The Start of Something Big

July 21, 2014

Tim and I just returned from a trip to the Los Angeles Oiled Bird Care and Education Center (LAOBCEC) this past weekend. The purpose of this trip was to meet with Graciela Guerra and two architect colleagues from the Universidad Autónoma de Baja California (UABC) in Ensenada. The meeting included a tour of LAOBCEC so that they could get ideas of how to build a similar facility in Ensenada (but at a smaller scale) that would have the capacity to house, clean, and care for oiled animals in the event of an oil spill. There is no similar facility in all of Mexico, so this would be the first of its kind, and in a country that has very few rehabilitation facilities for wildlife (and none in Baja California), this is a huge step! But in order to understand the lead-up to this meeting it is important to get some of the background history. In giving you some of the history, though, it is a bit like shooting myself in the foot, as I should have written a blog about it way back in April when our meeting before this one took place. Better late than never, I suppose! So here is a blog (within a blog) of a long overdue tale of how all this came about.

Practicing proper techniques for handling and cleaning a bird.

It began about two years ago when I gave an OWCN overview talk at the annual MEXUS meeting. MEXUS Plan is the result of a cooperative agreement that was established in 1980 between Mexico and the U.S. in case of an oil spill. After the presentation, Graciela, a biochemist at UABC, approached me. She was impressed with out system of taking care of oiled wildlife in California and wanted to know if we could help them set up something similar in Baja. From that moment on, Graciela was tireless in her efforts to round up enthusiastic people from different agencies that had a similar interest. As a result, Graciela put together a formal group that had their first official meeting in September 2013 and is known as the Oiled Wildlife Team, or “Equipo de Atención a Fauna Silvestre Empetrolada” (EAFSE). So that’s how it came about that several months later, Mike, Chris, Nancy, and I traveled to Ensenada to give a two-day training on as much oil spill response stuff as we could fit in to those days (including effects of oil on wildlife, how to capture animals safely, how to stabilize birds on the beaches, and how to care for oiled wildlife). The training ended with a tabletop drill.

Mike and his doom and gloom image of a spill affecting a large area of Baja during the Tabletop Drill. Note coffee cup in hand.

One of the subjects that was brought up several times during the two days was that proper training on how to capture and care for oiled wildlife can only go so far without a dedicated and specialized center that can properly and safely clean and house these animals. And getting animals across the border during a spill has its own challenges and time constraints, so having a local facility would be of great benefit to the animals.

So this brings us back full circle and to the reason why Graciela and her colleagues traveled to San Pedro. We look forward to continuing our assistance in this process, along with Graciela and the rest of the EAFSE group.



Elvira, Graciela, Tim, and Claudia at LAOBCEC


Kyra, Graciela, and Tim at LAOBCEC

New Webinars

July 11, 2014

The OWCN is moving forward with updates to our Online Training Series.  We have created a brand new set of Core webinars that are now available to our Member Organizations.  These Core webinars are introductory webinars designed for brand new staff and volunteers with no spill experience, or staff and volunteers that have been around, but haven’t participated in our Online Training Series previously.  We also welcome everyone who just wants a quick refresher, to view the webinars as well.  These webinars will provide a basic background to oiled wildlife response, and include 1) OWCN Overview, 2) Effects of Oil on Wildlife, 3) Field Operations Overview, and 4) Introduction to Facility Operations.  The first two will be replacing our old “Webinar #1″, and the latter two will provide a brief overview of what happens in the field and at the facility during a spill.

In the coming months we will be making more changes and additions to the Online Training Series.  This fall, look for a redesigned Level 1 series of webinars that will allow our volunteers to select either an Avian or Marine Mammal Level 1 pathway.  As always, we will encourage our volunteers to train in both Avian and Marine Mammal spill response, but will allow for those who want to select just one pathway.  We will be adding a support webinar to the current Avian webinars, and will be removing the previous Marine Mammal webinar (the old webinar #5), and replacing it with a series of Marine Mammal webinars.

Additionally, we are in the process of creating a library of Special Topic webinars designed for those that wish to pursue continuing education in oiled wildlife response.  These webinars will provide education in interesting topics related to spill response, and will join our current Special Topic webinars (Clinical Avian Anatomy, OWCN Protocol Updates, and Avian Hazing).  Look for an announcement on the first set in the near future, with additional Special Topic webinars coming out this fall.

Please check with the  OWCN Volunteer Coordinator for your organization to get the links for these new webinars.  And, as always, a big thank you to all the staff and volunteers at our Member Organizations for being the most enthusiastic and most prepared oiled wildlife response team we could hope for!


“For Wildlife, OWCN is a Lifesaver”

July 3, 2014
After two years of hard work, the OWCN received wonderful news this past Sunday! The proposal to fund the Statewide Oil Spill program was approved within the State Budget. This means that the OWCN is not only fully funded, but will also be asked to provide wildlife response services for inland regions of the State! We want to thank all of you from the bottoms of our hearts. This favorable outcome would not have been possible without your substantial efforts on our behalf.


The following article by provides an excellent summary:

For Wildlife, OWCN Can Mean a Life-and-Death Difference

Recently approved state budget ensures agency remains afloat, expands services to inland areas

OAKLAND, Calif. (July 24, 2014) – One moment it’s basking in the sun while drifting on the Pacific Ocean or Monterey Bay; the next, it is covered with black, tar-thick goo. An otter, pelican or seal lacks any concept of oil and knows nothing about the hazardous deadly toxin invading its habitat. Attempts to flee become futile. The thick substance coats fur and feathers, which lose their water-repellent and thermostatic qualities. Instinctive actions, e.g., licking, increase the likelihood of infection and death. Animals coming into contact with oil face immediate and long-term health threats, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report, “Understanding Oil Spills and Oil Spill Response”.

For the thousands of California wildlife killed annually due to toxic environmental disasters on oceans and bays, thousands more are rescued, rehabilitated and released back into the wild by the Oiled Wildlife Care Network. The only wildlife response agency in the world with more than 30 different member organizations comprising world-class aquaria, universities, scientific organizations and rehabilitation groups, according to its Web site, the OWCN has responded to more than 80 spills in California and treated more than 10,000 animals since its 1994 formation, OWCN Director Michael Ziccardi said.

Article Photo
“Olive the Oiled Sea Otter” eating a black abalone at the California DFW Office of Spill Prevention and Response 

Administered by the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine under the auspices of the state Department of Fish and Wildlife Office of Spill Prevention and Response, OWCN formed in response to the Exxon Valdez and American Trader oil spills in Alaska and Huntington Beach, respectively. It is funded primarily by OSPR from interest on a state oil spill trust fund; however, in recent years, below-1 percent interest rates have caused that source to decline and become insufficient for meeting program needs. This forced OWCN managers to begin shutting down operations currently reserved only for the care of wildlife affected by oil in the marine (coastal) environment. Jurisdictional boundaries cause the various birds, lizards, small mammals and other animals existing inland to receive limited to no care from spills in those areas.

Fortunately, all that just changed.

Besides the stable revenue source secured as a result of the legislatively approved state budget signed by Governor Brown on Friday, OWCN’s allocation from OSPR will increase from $2 million to $2.5 million, allowing it to expand its outreach to all California wildlife – those living inland and along coastal shores.  OWCN already has captured, rehabilitated and released hundreds of otters, sea lions, seals, pelicans, seagulls and a legion of other marine mammals and fowl affected by marine water contamination. Now it is preparing to mirror those services for the many rodents, small carnivores, raptors and others making their homes in inland waters, valleys, mountains and hills.

The reliable source for operations costs means OWCN “can continue to operate the world’s best oiled wildlife readiness and response program for California,” Ziccardi wrote in his e-mail response. And because the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 requires big oil to include the care of affected wildlife in oil spill contingency plans, OWCN’s existence benefits it, too. “[T]he petroleum industry can continue to list our operations (which include the integrated efforts of 32 different groups) in their contingency plans at no additional cost to them. It results in a win-win situation for all involved.”

All in this case includes animals, too, those on both land and water, because the budget also contains money that will expand OSPR’s reach to “all state surface waters at risk of oil spills from any source, including pipelines and the increasing shipments of oil transported by railroads.” The use of railways and highways to ship crude, oil and other petroleum products has exploded as a result of increased fracking in California and other states. The role of OWCN in providing trained, reliable staff and volunteers in those areas will be crucial, OSPR spokeswoman Alexia Retallack.

“OWCN is critical to our response in California,” Retallack said during a phone interview. “It’s difficult to maintain trained individuals to do what needs to be done for wildlife once response begins: they must be best-prepared to capture, wash, document them – all those things.”

Aside from being able to emulate its “readiness and response operations developed in marine waters” in the inland regions, OWCN “will be developing protocols and procedures to care for species not previously focused on (e.g., rodents, small carnivores, raptors), bring additional Member Organizations into the OWCN fold, expand training opportunities for these regions, develop facilities and equipment caches to allow for immediate deployment, and similar activities,” Ziccardi noted in his e-mail response. “In short, it will allow us to provide the best available care to oiled animals no matter where they are affected.”


(Non) Oiled (Non) Wildlife Response

June 26, 2014

From time to time the OWCN staff gets questions about what we do during non-spill times.  While we do spend a lot of time training and preparing supplies for spill response, we occasionally step out of the oiled wildlife box and put our skills to good use.

The Chief Operating Officer for the Wildlife Health Center put together a bunny trap - nothing could possibly go wrong!

Matt Blake, COO for the Wildlife Health Center, put together a bunny trap – nothing could possibly go wrong!

A few months back an interesting topic came up in my carpool.  One of my carpool buddies works at the UC Davis Arboretum, and it came to her attention that there was a black and white rabbit running around the arboretum that visitors had seen from time to time.  I mentioned that it was a domestic rabbit that someone had probably disposed of, and that we could take it to a shelter where it would have a much better chance of survival.  One day we received a call that the rabbit had been spotted, so part of the OWCN team, plus a few extra hands from the Wildlife Health Center took to the arboretum in search of the mystery bunny.

Thirty minutes into the search we began to think that the phantom rabbit had moved on, and then we saw her hanging out in one of the gardens, munching on some drought tolerant Arboretum All Star plants.  Our team headed into the garden to grab the rabbit – easy, right?  Wrong.  While she did not seem very disturbed by our presence or attempts to capture her, she craftily evaded us by darting past at the last minute, only to resume chomping away at the abundant plant life.

Our wily bunny friend stays just out of reach under some branch cover.

Our wily bunny friend stays just out of reach under some branch cover.

At one point she darted over to the next garden and lodged herself in a very large, very prickly bush, and settled in for what appeared to be a short nap.  Surely we couldn’t allow this little gal to get the better of us, so we did what any good animal lover would do, and climbed into the bush.  Then we got a rather tiny surprise.  Not only was there a black and white bunny in the shrub, but there was a black and white baby bunny as well – that one proved easier to catch!  The little guy was big enough to be eating on his own, but appeared to be the only one left from her litter.  Black and white domestic bunnies in an arboretum full of wildlife do not stand much chance of survival, and juveniles are just the right size for a snack for a hungry predator.

We did manage to catch mom as well (after calling for additional back-up!), and they were delivered safely to the SPCA for adoption.  So long story short, when the OWCN isn’t responding to spills, we like to look out for animals of all kinds in every situation.  Please remember that if you can’t care for your domestic pet, they need to go to a shelter, NOT dumped into the wild!


My First Six Months in California

June 12, 2014

Hello all!

Welcome to my very first OWCN blog post! I won’t spend much time introducing myself, as Kyra wrote a very kind post about me and my history back in January. But I will say I’m thrilled to be here! It has been a whirlwind few months, as I get to know some of the amazing people who make up the network and learn how I can contribute to this incredible undertaking.

As someone who has always been a caretaker (whether it was animals or kids depends on what time period you’re asking about), office work has taken some getting used to. There’s a lot of oil-spill specific structure and procedure to learn.  Between the OWCN webinars, the University’s requirements, and skill-specific stuff like ATV operation, I think I’ve taken more trainings in the past six months than in the rest of my life put together (excepting college, I suppose).

However, I can honestly say that the biggest change from the last chapter of my life has been the climate. I’m still not used to seeing the sun every day. Apparently my sunglasses weren’t up to the challenge, because they gave up the ghost a month ago. Last week, I walked outside and realized that my breath was cooler than the breeze. That’s just bizarre.

But my vampiric, rain-soaked Seattle tendencies aside, there’s a lot to love about the change of scenery. The sheer variety of new (to me) species of birds in my backyard or on the drive to work is awe-inspiring. I’m even fascinated by the common species, like the little Black Phoebes – what personalities! I could watch the White-tailed Kites hover all day long, and I still see the Swainson’s Hawks and say, “What a weird Red-tail…”

All this got me thinking about what new seabird species I might encounter during the course of my duties. Which, in true neurotically-organized fashion, resulted in a list and some self-inflicted reading. So I thought I’d end this blog post with a few of the astonishing facts I’ve discovered during my reading. I hope you enjoy! I’ll look forward to seeing you out in the world, when you can return the favor and share your favorite animal facts with me.

1) Eared Grebes change their organ size seasonally, depending on what part of their migration/feeding cycle they are in. On lakes with high prey abundance, these grebes will allow their pectoral muscles to atrophy while increasing the size of their digestive and food storage organs. During this period, they eat like crazy, more than doubling their body mass. When food abundance dwindles, the birds switch to flight mode, catabolizing the stored fat, increasing their heart size, and drastically reducing their digestive organ mass.  Then they’ll make a nonstop flight to the next feeding site. This results in the most extreme avian example of phenotypic plasticity currently known, and it happens 3-6 times each year.


2) Black Terns are cool because of their gorgeous coloration and their status as the only freshwater-breeding North American tern. But my favorite fact is that while in marine environments during the non-breeding season, these birds have been seen resting on floating coconuts, water hyacinth, and basking sea turtles (in addition to the more traditional driftwood).

Dookey and John

3) Rather than plunge-diving like Brown Pelicans, American White Pelicans scoop prey into their pouches from a swimming or standing position. And I’m sure you’ve seen the – let’s admit it, disturbing – Youtube videos of Great White Pelicans swallowing live pigeons whole (something that has been documented in AWPEs too, though not in such a dramatic fashion). But to me, the most interesting thing about the feeding behavior of these birds is their cooperative foraging strategies. These birds have apparently read The Art of War, because like the Persians in the Battle of Thermopylae, they surround and herd their chosen prey, often driving schools of fish into shallow water where they can be scooped up at will. Like mealworms under an apple slice, or fish in a barrel.


OWCN Avian Care Protocols Available

May 28, 2014


At long last, the Third Edition of the OWCN “Protocols for the Care of Oil-Affected Birds” are available for viewing on the OWCN website. To access them, you will need your Member Organization’s username and password. We are absolutely thrilled that they are finally done. Except, of course, that they are not really “done”; our protocols will always be a moving target, as we continually strive to improve “best achievable care.” We consider the Protocols a living document that we will update as needed.

A huge number of people have contributed to the completion of this document, including Dr. Greg Massey, who started the process of revising the OWCN Protocols years before I started in this position. I want to thank Greg for getting the process started, and for all his input since. Other key contributors include Curt Clumpner, Dee Goodfriend, Diana Humple, and Dr. Erica Miller, all of whom provided extensive comments on earlier drafts that greatly improved the final product. Many others have reviewed and edited the document; too many people to list here. You know who you are, and know that you have our thanks!

The Protocols are designed for use by our Member Organizations; much of the content is specific to the oil spill response structure in the State of California. While many aspects of care may be generally applicable, we are not so presumptuous as to think we know the best or only way to care for oiled birds! That being said, we are strongly in favor of collaborating and sharing information and experience with other like-minded oiled animal care groups.

I hope you find the Protocols helpful and easy to use. If you find mistakes or have suggestions for improvements, please let me know. We intend it to be a living document, although we likely won’t perform another major overhaul for a few years. Keep in mind the OWCN Mentorship Research Program; major changes to our Protocols get incorporated because someone has an idea and the energy and enthusiasm to demonstrate that they work.

Thanks for all you do for wildlife!



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Last Chance to Register for HAZWOPER!

May 27, 2014

Hello all,

If you need to take the 8-hr HAZWOPER Refresher in June, you have 4 more days before registration closes.  This is the second time around that we are doing it this way – taking registrations the month before the Refresher.  This allows us to go through this list and approve the registration (if we have records of the initial 24-hr and latest 8-hr HAZWOPER taken, and if it was taken less than 2 years ago).  If we are missing any information, we will send you an email requesting you to send in either hard copies or scanned and emailed copies of your HAZWOPER classes.

To register, send an email to:




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