Wednesday, January 28th, 2004

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PAWS Mailing Address:
PO Box 1037
Lynnwood WA, 98046

PAWS Physical Address:
15305 44th Ave W
Lynnwood, WA 98037

Kevin Mack
Fueling Disaster
by Kevin Mack, PAWS Wildlife Naturalist

Ken instructed me to stay low as we approached the beach to avoid being seen by our target. We got down on all fours and crawled through the yard of a stranger's beachfront property. By the time we reached the sand we were flat on our stomachs, propelling ourselves forward by walking on our elbows. We stayed behind driftwood and the remnants of an old dock in an attempt to hide our approach. Periodically, we stopped and peeked over our cover, attempting to catch a glimpse of our quarry. We backed off once, when it was clear we would be spotted, and then chose a new route that brought us to within reach of our goal. Slightly ahead of me, Ken poked his head up so he could see over a large drift log. He then pulled his head down and swore.

"What happened?" I asked.
"She saw me..." Ken said, "...she knows we're here."

I slowly peeked over the drift log and saw a small bird head doing the same thing about 8 feet away. I froze, as did the female merganser that was looking directly at me.

Oiled Grebe

Clean and waterproof after his washing, the Horned Grebe recovers in a pool at PAWS.

I looked down so as not to give the bird the impression that a large predator had its gaze fixed upon her. After a few seconds, she averted her eyes and returned to the activity that had originally drawn Ken's and my attention-- preening. I lowered my head back down and looked to Ken for instruction. There was no way to sneak any closer, so it was decided that we would make our capture attempt from where we were. Ken would go first and I would be right behind him. We gripped our nets, pulled our legs up under us, and prepared to pounce.

When we had first spotted the merganser from across the bay, she had been standing on the beach, repeatedly working her bill through a patch of feathers on her breast and abdomen. Ken, who has been performing search and collection at oil spills since the early 80's, fixed on her obsessive preening immediately. She did not have the relaxed appearance of a bird doing routine maintenance on her plumage; she looked tense and distressed. A quick look through binoculars confirmed that she had oil on her feathers, and she was working in vain to remove it. It was the confirmation of oily feathers that led to the demonstration of stealth that Ken and I subsequently exhibited on the beach. Unfortunately, in this case, stealth was not enough.

Ken launched himself forward, and I was right on his heels. Already aware of our presence, the merganser responded immediately and began running and flapping towards the water. Although she was unable to fly, her wings still afforded her the extra burst of speed she needed to avoid the swing of Ken's net. She entered the water and swam out of reach. She crossed the bay and came up on the beach again, but now that she was aware that we were stalking her, she would not let us get within striking distance. She reentered the water at our approach and dove beneath the surface where we could not track her movement. We waited for her to come up, but we never saw her again.

Oiled Grebe

This formerly oiled Western Grebe was rescued on January 1st.

During my time at PAWS, I have had a fair amount of exposure to oiled wildlife, but until December 31st, 2003, I had never had firsthand field experience at an actual oil spill. On December 30th, approximately 4,800 gallons of fuel oil spilled into Puget Sound at Point Wells in Edmonds. The resulting slick traveled across the sound and fouled beaches on the Kitsap Peninsula. The hardest-hit area was a beach and 400-acre estuary on Suquamish tribal land. As I walked on that beach at 7 am, two days after the spill, the rising sun created a rainbow iridescence that danced on the water's surface nearby. If I had not known what gave the water that iridescent quality, the image might have been considered beautiful. But the same substance that caused that brilliant array of colors in the water had painted the beach a much darker chocolate brown. It was covering the rocks on which I was walking, and it was covering the dead crabs and fish that lay among those rocks. It was a horrifying scene; one that until that day was foreign to me, except as an image in a newspaper or on a television screen. The smell, however, was anything but foreign. It can be experienced on street corners everywhere. It smelled very much like a gas station.

During the four days that Ken and I worked as a search and collection team, we saw many oiled birds. They were not as oiled as the birds that you see in news footage, slicked black from head to toe and turning themselves in to rescuers waiting on the beach. Like the merganser that we pursued unsuccessfully, they were birds that had enough oil on their feathers to threaten their lives, but not enough to slow them down to the point at which a relatively slow, bi-pedal primate could catch them. Unfortunately for them, the cold waters of Puget Sound are unforgiving to a water bird that has lost its waterproofing, and predators such as eagles and gulls are ever watchful for animals in distress. In addition, oiled birds ingest oil as they attempt to preen it from their feathers, and they often succumb to its toxic effects. I have no illusions that the birds we were unable to catch somehow managed to overcome their difficulty and live happily ever after. It is unbelievably frustrating to see an oiled bird in the water and know that it will die if you don't catch it, while at the same time realizing that it is impossible for you to do so. Every unsuccessful pursuit ended with two simple words- "I'm sorry..."

Oiled Grebe

Wildlife Facilities Caretaker Jim Green leans down to release the Western Grebe. The birds feet paddle frantically at the air, exhibiting his eagerness to return home.

But the days were not completely without their successes. On January 1st, a search and collection team working on the east side of the sound captured a heavily oiled Western Grebe. Ken and I met with success the following day. On January 2nd, we spotted an oiled Horned Grebe paddling around the Kingston Marina. He was very wet, and he appeared to be having difficulty staying afloat. He had also begun to feel the effects of hypothermia, and he was far less alert than a non-compromised grebe. We managed to herd him into an area where a raised walkway extended out over the water. Ken scooped the grebe out of the water from above with a long-handled net just as the bird was attempting to dive out of sight. Both rescued grebes were washed and treated for oil ingestion, and both made a full recovery.

On January 13th, I released the Horned Grebe into Puget Sound while four camera crews, two photographers and one radio reporter documented the event. I placed the bird in the water and he swam cautiously away. After shaking himself a few times to realign his feathers, he began to dive. Every time he resurfaced, water beaded and slid off of his back leaving him completely dry. I had spent close to 50 hours searching for oiled birds in the days following the Point Wells spill. The mornings were freezing, and the frustrations were many. After I released the Horned Grebe, a reporter asked me if all of the time and effort that had been put forth was really worth it considering that we didn't save many birds. Looking back over my shoulder at a tiny grebe floating contentedly on the water I replied, "It was certainly worth it to him..."

Gala Evening Benefit for the Animals at PAWS
PAWS Presents Roger Fouts 7:00 pm, Thursday, March 18th at the Renaissance Madison Hotel in downtown Seattle.

Roger is a professor of psychology at Central Washington University and Co-Director of the Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute. He has been a part of Project Washoe since 1967. Washoe was the very first nonhuman animal to acquire a human language, American Sign Language for the Deaf (ASL).

Enjoy a gourmet animal-friendly dinner, live auction and inspiring presentation! Click here to learn more.

Ticket Information:

$95 Individual - Admittance for one to Roger Fouts presentation, auction and dinner

$150 Select Individual - Admittance for one to all of the above, plus pre-event reception to meet Roger Fouts at 6:00 pm

Tickets can be purchased online or call PAWS Development Office 425.787.2500 x261 or x262.

Wildlife Release tally: January 1st to January 20th, 2003

1 Dark-eyed Junco
1 Mallard
2 American Crows
1 Red-breasted Sapsucker
1 Sharp-shinned Hawk
2 European Starlings
1 Rock Pigeon
1 Horned Grebe
1 Pied-billed Grebe
1 Common Goldeneye
1 Great Horned Owl
1 Western Screech Owl
1 Glaucous-winged Gull

Wildlife Release tally: 2004
15 animals

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