UWprofessor surveys dead birds

Published on Thu, May 10, 2007 by Jack Kintner

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UW professor
surveys dead birds

By Jack Kintner

Julia Parrish has been studying seabird populations long enough to know that their survival rates can be useful indicators of the health of a marine ecosystem. The trouble is that counting birds is approximate at best, making it difficult to develop good relative measurements of increase or decline.

Unless, of course, the birds have died. Though most people aren’t drawn to a bird carcasses on the beach, and carrying them or any part of them off the beach is illegal, Parrish feels that counting beach-cast dead birds is a good way to keep track of coastal environmental health.

“They’re a good source of data because there’s a lot of them,” she said, “and they can be thoroughly examined and photographed, and contain a lot of valuable information.” The associate professor of aquatic and fishery sciences at the University of Washington gave a talk recently in Bellingham about this and the organization she started eight years ago to survey area beaches called the coastal observation and seabird survey team (COASST).

This past year, she said, 350 volunteers spent 4,900 hours walking almost 6,000 miles to conduct 1,900 surveys on over 200 beaches from southern Oregon to the Bering Sea in Alaska.

Data generated by COASST volunteers has revealed, among other things, that murres are far more susceptible to damage from oil spills than other species. Their findings over the years have led to such things as bird-friendly gill nets and a data base against which damage from oil spills can be more accurately assessed.

Parrish herself has studied the relatively stable murre population on remote Tatoosh Island, a small dot of the northwestern tip of the Olympic Peninsula, for 17 years. But her commitment to COASST has to do with what she calls a belief in what she calls citizen science, essentially a research partnership between trained lay volunteers and professional scientists.

Volunteers are given a day of training, much of which involves techniques for collecting good data, and then when they complete a survey their work is reviewed by an expert in the field. Because of that COASST’s data is the most accurate available on shore-cast birds in the north Pacific.

Parrish’s appearance was sponsored by the Bellingham-based environmental education organization RE Sources, which was founded in 1982 as Bellingham Community Recycling. Following her talk the agency sponsored a training day for volunteers who wished to join in the COASST effort.

Parrish cited recommendations from both the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy and the Pew Oceans Commissions in the face of a continued general decline in bird and fish populations.

For more information locally contact Wendy Steffensen at RE Sources, 733-8307, or at waters@re-sources.org. COASST’s website is at www.coasst.org.