Seabird Ecological Assessment Network

Drs. Mark Pokras and Flo Tseng have expanded the seabird morbidity and mortality project. Now called the Seabird Ecological Assessment Network (SEANET), this project is supported by several small private funders. Rebecca Harris, who got her P.h.D. in Biology at Tufts University has joined the project as the Program Officer.

We are collaborating with seabird researchers, wildlife rehabilitators, and volunteers up and down the Atlantic coast, from Delaware Bay to the Gulf of Maine to form a cohesive network of researchers and citizen scientists. We are in the process of creating a database of seabird population and mortality information and an on-going web-based mortality reporting system in collaboration with the U.S. Geological Survey’s National Biological Information Infrastructure and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The project includes regular (monthly or more frequent) volunteer-based beached-bird surveys that will provide information about large-scale mortality events and baseline levels of mortality. Patterns of environmental contaminants found in the birds, including heavy metal and petroleum products, will be documented and pollutant source locations mapped. Additionally, a database of regional oil shipping and distribution patterns and previous oil spill locations will be incorporated into a Geographic Information System (GIS); seabird distribution, mortality and contaminant maps will be overlaid. The gathered information will be readily available to the public on a searchable web-based database, and will be used to develop succinct regional plans for marine bird and habitat protection, prevent and prepare for future oil spills and mortality, and serve as an educational vehicle and catalyst for involvement of citizen scientists.

Seabirds are especially sensitive to petroleum and other pollution, because the physical properties of oil degrade the insulating and waterproofing properties of feathers. Ingestion of oil, which often occurs when preening oiled feathers, or inhalation of oil can also poison birds. Because of the large amount of shipping traffic offshore, the SEANET partners are interested in exploring the great risk to seabirds from both large spill events and small-scale discharge of waste from boats or other sources. We are interested in determining baseline levels of mortality as well as the occurrence and distribution of other threats such as diseases, entanglements, biotoxins from harmful algal blooms, and mortality caused by fisheries operations. In collaboration with National Marine Fisheries Service, we are collecting data on seabirds caught as bycatch.

One of SEANET’s goals is to examine the spatial pattern of bird carcass deposition and how it varies across time. Because regular monitoring of beached birds has not recently been done in this region, these surveys will provide baseline information about causes of bird mortality from oil spills to disease. Over 50 volunteers and high school students are walking beaches every month in southeastern Massachusetts, Plum Island, Cape Cod and new Hampshire, and we are currently expanding to include other regions in collaboration with organizations such as Wildlife Trust in New York.

We also are collaborating with Bird Studies, Canada, organizers of volunteer-based beached bird surveys in Nova Scotia, to find funding to produce a field guide to Atlantic beached birds. This resource will be useful for volunteers and students who are untrained in bird identification; a Pacific version has proved invaluable for recruitment of volunteers in west coast beached-bird surveys.

Even in the absence of regular beached bird surveys, we are interested in reports from birders about dead birds washing up on shore in large numbers. Please contact Julie Ellis at 508-887-4933 for more information, or visit the SEANET website.