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Scientists searching for answers in bird die-off

Many small birds along the coast are dying off, but researchers differ as to the cause.

By Dani Palmer

Cannon Beach Gazette

Published on August 26, 2015 10:49AM

Last changed on August 31, 2015 10:11AM

Cannon Beach visitors Judy Grucella, Jane Santarsiere and Linda Petchell worked together to save a seabird by making a platform out of tennis shoes and dog waste bags to carry it to a lifeguard station on Thursday, Aug. 20.

Wendy McLaughlin/Submitted photo

Cannon Beach visitors Judy Grucella, Jane Santarsiere and Linda Petchell worked together to save a seabird by making a platform out of tennis shoes and dog waste bags to carry it to a lifeguard station on Thursday, Aug. 20.

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Judi Grucella and her friend Jane Santarsiere visit Cannon Beach every year. Dead birds spread out on the beach were an unexpected sight.

Wendy McLaughlin of Astoria also “noticed there were a lot of dead birds,” at least 20 around Haystack Rock, as she and her husband Tracy walked along the beach Thursday, Aug. 20. “I thought it was weird,” she said.

Grucella, a Bend resident, noted they saw five dead birds in their short walk and encountered one so weak it could barely lift its head. “We went to the lifeguard station and said, ‘Hey, there’s a bird alive and still struggling.’”

Grucella, Santarsiere and fellow beachgoers came to the aid of the dying bird, constructing a platform made of tennis shoes and plastic dog waste bags for the injured animal. A lifeguard provided a blanket and box for transport before Cannon Beach police delivered the bird to wildlife rehabilitators for care.


Not the norm


Julia Parish, executive director of the University of Washington’s Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team, said reports of dead common murres spiked about a month ago.

“There’s a pretty raging debate among seabird biologists at the moment,” she added. Parish said more dead birds this time of year, nesting season, isn’t unusual. But they’ve seen two to three times more than they’d normally see from reporting beaches.

And spikes typically occur in September or October after storm events, she added, none of which have occurred this summer.

Reporting beaches from Newport through the North Coast reported an average of 10 to 14 carcasses per kilometer this month. There was a high of roughly 20 per kilometer.

“It’s all over the map,” Parish said. “Not everybody is reporting large numbers.”

Not everyone has reported back yet, either, so it’s hard to tell how bad it is or if it’ll get worse, she added. Some beaches are at the high end of previous years, but not yet catastrophic.


A warming ocean


Last fall, tens of thousands of the Cassin’s auklet, a small seabird, died. Parish said there was a correlation between warmer waters and a change in the distribution of food.

“We’re kind of hoping we don’t have another repeat season,” she said. “The North Pacific is pretty darn warm and has been for some time.”

But there is usually upwelling, making it cooler along the coast and providing the common murre “a fair amount of food.”

Assistant Director of the Wildlife Center of the North Coast in Astoria Josh Saranpaa said the center has received about 12 birds a day over the past month, many from Cannon Beach. The majority, about 90 percent, are common murres.

“Every bird we’re seeing is starving to death,” he said. “It’s pretty bad.”

Many are adults. Saranpaa said they may be starving because the adult birds are focused on taking care of their young.

With warming ocean temperatures, fish are diving deeper than the birds can handle in some areas, he added. Staff at the center are expecting even warmer temperatures with El Niño.

Parish said COASST hasn’t received data from all of its reporting rehab centers yet. The high number of starving adults along the North Coast, even experienced scavenger birds, indicates a “serious sign of a stressed ecosystem.”

Saranpaa said seabirds are biological indicators, a way to check an environment’s health.

“Starvation is the norm” for wildlife, Parish noted. Many young murre die because they’re separated from their fathers, for example. In the case of large scale die-offs, she added, scientists care more about the why.

“When you see so many starving, something is not quite right out there,” Saranpaa said.

Parish added that there are multiple reasons a bird could starve to death including a lack of food, more competition, illness and poison.


Toxic algae bloom


It’s also “been a really odd year,” Parish said, with multiple regional scale events, including the west coast’s largest toxic algae bloom on record, stretching from central California to Alaska.

This summer researchers found floating whale carcasses near Alaska’s Aleutian Islands as a result of the bloom.

Those deaths, Parish said, were essentially caused by poison.

Other species are affected as well. In addition to the whales, fish are eating poisonous plankton, and birds are eating those fish.

Saranpaa said they received 770 sick or diseased seabirds in just over a week during a 2009 toxic algae bloom. “Every nook and cranny” of the wildlife center was turned into an area for birds, he added.

If toxic algae is the culprit, however, scientists would expect more species to be impacted, Parish noted.

She said COASST is waiting on necropsy reports from the U.S. Geological Survey’s National Wildlife Health Center in Wisconsin for more information.


The waiting game


At this point, Parish said there’s not much researchers can do but wait and watch. Even when they do get necropsy results back, she added, researchers can do little more than document the event.

Reducing the number of dead or dying birds will require a change of global scale, she said.

“It’s like too many holes in a dam,” Parish added. “You can’t put your finger in one hole and stop the leak.”

A loss of shellfish to the toxic algae, for example, would not only affect the ecosystem, she said, but the economy.

Saranpaa said he fears volunteers may nurse the birds back to health, only to send them back out to starve. There are so many birds coming in staff have to let them go after a month or two of fattening to make room.

Santarsiere said the tide was coming in when they decided to rescue their bird. They didn’t want it to get hypothermia.

“We’re all concerned for wildlife so it was nice to have visitors band together,” she added.

The McLaughlins followed along — Wendy encouraging support of the bird’s weak neck — and were glad to hear the animal was headed to the police station to await help.

They, like COASST, are looking for answers.



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