Do you ever look for sand dollars when you walk along the beach?  Or Japanese glass floats?  What about dead birds?  It may sounds strange, but hundreds of people along the West Coast walk up and down the beach looking for dead birds.

Let me explain.   Volunteers in citizen science project COASST (the Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team) do monthly beach surveys to monitor seabird mortality.  This is the citizen science group I will be working with for my thesis.  Participants commit to surveying a one-mile stretch of beach every month, and complete a one-day training to lean the protocol for identifying wracked birds.  After each survey, volunteers upload the data and photographs to the program website for independent verification.

Why monitor dead birds?  The COASST program was originally designed in 1998 to collect baseline data about seabird mortality in case there’s an oil spill.  If no one knows what’s “normal” for seabird populations, it might be difficult to create accountability should an oil spill occur.  Over the past thirteen years, COASST data has been used in a variety of scientific studies, including studies on fisheries interactions, harmful algal blooms, genetic studies of Western Grebes (candidate for threatened species status), and potential warning systems for avian flu.

Two weeks ago, a couple COASST volunteers let me join their survey to see what it’s like.  On the drive out to the beach, one volunteer asked me, “How did you hear about COASST?” It turns out that we both first learned of the program in a book called Strand: An Odyssey of Pacific Ocean Debris.  After reading about the COASST program, she looked up when the next training would be held, called her “nerd friend,” and they have been happily identifying and photographing dead birds ever since.

I have to say, this was the most fun I’ve ever had counting dead birds.  We had great weather, beautiful scenery, interesting conversation… what else could you want from a day at the beach?  I am really looking forward to working with the COASST program and volunteers for my thesis.

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