Studying Shore Birds

Because they eat fish and other marine life, shore birds can tell us about the health of our oceans and bays – kind of like canaries in coal mines.  So once a week, since April, Charlie Clarkson has driven from his home in Charlottesville to a salt marsh near Chincoteague to study  herons, egrets and ibis.  He wants to know if mercury, emitted by coal burning power plants, is taking a toll on the baby birds.

“I’ve been monitoring the growth and development of the nestlings for the past three years, looking at growth of the feathers.  The birds are actually pretty sensitive in indicating the amount of mercury that they obtain through diet. The mercury, once it enters into the birds’ system, is incorporated into the feather as an excretory mechanism.  It’s basically the only way the bird has to get the mercury out of its system,” he says.

Sometimes, he’s covered with mosquitoes as he crawls into a tent, where he’ll sit for five hours, making notes on the birds – how often and when they feed their babies.  Then, he hikes into the colony, where the birds get excited and often vomit, really leaving Clarkson with something to study.

— Sandy Hausman

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