As Seabird Die-Offs Continue, Unalaskans Train To Track Local Mortalities

Oct 10, 2019

Unalaska resident Meg Thomson-Dean practices identifying seabird species by their wings. The training, held Oct. 4, was hosted by the Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team (COASST), based at the University of Washington.
Credit Hope McKenney/KUCB

A small group of Unalaskans learned to identify bird carcasses last week in an effort to help scientists track increasing mortalities on Alaska's beaches.

The training was held by the University of Washington's Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team (COASST), one of the organizations that monitored the state's fifth straight summer of mass die-offs.

"That's really concerning us," said COASST's Charlie Wright. "We're seeing a lot of die-offs, and they're moving further and further north. We are seeing that in the Bering Sea and the Chukchi Sea, especially."

Scientists link the mass mortalities to above-normal water temperatures, which affect birds' food sources.

From Alaska to California, COASST trains people to identify dead birds on their local beaches and collect data on the carcasses. Wright said the organization focuses on seabirds because they're a reliable indicator of overall ecosystem health, thanks to their long lifespan and wide-ranging diets.

"They're eating various things from zooplankton on up to pretty good sized fish," he said. "Each species is telling us something about the environment. So if their food is gone, they’re not doing well and they’re going to show up on beaches more frequently because of that."

Jill Spetz was one of the four Unalaskans who attended the local training. She learned how to use a COASST field guide to identify dead birds by their color, feet, and wings.

"There are so many different birds, but it's cool how it's categorized by species," said Spetz. "For example, you look at the foot. Is it webbed? No, go to this question. Does it have four toes or three toes? And by the end of it, you've found your bird."

Spetz and other volunteers will survey Unalaska beaches on a monthly basis to collect data and add it to COASST's database. From there, scientists will use the information to study mortality trends and environmental changes.