First we had to deal with melting sea-stars, now the local population of Cassin’s Auklets are washing up in drastic numbers on Washington’s beaches. The Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team (COASST) at the University of Washington is reporting that more than 700 dead auklets were discovered on beaches in northern Washington in December, a figure 128 times normal levels.
This represents a rapid increase over October when mortality was 17 times more than normal and November, which saw death rates 56 times higher than normal, according to COASST seabird program coordinator Jane Dolliver.
The Cassin’s auklet (Ptychoramphus aleuticus) is a small, chunky seabird that ranges widely in the North Pacific. It nests in small burrows and because of its presence on well-studied islands in British Columbia and off California it is one of the better known auks. It is named for John Cassin, a Pennsylvania businessman and naturalist. Its plumage is generally dark above and pale below, with a small white mark above the eye. Its bill is overall dark with a pale spot, and its feet are blue. Unlike many other auks the Cassin’s auklet lacks dramatic breeding plumage, remaining the same over most of the year. At sea it is usually identified by its flight, which is described as looking like a flying tennis ball. The Cassin’s auklet ranges from midway up the Baja California peninsula to Alaska’s Aleutian Islands, off North America. It nests on offshore islands, with the main population stronghold being Triangle Island off Vancouver Island‘s Cape Scott, where the population is estimated to be around 550,000 pairs. It is not known to be migratory, however northern birds may move farther south during the winter.
The Cassin’s auklet nests in burrows on small islands, and in the southern area of its range may be found in the breeding colony year round. It either digs holes in the soil or uses natural cracks and crevices to nest in, also readily using man-made structures. Pairs will show a strong loyalty towards each other and to a nesting site for many years. Both the parents incubate the single white egg, returning to swap shifts at night (usually after 2300 h) to avoid being taken by predators such as the western gull or peregrine falcon. They also depart from the colony before dawn. The egg is incubated for 40 days, the small chick is then fed nightly for 35 days by both parents, who regurgitate partially digested food (euphausiids and other small crustaceans) carried in a special gular pouch, often referred to in the literature as a sublingual pouch. The chick fledges alone and makes its way to the sea. The Cassin’s auklet is unusual amongst seabirds in occasionally laying a second clutch after a successful first clutch (it is the only northern hemisphere seabird to do so).
A similar crisis stroke the auklets in California earlier last year. Test revealed that the birds did not die off from viruses or bacteria, ruling out the avian flu. It’s hoped that necropsies preformed this week will reveal the cause of death.
Cynthia Daily, operator of the nonprofit Discovery Bay Raptor Rehabilitation and Education Center in Port Townsend has already taken in six starving Cassin’s auklets this year, but three have died. Several of the birds were brought in from Neah Bay. Two of the three remaining are rehabilitated and ready for release, but Daily is waiting until the spring “because there is no food out there.”
“People are going to find these birds on the beach and might not know what to do,” Daily said.
“I want the public to know they can bring them here, and we will take care of them until they are ready for release and the food supply has come back.”
Dolliver said that the reason for the massive die-off “is the $3 million question,” but she feels that it has to do with more than just a shortage of food.
“If it was only a lack of food, then more species would be affected, although it could have something with their inability to get food,” she said.
It’s normal for some seabirds to die during harsh winter conditions, especially during big storms, but the scale of the current die-off is unusual, researchers say, speculating it could be the result of a successful breeding season leading to too many young birds competing for food.
Unusually violent storms might be pushing the birds into areas they’re not used to or preventing them from foraging, or a warmer, more acidic ocean could be affecting the supply of tiny zooplankton, such as krill, that the birds eat.
While the inclination for anyone who finds an immobile bird might be to leave it alone or put it back in the water, a rescue is the recommended path, according to Jaye Moore, Northwest Raptor & Wildlife Center director.
“If people find a bird they should put it in a warm, quiet place and give us a call,” Moore said.
“They should put them in a shoebox or someplace safe and warm them up so they don’t need to be cold while they are waiting for care.”
Moore said that many people who find a beached bird are heading back to another location and pass through Sequim or Port Townsend, facilitating dropping off a bird in need of help.
For those who are traveling elsewhere, a pickup can be arranged. For more information or to report a bird in distress, phone Daily at 360-379-0802. She will then provide further instructions for care.
I plan on heading out to the Coast later this week to interview some of the key players in the unfolding drama and see first hand the situation. Stay tuned…