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December 8, 2009  
Photo of Kevin Mack

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 drowning.

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 California 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 entails.

Photo of seabirds contained in boxes and carriers
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.
Photo of a Red-throated Loon in very bad condition
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 being drawn from one of the injured seabirds
Blood samples were drawn on all of the birds as they were admitted.
Blood work analysis
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.
Photo of Western Grebes
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.
Photo of some of the seabird pens
The entire lower level of the PAWS Wildlife Center was filled with net-bottomed pens containing birds.
Photo of the piled empty carriers
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.
Photo of PAWS pools
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.
Photo of water lines
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.
Photo of a Common Loon
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.
Photo of Western Grebes
These Western Grebes are also representative of what most of the birds looked like after swimming for only a few minutes.
Photo of wet Grebes preening
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.
Stephanie, Katie and Ashley preparing tubes
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.
Katreva and Nicki tubing loon
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.
Photo of bird washing
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.
Jenny rinsing a Grebe
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.
Murres in water stream
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.
Common Murres in new pool
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.
Western Grebe
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.
Net-bottomed transport box
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.
Murre catch-up and release
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.
Common Murre release
The murres looked great as they exited their boxes and swam out of sight.
Jerrmaine releasing Western Grebe
Three days later five Western Grebes and the one Clark's Grebe were released.
Western Grebe release
One by one the grebes were placed in the water. They swam strongly in a direct line away from the shore.
Western Grebe release
When they reached deeper water, they regrouped and swam off together.
PAWS staff and volunteers watching the release
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, please make a donation today.



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