Leading a local community in appreciating, understanding, and protecting birds and their natural habitats.

Citizen Science on the Water: PSSS


Bundled up against the coastal winds with a steaming cup of tea at his side, Seattle Audubon science committee chair Peter Hodum peers through a scope at a small, silhouette on the water. He and a cadre of over 200 volunteers are counting seabirds this afternoon, as part of the Puget Sound Seabird Survey (PSSS), the only multi-month survey of live seabirds in the Puget Sound region.

PSSS monitors seabirds during the winter months — when birds like wintering geese, ducks, swans, loons, grebes, cormorants, gulls, terns, and alcids are most abundant around the Sound. Using a simple ruler and a compass, citizen scientists gather data that allow scientists to estimate bird density through distance sampling. A survey at each site only lasts 15–30 minutes, but results in valuable “snapshots” of the seabirds present. All surveys are synchronized to take place during a single four-hour window straddling high-tide on the first Saturday of each winter month, October through April.

10 Years of Citizen Science

This year, PSSS is celebrating completion of its 10th season of data collection. In a decade, the survey has grown from just 33 volunteers to 207. More volunteers means more area covered and better quality data — and, in fact, the coverage has grown from 32 sites in 2007 to 122 in the last 10 years, spanning 2,400 acres of nearshore saltwater habitat in Puget Sound and the Strait of Juan de Fuca. “Our volunteers are vital to this project,” says Toby Ross, Seattle Audubon Science Manager. “It’d be impossible for the government or for an environmental consultant to organize a survey of this scale — only our volunteer citizen scientists make this possible.” Volunteers attend a short training session with Seattle Audubon staff prior to their first survey.

Clark's Grebe by Doug Schurmann.

PSSS’s longevity is one of its greatest strengths. 10 years’ worth of data collection means there are a whole lot of data to analyze and useful conclusions to be drawn. Exciting outcomes of the project include one published paper (with two more in the works). This past spring, data from the Puget Sound Seabird Survey (PSSS) were manipulated to calculate locations around Puget Sound where 18 species of seabird congregate geographically, also termed “hotspots”. The data were also examined to assess how these hotspots changed throughout the season and to identify similarities in hotspot distributions among species. The research also discussed the application of the analysis methods to other similar datasets in light of both regional habitat use and seasonal natural history.

Decoding the Data

Through our analyses, we have found that certain species of seabirds flock together creating hotspots at different locations across the Puget Sound. Some species can be ubiquitous and found throughout the Sound (e.g. Double-crested Cormorant, Glaucous-winged Gull), whereas others are very location specific, observed at high abundance in certain sites (e.g. White-winged Scoter, Harlequin Duck). Many hotspots are seasonal, rather than stable throughout the year, which may relate to migration patterns or onshore/offshore movement. We also found that certain hotspot locations for certain species were correlated with depth (e.g. deeper for seaducks, shallower for alcids), which may relate to the feeding behavior of certain species occupying that region. The results of this work have yet to be published, but will be shared with everyone when available.

Photo by Tom Sanders.

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