Beached bird program makes everyone a scientist - A group of UW students take part in a COASST survey in Ocean Shores, Wash., as part of their OCEAN 250 marine biology course. Photo by Science
When it comes to bird research, one organization at the UW found that assistance from volunteers was crucial to help its program take flight.
The Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team (COASST) is an organization that monitors the fluctuation of bird populations on beaches along the West Coast. Started in the late ’90s by Dr. Julia Parrish, professor at the UW School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences, the group does monthly surveys of beaches looking for beached seabirds.
Parrish came up with the idea in 1997 after monitoring the Common Murre from her study site at Tatoosh Island, Wash., where she looked at how the population was affected by the environment each year.
“Murres are the canary in a coal mine,” she said. “If something happens in the coastal environment, they die. They tend to be really sensitive.”
She wanted to know if the changes in population were consistent across the entire coast, but lacked the proper resources and personnel to effectively monitor seabirds across such a large area. So she turned to volunteers.
“Normally when you’re a professor and you want some data, you figure out a way for your graduate students to participate in the project and collect the data,” she said. “I wanted to cover a really broad geographic stretch, like the entire coastline. Really the only groups that could collect the data were people who lived in the areas.”
Starting with about five beaches in Ocean Shores, Wash., in 2002, COASST expanded its beach surveys through other parts of Washington, including the Puget Sound. By 2005, the group reached California and Alaska. Today COASST surveys more than 350 beaches along the West Coast and Alaska.
“It’s a program that’s really important to coastal communities,” COASST coordinator Jane Dolliver said.
Dolliver started working with the program in 2002 as a student at the UW majoring in biology. Today she helps train COASST’s volunteers. The program now has more than 800.
“People are curious,” she said of the volunteers. “They really like the discovery aspect of COASST. This is one of their only chances to see seabirds up close.”
Thanks to the work of its volunteers, COASST has identified 153 species of birds.
Nicole Luce measures the wing chord of a white morph Snow Goose (Chen caerulescens) as part of her COASST survey at Double Bluff Beach in Whidbey Island, Wash.
Through the data collected, the program has discovered several trends about bird populations on the coast. They’ve been able to conclude that most die-offs of birds are normal and happen at predictable times in the year. When birds die at unexpected times, the group has been able to find the source of the deaths, such as effects from oil spills or changes in weather and oceanography.
In 2009, an unexpected die-off happened when a surge in population and die-off of zooplankton created an oily substance that caused sea ducks to die of hypothermia.
“A lot of the citizens played key roles in the story,” Parrish said. “If they weren’t out there collecting the data, we wouldn’t know what happened.”
For many volunteers, collecting COASST data has become a way of life.
“It’s just fun to be out there on the beach,” said Robert Ollikainen, a volunteer from Oregon.
Ollikainen has been with the program for 10 years and said he enjoys surveying the beach with a group of friends.
“It’s sort of become a neighborhood thing,” he said.
Susan Kloeppel, a volunteer from Washington, surveys beaches with a close friend. She said COASST makes her feel a part of science.
“I feel like I’m really making a difference,” she said. “I think about storms and other disasters that affect birds in other parts of the world, and it’s just very exciting to be a part of this.”
Today COASST data is used and respected by scientists around the world — an indicator in the eyes of the program that “citizen science” works.
“We’ve shown that we can use volunteer data and find out some things that are really concrete about what’s happening in the world of birds,” said Charlie Wright, data verification specialist for the program.
Parrish said the use of everyday citizens sets COASST apart from other organizations.
“My program does something that professional scientists can’t do,” she said. “There is no scientific program that only uses professionally trained people that has the geographic reach that this program does. Certainly there are a bunch of things that citizens can’t do, but that’s a far cry from saying they can’t do anything.”
Reach contributing writer LaVendrick Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @The_Vendrick
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