Volunteers examine a dead seabird on the beach.
Volunteers Susan Kloeppel, left, and Jeanne Finke examine a dead seabird as part of their beach survey for COASST.

Thanks to the Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team of community volunteers, UW scientists can better understand the health of fragile marine ecosystems, predict the impact of a changing climate or of potential oil spills, and see the devastation of harmful algae blooms.

More than a decade ago, Jeanne Finke’s friends invited her to join them for a walk on a stretch of beach known as South Pacific.

Researchers from the University of Washington were asking for more volunteers to scan the shore for birds — dead birds.

She signed up and attended a training at the Coastal Interpretive Center in Ocean Shores. Shortly afterward — on April 3, 2010 — Finke and her friend, Susan Kloeppel, conducted their first official survey.

Sometimes Finke, Kloeppel and other volunteers will discover a detached bird wing. Other times, an entire specimen. After a big storm, there may be 10 carcasses.

They’ve found some unusual birds on their monthly surveys: pelicans and two species of albatross.

Once, the two women observed nearly 30 dead Northern fulmars constituting what birders call a “wreck,” or a mass mortality event.

“It’s pretty stunning, actually, and sad, to know that they met their end and in some strange way,” Finke said.

Curious and drawn to science, Finke still walks the beach year-round with some of the same people who first encouraged her to volunteer. She enjoys the company, being outdoors and monitoring changes to the shoreline.

The volunteers use simple tools — measuring tape, calipers, a camera phone — to examine what they come across. Then, they answer basic questions: Where was the carcass? Was it entangled? Were there signs of an oil spill? How many birds did they spot? What else was on the beach?

Back in the comfort of her home, Finke logs onto her computer and shares the data with the UW’s Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team, or COASST. Contributing to a body of knowledge that’s shared with scientists worldwide makes Finke feel “part of a bigger picture.”

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