Inside Out: Behind the Scenes at the Bird Wash

I blearily opened the newspaper in a Corvallis, Oregon coffeeshop and stared at a photo of an oil-drenched western grebe. The caption said that oil had spilled into San Francisco Bay after the Cosco Busan had knocked into a pillar of the Bay Bridge. This disaster in the making warranted no more than a photo, but as a wildlife biologist with a special affinity for birds, I felt as if my liver had been ripped out.

When I returned to Berkeley, I realized the true scope of what had happened. The mass media did a fine job of covering the triage, but what happens now that the frenzy is over? After the “oil on beach” signs have disappeared and volunteers have gone back to their daily lives, oil is still traveling in our open ocean, up and down our coast, lurking in the substrates of our bays, and polluting the environment for all of its inhabitants.

Humboldt State University ornithology professor Dr. Mark Colwell, who specializes in the ecology of water birds, says that the spill happened at an exceptionally bad time. “Because the spill took place just as many waterfowl and shorebirds reached us from the Arctic and places in between, the scope of the event was greatly magnified,” he says. There are around 800,000 birds that call the habitats of the San Francisco Bay home, and as the winter migrants pour in, those numbers creep steadily past the million mark. “The majority of the surf scoter population winters in the San Francisco Bay, and a large percentage of western grebes as well,” Colwell says. “This spill will drastically affect the population dynamics of those species and several others.”

California has the advantage of the Oiled Wildlife Care Network (OWCN), with its seventeen years of experience, no fewer than 2,000 active volunteers, state funding acquired through a tax levied on oil companies, and 25 wildlife rehabilitation centers, including the International Bird Rescue Research Center (IBRRC) in Fairfield, at which I volunteered. To put this largesse in perspective, the Gulf Coast has about half as much coastline as California, yet has no equivalent organization to administer wildlife care despite 850 to 1,000 oil spills per year. The Oregon and Louisiana coastlines have no response organizations, and Washington has only a small rehab facility with no washing capability. Fortunately, California’s globally recognized team consults and responds to environmental accidents worldwide.

The first day that I volunteered at the IBRRC, state spill expert Cindy Murphy reminded us of oil’s disastrous effects. “Birds are directly poisoned by getting oil on themselves, which mats down their insulative feathers and leads to hypothermia in the fifty to sixty degree waters of the bay,” she said. “When water birds get hypothermia they waddle to shore where they spend their time attempting to preen the oil out of their feathers.” Cold birds on the beach are vulnerable to predators and unable to obtain nourishment—but, as Murphy points out, it’s also why rescuers are able to collect them.

There are other dangers from oil: migrants from the north arrive tired, skinny, and hungry. As they forage on plants, invertebrates, and fish in the muddy substrates, they ingest whatever their food has been exposed to—in this case, bunker fuel. Merely getting some grub means being exposed to toxins, including floating oil in tidal fluctuations that coat sediments with fuel, and weathered tar balls that settle on beaches and the bay floor.

A small percentage of the oil from the Cosco Busan spill was removed from the bay. The rest will degrade slowly or remain sequestered in the marine ecosystem. Most forms of oil degrade through dispersal into miniscule particles, exposure to oxygen, or exposure to the sun’s rays. When bunker fuel is spread out on the water’s surface, the volatile portion will evaporate into the atmosphere while the rest will form tar balls and sink to the floor or wash ashore. It can also become a frothy sludge of water, air, and fuel that travels around until it weathers away or lodges in a protected harbor. The Exxon Valdez spill demonstrated that oil can remain in an environment for decades if it makes its way into an area protected from the elements. The dramatic and rugged beauty of our coastline—the rocky crevices, boulders of all shapes and sizes, gravelly shores, and shellfish beds— creates physical barriers to the breakdown of oil.

In the thick of the rehabilitation effort, IBRRC was a cacophony of wailing birds, high pressure hoses, the clomping of ill-fitting rubber boots, and volunteers trying to communicate over the hubbub. After signing in and watching a quick safety video, new volunteers were whisked off to find a workstation that coincided with their abilities. Whether you worked in the kitchen sterilizing feeding and watering tubes (oil-drenched birds are often dehydrated and starving and must be nourished by tube until they are able to feed themselves), helping with vet checks and stabilization, siphoning holding tanks, or washing birds, egos were checked at the door. Everyone did the jobs they were assigned and then looked around to see if there was anything else they could do.

My duties included washing birds and feeding tubes, tossing herring to clean birds, and filling out pre-release evaluations. On my last day, I spent the better part of the morning assisting Mike Ziccardi, a professor of clinical wildlife health at UC Davis, by wrangling a wily surf scoter so he could give it a physical, a vitamin, and take a few drops of blood.

Ziccardi is a global authority on the long-term health impacts for birds that come into contact with oil. “Oil exposure can affect every system in a bird’s body—neuro, liver, kidneys, blood, reproductive,” he says. In addition, he points out, “Oil can have a large effect on every aspect of the reproductive process, from mating, to the number of eggs laid, to how many make it to hatching, to chick survival, all of the way down to the reproductive success of those offspring. As long as the oil is out there in the environment, you’re going to see decreases in reproductive success.”

While we know that oil is bad for birds, we know less about how well rescued birds fare once they are returned to the wild. Ziccardi estimates that the average survival rate for birds after California spills is between 50 and 75 percent. “We are working to find out more about whether rehabilitation really works for oiled animals, or if it mostly serves to make people feel better,” says spokesperson Sylvia Wright of UC Davis, whose Wildlife Health Center administers the Oiled Wildlife Care Network.

It’s a tricky question: should oiled wildlife be rehabilitated, or would all the work, resources, and money be better used for activities that we know will result in conservation gains? If there had been no rehabilitation in this spill, nearly eighty percent of the surf scoter population in the West could have been exposed to oil contamination, according to the Western Ecological Research Center. IBRRC director Jay Holcomb argues that many rehabbed birds have a very good chance of survival. “We have documented many survival stories, but it is very difficult to follow up on seabirds that live in colonies in remote areas. We receive less than a one percent return rate on banded birds and especially seabirds that live in colonies that sometimes range in the millions,” he says.

IBRRC has also rehabbed and released many shorebirds—dunlin, sanderling, piping plovers, and snowy plovers. Studies of the 32 oiled snowy plovers captured and released after the New Carissa spill on the southern Oregon coast in 1999, showed that the rehabbed birds had normal life spans and breeding activity. Hunters have turned in bands from oiled ducks years after they had been rehabilitated.

To provide a more accurate way to track survival rates, during the rescue efforts that followed the Cosco Busan spill, Ziccardi and his team placed radio tags on sixty surf scoters, sea ducks that were one of the hardest hit species. “We have a pilot doing overflights of the bay two to three times a week, and we hope to be able to follow them at least through March when they leave the area,” he says. “Hopefully the batteries on some of the transmitters, as well as the scoters carrying them, will last an entire season, and we can track them the whole time.” The radio transmitters emit a unique signal if the animal stops moving, presumably at death. Ziccardi says, “With the transmitter we can locate the scoter’s carcass for a necropsy and learn about why it didn’t make it.”

Ziccardi finds it hard to even guesstimate how many birds were affected by the spill. “There are many factors to consider,” he says. “This time of year is tough, and birds are in poor body condition.” He adds that the state’s Department of Fish & Game is building a natural resource damage assessment model. “They gather as much data as they can about the search effort in the field and survival of treated birds and come up with an estimator of how many birds we collected in terms of how many were actually exposed. The correction factor can range anywhere from one in five to one in a hundred. California’s correction factor is pretty low due to the huge effort that we put into collection.”

By Wright’s calculations, 1,084 live birds were collected. Of those, 652 died or were euthanized and 418 were released, either at Tomales Bay or Half Moon Bay. In January, there were still fourteen birds at IBRRC. Volunteers collected another 1,851 dead birds on the bays’ beaches and marshes. Rehab survival is a maze of complicated issues but, according to Ziccardi, the most important factors include immediate availability of facilities, equipment and supplies, and pre-trained personnel.

The trauma will not be limited to the Bay Area. The bay is a stopover for birds on the Pacific Flyway. “This migratory route extends from the northern expanses of Alaska to the southern tip of Argentina,” Humboldt State’s Colwell says. “Few birds travel its entire length, but several species cover a large part of it biannually, in the spring and the fall.” Point Reyes Bird Observatory naturalist and co-founder Rich Stallcup told me that the surf scoters that winter in the bay will travel up the coast this spring on their way back to the Arctic, stopping in Humboldt Bay, Coos Bay, Willapa Bay, and Puget Sound, among other bays and estuaries. Western and Clark’s grebes were also heavily affected, and the majority of the bay’s grebes will spend the breeding season in Clearlake.

Most birds travel roughly the same path, and the situation at stopovers affects the rest of the route: if there is terrific feeding at one stopover, birds arrive well-nourished at their next destination and fertilize the area with nutrients. The toxicity of the current situation will be transferred by winged couriers to other locations and to populations of the Pacific Flyway for many generations to come.

In 1992 Congress mandated that all ships with a fuel capacity of 158,000 gallons or more be fitted with a double hull by 2015. This date was accelerated to no later than 2010 after the Erika incident in 1999 that shed over six million gallons of heavy fuel oil off the coast of France. With a fuel capacity of 1.8 million gallons, the Cosco Busan was far above the minimum for a double hull. This new disaster occurred only two years before the new mandate will take effect—and its impact will last for decades.

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