This week has been a special one for me. First, this has been my last week with the Seabird Oceanography Lab! It’s bittersweet, knowing that I wont be seeing many of my fellow lab members any longer. The bright side of this departure is that I spend more time with the Bureau of Land Management at Yaquina Head for the last few days before I leave. I have to say that I don’t spend enough time of the week with them, so it is a nice change of pace. Secondly, I’ve been given the opportunity to help out one of the classes at Hatfield, being a leader for one of the carcass walks. It sounds pretty grim, but allows me to shed some light on this important activity!
Carcass walks entail surveying a long span of a beach to search for carcasses of seabirds that have been washed up or covered by sand. The long-term goal in these activities is to obtain a better understanding of population numbers and how nearby environmental factors can have an affect in in their numbers. It would be simply to claim that birds can simply die and their bodies could end up on the beach. While a good number of birds do die from natural causes, it is important to consistently conduct carcass walks to see gradual changes or immediate discrepancies in comparison to previous years. Jane, one of the lab leaders, gives the class an example with the Exxon Valdez oil spill impacting several numbers of seabirds, especially murre colonies that we can connect to Yaquina Head. Having the statistics and numbers of such events truly puts into scope how fragile our ecosystem can be against man-made destruction.
Having the purpose of the walks in mind, as well as preparation in training, we head out with one group going to Nye Beach and another group driving to South Beach. Helping lead one for the teams at South Beach, we walked the beach in search of dead birds. Our classes was determined to find murre chick carcasses, as we expected some numbers of them to wash up along the shore. While seeing chick carcasses can be a bit discouraging and even sad, it is also an indicator that there has been a degree of successful fledges from Yaquina Head. Not all make a safe impact with the water, and some may get lost from their parents, but several losses can be a side affect of an outstanding year of chick fledges. When discovering a carcass, there are several factors that we take note of. With natural decomposition, it can be difficult sometimes to identify a bird just by looking at it. We use a guide to measure wingspan and assess color patterns, as well as the morphology of the feet, if intact, to help us identify what species we see. We take into account the band colors on its wing, if it has been processed by a COASST (Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team) walk before, as well the culmen (beak size) and wing. We took into account several birds that day, with a good number of murre chicks found. Everyone had a good amount of practice with identifying and taking a note of the birds we have found for data purposes. Seeing dead birds is not exactly what many may have had in mind when we go to the beach, but it is important to learn the messages they leave behind… for they give us purpose to understand and better conserve avian wildlife beyond their time.