Wednesday, December 12, 2012


Anyone who looks closely at a waxwing usually exclaims "how smooth it is!" What is there about waxwing feathers that gives this impression? They really do seem smooth, perhaps in part because the body is uniformly colored and the individual feathers thus difficult to make out. Maybe that's all we need to know. Their jaunty crests, black face masks, and yellow tail tips make waxwings unmistakable birds.

Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) are very common in the Pacific Northwest. Small numbers of them spend the winter, especially in the interior, but many more arrive in spring to breed throughout our deciduous and mixed woodlands. Because they are confirmed fruit-eaters, they breed later than many other migrants, so the young when just off the nest can find plenty of fruit. Many native trees and shrubs flower in early summer and have mature fruit in late summer, if you didn't know.

Waxwings are really tied to fruit and can survive on a fruit-only diet longer than other temperate zone songbirds. Males offer berries to females for courtship feeding, and the young are fed fruit more than is the case in most of our birds. Of course this diet is augmented with insects, which are better sources of some nutrients. Waxwings spend much time around water looking for emerging aquatic insects such as dragonflies, which they often catch in the air.

You can see waxwings hawking for insects above the treetops in late summer, but they are still seeking fruit at that time, and any plant fruiting in September may harbor small flocks of waxwings. In October, most of them take off for lower latitudes.

The "waxy" tips on wing feathers in waxwings are merely modifications of the feathers. Imagine the individual feather barbs becoming thicker and thicker, fusing, and becoming bright red. As a waxwing matures, it develops more of these tips, and their size and number are a sign of maturity. Birds with more red tips tend to breed together and breed more successfully, so more "wax" may be a sign of a bird with higher fitness.

Bohemian Waxwings (Bombycilla garrulus), bigger and more colorful, visit the Northwest only in winter from their breeding grounds in the boreal forest. They are more common on the east side of the Cascades, where flocks may be encountered in fruiting trees, many of them non-natives and often in cities and towns.

There is only one additional waxwing, the Japanese species (Bombycilla japonica). It looks much like the other two but has red tail tips; I wish I had a photo to share, but I've never seen one.

Dennis Paulson

Friday, November 30, 2012


Some people, seeing their first Varied Thrush (Ixoreus naevius), wonder if they are having vision problems. This psychedelically colored thrush looks more or less like an American Robin (Turdus migratorius) and feeds on the ground or in fruit trees like a robin, but the similarity is only superficial.

Male Varied Thrushes are vividly colored in gray, black and russet, much more brightly patterned than robins. Females are more subdued, with less conspicuous facial markings and breast band, but they still show the vivid wing markings typical of the species. Note also their black instead of yellow bill.

While robins run about our yards looking for earthworms that have surfaced, Varied Thrushes are foraging for a much greater variety of invertebrates. A robin is a visual forager, cocking its head to scan for worms, but a Varied Thrush gets down and dirty, pulling leaf litter up and hopping backward to examine the ground exposed. The complex web of life beneath the litter furnishes up dietary items one after another to the thrush.

In addition, Varied Thrushes take fruits and seeds of all kinds, even acorns, from the ground. They often visit bird feeders to take seeds or suet, something robins never do. Both species are attracted to fruiting trees and shrubs, where they may gobble berry after berry, jumping up or briefly hovering to pull them from branches to small for a comfortable perch.

Varied Thrushes breed in wet conifer forests in the mountains of the Pacific Northwest, and they are present in the lowlands only in winter, when they come down from the mountains. In some winters, probably the colder and snowier ones, they are more common than at other times, numerous enough to be called an invasion. At intervals they wander much more widely than their usual range in the far West, turning up as far east as the Atlantic coast.

The call note of a Varied Thrush is a sharp 'tup,' much like that of a Hermit Thrush, but the song is magical. It is a series of drawn-out notes at different pitches, sometimes with overtones. Note after note comes out of the bird with an ethereal quality that seems well suited for our dark evergreen forests. Fortunately for us, they sing commonly in the spring before they depart for the mountains, so you may hear this song in your suburban yard.

Watch for the psychedelic robin; it's that time of year!

Dennis Paulson

Tuesday, November 27, 2012


Most of us think of woodpeckers as black and white birds that forage on tree trunks, hitching their way up, down and around to probe into bark crevices for insect larvae. Not finding any on the surface, they are supremely adapted to chiseling their way into the wood to extract burrowing beetle larvae from their hidden galleries beneath the bark.

One woodpecker stands out against this generality. It is a typical woodpecker in anatomy but not in color or foraging habits. This is the Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus), a common breeding species over much of North America. The brown plumage, heavily barred and spotted with black, is distinctive, and, as in many other birds that feed on the ground, serves as camouflage. Males are easily distinguished by their red malar stripe.

Flickers are the only ground-feeding woodpeckers in North America. They nest in holes that they excavate in tree trunks, but their primary diet of ants, among the most abundant insects, has them nesting at woodland edges and foraging in open country when they are not breeding. Watch for flickers flying up from the ground, their contrasty white rump and red wing linings almost startling at first sight.

Flickers are still common everywhere they occur, and in the Pacific Northwest they are becoming more common in urban and suburban habitats. Every ant-filled lawn is a feeding station for them, and they quickly learn to come to bird feeders with either suet or seeds. Watch a flicker at a seed feeder sticking its tongue into the seeds. The seeds stick to the sticky tongue just like ants in an anthill and are slurped in with gusto. Bits of suet are chipped off with the powerful bill, while squirrels wait below to get all the pieces dislodged.

Ants stay underground when temperatures drop below freezing, and flickers wintering at high latitudes change to a diet of fruits of all kinds. Poison ivy berries are among the most common, and they illustrate an interesting fact of nature: poison ivy toxins are harmful only to mammals. If mammals are deterred from eating the fruits, then much wider-ranging birds will eat them and disseminate the seeds at greater distances from the parent plant.

Although common in towns and even cities, flickers are declining slightly overall. European Starlings often outcompete them for nesting holes, but there is no definitive proof that that interaction has caused the decline. Another good possibility is the general decrease of snags, dead standing trees in which the birds can excavate nest holes. One possible reason for the surprising increase of flickers in some cities is that they can excavate in utility poles!

Dennis Paulson

Tuesday, November 13, 2012


The Bald Eagle is the national symbol of the United States of America. It seems appropriate for a country to have such a majestic bird as a symbol. Long-lived, monogamous, good parent, characteristic of wild places, Bald Eagles excite awe and admiration wherever they fly.

There have been notable dissenters from this view, including Ben Franklin, in a letter to his daughter 20 June 1782: "For my own part I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen the Representative of our Country. He is a Bird of bad moral Character. He does not get his Living honestly. You may have seen him perched on some dead Tree near the River, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the Labour of the Fishing Hawk; and when that diligent Bird has at length taken a Fish, and is bearing it to his Nest for the Support of his Mate and young Ones, the Bald Eagle pursues him and takes it from him."

Yes, Bald Eagles are inveterate kleptoparasites, robbing Ospreys and other raptors of their prey. Like all birds, they have terrific vision and are aware of what goes on all around them, even at some distance. Not even a swift and strong Peregrine Falcon can withstand the attack of an eagle determined to wrest a recently captured bird from it.

In the middle of the 20th Century, Bald Eagle populations were decimated by ingesting DDT along with the fish and fish-eating birds that they preyed on. DDT compromises calcium transport, and the eggs laid by the eagles, with inadequate calcium, were thin-shelled enough to crack under the weight of an incubating female. Reproductive success fell and populations declined along with it.

DDT was banned in the US in 1972, and eagle populations have been rebounding ever since, to levels greater than any previously documented. Their numbers have skyrocketed in particular in the Pacific Northwest, which must be optimal eagle country.

Unfortunately, the consequences of this are dire for some other bird species. Eagles are opportunists above all, and they have learned to make a living, at least in spring and summer, by hanging around bird colonies. With present eagle numbers, colonies of Great Blue Herons, Caspian Terns, and Common Murres on and near the coasts have been hit hard by these predators, sometimes just single birds taking advantage of the prey concentration.

The nesting birds have no way to withstand eagle predation, losing eggs, young and even adults to the predators. Even though eagles may eat a small percentage of the birds in a colony, their presence causes nesting to be disrupted to the point of complete colony abandonment. Because of this, numerous Great Blue Heron colonies have failed, and even huge colonies of thousands of murres and terns have been abandoned.

In the coming years, wildlife managers will have to figure out how to deal with this dilemma. Bald Eagles are not on the endangered species list any more, but they are still protected. The birds whose colonies they are destroying are also protected and of concern, and what should we do when one valued species affects another one so severely?

Dennis Paulson

Friday, November 9, 2012

Ice Worms. Yes, They're Real!!!

 That’s what Ben Lee told me years ago when I looked at him like it was April Fool’s Day. Although I think he said, “damn it, they’re real!,” Ben was looking for an organism that would allow him to spend time in the mountains AND do some summer research. Ice worms are annelids, in the same group as earthworms, and endemic to the coastal mountain glaciers from central Oregon to south-central Alaska. These little denizens of the snow and ice are small – usually no more than an inch long, and 1-2 mm wide.  They look like a thick-ish hair on the snow surface, or a piece of stout, fruticose (gotta love that word!) lichen. Ice worms typically emerge onto the glacial surface to feed on algae and bacteria in the late afternoon and will stay out until the surface starts freezing over. On warm nights they party all night.  

 Ben Lee with ice worms.

     Ice worm distribution is likely limited by their narrow temperature tolerance – they survive between about -6 - +6 C.  Coastal glaciers (in the Olympics, Cascades and up the coastal ranges of BC and Alaska) are “temperate” glaciers, meaning that their internal temperature always hovers around freezing.  We don’t find ice worms in glaciers on the Rockies, presumably because it gets too cold during the winter, or the prolonged cold season leads to a lack of food; we don’t find them much above 10,000’ on Mt Rainier, probably for the same reasons. 

 photo by N. Takeuchi

      Ben and I examined the population genetic structure of ice worms in the Olympic Mountains. Previous work done by Paula Hartzell, Dan Shain and colleagues showed that there were two distinct evolutionary lineages, a northern lineage in Alaska (and probably into BC) and southern lineage that ranged from somewhere in BC to Sisters, Oregon. We predicted that the Olympic worms would be most closely related to the Cascade Mountain (southern) worms. But when Ben started getting his DNA sequencing results, all of the first worms examined (from the Olympics east of the Elwha and Mt. Comox on Vancouver Island) belonged to the northern lineage. And then the story got more convoluted.  On the last collecting trip of the year, Ben collected worms from Mt Olympus and Mt Carrie (west of the Elwha drainage). The worms in those collections were a mixture of worms from the southern and northern lineages! 

  Ali Garel and Peter Wimberger collecting ice worms. Photo: Holden Sapp    

    That leads to a number of obvious questions:  1)  how did the northern worms get to Vancouver Island and the Olympics?  2)  Why do both lineages coexist in the western Olympic Mountain glaciers?, and 3) Do the northern and southern worms make wormbabies together?  Think about it and I’ll post our thoughts next week!

To watch an old clip of Ben Lee and me on Oregon Field Guide:

Peter Wimberger

Tuesday, November 6, 2012


The simple answer is "no," if you value the little critters that make up so much of wildlife. First, cats are not just bird killers; they are a threat to all small animals, including shrews, rodents, frogs, salamanders, lizards and snakes. Nonbirds may outnumber birds in the average cat's diet. But they still catch and kill enormous numbers of birds.

The statistics don't lie. Sixty pet kitties in Athens, Georgia, were provided with Kitty Cams that recorded everything they did for weeks at a time. The results were disturbing: cats bring back to their owners only a fraction of what they catch. Therefore, predation estimates based on observed captures were way low. Extrapolating from their predation rate and the number of cats out in nature, they probably kill at least 4 billion small animals annually in the US.

What can we do for the small native creatures that we have already put at such risk by taking away much of their natural habitat? Clearly, the best answer is to keep all pet cats inside and to have a rigorous control program for feral cats. TNR (trap, neuter, return) programs, supposedly to control cat numbers humanely, have usually led to increases in local cat populations.

Short of that, I think it is still possible to make your yard a little safer for birds in an urban setting. The most obvious way to do this would be to stop feeding them, as any congregation of birds is irresistible to feline passersby. Oh, so you don’t wish to stop feeding birds? I share that feeling, so in our yard we feed them only at certain points, usually near thickety plantings so they have some chance to escape the ever-present Sharp-shinned Hawks. The adjacent shrubbery is surrounded by chickenwire fencing at least three feet high so cats can’t hide in it and rush out on feeding birds. Even here, you have to be careful that the seeds that fall to the ground don’t fall within the fence line, attracting birds within reach of pussycat paws. Vegetation can be used to hide the fencing, so your yard doesn’t look like a prison camp.

We let our cat into the back yard on a regular basis, but only when we accompanied him. Fortunately, he had no interest in scaling the wire fence that rings the yard (perhaps getting outside was a sufficient treat in itself), and we watched him closely enough to discourage him from hanging out by the feeders. Unfortunately, of course, the perimeter fence doesn’t keep neighbor cats out of the yard.  It helps if people are home enough to be vigilant catwatchers. Our solution any time we see a cat is to run from the house at it, screaming like a banshee, and subsequently all we have to do is open a window for the intruding cat to disappear like magic. We wouldn’t dream of hurting a cat, but we don’t let them know that.

What troubles me is that there are many cat lovers who are not willing to restrict their pet’s activities, and who are willing to accept whatever level of wildlife mortality that entails. Kitty is considered just one of the family, not a killing machine unleashed on the neighborhood.

Dennis Paulson

Friday, October 19, 2012


You may be surprised to see obviously immature (brown) gulls at the waterside at this time of year vigorously begging from some nearby adult. You can recognize begging by the bird's throwing its head back and giving loud, high-pitched calls. You may be even more surprised to know that the adult isn't necessarily the parent of that young bird. You may not be surprised to see that the adult ignores the young or chases it away if it remains persistent.

This begging behavior continues into the winter and even to the next spring in some Glaucous-winged and Western Gulls and their hybrids. After all, they have begged for food from their parents for several months, and the behavior is hard to turn off—especially if they are hungry!

Extended parental care after the young have left the nest area is rather rare in birds and seems to be restricted mostly to fish-eaters. It is not easy to catch fish—no bird has evolved a rod, reel, hook and line for the job—so a young bird just starting out to learn how to do this may have a difficult time of it. So although we see these gulls trying to get a little extra parental care, they don't usually get it.

However, young of some other types of birds are successful beggars well after the breeding season. Several species of crested terns have extraordinarily long dependence on their parents after fledging. Juvenile Elegant Terns fly around with their parents for up to six months or more, beg from them, and are fed.

Juvenile frigatebirds may return to their nesting colony for as long as a year after leaving the nest, to be fed by one or both of their parents. Frigatebirds forage by capturing squids and flying fishes at the sea surface, and they have to be very effective at scooping one of these fast-swimming fish from the water. Thus it takes a long time for the young birds to be effective foragers.

Tropicbirds also feed in the open ocean and on the same types of fishes and squids as frigatebirds, although they plunge into the water at high speed to capture them rather than picking them up with a long bill. Interestingly, tropicbird parents do not feed the young postfledging. Perhaps they should, as frigatebirds are thought to have low juvenile mortality for a seabird, presumably because of the extra help they get from their parents.

Dennis Paulson

Wednesday, August 8, 2012


Guest blog post from Merrill Peterson, of Western Washington University and Carol Kaesuk Yoon, science writer for the New York Times, extolling the virtues of moths and the fantastic web resource, Pacific Northwest Moths,

We here in the Pacific Northwest are lucky for many reasons - towering Mount Rainier, schools of delicious salmon, summer harvests of raspberries - and, though not too many people know this, an abundance of beautiful and fascinating moth species. To help people study, better understand and enjoy these species, a group of lepidopterists (people who study butterflies and moths) worked for the last three years to create a new website called Pacific Northwest Moths. So far, there are just over 1,200 species on the site, with ultra high resolution photographs of each one (you can zoom in to see individual wing scales), range maps, detailed species accounts, and even an easy-to-use interactive identification key.

So what's in the region and on our site?

There are moths that hardly seem to be moths at all! Like many other insect species, some species of moths have evolved to look like much tougher, more intimidating and potentially dangerous insects, like wasps or bees. This Hemaris thetis is a bumblebee-mimicking moth that can be found in our region. This chubby clear-winged moth can be found hovering over flowers in broad daylight, sipping nectar. 

Others have evolved to look equally unattractive, but for different reasons - like the species that mimic bird poops, including Tarache knowltoni, which, when it is at rest with only the front wings showing, is easy to mistake for bird droppings.

Some moth species in the region are hard at work, attempting to do what human hands and tools have been unable to accomplish, for example, controlling invasive weeds. The weed known as Tansy Ragwort can be deadly to livestock, and can even harm humans when cattle eat the weed and produce contaminated milk. Tansy Ragwort even produces toxic pollen which can create tainted honey if it's anywhere within two miles of a hive. But this noxious weed is now being challenged by Tyria jacobaeae, a moth species whose caterpillars enjoy munching down this invasive species. 

In addition to having pictures of species of these species and more, the site has maps showing where and when they have been found. In this way, researchers can use the website to track and record any moth species that come within our region, including the odd stray tropical species that wanders up, like this Black Witch Moth. This impressively huge tropical species did exactly that this summer, turning up in July at Priest Lake, Idaho.

Because each species account shows all known sightings of a species, it gives everyone, including scientists, a chance to see how the fauna of our region has changed and continues to change over time. It also allows us to see phenomena such as the massive outbreaks of western tent caterpillar moths, Malacosoma californicum, such as have plagued Island and Whatcom Counties in Washington State this summer.

There are some groups of moths that are interesting, simply for their incredible diversity. For example, one group in our region that is very species-rich, and a real headache for taxonomists, is the genus Euxoa. If you look at the site, you'll find more than 120 species, many of which are extremely difficult to distinguish. 

Moths can also be very important as a food source to bats, birds, spiders, and even foraging bears. Take for example, one of our moth species known as the army cutworm moth or Euxoa auxiliaris. A study in Yellowstone found that grizzly bears eat aggregations of these moths in rock screes, where the bears sit and patiently turn over rock after rock to find the moths hidden on the underside. The moths turn out to be more energy-rich sources of food than blueberries, trout, nuts, or deer meat, and represent 34% of the bears' diet in late summer, when they are fattening up for winter. A single bear can eat up to 40,000 moths per day at their peak!

We envision Pacific Northwest Moths as not only a repository of data already known, but as a place where people can continue to report new sightings, a never-ending citizen science project that can help us understand the ever changing story of the moths of our region.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012


Well, don't we all? By "all," I mean all living things that reproduce sexually. When you think of it mechanistically, an organism's adaptations are primarily directed toward getting its genes into the next generation. Eat, sleep, avoid predators, grow up and reproduce—what else is there? Well, besides keeping in touch through Facebook.

For dragonflies, it's a long larval life in the water, as they eat and try to avoid being eaten. Then the magic of metamorphosis when they leave the water to become an adult winged insect. After that, more feeding and predator avoidance and, most of all, attempting to reproduce.

Male dragonflies spend much of their time at the water. Think of a singles bar, where the males are hanging around in hopes of meeting someone of the opposite sex. That's why those males head for the water. As the larvae are aquatic, the females have to lay their eggs in the water. Because the females have to come to the water to do this, males have a better chance of meeting one there.

Because so many males are at the water, the sex ratio can be extremely skewed there, with dozens to even hundreds of males for every female. Thus for a male there can be extreme competition for mates, and some males never mate in their lifetime. One way to alleviate that is for a male to defend a territory large enough, keeping other males out of his air space, so that he has access to any female that approaches. Many kinds of dragonflies do just this.

When a male damselfly sees a female, he immediately attempts to grab her for mating. He flies up to her, lands on her head and bends his abdomen forward to clasp her "neck" (prothorax) in two pairs of clasping appendages at the end of the abdomen. As soon as he has a good grip, he brings his abdomen forward and transfers sperm from the tip of his abdomen, where they are produced, to a storage chamber called a seminal vesicle in his second segment. From there, the spermatozoa can be transferred to his copulatory organ.

He then signals the female his readiness to mate by swinging her forward. The tip of her abdomen contacts his second segment, and structures on both of them form a firm connection. His genital ligula (penis) then transfers the sperm to the female's vagina, where it is moved to the spermatheca, another storage organ.

They then disconnect from that point, and she is ready to lay eggs. Her eggs travel from her ovary down her oviduct and are fertilized as they pass the spermatheca. She then can insert them into plant tissue with a specialized ovipositor, and the cycle begins again.

Dragonflies do about the same thing as damselflies, but the male fills his seminal vesicle before mating, and he clasps the female's head with three clasping appendages. The majority of dragonflies lay their eggs directly into the water rather than inserting them into plant tissue. See Odonate Oviposition, November 3, 2011, on this blog site.

Dennis Paulson

Tuesday, July 17, 2012


There are two native freshwater turtles in the Pacific Northwest. One is very common, the other quite uncommon. The common one is the Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta), found all over the interior of the region south to northern Oregon and locally in western Washington and the Willamette Valley. Painted Turtles are seen in great numbers basking on logs and rocks in warm lakes in the summer, but they are shy and quickly slide into the water when approached.

These turtles are all omnivores, with a wide diet including water plants, insects, crayfish, fish, tadpoles, and dead animals. In some species, mating takes place in the fall, but the sperms don't approach the eggs until spring. This is called delayed fertilization and is common in temperate-zone reptiles. The females then come ashore in summer and dig a hole in the sand in which to lay their clutches of round, white eggs. The eggs may overwinter or hatch in fall, in that case the young turtles usually overwintering in the nest and emerging the following spring.

The other native freshwater turtle is the Western Pond Turtle (Actinemys marmorata). This species, once widespread in western Washington and Oregon, has disappeared from much of its range north of the Columbia River. Considered a species of special concern, much conservation effort has been expended on it. Biologists hatch turtle eggs in captivity, then release the young when they are large enough to be less vulnerable to predation. This very successful program has been going on for two decades at Seattle's Woodland Park Zoo and has resulted in a present population of around 1500 turtles in the wild in Washington.

The most frequently observed turtle in much of western Washington is not one of these natives but is the introduced Red-eared Slider (Trachemys scripta). This species, the most common turtle in the pet trade, has been introduced all over the world. People keep the cute babies for a while, then tire of them and toss them in the nearest lake. This may be humane treatment, but it's not good for the environment, as these invasive turtles compete with native turtles and transmit diseases to them.

Two other species have turned up in Lake Washington and elsewhere, the Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina) and Spiny Softshell (Apalone spinifera). These very distinctive turtles also are native to eastern North America. Both get quite large, and they live a long time and keep on growing, so there are probably a few monsters out there. They are also aggressive species that will bite fiercely, so caution is advised!

Any account of Pacific Northwest turtles should mention the marine turtles that show up in our waters. Leatherback Turtles (Dermochelys coriacea) are regular off the Washington coast. Although sea turtles are basically tropical, this is the species that ventures into colder water than the others. When seen from a pelagic birding trip, Leatherbacks usually show up as a blob in the water, only the head visible. At closer range the big ridges down the shell can often be seen. Other sea turtles, including Green (Chelonia mydas), Loggerhead (Caretta caretta) and Pacific Ridley (Lepidochelys olivacea) are much rarer, but a few have been found washed up on northwest beaches.

Dennis Paulson

Monday, July 9, 2012

Microplastics in Northern Fulmars as an indicator of marine plastic debris in the North Pacific

(Results in press as of 8 Jul 2012 at, pdf available upon request.)

Marine plastic debris is an increasing problem in ocean ecosystems. Plastic degrades slowly on land, but in the ocean it persists even longer – if left to its own devices, potentially for hundreds or thousands of years. Also, because plastic is light, it floats or is suspended in the water column and can be carried long distances from its origin by ocean currents. To see just how big of a problem this has become, you need only look a little to the west of our own coastline at the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” – a mass of trash larger than Texas accumulating at the center of a current system called the Northern Pacific Gyre.

Plastic in marine ecosystems can be extremely harmful to wildlife. Animals can not only become entangled in the debris, but they can also eat the tiny “microplastic” particles that are the result of plastic trash being broken apart in the ocean. Seabirds in particular are known to suffer a great deal from plastic ingestion, which can have serious negative consequences to their health as plastic can accumulate in the gut, reducing stomach capacity, obstructing digestion and causing starvation and reduced growth.

The only good side to this situation is that we can use some seabird species as indicators of marine plastic debris in the environment. Not all seabirds eat or accumulate a lot of plastic – some dive for their food and manage to bypass the surface realms of floating plastic. Some are not so lucky. Procellariids, or “tube-noses” including birds such as albatrosses, petrels, and fulmars, are some of the most extreme accumulators of plastic. This is primarily because they are surface-feeders and are more likely to swallow floating microplastics – presumably as a result of confusing them with food.

Northern Fulmars (Fulmarus glacialis) in particular have been accepted as the best indicator species for marine plastic debris in the northern hemisphere. This is mostly due to their extremely wide range and distribution – they can be found in the North Pacific, North Atlantic, and the High and Low Arctic. They can therefore be used as an international standard indicator of marine plastics. Monitoring projects focusing on microplastics in Fulmars in the Arctic and Atlantic are fairly wide-spread and well-established. However, data for the North Pacific is lacking and outdated since the 1990s. This fall, I made a first attempt at rectifying this lack of monitoring in the Pacific Northwest. I examined the stomach contents of 20 Fulmars: five from Washington (salvaged from the beach in fall 2009) and fifteen from Oregon (supplied by Sharnelle Fee at the Wildife Center of the North Coast:

I found that 90% of specimens contained plastic, with an average of 21 plastic items and 0.34 grams of plastic per bird. Likely due to the high human population density of our area, this is notably more than in the Canadian high arctic, where studies report only 33% of Fulmars containing plastic (Mallory 2008). However, our study showed similar amounts of plastic to recent studies in the North Atlantic – in 2003, researchers reported 95% of Fulmars as having an average of 29 items and about 0.35 grams of plastic (van Franeker et al. 2003).

While a third of a gram of plastic might not sound like a lot to us, who can hold as much in the palm of our hand, this can be a huge burden for birds the size of Fulmars. There aren’t any established standards or goals yet for the United States, but the Oslo & Paris Convention in Europe has established a goal to reach less than 2% of Fulmars in monitoring surveys containing more than ten plastic pieces. 45% percent of Fulmars in my study and 56% in the North Atlantic in 2003 (van Franeker et al. 2003) contained more than ten items. In short, neither the status of marine plastic debris in the Pacific nor the Atlantic is anywhere near a level considered to be manageable and healthy for marine life.

I also found that 95% of plastic items in the Fulmars were user plastics – things like fragments from consumer products, Styrofoam, and the occasional bit of sheet plastic from a grocery bag. Only 5% were pre-production industrial plastics – round pellets usually of white, beige, or brown color that haven’t yet hit the factories. This is similar to recently reported trends in Northern Canada (Mallory 2008), but opposite of trends reported for the North Pacific in the 1990’s, which found primarily industrial plastics in Fulmars and other seabirds (Robards et al. 1995; Blight & Burger 1997). This could either mean that consumer plastic debris has increased in the Pacific, or that industrial plastics have decreased. It seems likely that both may be the case, as increased regulation on shipping companies may have decreased industrial plastic spills while increased human population and consumerism may be causing increased input of litter into the ocean.

Most of the plastic particles in these Fulmar specimens were neutral colors, such as white and beige. This suggests that Fulmars eat plastics that may resemble food items, such as fish, squid, or crustaceans. However, no data is available regarding the color composition of marine plastic debris in the environment, so we can't really tell whether the high proportion of these neutrally-colored plastics in Fulmars are a result of selection by the Fulmars or just a representative sample of what's available in the environment.

In terms of differences in plastic accumulation within my sample, I found that juveniles from Oregon contained significantly more microplastics than the adults (P=0.033). This is consistent with findings of other researchers (van Franeker et al. 2003), and likely a result of the fact that parents regurgitate food to their offspring, probably transferring plastic along with it. Alternatively, the juveniles might be less selective than adults in "prey" selection. The accumulation in juveniles is highly concerning because plastic accumulation is thought to contribute to reduced growth and could have future implications for recruitment of adults in Fulmar populations.

The last variable I looked at was the difference in plastic accumulation between the sexes. I didn’t expect to see any difference, since males and females are a similar size, both contribute to feeding offspring, and presumably have the same feeding habits. Overall, my expectations were confirmed and there was no significant difference (P=0.27). However, when I compared only the contents of the ventriculi, or the bottom portion of the stomach responsible for mechanical digestion, males contained notably (although not quite significantly) more plastic (P=0.095). Further investigation will hopefully clarify this trend, but for now, we are left in some uncertainty and confusion as to why females might accumulate less microplastics than males.

This project was only a first effort to use Northern Fulmars for microplastic monitoring in the Pacific Northwest. Already, other students at the University of Puget Sound are planning to continue this research in the future, which will hopefully lend additional significance and applicability to these results. Most of all, the results of this study will become vastly more useful with continued monitoring in an effort to better understand trends in environmental levels and composition of marine plastic debris and its potential effect on wildlife.

Blight L.K. & Burger A.E. 1997. Occurrence of plastic particles in sea-birds from the Eastern North Pacific. Marine Pollution Bulletin 34: 323-325
Mallory M.L. 2008. Marine plastic debris in Northern Fulmars from the Canadian high Arctic. Marine Pollution Bulletin 56: 1501-1504
Robards M.D., Piatt J.F. & Wohl K.D. 1995.Increasing frequency of plastic particles ingested by seabirds in the subarctic North Pacific . Marine Pollution Bulletin 30:151.157.
van Franeker J.A., Meijboom A. & de Jong, M.L. 2003. Marine litter monitoring by Northern Fulmars in the Netherlands 1982-2003. Wageningen, Alterra, Alterra-rapport 1093

Lydia Kleine, Curatorial Assistant, Slater Museum

Bio of the author: A biology student at the University of Puget Sound, I have worked as an assistant at Slater Museum for a year. This was a final project for a marine biology class. I will be graduating this month and looking for a job.

Result in press as of 8 Jul 2012 at