Snow, Marbled Murrelets, Glaciers, and Seabird Talks

February 27, 2014

Mike and I recently returned from Juneau, Alaska, where we participated in the Pacific Seabird Group annual meeting.  Between Thursday and Saturday of last week we were able to listen to a number of interesting talks about seabirds in the Pacific, learning everything from what seabirds eat to the most technologically-advanced gadgets for tracking seabirds (perfect for a gadget geek like me!).  In addition, Mike and I were co-conveners of a Special Paper Session entitled, “Oiled Seabird Rescue and Rehabilitation: Is it Worth It?”  This session was well-attended and featured ten excellent presentations.  The following is a list of the titles of the talks and the presenters:

  • Oiled seabird rescue and rehabilitation:  is it worth it? (Kyra Mills-Parker, OWCN – UC Davis)
  • Variables that can affect survival of oil-affected seabirds before, during, and after the rehabilitation process (Michael Ziccardi (OWCN – UC Davis)
  • Magnetic cleansing of oiled seabirds:  where are we and where to next? (Peter Dann, Phillip Island Nature Parks, Australia)
  • Impacts of major oil spills in California, 1994-2013 (Hannah Nevins, UC Davis, DFW-Marine Wildlife Veterinary Care and Research Center)
  • Longevity and dispersion of rehabilitated seabirds and waterfowl, 1980-2010: preliminary data from oiled bird band returns (Becky Duerr, International Bird Rescue)
  • Penguins clearly benefit from rehabilitation following exposure to oil (Valeria Ruoppolo, Univ. of Sao Paolo and IFAW)
  • Oiled wildlife response in New Zealand: the C/V Rena incident (Kerri Morgan, Massey Univ., presented by Michael Ziccardi)
  • Causes of seabird mortality in the immediate aftermath of the Rena oil spills, Bay of Plenty, New Zealand (Shane Baylis, Monash Univ.)
  • Impacts of the 2001 Jessica oil spill on endemic and native Galapagos birds, reptiles, and mammals (Howard Snell, Univ. of New Mexico)
  • Seabirds, oil spill response and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: DWH and changing management priorities (Roger Helm, USFWS)

Each of the talks offered interesting and thought-provoking information on different topics related to oil spill events, the effects of oiling on seabirds, and summaries of impacts and rehabilitation efforts. Full abstracts of each of these talks can be found at the PSG website by clicking here. The meeting provided a great opportunity to re-connect with old colleagues, meet new ones, and share ideas.  Despite the 50+ degree difference in temperature between Juneau and California, Mike and I were warmed, humbled, and inspired by this conference.

And yes, we did  see snow, glaciers, AND Marbled Murrelets (the last two only at a distance!).

Kyra

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Mike Ziccardi and Becky Duerr with Mendenhall Glacier in the background.


Planes, Trains, Automobiles…and Birds

September 20, 2013

Last month I traveled to Swansea, Wales, Great Britain (by plane) with two freeze-dried Western Grebes.  After a 4-hour train ride to Swansea, a short cab ride (automobile), and horrible jet lag, I was finally there (except for the fact that I had to drag my suitcase and the box of birds up three flights of narrow, crooked stairs, as they had no elevator in the “guest house”).  Telling people that I “traveled to Wales with two freeze dried Western Grebes” is a great conversation starter, as not too many people get to travel across the Atlantic with two wild birds, let alone birds that have been frozen and then dried (why in the world would you ever do that??).  When I tell people this, and once they finish their evaluation of whether I have finally fallen off my rocker, I can further explain why in fact I subjected myself to ten hours in a cramped airplane seat next to a very large (and smelly) Rugby player, inevitable jet lag, and bad British food for this.

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Freeze dried Western Grebe on the box that brought it to Wales.

The reason for this trip was to work with our collaborators, Sylvie Vandenabeele and Rory Wilson at Swansea University.  Our collaboration involves a study to track grebes after oil spills with the use of externally attached satellite transmitters.  I will get back to this in a minute, but wanted to diverge, so as to fill you in on some of the background information to complete the picture.

Western Grebes are a species of concern on the west coast of North America, as populations have declined pretty dramatically over the past several decades, particularly in Washington state.  This decline is disturbing in and of itself, but especially because there is no smoking gun (or more likely, guns) for this decline.  On top of this piece of bad news, Western Grebes are often impacted by both large and small (including natural seep) spills.  One of the missing pieces of this puzzle is a reliable method for being able to follow grebes that have been rehabilitated after oil spills, to see where they go, how long they survive, and if they return to “normal” behavior, such as breeding.  The tricky part has been that grebes have shown little tolerance to external tracking devices.  Because of this, there have been several studies with implantable satellite transmitters on grebes, including one in 2010 that was a collaborative effort between several folks from UC Davis, USGS, and field help from the Washington Dept. of Fish and Game. The results from this study are currently in the process of being reviewed for publication. The bottom line is that to use implantable satellite transmitters requires subjecting grebes to surgery, and this method, although very promising, especially with recent surgery modifications, is not 100% successful.  Therefore, without completely disregarding this option of using implantable transmitters, we are also exploring other options, including returning, once again, to external devices on the birds. The tricky part to this is that, as mentioned before, grebes are especially sensitive to stuff on their backs, and also, placing anything externally on a bird is going to somewhat alter how the air and the water flow over them when they are flying and diving.  This is, in a nutshell, why I traveled across the Atlantic with these two birds.

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Several satellite transmitters, including two from Sirtrack (black ones), a 9.5 solar one from North Star, and the implantable one that was used in the 2010 study (yellow).

As we all know, technology advances at a very fast rate, and when it comes to satellite tags (and other tracking devices), they are no exception.  These cool devices (if you are a gadget geek like me) have become smaller, lighter, and generally better, including some with cute little solar panels instead of batteries (see picture).  So we felt that the time was ripe to re-visit the external attachment option.  Western Grebes are not only strikingly beautiful birds, but they are also equally fascinating, as they breed in inland lakes but spend the post-breeding winter months along the Pacific coast in marine waters.  So these birds, in order to do well with anything attached to their backs that tracks them, must be able to fly well (for their long migrations) and swim and dive well (as that is how they get their food).

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Sylvie demonstrating how to attach a satellite transmitter to the back of a Western Grebe.

OK, now that you have a general idea of some background information, let’s get back to Swansea.  The original idea with the birds was to test them in the wind tunnel at Swansea, which Sylvie and Rory have ample experience with, in order to figure out a few things, including the best location to attach a satellite transmitter on a grebe so that the amount of drag in the air (while flying) and in the water (while diving) is minimal.  The other aspect of this study is to run these wind tunnel tests with several different types of satellite transmitters (that have different shapes, length and flexibility of the antenna).  Once these steps have been completed, we will be testing a very lightweight and flexible harness system to attach the satellite transmitter to.  The types of harnesses we will be using have been designed and developed by Sylvie (who presented some of her OWCN-funded research at the Effects of Oil on Wildlife Conference in New Orleans in 2012).  Our hope is to test out the harness system (first by itself, and then with a device) on live grebes at rehabilitation centers in California.  We will be observing the birds closely during this step, to look for signs of discomfort, chaffing, or injury caused by the harness, as well as making sure that the birds’ waterproofing is not affected.

Our hope is that by the completion of this study we will be armed with better knowledge on the best type of satellite transmitter to use that will minimally impact normal behaviors of the grebes, how best to attach it, and the ideal location to place it along the grebe body, so that we are ready to track this species after an oil spill.

Kyra.


Ten ducks walk into a bar . . . .

September 9, 2013

Just kidding. But OWCN staffers did have some fun with ducks lately, helping out veterinarian and Master’s student Dr. Shelley Smith with an interesting research project that has a lot of relevance for oil spill response. Using 10 “volunteer” domestic ducks, kindly lent to us by a real volunteer, we tested out temperature-sensitive microchips. These are like the microchips that you can have placed in your dog or cat for identification, but in addition to containing an ID number, they read temperature. Our hope is that they will be accurate enough so that during a spill, we can simply wave a chip reader over an oiled bird and read its temperature, instead of having to pick up the bird, place a thermometer up its butt, and wait for the thermometer to read. Think of how much easier that would be, both on the bird AND on the people!

A duck getting a microchip implanted.

A duck getting a microchip implanted.

Shelley is testing two sites for the chip, one by the hip and one in the pectoral muscle. She’s comparing temperatures of both chips to cloacal temperature and proventricular (stomach) temperature. The initial part of the study went great, with lots of help from veterinary students and OWCN staff, as well as logistic help from International Bird Rescue. We even developed a “new” handling technique for ducks, called the “Cross Your Heart” duck restraint method, demonstrated beautifully by Becky in the photo below.

Becky single-handedly restraining a duck while taking its cloacal and stomach temperature.

Becky single-handedly restraining a duck while taking its cloacal and stomach temperature.

Another benefit of this study was the experience it gave in avian handling to several veterinary students. We asked the Wildlife club at the vet school if anyone was interested in volunteering their help, and we got an overwhelming response!  Fourteen veterinary students lent a hand and learned a little bit about birds and research in the process.

Shelley reading a microchip while veterinary student Maris restrains a duck.

Shelley reading a microchip while third-year veterinary student Maris restrains a duck.

Shelley is working on analyzing the data, but we hope to hear about the results soon. She’ll be presenting at Oilapalooza, so look forward to hearing from her there. If the data look good, our next step is trying the chips on seabirds!

Christine


Jam-Packed Week in the World of Wildlife!

April 26, 2013

Hello all-

Wow!  What a busy week for wildlife issues and events – some good and some not so much. To keep this blog post at Kaiti-approved length (for those of you who are old like me and remember our former Volunteer Coordinator-turned-ecolawyer), here are the highlights:

 

Deepwater Horizon Spill (Courtesy Wikipedia)

Apr 20th = 3rd year anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon Spill. It’s hard to believe that it has been three years since that event rocked the oil spill world. Efforts are still underway to understand the impacts to the Gulf of Mexico from this blowout, with some info just now being released on marine mammal issues (see below). On the readiness side, the OWCN is finalizing a first draft of new and expanded national Oiled Marine Mammal Guidelines for NOAA-NMFS that will hopefully help address some of the key issues this spill raised.

Apr 21 = Oiled wildlife training for the International Association of Aquatic Animal Medicine (IAAAM) conference, hosted by The Marine Mammal Center. Christine, Nancy and I gave a day-long course to over 40 international marine animal professionals (mostly marine mammal vets, but several others of various ilk). The course was long on Powerpoints (cramming oil spill info on mammal and birds species over a short time period), but did include a great hands-on portion where TMMC allowed us to do “processing and intake” on four juvenile elephant seals. Overall, it was a great enthusiastic group – special thx to Frances Gulland and Tenaya Norris for organizing, as well as the entire TMMC vet/husbandry staff for pitching in during a very busy day!

Platform A Oil Spill (courtesy MSNBC)

Apr 22nd = Earth Day. In 1970, the concept of Earth Day was developed by Gaylord Nelson, US Senator from Wisconsin, after witnessing the effects of the 1969 Platform A blowout in Santa Barbara. He felt that if he could infuse that energy with an emerging public consciousness about air and water pollution, it would force environmental protection onto the national political agenda. Since that time, Earth Day has held a special place in our hearts within the oil spill community, as it led to the formation of the USEPA, the Clean Water Act, and the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (OPA90). For more info on this event and its history, please visit http://www.earthday.org/earth-day-history-movement.

Apr 22nd – 25th = IAAAM Conference at Cavallo Point Lodge, Sausalito. This international meeting brought together more than 440 wildlife professionals from 25 countries to discuss issues and research findings pertinent to our marine species. The setting was gorgeous, the papers and posters fascinating, and the discussions and networking capabilities were thought-provoking and exciting. Especially relevant was presentations by Drs. Stephanie Venn-Watson and Cynthia Smith of the National Marine Mammal Foundation on health affects being seen in bottlenose dolphins from the coastal Louisiana region. Fascinating work that may assist us in better understanding the unusual mortality event that continues to rage there, and the possible effects that the DWH spill had on this species. More info on the conference can be found at http://www.iaaam.org.

Oiled little blue penguins (Courtesy Maritime NZ)

Oiled little blue penguins (Courtesy Maritime NZ)

Apr 25th = World Penguin Day. To round out a crazy busy week, we took a day to appreciate and better understand the amazing animals that are penguins. As we are all aware, penguins are key animals for us to describe the horrific effects of oil on animals (as the Treasure and Oliva oil spills) as well as the significantly positive results that can be seen with effective and professional rehabilitation (as SANCCOB/IBRRC/IFAW and Massey University have shown). Further, these birds have led to significant research on the long-term effects of oiling on marine species and given us great data to base arguments on the merits of intervention after oil spills. Lastly (and something I did not know before), they can tell us a lot about our own personality types! If you haven’t yet done so, go take the Pew Charitable Trust Penguin Personality Quiz (as well as learn about the conservation efforts for “your” species). BTW – Adelie penguins rule!

OK, so much for “highlights”! I hope everyone has a great restful and oil-free weekend!

- Mike

 


Uncommon Murres

March 12, 2013

Our last blog mentioned that we were preparing to head out to start captures for our common murre dispersant study.  As all of you who work with wildlife know, wildlife doesn’t always care about your carefully laid plans.  Emily and Kyra, joined by Curt Clumpner of International Bird Rescue, headed out in an OWCN boat to do some recon, and saw very few birds.  By very few birds, I mean they saw about 15 common murres between all of Monterey Bay and Half Moon Bay.  Needless to say, not enough for us to go ahead and launch in March.  The actual capture of the birds is done at night, and requires us to capture around the time of a new moon, which limits when we can actually go out to capture.  Left with our next potential capture period being around April 10th, we decided it is a little too close to the breeding season, so we will delay our study until the coming fall.  Stay tuned for murre study updates…

-Becky


OWCN Research: Effects of Dispersant on Common Murres

March 8, 2013

The OWCN staff has been busy the past month preparing to launch a study for part of our in-house research program.  Our study is centered on investigating the effects of chemical dispersant and chemically dispersed oil on the waterproofing of Common Murres.  A previous study using Common Murre feathers, showed that dispersant did affect the individual feather structure, so phase 2 of our study will focus on the effects on live birds.

This study will examine whether there are any physical effects to the birds, such as feather structure and temperature change, as well as behavioral effects, such as more time spent preening, when birds are exposed to various concentrations of chemical dispersant or chemically dispersed oil.  The birds will receive the best possible veterinary care while in captivity, and they will be washed, and released back to the wild as soon as possible.

As always, the OWCN research program is focused on applying the best available science to oiled wildlife issues, and we hope that our results will help to provide sound information for oil spill response personnel to utilize when determining whether to use chemical dispersant at a spill.

-Becky


Birds and Nail Polish

January 17, 2013

OWCN has been painting bird beaks with nail polish over the past few weeks….and we actually have a good reason!  We have been investigating non-invasive methods to mark birds in captivity – something that will allow us to identify individuals, even when other marking methods, such as leg bands, might be hidden from view, or without actually handling the animal.  We also wanted to utilize a method that didn’t require us to put anything on the feathers, thereby avoiding potential waterproofing issues, and also something that would not come off in the water.  Nail polish is of course commonly used on humans, but is successfully used to mark wild animals for studies, and even in rehabilitation centers on occasion.  We used a fast drying, low scent polish on the birds, and have a no-odor, acetone free remover to take it off, approved by our veterinarians.  Preliminary results showed no adverse effects to the birds, and we will be examining our method more in depth next month.

A common murre sporting "Lively Lilac", as we test out marking methods on birds at International Bird Rescue.

A common murre sporting “Lively Lilac”, as we test out marking methods on birds at International Bird Rescue.

The ability to identify individuals opens up many possibilities for the OWCN.  For example, during a spill we could potentially mark all animals that need to be medicated daily with a certain color, making it easy to pull those individuals out.  Additionally, the OWCN has two research studies lined up where we intend to use this marking method in order to identify birds by video camera.

We look forward to sharing more results with you all soon!

-Becky


Sea otter captures

October 18, 2012

Amid planning for Oilapalooza, a number of OWCN staff members have been heading down to the central coast to participate in a multi-agency/university/institution project designed to investigate the health of the southern sea otter.  It seems especially appropriate this year that Oilapalooza is going to be held at the “otter Taj Mahal,” as we sometimes call the Marine Wildlife Veterinary Care and Research Center.  Nancy, Kyra, Emily, and me all spent time in the Morro Bay area this month to provide expertise to the project, as well as enjoy time with friends and colleagues on this gorgeous section of the California coast.

The shore at San Simeon

Although the project is not explicitly about oil spill response, the scientists, students, and technicians involved in the project would all fill key roles in a response should the need for one arise (quick, find some wood for me to knock on!), so it is essential that we all work well together and practice our sea otter capture, handling, and medical skills.  This effort is being led by Dr. Tim Tinker of the US Geological Survey (that’s the research branch of the federal government), with plenty of help from UCSC, Monterey Bay Aquarium, CA Fish & Game, NOAA, and UC Davis folks, among others.  It’s a great example of multi-institutional cooperation (yes, we all CAN get along!) and represents a supreme exercise in organization, especially by Tim and also Michelle Steadler of the Aquarium.

Michelle hauling an otter up the beach for processing.

Marissa and Emily with their flowers.

Speaking of organization, once they arrived on shore the otters went through a carefully choreographed process to get weighed, anesthetized, measured, sampled, and instrumented.  Without the veterinary technicians, Marissa from the Aquarium, Summer from the Santa Barbara Zoo, and our own Emily, we would all have been lost.  We try never to take them for granted, but as this was National Veterinary Technician Week, we tried especially hard to show them how much we appreciate them!

The best part of working with animals is sending them home, and this was no different: watching the otters swim away was always the most exciting part of the process!  Although the team is not quite finished with captures, at last check all the animals who had been handled and released for the project had been sighted and appeared to be doing well.  Over the next couple of years, we’ll be learning an enormous amount from these sea otters; let’s hope we gain this knowledge before it’s too late to save the species.

A sea otter is released back to her habitat.

The OWCN staff is excited to head down to Santa Cruz and see all our Network friends.  Oilapalooza in T-9 days!

Christine


Historical Data Entry

October 1, 2012

Over the past two months, we have embarked on a project to compile all of our historical oiled animal records into an electronic database. Unfortunately, oil spills generate massive amounts of data, but not much time to put the information into a searchable format! Until now, much of our in-depth animal care data from the 1990’s and early 2000’s was relegated to dusty file cabinets in our offices. Our newest OWCN staff member is now hard at work bringing that information into the digital age. Esther joins us as a temporary employee who has jumped into this task with impressive enthusiasm, and is rapidly rendering the old file cabinets unnecessary. Esther is entering detailed processing logs with information such as percentage and depth of oiling, as well as medical data collected through the course of rehabilitation including body weights, laboratory values, and wash information. These data, along with detailed disposition information, will enable us to mine for detailed answers about the effects of oiling on wildlife.  Looking back at these old records is an impressive reminder of the many people who have contributed to the OWCN and cared for oiled wildlife over the past two decades. We have recently updated our website with a complete list of oil spill responses managed by the OWCN since its inception in the early 1990’s, and this long list is a testament to all of this hard work.

- Emily


Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill: Two Years and Counting…

April 20, 2012

Last year, on this date, I noted that the DWH spill was still very much in everyones minds and hearts through retrospective media reports, images and personal stories.  Now that we are at two years after the start of the incident, media (and public) interest once again has peaked about the spill, but for more troubling reasons from an environmental perspective.

Reports have begun to surface related to potential impacts on the flora and fauna of the Gulf of Mexico – impacts that scientists are attempting to carefully determine whether they may be associated with the more than 200 million gallons of crude oil and the more than 1.8 million gallons of chemical dispersant applied. These (with appropriate links) include:

However, there is some good news on this front. Scientists, with sizable funding support, are attacking these questions with a voracity that is rarely seen with environmental issues, attempting to ascertain the root causes of these (and other) problems. While it is easy to point the finger and blame the spill outright for such impacts, without using sound scientific principles, the ultimate outcomes can become muddled due to little baseline (pre-spill) information, the possibility of several “smoking guns” causing sick animals, and other confounding issues. With the skills of the folks working these problems, I have little doubt that we will get better results than is often seen after other disasters.

You may say “who cares?” a bit to all this science-speak; the environment is still messed up. And shouldn’t we concentrate on other more important issues, such as increasing prevention and better understanding how to care for oiled animals in the future? Well, I would say: why not do all three? In addition to the Natural Resource Damage Assessment projects going on, we have basic science occuring, with organizations such as the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative allocating hundreds of millions of dollars to better understand the impacts of oil and dispersant on the GoM ecosystem. We also have significant efforts occurring at the Federal level to minimize the risks of incidents such as the DWH occurring in the future, with new innovations on blowout prevention and control coming forward and a newly-aligned MMS focusing on the risks.

On the oiled wildlife front, most oiled wildlife response organizations I know of have taken the time to evaluate their own processes and methods to see how they can do things better. Just this past week, Emily gave a webinar on changes to the OWCN protocols for animal care, and a fully revised version of both the oiled bird as well as mammal protocols, are on the horizon. On the international front, a newly-energized effort has been taking place trying to better develop a method to provide worldwide oiled wildlife response capabilities through a organized collaboration of key organizations. In all, these are exciting times!

This is not to say we should become complacent. The best clean-up effort, after all, is prevention of oiling of our wildlife in the first place. Both Nationally as well as Internationally, we have a long way to go to be able to be comfortable with our plans and systems. On the oiled wildlife side, while we have come a long way in the past decades, we always have things to learn and plans to develop and test to ensure rapid, efficient and effective collection and care, should animals become affected.

In closing, I would like to conclude this blog/discussion/soapbox asking you to join me in remembering the 11 crewmembers of the Deepwater Horizon rig who perished on this day. I wish everyone a safe and healthy April 20th.

- Mike


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