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Weathering the Storm

by Kevin Mack - PAWS Wildlife Naturalist


The month of October brought rain and high winds to the outer coast of Washington State. Storms are to be expected in the fall, but occasionally the impact of these storms can be felt over 150 miles away at the PAWS Wildlife Center in Lynnwood.

Prolonged wind storms cause hardship for a number of local and overwintering water birds. Many have difficulty foraging in the tempestuous conditions and their strength begins to fail. Exhausted, they often wash up on the beach in heavy surf and are too weak or otherwise compromised to re-enter the water. Without intervention they are doomed to starve, succumb to hypothermia or fall as prey.

But some are rescued from that fate by simple acts of human compassion. Such was the case with 40 birds including loons, Western Grebes, scoters and Northern Fulmars that were brought to PAWS on October 30. The following photos tell their story.
 
Picture from Wild Again The first challenge faced by the PAWS Wildlife Center staff and volunteers was admitting and examining all 40 birds.

This is a view of the wildlife center lobby as it appeared on that day. Each of these 15 boxes contained a Western Grebe. Boxes of fulmars and scoters lined the wildlife center hallways, and the exam room cages were filled with Pacific and Red-throated Loons.
Picture from Wild Again The wildlife staff formed two teams to examine all of the new patients. Here, PAWS Wildlife Veterinarian Dr. John Huckabee examines a Western Grebe in the wildlife center surgery room.
Picture from Wild Again PAWS Wildlife Rehabilitators Nicki Rosenhagen (left) and Raina Domek (right) also performed examinations. Here they inspect the wing of a Pacific Loon.

The examinations revealed that most of the birds were extremely thin, and some had foot lesions or other secondary problems from their time on the beach. All were fitted with color bands so they could be easily identified and then they were taken to the lower level of the wildlife center for rehydration and cage assignment.
Picture from Wild Again Once downstairs, each bird was tube-fed a rehydrating electrolyte solution. In this photo, Wildlife Volunteer Manager Frances Boyens tube-feeds a Western Grebe. Once the birds had received fluids, they were placed in net-bottomed holding pens.
Picture from Wild Again None of the species that PAWS received on October 30 were accustomed to spending long periods of time on land. Having evolved to spend all or most of their lives in the air or on water, these birds rapidly develop pressure sores and other problems if they are kept on a solid surface.

For that reason, we use net-bottomed pens to house these birds when they are out of the water. The net distributes their weight more evenly and delays the development of secondary issues. In addition, as you can see in this photo of a Northern Fulmar, we place protective wraps on the birds’ feet to protect them from sores and abrasions. Even with these precautions, the birds must be transitioned to water pools as soon as possible if they are to have any hope for rehabilitation and release.
Picture from Wild Again Because the birds we received had been sitting on the beach, most of them had at least some sand or other debris in their feathers. Even slightly dirty or disheveled feathers do not properly repel water, so when the birds were first placed in pools they became visibly wet as illustrated by the feathers on the back of this Red-throated Loon.
Picture from Wild Again The feather condition of the birds varied quite a bit. As you can see, this Surf Scoter looks dry on her back, but she has a visible wet ring around her neck.

The birds were moved into pools daily, but as they became too wet or chilled they were moved back to their net bottomed pens. Warm air dryers were attached to the pens to speed the drying process and stimulate the birds to preen.
Picture from Wild Again A steady diet of fish helped the weakened birds regain their strength. As they began to feel better, many began to take a more active role in cleaning the debris from their feathers. This photo shows a Northern Fulmar bathing in his pool.
Picture from Wild Again Here is the same fulmar just seconds later. Note that, although he was submerged moments ago, he is completely dry with the exception of a small ring around his neck.
Picture from Wild Again After a few weeks of care, some of the birds had completely restored their waterproofing. Note the way the feathers of this male White-winged Scoter repel the water.
 

Once their feathers were in good condition and they had put on ample weight, it was time to look forward to returning the birds to their home.
 
Picture from Wild Again Two Pacific Loons, two Red-throated Loons, one Surf Scoter and a White-winged Scoter were among the first birds to achieve “release ready” status.

The Pacific Loons returned home on November 4, and the Red-throated Loons and scoters were released on the 8th. On November 12, three White-winged Scoters (including the female pictured here) were ready to go.
Picture from Wild Again The female scoter swam slowly away from the shore, keeping a wary eye on the nearby humans as she went. A second female was released next, and she behaved in much the same way.
Picture from Wild Again The male scoter whose close-up appears earlier in this issue was also released on November 12.

Notice that as Wildlife Rehabilitator Nicki Rosenhagen carries him to the water, she wears latex gloves to ensure that his feathers are not contaminated by the natural oils on her hands. It’s also a good idea from a human health standpoint to always wear gloves when handling wild animals.
Picture from Wild Again Instead of releasing birds like grebes, scoters and loons on the beach where they might soil their feathers, PAWS Staff and volunteers wear boots and carry the birds out into shallow water.

You can see in this photo that the scoter is anxiously extending his neck toward the open water in front of him.
Picture from Wild Again Once released, the male scoter relaxed and inspected his surroundings.
Picture from Wild Again The male eventually swam away from the beach and joined the two female scoters who had been released before him. All three birds disappeared into the distance together.
Picture from Wild Again Of the birds that we received on October 30, five Northern Fulmars who were emaciated upon arrival spent the longest amount of time in our care.

Fulmars are pelagic birds, meaning they spend most of their lives on the ocean far from the sight of land. Managing them in captivity is very challenging as the birds often become depressed and stop eating and preening.

Thanks to great diligence on the part of the PAWS wildlife rehabilitation staff, these five fulmars weathered not only the storms on the coast, but also the ordeal of captivity. When I released the fulmars on November 19, they had increased in weight by more than 30%.
Picture from Wild Again I released them in the water in a sheltered bay in Westport. They would have to make the final leg of their journey under their own power.

One by one I placed the fulmars in the water. Visibly excited, the birds quickly took to the air.
Picture from Wild Again The last time I saw them, the fulmars were rounding the tip of a breakwater at the western edge of the sheltered bay in which I had released them.

Beyond the breakwater lay the vast expanse of the Pacific, and it was calling five of its children home.



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