Dead Birds and Dem Bones Can Speak! Reading the Omens

     The weary, fog-draggled volunteer clipped oiled feathers from a freshly dead Common Murre she’d found among beach wrack festooning the high tide mark. Snapping photos, and enfolding the feathers in foil, she tucked them into an evidence jar. She sealed it, signed the tape, and trudged back to her car to complete Chain of Custody paperwork. Dull routine. Who could predict that this was one of several links in the chain of forensic evidence that led to discovering the source of innumerable “mystery spills” and seabird deaths over the past half-century? The oil was traced to the sunken freighter S/S Jacob Luckenbach, which, after 50 years, continued to belch globs of oil during winter storms since it sank off the Golden Gate in 1953.

     Beach Watch, Point to Point: The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, recognizing a need for better knowledge about the marine life along California shorelines, gave Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary a mandate: recruit, train and manage a cadre of volunteers as citizen scientists and beach specialists to collect long-term baseline data. Since 1993, NOAA’s Beach Watch program, now managed by the non-profit Greater Farallones Association, has methodically documented the condition of sanctuary shores, and detected threats to wildlife and habitat. In 2013 Beach Watch extended north, anticipating the sanctuary’s 2015 expansion into Sonoma and Mendocino counties. It now conducts systematic surveys from Point Año Nuevo north to Point Arena. Beach Watch data augments findings from our three yearly offshore research cruises.

     Seabirds are canaries in the oceanic “coal mine.” Sea lions, too. Both react strongly to episodes of seasonal prey scarcity and abundance; to oil spills, disturbance, and other events. Seabirds die, at sea or on shore, from natural causes, like post-breeding death, food scarcity, toxic algae; and become beachcast. Their mortality patterns provide biological snapshots of what’s happening in the greater ocean. Sanctuary scientists interpret those events, to identify blips and trends on the ecological radar; they couple that data with live marinelife data. But, to detect a trend, long term baseline information is required: which species normally feed here, which ones breed here? Only with that baseline data can we measure the enormity of impacts when inevitable oil spills and other catastrophic events occur.

     What exactly do dead seabirds say? They tell us if food is scarce, abundant, and evenly or patchily distributed. If adult birds able to fly far offshore to where food concentrations are, are thriving, but young birds without full-fledged ‘wing-power’ are dying, it may indicate that food is plentiful but is too distant, or patchily distributed. The same applies to young sea lions and fur seals, if the fish and squid they feast upon are absent, too deep, or too distant.

     In 2014 and 2015 disaster struck: seas were extremely warm, fueled by El Nino, plus The Blob -- a cell of warm water hunkered offshore; and an increasingly warming ocean. Young seabirds and fur seals died and stranded in large numbers from starvation. Newly graduated Beach Watch volunteers in Mendonoma found themselves almost ankle-deep in dead Cassin’s Auklets, a chunky little seabird. Based in part on their evidence, the federal government declared an Unusual Mortality Event. This was a valuable heads-up that this triple-whammy of warmth had broad implications on marine life throughout the region.

     Whistle-Blowers: When oil spills kill seabirds, their feathers are analyzed and the oil “fingerprinted” to determine its source, even down to a specific ship or refinery. You can run, but you can’t hide.

     Sterling Stewardship: This year Greater Farallones Beach Watch celebrates its Silver Anniversary—25 years of stewardship, vigilance, and dedication. Over 140 volunteers now survey 56 beaches, “point to point.” We hope you will come and meet Farallones Beach Watch volunteers and sanctuary staff at Discover the Coast Day June 9th in Point Arena! Although we aren’t presently recruiting, you may enjoy learning what some of your neighbors are up to!

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