Crisis on the Coast
by Kevin Mack, PAWS Wildlife Naturalist
In September, the PAWS Wildlife Center began hearing reports of
unusually large numbers of seabirds being found on the beach along the
outer coast of Washington. Most of the birds were scoters (a type of sea
duck), and the majority of them were deceased. The exact cause of the
mass stranding was unknown, but an unusual algae bloom just offshore was
the most likely suspect. In late October, reports of beached birds began
trickling in again. This time loons, grebes and murres were the species
that were affected, and many birds were still alive.
It was determined that the beached birds were indeed being negatively
impacted by an
algae bloom, the likes of which had not been seen in Washington
State before. A similar
event was documented in the Monterey Bay area in 2007. When churned
up and broken apart in the surf, this particular type of algae releases
a protein that acts as a surfactant. When this substance comes into
contact with birds' feathers, it disrupts their ability to repel water.
The birds are soaked down to the skin, lose both their buoyancy and
their insulation, and they struggle to shore to avoid hypothermia and
Once on the beach, the birds have no way to restore their
waterproofing so they are unable to return to the water. Without help,
they simply sit on the beach and slowly starve to death. Such was the
fate of an estimated 8,000 � 10,000 birds along the Washington and
Oregon coasts, but not every bird who was affected ended their life's
journey there on the beach.
PAWS Lends a Hand
On October 22, PAWS received word that the Wildlife Center of the North
Coast (WCNC) near Astoria, Oregon had taken in more than 300 birds that
were found on the beach in southern Washington and northern Oregon. That
number quickly jumped to more than 500, and it was clear that the center
was in need of immediate help. PAWS contacted WCNC and offered to take
around 100 of their patients. PAWS staff and volunteers met them in
Olympia on October 23 to make the transfer. Another 300 or more were
transferred to International Bird Rescue and Research Center in
via a Coast Guard cargo plane the next day.
Although this type of algae bloom has not been seen in Washington
State before, PAWS has responded to many seabird strandings that were
caused by winter storms or other factors. These mass strandings are
referred to as "seabird wrecks," and responding to them is very similar
to responding to an oil spill. Although the birds involved in these
stranding events are not suffering from the toxic effects of oil, they
do suffer from malnutrition, and often injuries, sores and abrasions
from being on the beach for many days.
The aid response during a seabird wreck is labor and resource
intensive, and is challenging for staff and volunteers both physically
and emotionally. Depending on the condition of the birds when they are
received, there is often a very high rate of loss as many patients
succumb to their malnutrition and injuries or are beyond help and must
be humanely euthanized. The birds who do recover and return to the wild
make the efforts all worthwhile. The following images should help give
you a better idea of what a large-scale "seabird wreck" response at PAWS
After meeting WCNC personnel in Olympia to pick up the nearly
100 birds they were transferring to PAWS, the birds were brought
back to the wildlife center and the admission process began at
8:30 p.m. The birds were contained in boxes and carriers that
were sorted by species at the center. They filled much of the
hallway and lobby space. Species included Common Murres, Western
Grebes, one Clark's Grebe, Common Loons and Red-throated Loons.
Three separate teams worked on admitting the birds. Every bird
was given a thorough physical exam. Many were in very bad shape
due to their ordeal on the beach. The heavier-bodied birds, such
as this Red-throated Loon, were in the worst condition.
Blood samples were drawn on all of the birds as they were
Blood work performed in the wildlife center's lab gave some
insight into the general health of each bird. Blood tests were
repeated on the birds about every three days during their
rehabilitation to monitor their recovery.
When their examinations were complete, the birds were tube-fed
an electrolyte solution to help rehydrate them. They were then
placed in net-bottomed pens. Because of their aquatic
adaptations, loons, murres and grebes (shown here) are awkward
on land, and they tend to develop pressure sores and joint
issues if they are maintained on a solid surface. Net-bottomed
pens provide gentler support and allow the bird's feces to drop
through so it doesn't soil their feathers.
The entire lower level of the PAWS Wildlife Center was filled
with net-bottomed pens containing birds.
The first night's work didn't end until around 3 a.m. A large
pile of empty boxes and carriers outside the front door
indicated that a large volume of animals had just been received.
25 more birds arrived about 8 hours later.
To rehabilitate this many birds, we needed a lot of pools. Since
so many of the birds were weak and in poor condition, we needed
some of the pools to be protected from the weather. A makeshift
shelter was quickly built over one of our outside pool areas.
To keep up with the demand for water to fill all of the pools,
the wildlife center needed to hook up to a fire hydrant.
When the birds were placed in pools, the effects of the algae
bloom on their feathers were readily apparent. This Common Loon
was waterlogged within just a few minutes.
These Western Grebes are also representative of what most of the
birds looked like after swimming for only a few minutes.
Although the substance from the algae was not visible, it was
definitely still present. The birds preened constantly, but they
weren't making any headway on improving their feather condition.
We decided that washing them was the best option to help them
restore their waterproofing.
While the birds were being housed in net-bottomed pens, it was
necessary to feed them a liquid diet known as "fish slurry" four
times per day. The slurry was drawn up in a syringe and then
delivered to their birds' stomachs via gavage tube.
In addition to the fish slurry, birds were given a water and
electrolyte solution via gavage tube up to four times per day to
ensure that they did not become dehydrated. When birds were
stable enough to endure it, they were scheduled to be washed.
It was impossible to see the substance that was impairing the
birds' waterproofing, so each bird was given a thorough, head to
toe wash. Here one of the Common Murres receives a bath.
After being washed, all soap residue had to be removed from the
birds' feathers. Here a Western Grebe is being rinsed with a
fine, high-pressure spray. As the soap rinses away, water
immediately begins to bead up on the clean feathers of the bird.
After they had been completely rinsed, the birds were placed in
net-bottomed pens equipped with warm air dryers.
The washing was successful, and as the birds preened their
feathers back into shape their waterproofing began to improve.
They spent more and more time in large outdoor pools. Spray
attachments that created a current gave the birds exercise by
allowing them to constantly swim. They were also encouraged to
preen when droplets from the spray landed on their feathers.
It was necessary to provide the birds with a haulout during the
first few days in the pool. This allowed them to rest if they
got tired and to avoid getting chilled if they still had some
wet spots that needed to be preened.
Eventually, the haulouts were removed and the birds spent all of
their time in the water. Grebes and murres that had formerly
been sinking now floated high in their pool as water beaded and
ran off of their backs. Unfortunately, the loons did not fare as
well, and none survived to release.
Once the birds were waterproof and healthy, they were ready for
release. They were placed in transport boxes equipped with net
bottoms to ensure that their feathers stayed clean on the way to
the release site.
Instead of being returned to the outer coast where the algae
bloom was ongoing, the birds were released in the sheltered
waters of Puget Sound. The first release took place on November
8. A group of volunteers that had put in many hours caring for
the sick seabirds gathered to release 11 Common Murres at
Brackett's Landing Park in Edmonds, WA.
The murres looked great as they exited their boxes and swam out
Three days later five Western Grebes and the one Clark's Grebe
One by one the grebes were placed in the water. They swam
strongly in a direct line away from the shore.
When they reached deeper water, they regrouped and swam off
PAWS staff and volunteers, who had put in so much time and
effort to help the birds reach this point, stood silently on the
beach and watched them go. This scene repeated itself several
more times in the days to come as the remaining seabirds in
PAWS' care were returned first to health, and then to their home
in the wild.
Many thanks to all who donated and/or volunteered their time
to help these wild birds in need! Because of you, PAWS was able
to save many of these beautiful and fragile birds�thank you for your
generosity. If you'd like to ensure PAWS is able to continue to help
seabirds and the other wild animals with whom with share this earth,
make a donation today.