Hundreds of birds rescued on North Coast beachesWARRENTON - The bravest of the birds waddled out of the dog carrier first, stepping onto the muddy beach at Fort Stevens State Park. Others followed tentatively, but stopped just outside the cage, still a good 25 feet from the water.

"They don't know where they are," said Sharnelle Fee, explaining the birds' reluctance. "They've been in a truck, in a pool..."

Indeed, it's been a rough few weeks for these common murres. Over the last month, hundreds of murres have washed up along the Oregon Coast. Many were dead, and those that survived were water-logged, emaciated and often seriously injured. Although this die-off is a natural event, it was worse this summer than it has been in a number of years, and was most severe along the beaches between Nehalem and Fort Stevens.

LORI ASSA - The Daily Astorian

With a smile on her face and a camera in hand to document the moment, Sharnelle Fee, director of the Wildlife Rehab Center of the North Coast, closely watches the release of the murres.Fee, who is the director of the Wildlife Rehab Center of the North Coast, took in and cared for approximately 500 rescued murres over the span of two weeks, overwhelming her facility south of Astoria.

Monday marked the first batch of birds healthy enough to be released.

Although the murres were initially hesitant to leave the safety of the crate, with a little bit of encouragement from Cheryl Rorabeck-Siler, a volunteer at the rehab center, they made it to the water and swam off toward the ocean in a tight group, little specks of black among crowds of white seagulls.

With black wings, white bellies and black summer plumage on their heads, murres look almost like an Oregon version of penguins, but with a slender and long neck. Adults are about a foot tall and weigh less than two pounds; to make Monday's release date, Fee's charges had to weigh at least 28 ounces.

They also had to have regained their waterproofing. Normally, each strand of a feather acts like Velcro and sticks to neighboring feathers, creating a barrier between the bird's skin and the cold ocean water, Fee explained. When the birds get caught in the surf and wash ashore, dirt gets caught between the feathers, the waterproofing system fails and the birds are prone to hypothermia.

Once they're cleaned and allowed to recuperate at Fee's rehab center for a couple weeks, the older birds are once again ready for the water. After a final vitamin, a deworming pill, and one last free meal, Fee brings the birds to an area near the South Jetty for release, where fishermen told her bait fish were plentiful.

"We wanted to get them out to an area where we know they have good food source," said Fee. "They've had a tough time this year."

A Bird's LifeThe first couple months in a murre's life are not cushy. Murre mothers lay a pear-shaped egg directly on craggy off-shore rocks. The eggs are shaped that way so that if they roll, they roll in a circle and not off a cliff edge, Fee explained.

Once the chicks are three weeks old, they flutter down to the ocean and spend four to six weeks swimming north with their fathers towards the Strait of Juan de Fuca, all before they are even able to fly.

Murre chicks are extremely vulnerable at this time. If they swim through an area without any fish, they're out of luck.

"A large number of Oregon murres are undergoing a swimming migration, which is very rigorous," said Roy Lowe, the project leader for the Oregon Coast National Wildlife Refuge Complex with the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife. "They're swimming against the California current and the weather, and they can't fly to where there might be abundant food. Fathers have got to stay with their chick."

Depending on the availability and location of the bait fish, the annual die-off of young murres can be more or less severe.

"When we have these times of poor ocean productivity, such as during El Ni"o years, it's tough to make a living out there," said Herman Biederbeck, a district wildlife biologist for the LORI ASSA - The Daily Astorian

"They come in dirty and skinny," says Fee of murres now being cared for in pools at the facility. "They look pretty good now. It takes them two-to-three days to waterproof-up."North Coast watershed district with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. This year was fairly normal in terms of ocean productivity, he said, but because the last few years have had high productivity, and fewer dead birds, this summer seems worse by comparison.

"This is not a critical situation," said Biederbeck. "It's just an unfortunate situation in that these birds, a lot of them get washed up on the beach dead, and there are a lot of folks not familiar with this phenomenon who get concerned."

The last time there was a murre die-off of this magnitude was in 1999, and before that in 1995, said Lowe. He added that biologists are not alarmed by the beachings because most of the deaths are from the at-risk chicks and juveniles of one species. These factors suggest that the die-off is not an indication of larger ocean problems.

Crowded HouseThe problem was big enough to overwhelm the rehab center, however. Last year, concerned beachgoers brought 225 injured murres to the center; this year the number was more than twice that. There were times in late July and early August, Fee said, when more than 30 birds were being brought in every day. They were starving, some were so anemic their mouths were white for lack of red blood cells, and many were hurt.

MORE INFO.For more information about how to help, volunteer or to make a donation, call the center at (503) 338-0331, or write to Wildlife Rehab Center of the North Coast, P.O. Box 1232, Astoria, OR 97103.In the last week, the number of incoming birds has slowed to about two or three a day.

"I think the worst is over," said Fee.

About 300 of the birds survived, and they are now tucked into every nook and cranny of the center. Fee set up a temporary cage with folding tables in the hospital for recovering birds, others swim in blue plastic tanks outside or warble loudly for food in a chicken-wire enclosure. A group has taken up residence in a shed usually reserved for songbirds.

Most of the birds are still-slightly-fuzzy chicks or juveniles born in May or June; if they aren't strong enough to survive on their own soon, Fee will keep them over the winter and release them in the spring.

"There's been a mentality that it's all a natural die-of, so we should leave them on the beach," Fee said. That, however, is against the center's mission statement: "Promoting compassion, empathy and respect for all life through rehabilitation of wildlife and ecological teachings." They want people to stop and take the time to help wildlife, she said.

Fee encourages people to pick up distressed birds on the beach and call the center. Sea birds shouldn't look wet, she said - if one does, it's in trouble.

The rehab center takes in more than just sea birds. The menagerie currently houses two bald eagles, two fawns, two 3-month-old bobcats, barn and saw-whet owls, pelicans and peregrine falcons, among others.

Fee "does a tremendous job of rehabilitating these birds and all wildlife, she's a huge asset for the wildlife resources on the north coast," said biologist Biederbeck.

"Agencies deal with population levels and habitats, but we don't have the wherewithal to deal with individual animals," said Lowe. "People like Sharnelle fill a void."

The center, though licensed by both the state and federal fish and wildlife departments, is staffed entirely by volunteers and depends on donations for its operating costs, which run approximately $60,000 a year. The water bill alone is more than $200 a month, each murre eats about 25 bait fish a day, and each barn owl (the center had 43 this summer) eats $5 worth of mice a day.

Fee said she is always looking new volunteers, and no experience is required.

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