Algae bloom endangers migratory birds


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A U.S. Coast Guard C-130 left the Bay Area early Monday morning, flew two hours to the Oregon coast, loaded up with about 350 birds, and brought them to the Bay Area for treatment.

Near Astoria, Oregon, this was a mission of mercy. The Coast Guarded loaded up a cargo plane with 350 migratory birds. They are victims from an algae bloom of catastrophic proportions and were shipped to the Bay Area for treatment.

"They've already estimated over 1,000 birds that have already died," said Jay Holcom with the International Bird Rescue Research Center.

At the rescue center in Fairfield, volunteers have been dealing with sick and dying birds for more than a week. The algae creates a slime, birds swim in it, and the slime coats their feathers, taking away their water resistance, causing hypothermia, and then starvation. The cause of the slime remains a mystery.

"All we know is we did not see this before 2007," said Paul Kelway from the International Bird Rescue Research Center.

Since then, it has happened three times. Seemingly natural events, with possibly unnatural causes.

"So we're asking the questions: Are there new currents? Is it a warmer climate? We just don't know yet," said Holcom.

At the rescue center, each bird gets the same treatment. About 15 minutes of warm water and detergent then prolonged warmth and drying. If it looks busy now after 150 birds, imagine the place after the new shipment arrives with 350 more.

"The average time for a bird here is seven to 10 days," says Holcom.

As of Monday afternoon, the center still had birds waiting for treatment, but also began to see some progress. A red feathered loon, number 0868, on 1:00 Monday afternoon became the first cleaned bird to go swimming and show signs of renewed water resistance.

The estimated cost to just the bird research center in Fairfield is about $50,000. The good news is they expect a 90 percent recovery rate.

10/27/09 UPDATE:

The Federal Wildlife Service tells ABC7 that an algae bloom in the Pacific may not be killing those birds that are washing up on Oregon and Washington beaches. Researchers from the National Wildlife Disease Lab are still in the northwest today taking water samples to determine what is killing the birds. They do suspect algae could be involved either as a direct cause or a contributing factor, but say there are other possibilities as well. Wildlife officials expect to know what's killing the birds when lab results from those samples come back in a few weeks.

The FWS says they get algae blooms as well as birds dying and washing up on beaches fairly regularly in the area. Aerial flights are being made to help assess the scope and the scale of this event.

FWS said the event is larger than others in recent years but is "not a catastrophe". An International Bird Rescue Center marine biologist, who believed algae was causing the bird deaths, had told ABC7 it was a "catastrophe". Several hundred birds were flown by the US Coast Guard from Oregon to California on Monday to be cleaned at the center in Fairfield.

If you would like to lend a hand with these seabirds, please contact the volunteer line at (707) 207-0380 Ext. 109. You must be 18 years or older. Here is a link to volunteer information:
If you would like to make a donation:click here

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