Since the beginning of August, volunteers with the Haystack Rock Awareness Program can expect a beachgoer to approach them at least once a day with a report of a stranded young seabird.
While it is normal to see some birds wash ashore both dead and alive this time of year, more than 23 stranded baby common murres have been documented, a finding that has piqued interest.
“The reason for concern is just that there has been a large number in a small amount of time,” Melissa Keyser, the awareness program’s director, said. As of Wednesday, the Wildlife Center of the North Coast had about 30 baby common murres in its care, said executive director Josh Saranpaa, the majority of which came from Cannon Beach.
But the strandings shouldn’t be an immediate cause for alarm. So far, there has been no evidence to suggest this year’s rates of mortality are anything out of the ordinary, said Miel Corbett, of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Though seeing small black-and-white seabird chicks washing ashore inevitably tugs on the heartstrings, having more stranded baby birds actually points to the area returning to a more typical year.
“I’ve worked through many die-offs, and I wouldn’t consider it that yet, even though we are very busy,” Saranpaa said. “This is considered a more normal, annual stranding event.”
Lots of factors can contribute to a juvenile seabird die-off. Mortality can sometimes be high if food conditions are poor or if the presence of toxins is high. But those factors have not been thoroughly studied, thus no specific information has indicated that either is the case in Oregon, Corbett said.
“Observations of murres feeding chicks at Yaquina Head through early August suggested that while food conditions were not great this year, they weren’t catastrophic, either,” she said.
High numbers in Cannon Beach could be attributed to the fact Haystack Rock has a large colony close to the shore, making the problem more visible to the average beachgoer than other offshore colonies, Keyser said.
Seeing juvenile birds wash ashore is normal starting in late summer, when the fledgling common murre jumps from nests to learn how to forage for fish. Through the process, some birds will always struggle, and those arriving on shore are often coming into the wildlife center malnourished and hypothermic, rehabilitation specialist Pauline Baker said.
After a few weeks of intense care and feeding, many have already been rehabilitated and released, she said.
But the difference could be noticeable locally, because the number of stranded chicks has been unusually low for the past two years, Saranpaa said. On average, the wildlife center can expect about 200 common murre chicks from across the coast from late summer to early spring. In the past two years, the center has only seen between 80 to 90 birds.
The pattern is reflected in an ongoing study by Oregon State University, which has been monitoring nest success at Yaquina Head, that found very few chicks fledged in this time. This year, fledgling production was much higher, which means there were many more chicks out on the water to potentially run into problems and become stranded on the beach, Corbett said.
The study suggests that more juvenile common murres on the beach could signal a healthier colony that produces more fledglings. In poorer years, fewer chicks would even reach fledging stage, and adults would likely be stressed and thinner, meaning surveyors could see relatively more adults washing ashore, according to a report from the Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team.
Despite what appears to be business as usual, Saranpaa and his team always are watching for another die-off. In 2014 and 2015, the wildlife center saw an influx of about 2,000 birds as part of a massive die-off on the West Coast related to “the Blob,” a large mass of relatively warm water in the Pacific Ocean. Other regions, like Northern California, have already seen big die-offs this summer attributed to pollution and depleted fish stocks.
“Common murres, there are so many of them … So you’re going to have a die-off of some extent,” Saranpaa said. “However, because we’ve had die-offs in the past, we are keeping a close eye.”