,” said COASST founder and executive director Julia Parrish, pictured left, a professor in the UW School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences. “We could never hope to replicate the quality or the amount of data that they can collect.”

Parrish, who has become one of the foremost authorities on participatory science, says it’s equally important to return to the coastal communities to share what she and her team have gleaned from volunteer observations.

“We come back,” she said. “We tell people what the stories are.”

A canary in a coal mine

The aggregate data from all those observations allow scientists to better understand the marine ecosystem.

Seabirds are what researchers call a sentinel species, or the “canaries in the coal mine” for the ocean.

“They are often at the top of the ecosystem,” said Jackie Lindsey, COASST’s science coordinator. “But that’s actually not the only reason why we look at seabirds.”

Birds have an appeal, a magic that draws humans to look skyward. Helping understand their lifecycle pulls volunteers into the science.

“People want to look and want to report on what they’re seeing,” Lindsey said. “The nice thing about dead birds, which is what our COASSTers document, is that anybody can identify them. You don’t have to be an expert.”

people study a bird wing

COASST's Jackie Lindsey, right, works with volunteers on wing identification at a training.

In 1990, Parrish was studying marine life on Tatoosh Island off the northwest tip of Washington state. It was while doing field work there that she noticed dead seabirds along a small beach.

“I started to think, well, if there are birds washing in on the tide, I wonder if we could use that as a measure,” Parrish said.

She realized that by collecting information on a regular basis, she could develop a baseline to better understand the impact of oil spills and the reproductive health of various bird colonies on Washington’s beaches. As her research developed, a story began to unfold.

“Who dies where and when tells you about the health of the nearshore marine ecosystem, more than just about any metric,” Parrish explained.

No degree required

Gauging seabird mortality doesn’t require special laboratories or advanced science degrees.

COASSTers don’t need fancy equipment, global positioning systems or even binoculars.

“You just have to have a clipboard and a data sheet,” Parrish said.

COASST researchers conduct free, six-hour trainings in coastal communities throughout their range in places like Ocean Shores, Bellingham, Neah Bay and the San Juan Islands. Additional trainings are included in COASST’s online video library.

On a recent overcast Sunday, a dozen people met in a conference room at the UW’s Friday Harbor Laboratories on San Juan Island.

While other community science projects abound, few reflect the rigor of COASST.

“Anybody can participate with us, if they come learn a little bit,” said Anna Vallery, COASST’s participant coordinator, whose job includes helping new COASSTers learn the basics.

By the end of the day, she promises, even non-scientists will know what to do.

“All of you will be expert dead birders,” she said

To help COASSTers understand how to look at the shoreline, Vallery spreads cut-out pieces of felt across the floor: blue waves; seaweed and twigs — flotsam and jetsam called wrack; logs and tree trunks; and seagrass and other vegetation.

people spread bird parts on the ground in a training l

Volunteers at a recent training on San Juan Island learn how to identify bird wings.

Vallery teaches how to measure paces along a beach, effectively determining beach width, then turns to the fundamentals of measuring bird beaks, feet and wings. To give participants practice, Vallery unpacks a blue cooler filled with frozen bird parts.

The information gets carefully recorded on a COASST datasheet. The form prompts volunteers to look for clues to help identify the species. Are the feet webbed or bony? What color is the plumage?

Then, volunteers use “Beached Birds: A COASST Field Guide,” a resource written by Parrish and Todd Hass, who used to work for COASST and now works for the Puget Sound Partnership, to identify the species of bird they’ve found.

By the end of the day, the volunteers are ready to select a beach to monitor.

“The caliber of what they’ve put together and the range of data that they can collect with this is really impressive,” said Hannah Rogers, a recent college graduate who’s participated in community science projects before. She’s taking a gap year on San Juan Island before studying veterinary medicine at UC Davis, and volunteering with COASST seemed like a worthwhile way to pass her time. “I was really impressed with their whole training and their whole mission.”

What seabird mortality is telling us

Once the data is transmitted to the UW, researchers “scrub” the information and review each entry to confirm its accuracy.

Researchers use a variety of sophisticated computer models to examine what’s there.

In more than 20 years, COASST has examined more than 93,000 dead birds. That’s allowed scientists to establish a baseline for what can be expected seasonally and what constitutes an extraordinary event.

It makes sense that an oil spill or algae bloom would kill marine life and seabirds would wash up on beaches. But without knowing how many birds typically come ashore, it’s hard to gauge the impact on marine ecosystems.

a group of dead birds on the beach

Bird populations go through cycles based on breeding and migration. The data reflect those natural events. When something is amiss, researchers spot the anomaly.

In 2009, thousands of dead surf scoters washed ashore on Washington beaches. COASST scientists, using data collected by COASSTers, traced the cause to a harmful algae bloom that turned the ocean red and produced a seafoam that proved deadly to the birds.

At the end of 2014 and early 2015 tens of thousands of Cassin’s auklets died. COASSTers counted more than 7,500 of the blue-footed birds on beaches, but researchers believe about 385,000 birds died. The reason this time, COASST and other scientists speculate, was the marine “blob,” a huge patch of ocean that surpassed all historic records for high temperatures. The change in temperature forced the birds away from their usual feeding grounds into condensed coastal areas with limited food supplies. The new territory couldn’t sustain the increased population and the birds died at “unprecedented and astonishing” rates right on the shoreline.

COASST studies also have examined why puffins were dying in Alaska and what was behind a massive beaching of Velella velella, also called by-the-wind sailors, a creature similar to a jellyfish that floats along the ocean surface feeding on nutrients.

a dead bird on the beach

A dead seagull with measurement notations.

In 2014, COASST received funding to study and document marine debris that gets washed ashore. Now, COASSTers report back on buoys, docks, doors, bottles and bobbles they see on the shoreline, in addition to the birds.

Researchers look for clues on how invasive species hitch rides across oceans, where the debris originates, and the impact to marine life.

“We wouldn’t be able to do the research at all without those people caring about these projects,” Lindsey said. “All of your decisions are driven both by the fact that you want to engage people in research, and you want to get great data so that you can tell great data stories out of it.”

Volunteer with COASST

Click here to learn more about the Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team and how to volunteer.

The birds’ return

Going to Jackson Beach, a south-facing cove on San Juan Island, already is a part of David Halpern’s daily routine.

Now a Washington State Parks ranger, Halpern previously worked as a cartoonist. After greeting visitors at Lime Kiln Point State Park all day, Halpern walks his two border collies and collects driftwood to make whimsical bird sculptures — sort of three-dimensional cartoons.

He’s already attuned to look for birds. His property abuts Beaverton Marsh, the island’s largest wetland, ideal habitat for bird watching.

“They’ve grown on me over the years, these birds,” he said. There are even a few individual birds he recognizes, year after year, that feed in his pond.

It’s his hope, that by collecting information about the birds that wash up on Jackson Beach, he can be part of preserving their magic.

“If the environment is struggling, the birds are so often the first to suffer,” Halpern said. “It seems that by collecting a little data while I walk the beach, I can help scientists get a better understanding of trends in bird populations and habitats. Any data I send on to the COASST team increases the chance that the birds that bring me so much pleasure when they visit my pond will be back again next year.”

See a related story from the Islands’ Sounder.

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