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Research Technical Report

Beached birds and physical forcing in the California Current System

Parrish, J.K., N. Bond, H. Nevins, N. Mantua, R. Loeffel, W.T. Peterson, and J.T. Harvey (December 2007)

Marine Ecology Progress Series 353:275-288


Seabirds have often been proposed as environmental indicators. Beached bird data may provide an additional data source and such data is efficacious because it can reliably be collected by volunteers. In addition to anthropogenic factors, such as oil spills, changes in the ocean-atmosphere can affect carcass beaching rate in 3 non-exclusive ways: (1) direct mortality following storms, (2) mortality via bottom-up food web processes, and (3) increase in carcass delivery due to shifts in surface water movement. We used data from 3 volunteer-based beached bird data sets collected within the California Current System (CCS) to (1) examine the level of response to anomalous ocean conditions in 2005 and (2) explore the degree to which long- term beaching patterns could be explained by one or more of our proposed mechanisms. In 2005, anomalous die-offs of Cassins auklet Ptychorhamphus aleuticus and the rhinoceros auklet Cerorhinca monocerata occurred in the winter in Monterey. By spring, anomalous die-offs of Brandts cormorant Phalacrocorax pencillatus and the common murre Uria aalge occurred throughout the CCS. Over the longer term, increases in beaching were associated with changes in the timing and intensity of upwelling and, secondarily, with zonal winds aloft - a potential proxy of shifts in pelagic community composition. These results suggest that a bottom-up food web mechanism best explains seabird beaching, at least in the spring. Correlations of local measures of storminess to seabird beaching rates were weak to non-existent. Correlations were much stronger at the California site (8 yr) and weaker to non-existent at the Oregon site (26 yr). Collectively, these data suggest that relationships between ocean physics and beached bird response may be site specific and/or may reflect choices live birds make vis- a-vis non-breeding distribution.