Photo and article by Liam McNeil

Over the last few weeks, many walking the beaches around Tofino and Long Beach may have noticed a large number of dead birds washed up in the high tide line.  The gull-like birds, spread up and down the length of the peninsula, have likely been disconcerting for many residents, and a welcome source of perfume for many dogs.  Many of the birds have been adorned with small metal tags, bearing the words ‘BC Beached Bird Survey’.

A brief call to Peter Davidson, BC Program Manager for Bird Studies Canada, the organization behind the BC Beached Bird Survey, helped answer many questions.

Most of the birds washing up locally are Northern Fulmars, a 17-20″ gull-like bird, which inhabits the open ocean.  Mortality rates in the fall and winter tend to rise, especially after a series of prolonged storm events, such as occurred during this November.   Northern Fulmars feed on numerous prey items (shrimp, fish, jellyfish, etc) near the surface of the ocean, sometimes diving several feet underwater.  During storm events, the turbulent seas, and reduction in food sources near the surface of the ocean, result in the Fulmars inability to feed effectively.  Weaker individuals often die from malnutrition.  There are millions of Northern Fulmars in the North Pacific

According to Peter Davidson, Washington State is currently witnessing one of the largest mortality rates of Surf Scoters ever seen. While many factors may contribute, one of the key causes is the thick ‘sea-foam’ which is churned up in heavy swell.  Algae blooms are turned into foam, which in turn cover birds, de-waterproofing the feathers, resulting in hypothermia, the inability to feed, and death.  (Remember, there are many naturally occurring oils in algae).
The Beached Bird Survey is part of an initiative stretching from California to Alaska, to identify numbers, species, and other factors relating to bird mortality.  The counts help to develop a baseline of bird mortality rates, to better understand and gauge events influencing bird populations.  Locally, volunteers walk a stretch of coastline once a month, recording, and reporting their findings.  A quick search revealed a host of local usual-suspects who give their time and energy to participate in this project.

More information on the BC Beached Bird Survey can be found at: http://www.birdscanada.org/volunteer/bcbeachbird/index.jsp

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