Valuable Lessons

Since my last blog in June, a lot has happened on the field ops side, including (and especially!) the Grove Incident in Ventura.  Approach of a holiday weekend, once again, signaled the springing into action of the OWCN Management Team (two years ago the OWCN was activated on the 4th of July for the Tesoro Spill, last year we were activated for the Refugio Incident on Memorial Day, and this year we were activated on the 4th of July for Grove).  I’m starting to dread holidays.

As I mentioned in my last post, in an attempt to better prepare for inland expansion, the Field Ops team is increasing the amount and types of field equipment (both hazing and recovery), and pre-staging them in several parts of the state.  In addition, we have recently expanded the core hazing team by incorporating staff biologists from the Institute for Wildlife Studies (IWS).  These biologists normally work on projects scattered throughout the state, and thus are likely to be in relative proximity to any given inland spill.  The Grove Incident allowed us to test our initial inland preparedness plans, as well as highlight several issues we will likely face in future inland spills, including:

  1. Difficulty of access to the spill site for initial recon and recovery, as well as setting up of hazing equipment. This was the case at the Grove Incident due to the steep walls of the canyon, heavy brush, and requirements for 40-hr HAZWOPER training and respirators for anyone going into the canyon.  Of course, that was where we needed our field teams to be, and this delayed some essential parts of our initial response.  Nevertheless, safety of our personnel was uppermost in our minds, and though lack of access was frustrating, we were glad that the safety officers were looking out for us.  Several Office of Spill Prevention and Response (OSPR) personnel, who were allowed to go into the canyon, helped us with some of the initial needs.  Ultimately, we were able to gain access into the oiled portion of the canyon and deploy both hazing and recovery equipment, but we were closely monitored at all times by air

    Mylar streams along the creek bed to deter birds.

    quality monitors.

  2. Difficulty of deploying even the simplest hazing devices (such as mylar tape) because of inability to access the spill site. We were able to get OSPR personnel to put some mylar up for us in the spill zone, and we placed restrictive fencing and hazing devices (mylar, security lighting, predator lights, and trail cameras) in the areas of the streambed we were allowed into, both upstream and downstream of the spill.  The idea behind deploying this equipment was to deter and restrict wildlife from walking along the streambed and into the spill area.  Once we had access to the spill area we deployed additional mylar, which helped prevent birds from coming into contact with the oil, and predator lights to reduce the likelihood of animals like foxes, coyotes, etc. from walking into the oiled areas.
  3. Difficulty of identifying which species were getting oiled. We quickly realized we had no idea what animals (species and numbers) were around the oil due to the heavy brush and restricted access.  We were able to check flighted birds for oil with binoculars if they were outside the restricted area, and that allowed us to focus on capturing any that were oiled.  In order to know what animals might be moving into the oiled area at night, and their oiling status, we borrowed trail cameras from another project.  These cameras were essential in providing information on the use of the area by animals during the night, and this made us realize that we needed to add trail cameras to our own field ops inventory.
  4. Difficulty capturing oiled animals. With the exception of one oiled woodrat, and a few animals like a gray fox seen on camera with slight oiling on its feet, the remainder of observed oiled animals were flighted birds that had to be captured in traps.  No more setting out into the field with a long-handled dip net, like in marine spills.  Instead, we had to utilize bait stations and a variety of trap styles and sizes in areas where oiled birds (jays and towhees, mainly) were spotted.  We also used mist nets to survey the bird populations that we couldn’t easily observe directly for oiling status.

    Grove SCJA

    Western Scrub Jay in Grove area.

  5. Difficulty assessing smaller ground animals such as rodents and reptiles that were difficult to observe on the trail cameras. We ultimately set large numbers of rodent and reptile traps in order to survey the populations in the area of the spill, and found minimal oil presence on the animals.  We realized that this kind of trapping should be done proactively and as early in the spill as possible to quickly identify the animals that had more significant oil before they simply disappeared into the brush due to illness or death.
  6. Challenges of doing hazing and recovery activities at the same time. Because this spill required active hazing, but also required recovery personnel ready to pick up any affected animals, we quickly realized that field teams that combined hazing and recovery personnel would be most effective, although this presented more of a challenge with regards to coordination and flexibility for both the field teams and the field supervisor. In future spills we anticipate that having field teams knowledgeable and capable of performing both hazing and recovery tasks will be much more important than having these streams separate.  We are hopeful that our new OWCN training program (officially to be launched in September) will better prepare for responders that are cross-trained for both types of field activities, as well as increase their comfort level in using different field techniques needed for inland spills.
Grove Incident Photo

OWCN Field Ops Team: Richard Grise (International Bird Rescue), Gayle Uyehara (California Wildlife Center), Jake Manley (Institute for Wildlife Studies), and Jamie Bourdon (UC Davis).

In summary, the Grove Incident gave us lots of food for thought, and gave us an opportunity to try out new equipment, techniques, and work with new personnel on our team.  We really appreciated the “old hands” that came from Member Orgs to contribute their experience from other spills, and the integration with the IWS biologists who brought lots of hazing and capture knowledge of inland animals.  I thought everyone did great work over really long days (daylight to dark in many cases), and am extremely appreciative of their efforts and willingness to go above and beyond.

Over the next few weeks we will be having several meetings to talk about “lessons learned” and how we can improve in the future, but we feel that we can now go forward in a more informed way to prepare for the next spill, whether inland or marine, and will be better able to meet the next set of challenges.

– Winston

Pelicans Post Refugio

It has been over one year since we released 12 oiled and rehabilitated, and 8 control brown pelicans equipped with satellite tags. After the Refugio oil spill in Santa Barbara, the OWCN decided to follow 12 pelicans after release to try to better document survival and movement patterns of birds that were oiled and subsequently captured, cleaned, and rehabilitated. We also caught, tagged, and released 8 unoiled pelicans as controls for comparison.

If you read this blog regularly, you’ll know a little bit about these birds already. All of the pelicans, oiled and control, survived for a full 3 months. Nearly all of the oiled birds took long journeys; some moved a total distance of nearly 5000 km by the end of January! Several pelicans spent the fall on the Oregon coast or in Baja California. This is extremely valuable information, as it demonstrates that a pelican recently oiled and in captivity, as well as equipped with a harness and satellite tag, may travel over extended distances.

We also learned that many of these pelicans appeared to behave normally, at least at the coarse scale that we were able to measure. Traveling long distances is great, but it’s not everything; we want to know *where* they traveled. If we’d gotten transmissions from Kansas City or Edmonton, we’d be a little concerned! But in fact, all of the tagged birds moved up or down the coast and frequented sites where pelicans live. In other words, our tagged birds behaved like California pelicans.

One year later, two control and one oiled bird are still transmitting. At least one oiled bird that “disappeared” may have a faulty tag; it came back to life (!!) briefly last month, and seemed to have perfectly normal pelican movements over a couple of days before it stopped transmitting again. In addition, we’ve gotten a couple reports of tagged birds being spotted in the wild doing well, despite the fact that they stopped transmitting months ago. That means that some of the birds that we thought had died might just have faulty tags, or lost their tags.

See the first map below for the locations of the three birds still transmitting. There is one in dark red north of LA, one in San Diego, and one on the northwestern coast of the Gulf of California.

early aug 2016In the next map, you can see a close-up of the bird in Ventura. This is a control pelican. In the first map, it appears as a single dot, but when you zoom in, you can see that it’s making typical flights back and forth across Ventura harbor. close up N12 aug 2016We’ll be analyzing data from this study for some time, but the initial findings are pretty fascinating! Knowing that many of these birds survive oiling and captivity and go on to live in their “homes” is a thrill, a relief, a comfort, and a vindication of all that we do.


P.S. Birders, keep reporting those green-banded pelicans here!! Blue-banded pelicans can be reported to our partners at International Bird Rescue here.


Mt Shuksan ashes05009_01

A Glimpse of the Summit

The two constants over the 20 + years since the birth of the Oiled Wildlife Care Network have been change and striving to improve as individual organizations and as a team. We are currently working feverishly to re-envision our training program in order to achieve consistent excellence across all areas of a wildlife response anywhere in California – expanding into inland areas and species with new organizations and responders while leveraging the knowledge and experience of our marine base. Over the next 6 months you will see more of the specifics of this change in the training program as each of the elements go live. The greatest strength of OWCN is the knowledge of its organizations and people, and finding ways to best use that knowledge and experience for maximum impact in wildlife response is our ultimate goal.

Today I get to share with you an event whose goal is exactly that, and one element that I am personally very excited about. As a part of our efforts to evolve the OWCN training program to meet the challenges of our expanded responsibilities for all of California, October will see an example of that new culture with the debut of the first OWCN Wildlife Summit. We admit like so many great ideas it is not original. The concept is based on the annual NW Area Plan Summit held in Seattle, but we are the first (we think) to bring it into focus on wildlife.

The OWCN Wildlife Summit has a number of goals all built on the idea that the OWCN is a world leader because of its unique mix of member organizations, the UC Davis Management Team, and consistent financial support through OSPR and industry to continually invest in best achievable capture and care.

  1. To provide a regular (every two years) review of our protocols and procedures for the capture and care of oil affected wildlife and the Wildlife Plan for California by both the OWCN Management Team (e.g., UC Davis staff) and the Member Organizations.
  2. To provide an opportunity for discussion and prioritization of additions or adjustments by the OWCN Management team, representatives from Member Organizations, and key trustee representatives based on our collective experience summit to summit and a mechanism to facilitate workgroups produce response tools based on those discussions.
  3. An opportunity to familiarize Member Organizations with the equipment stockpile for wildlife response that the OWCN has in Davis and seek input on equipment additions and remote stockpiles.
  4. To provide an opportunity for Member Organization input on priorities for wildlife response exercises.

The initial OWCN Wildlife Summit will take place October 15 and 16 in Davis. Saturday will be a day long discussion/work party focusing on plans, protocols, and exercises. Sunday morning will be dedicated to equipment with activities taking place at the “Boneyard” where OWCN’s stockpile of response equipment is stored. Walk through displays of mobile equipment and storage areas will provide fuel for discussions on additional equipment needs, deployment strategies and remote stockpiles.


Space will be limited and we are looking for active participants with ideas and energy dedicated to improving our collective readiness, but at least one spot will be held for each Member Organization until the mid September registration deadline. Slots not claimed by the deadline will then be distributed among nominated candidates – subject matter expert from member organizations wanting to send multiple representatives as well as other interested representatives from other stakeholders from industry and trustee agencies such as OSPR, USFWS, and NOAA.

Specific information on registration, travel support and preparation will be going out to our Member Organization contacts in early August. Because of the size and scope of this event, our plan is to rotate this event alternating years with Oilapalooza. Don’t worry though – new and exciting training opportunities will be announced soon to make sure even on the years where Oilapalooza isn’t held, hands-on training experiences can be found within the OWCN!

I think this will be a fun and productive event and I hope many of you will be there. For those who aren’t, I can assure you we will be sharing the results in a variety of ways including a future blog.


Fun at Take Our Kids to Work Day with CALPERS

A few weeks ago Scott Buhl and I headed over to Sacramento to man a booth at CALPERS Take Our Kids to Work Day. We had a lot of fun getting to know 100+ kids ranging in age from 4 to 14. Kids and adults alike loved to touch the otter pelts we brought. Because our audience was wowed by the amazing softness of otter fur, we were also able to share fun facts such as: Otter’s have the most dense hair coat in the world with up to one million hairs per square inch!

Scott Buhl talks with student about sea otters at CALPERS Take Our Kids to Work Day

Scott Buhl talks with student about sea otters at CALPERS Take Our Kids to Work Day

In addition to otters, we also encouraged kids to experiment with chicken feathers to see how contaminants such as oil destroy a feather’s ability to resist water. Once oiled, water can penetrate through a bird’s feathers (or otter’s fur). This causes birds to lose the ability to thermoregulate (keep warm) and reduces their ability to float. Both can result in birds or otters starting to drown. This is why even though normal seabirds and sea otters rarely leave the water, we find them beached during oil spills. It is a sign of the severe damage oil does to animals.

Nancy Anderson shows kids how to get started with feather experiment

Nancy Anderson shows kids how to get started with feather experiment

Finally, we were able to share how the Oiled Wildlife Care Network (OWCN) can make a positive difference by rescuing and rehabilitating oiled animals during spills. Our mission is to provide the best achievable capture and care of oiled wildlife. Because of the support of the people and the State of California; OWCN, our partner wildlife rehabilitation organizations and affiliated agencies are given the chance to make a terrible situation a little better for wildlife.


Reaching Out (i.e. education and outreach to the public) is one of OWCN’s most important goals. While the OWCN, our Member Organizations and Affiliated Agencies can rescue and rehabilitate wildlife, it is the citizens of the state of California that have the real power. Once people learn about the effects of oil on wildlife and their own health, they are usually moved to try make a difference. Actions can include appropriate disposal of waste so that it does not enter storm drains, support of legislation that protects the environment, or volunteering to help during oil spills or other environmental catastrophes. We can make the biggest difference when we are aware of what is happening and use this knowledge to work together to make things better.



OWCN International!

I hope everyone is having a great, relatively oil-free summer. The OWCN Management Team here at Davis is trying to stay cool in the lovely Central Valley heat while staying busy on readiness and response activities (including the Grove Incident in Ventura, which we look forward to giving everyone a detailed accounting of as soon as it is over – for now, you can catch some of the details on OSPR’s Cal Spill Watch website as well as Ventura County Star coverage).

One thing that has been personally keeping me particularly busy in 2016 so far is trying to figure out the best way to share the skills, knowledge, and experience that the Wildlife Health Center here at UC Davis has gained by managing the OWCN for OSPR over the past 20+ years with other regions outside of California. We are extremely proud of our Network and its fabulous partners throughout the state, and feel it is critical to be able to share the readiness accomplishments more broadly to help other regions of the world while maintaining the excellent readiness and capabilities we have in California.

While there are a number of different projects and partnerships that we are exploring, I wanted to share information on three of those that are currently actively being worked on:


  • Global Oiled Wildlife Response System (GOWRS): This project (discussed by me in an earlier blog) is aimed at developing the foundations for a response system that can be accessed by the oil industry and other stakeholders in the event of an oil spill incident requiring international wildlife response resources (Tier 3 response). The system would enhance the response capability of existing wildlife response organizations through a common operating procedure and shared standards that would allow for unity of effort in the event of an incident requiring the support of multiple organizational resources. The project is currently made up of representatives from: Aiuká (Brazil); Focus Wildlife International (USA & Canada); International Bird Rescue (USA);  Oiled Wildlife Care Network, Wildlife Health Center, UC Davis (USA); PRO Bird (Germany); RSPCA (UK); SANCCOB (South Africa); Sea Alarm Foundation (Belgium);  Tri-State Bird Rescue & Research Inc (USA); Wildbase, Massey University (New Zealand); and Wildlife Rescue Centre Ostend (Belgium). Specifically, the JIP20 project partners have now delivered draft versions of the Standard Operating Procedures and the Animal Standards for response, and are actively working on a governance system to enable streamlined and efficient decision-making and deployment to occur. We have had two in-person meetings to date on this effort, with a third scheduled for early August in Delaware. For more info on the overall OSR-JIP project, please go here.


  • Oiled Wildlife Response Training (OWRT): This project, developed in close partnership with Wildbase, Massey University (NZ), is designed to create a cutting edge training program that utilizes modern and interactive technologies, coupled with scenario-based in-person instruction, to deliver comprehensive training information. The OWRT has multiple training paths that may be modified to meet specific organizational needs, producing high quality responders ranging from entry level personnel to managers of large-scale oiled wildlife responses. Currently, Massey/UC Davis is readying the roll-out of the first online module (Foundations for Oiled Wildlife Response), with additional modules to come online in the coming months to years. Ancillary benefits to the OWCN program in Californa in collaborating in this manner have been the exposure to more interactive, hands-on online offerings that have shown us better ways of conveying information through the OWCN’s Webinars. So stay tuned for revised Cores! For more info on the OWRT, please go here.


  • International Exercises: In partnership with Sea Alarm Foundation (Belgium), UC Davis staff have been exploring providing in-person directed training opportunities to specific industry clients in key management positions, as well as providing staffing and coaching during broad-based industry exercises that involve wildlife. In June, Hugo Nijkamp and I attended such an event in Malta to provide expertise in these ways, helping to guide personnel on-site in the development of initial wildlife plans, determine the best means to respond with limited resources, and help work through some challenging scenarios. We also took the opportunity to test some of the initial phases of the GOWRS system, seeing how easily it may have been to mount a Tier 3 response based on the information within the exercise.

While there are a number of other exciting and interesting opportunities that we are pursuing, I am currently pushing my self-imposed 800-word limit on blog length (and for those who followed me during Deepwater Horizon, you are probably thanking me!). Suffice it to say, the OWCN has become a world-recognized program on effective oiled wildlife preparedness and response due to the diligence and dedication of all of our staff, volunteers, and Member Organizations that make up OUR Network. We hope that, through an expanded outreach effort to other regions, similar care to animals in crisis can be afforded during international incidents.



Creatures Great and Small

As many of you are probably aware, the OWCN was activated this past weekend to respond to the Grove Incident Oil Spill in Ventura County.  Thanks to the quick work of early responders, the oil was contained before it could reach the ocean.  However, a stretch of dry gorge was contaminated, and cleanup efforts – including wildlife deterrence and searches by OWCN responders – are now underway.  You can get more information on the spill and response efforts from the Cal Spill Watch page, just click here.

I won’t steal Field Operations’s thunder – Hazing and Recovery have been doing an amazing job and I look forward to hearing more about their efforts in the near future! I’m sure we’ll all be discussing and learning from this early inland response over the coming months as well.

That said, I find it interesting to think about the types of animals that have been collected so far: wood rats, a gopher snake, a raccoon, and a rabbit.  (Unfortunately only one of these animals was collected alive; the collection of deceased animals from a spill zone is important for a number of reasons, including to reduce the attractiveness of the area to scavengers and to help with Natural Resource Damage Assessment).  

None of these species are highly visible or “charismatic”.  But they’re the type of animals we’re likely to encounter often in inland spill response – rodents, other small mammals, small reptiles, and in soggier habitats, amphibians too.  They’re easy to overlook and take for granted, and they’re not flashy like whales and mountain lions and albatrosses, but they each fill an important place in the ecosystem.

And that’s our mission – to provide the best achievable capture and care to oil-affected wildlife, great or small.  To meet that goal, we’ve got to get to know them all.  I know I’ve certainly got a lot to learn – probably enough to fill a lifetime.

But that’s OK with me.  One of my favorite things is how easy it is to be surprised when it comes to animals.  Just by taking a closer look at a species’ natural history, even a species you thought was boring or mundane, you can find fascinating things.

For example, let’s take the lowly woodrat.  Did you know that woodrats are also commonly known as packrats, and are usually not particularly pesky to people – unlike their invasive cousins, the Norway and black rats – except when they set up their nests in inconvenient locations or steal shiny things to line those nests with?  They drum their hind feet when alarmed, Desert Woodrats are scary good at navigating cacti without injuring themselves, and Stephens’s Woodrats eat a great deal of juniper but don’t seem to be affected by the chemical compounds that make the plant indigestible to most other mammals.


It doesn’t end there!  Nests (aka middens) can be used by successive generations of woodrats, each building onto what the last generation left behind.  Fossilized middens provide an invaluable source of information to scientists looking to understand historical biomes and ecosystems.

I’ll admit that I have a soft spots for rodents (that’s what you get when you’re raised by a squirrel rehabilitator) but still!  I find it impossible to investigate a species without finding something interesting along the way.  So I invite you to join me in my quest to get to know all of California’s wildlife.  If you find anything particularly cool, let me know in the comments below, and I’ll see if can dig up some interesting facts to share in some future post.

Take care until next time!


OWCN’s Hazing Program, Part 2

In my last blog post I mentioned that as we continue to plan for inland response, on the hazing side, we have recently expanded our supply of hazing equipment, identified locations where this equipment will be stored, and continued to enhance our list of core hazing responders.  To that end, on the equipment side, we have purchased two new hazing trailers and are in the process of equipping and staging them.  One trailer has already been moved to the far northeastern portion of the state (Alturas), which is close to one of the locations identified as “high risk” areas for inland spills (areas, that because of previous derailments, rough terrain, rock slide-prone areas) have been deemed as having  a higher likelihood of spills into waterways. The trailers that are being equipped with hazing supplies also carry some Wildlife Recovery equipment as part of our integration of hazing and recovery (= Field Operation) capabilities.  We are planning additional equipment staging in Redding, the Feather River Canyon area, Bakersfield, and potentially other locations – once again, close to high risk inland areas.  These staged supplies can help speed the early response by ensuring that the first responders have adequate and readily available equipment so they can hit the ground running while other supplies may be in transit from Davis.


Flags and “scary eyes” are hazing techniques commonly used in lakes and rivers.

The other activity I have been involved with recently is meeting with inland species hazing experts and looking at ways to test some specialized hazing devices.  In addition to testing new hazing methods and staging hazing equipment as part of inland response planning, Scott, Kyra, and I have been meeting regularly to develop a strategy for field op integration.  Since both recovery and hazing personnel would be in the field during a response, it makes sense to try to integrate these two groups as much as possible.  Field response strategies can include anything from deterrence (keeping animals away from oil), pre-emptive capture (the capture of animals before they get oiled), or oiled wildlife capture.  As you can imagine, given the array of species that use waterways of the state that might be affected by spills (creeks, rivers, lakes, and ponds), it is a daunting task to try to prepare for every eventuality – in fact not possible.  But we are working with our network partners, the wildlife agencies, and others to have the necessary information at hand, when a spill occurs, for who to call for specialized skills for hazing, capture, and care.

Going through this planning process challenges all of us to think outside our previous experience and planning, which is both challenging and rewarding.  We feel up to the task with the help of all of our partner organizations and others that may join in the future.