Trail Camera Trials and Tribulations

Trail cameras, or camera traps as they are often called, are used for many purposes in the scientific community. Biologists use them in a variety of ways including to aid in observing wildlife activity, wildlife behavior, nest predation, developing population estimates, and even identifying how wildlife use different habitat types. Trail cameras are often used recreationally as well. People use them for fun on their own properties to see what wildlife are nearby, what pest species are coming around their house, and what’s eating their garden plants. Additionally, they are often used as a scouting tool by many hunters.

These cameras allow us to see a whole other side of wildlife – their quirky personalities, sun baths, eating habits, sleeping habits, and sometimes even their predatory hunts! Moments we rarely get to see unless we are extremely lucky. I’ve used trail cameras quite a few times, both for professional and personal purposes. My favorite images are those that are a sequence of photos showing an animal walking into the frame, turning their head to look at the camera, stepping toward it, and then the next few images are either into the eye of the animal, up the nose of the animal, or a combination of the two as they explore the trail cameras. Animals can hear the shutter of the camera lens, and see the glow from the flash, so they get up close and personal to investigate. Others will try to play with them. I’ve even heard several stories of bears picking them up, knocking them down, batting them back and forth between their paws and then tossing them down a hill! However, not all species react in a curious manner. Some see it as a deterrent and skedaddle as fast as they can when they hear the click of the lens or see the flash.

Within the OWCN, our mission is to provide the best achievable capture and care of oil affected wildlife, and trail cameras can aid us in accomplishing this in several ways, especially during inland responses. First, many of the species we encounter are nocturnal, meaning they are primarily active at night. However, we are often not approved for night operations during the first few days of a response. Therefore, trail cameras can be our eyes on the ground and allow us to observe what species are in the area when we are not present. Seeing what species are roaming the hot zone while we’re away, allows us to be more prepared for the types of species-specific equipment we might need including traps, nets, housing, and transport necessities. In addition to knowing what species are present, we also need to know if those individuals have come in contact with the oil. Thus, I wanted to know if I could use the trail cameras to aid in identifying whether individuals seen in the photos were oiled or unoiled. Despite my previous experiences with trail cameras, I had never used them in such a context, and therefore, I decided to launch my own study to determine if 1) I could detect crude oil on a dark colored animal during the day (such as a skunk), 2) if I could detect crude oil on a dark colored animal at night (such as a skunk) 3) if I could detect diesel #2 on a light-colored animal during the day (such as a light grey rabbit) and 4) if I could detect diesel #2 on a light-colored animal at night (such as a light grey rabbit).

Due to Covid, I conducted this study in my backyard in Sacramento using a remote-control car, skunk and rabbit pelts, wire, crude oil, diesel #2, nitrile gloves, Tyvek, t-posts and two Bushnell trail cameras. I have not yet finished this study, but I found the initial results interesting and wanted to share them.

As stated in the questions above, I had originally decided to run the study during the day and at night. I ran transects perpendicular to the front of two cameras at a distance of 1m, 2m, 3m, 4m, 5m, 6m, 7m, and 8m from the cameras. As it turns out, it was very obvious during the day if they were oiled or not, and I ended up with tons of photos due to the large number of transects.  I realized that I could pare down my transects and still get a lot out of the data. Therefore, I reorganized the study so that there were only three transects at a distance of 2m, 4m, and 6m from the cameras, and that the studies would only be conducted at night.  I eliminated the 8m transect because the pelts were not outfitted with a heat source and since the trail cameras are triggered by a combination of heat and movement the pelts were unable to trigger the camera at the 8m distance. Below are some photos showing the study design.

Study Layout (Video)

So far, I have conducted one study during the day, and two studies at night. We will focus on the two nighttime studies for this blog, so let’s test your skills! To conduct this study, I used chicken wire to create a mold. Then I placed the pelt onto the mold and attached the pelt to the remote-control car with wire. I then drove the pelt along the transect in front of the cameras at the 2m, 4m, and 6m distances. I started with 0% oiled, then 25% oiled, then 50% oiled, then 75% oiled, and finally 100% oiled. Each transect was driven at the different oiling percentages. Below, are photos of unoiled and oiled skunk pelts (with crude oil), and unoiled and oiled rabbit pelts (with diesel #2, and crude oil). Can you guess which are oiled and which are not? I’ve posted an answer key at the bottom so you can check your answers. Feel free to leave a comment on this post and let us know how you did!

A
B

C

D
E
F

G

H
I
J

As you may have experienced with the photos above, it can be difficult to tell what is oiled and what is not when looking at still shot photos of wildlife. Check your guesses against the answer key below. Was it difficult to tell which ones were oiled at the 25% oiling? If so, imagine how difficult it would be to tell if the individual in the photo was oiled if they had less than 25% oiling! Thus, based on these few trials, I believe that using trail cameras during a spill response is critical for providing us information on what wildlife are active in the spill zone. However, I don’t think we can necessarily rely on them to determine whether an individual has been affected by oil. Especially if it is a light product on a light species, or a dark product on a dark species, and they are 4 meters or further from the camera lens. I plan to run a few more trials so see if the I get the same results! If you have any questions, comments, or suggestions, please email me at jlhawkins@ucdavis.edu.

-Jennie

Answer Key:

A) Unoiled

B) Unoiled

C) 50% oiled

D) 75% Oiled

E) 75% Oiled

F) 25% Oiled

G) 50% Oiled

H) Unoiled

I) 25% Oiled

J) 25% Oiled

Ask a Vet: Getting to know your new Care Veterinarian – Dr. Jamie Sherman

Have you ever wondered what it’s like to be a wildlife veterinarian? How about what it’s like to work with giant or dangerous species? For Jamie’s first ever blog post, we asked YOU what you’d like to know about our new Care Vet.

What is your favorite land species? Marine species? 

Every time I get asked this question, I like to share a little anecdote – When I was around a year and half, my family went camping in Sequoia National Park. As my parents were packing up the car to go home, they put me in my car seat atop the campground picnic table (which also had items left out for one last lunch). All of a sudden, they heard some rustling and when they turned around they saw a bear helping itself to our lunch, right next to my car seat. My parents didn’t want to spook the bear into noticing me or knocking me off the table, so they calmly waited as the bear finished our salami sandwiches, chips and Oreos, then continued on its way. My sister who was 4 at the time watched the whole ordeal from the car with my parents, and to this day she remembers being terrified…but mostly because she didn’t want to share her Oreos. I like to think of this as the first sign that American black bears (Ursus americanus) would become an important part of my life. Since that first encounter, I’ve dedicated nearly a third of life to studying black bear populations and rehabilitating orphaned/injured bears across California. I even have a black bear tattoo! My favorite marine species is the polar bear (Ursus maritimus) because…I love bears. 

Jamie (far left) camping with her sisters in Sequoia National Park
Jamie at the San Francisco Zoo

Fun Fact #1: Jamie was born in California but grew up on the East Coast, until she moved back to California for graduate school. 

What’s the biggest animal you’ve ever worked with?

The largest animal I’ve ever worked with is also the largest animal to walk on land – the African elephant (Loxodonta africana). Did you know that African elephants can weigh up to 6 tons and stand over 11 feet tall? I had the opportunity to work with these majestic species during an undergraduate study abroad program in South Africa. As a part of this program, I worked 1-on-1 with wildlife veterinarians from the Kruger National Park to perform health assessments on African lions (Panthera leo), black rhinos (Diceros bicornis), Cape buffalo (Syncerus caffer), and of course, elephants. Don’t worry, they were all safely sleeping (anesthetized) for their exams!

Fun Fact #2: Jamie was featured on a PBS documentary entitled, “Teens Behind the Wheel.” She was named the safest teen driver, a title she still boasts about today. 

What is a usual day like for you?

One thing (of many) that I love about being a wildlife veterinarian is that there is no such thing as a “usual” day. Although every day might be a little (or a lot) different than the last, the daily tasks for an OWCN veterinarian come back to the four “R’s” – Readiness, Response, Research and Reaching out:

  • Readiness – maintaining and updating inventories of medical supplies, developing and evaluating protocols for any and all species that might be affected by oil, attending continuing education trainings in order to keep our veterinary skills fresh, participating in drills, nurturing relationships with OWCN member organizations, primary care facilities and volunteers
  • Response – deterring animals from entering oil-affected areas, safely collecting and providing first aid to oil-affected animals, diagnosing and treating concurrent diseases or injuries, washing oil-affected animals, rehabilitating animals post-wash to ensure complete return of fitness, and the ultimate goal…release
  • Research – writing and reviewing research proposals, obtaining funding for primary research, ensuring appropriate and humane care, use and treatment of any animals involved in research, including correct permitting
  • Reaching out – conducting trainings for OWCN volunteers, writing for the OWCN blog, teaching/training veterinary students, responding to media requests, publishing research

Fun Fact #3: Jamie was afraid of dogs until she was 14 years old!

What research would you love to conduct?

I love doing research because it empowers me to think of a question, figure out how to answer that question, and disseminate those results to the community. Research is an integral part of OWCN’s mission to provide the best achievable capture and care of oil-affected wildlife and I currently have a few ideas up my sleeve. I am really interested in the use of infrared/thermal imaging for evaluating waterproofing in feathered marine species AND for determining oiling status of hairless/featherless species such as amphibians and reptiles. 

Fun Fact #4: Jamie has traveled to 5 out of the 7 continents.

If you had one piece of advice for someone interested in working with wildlife, what would it be?

My best advice for someone interested in a career in wildlife is, GET INVOLVED. Find a way to shadow or volunteer with someone in the field or an organization you are interested in. And don’t be discouraged if you get a few “nos” before you get a “yes.” Your first experience “working with wildlife” may entail filing paperwork, cleaning cages, preparing diets, sweeping the floors, or just watching, but it is a foot in the door. Every opportunity is an opportunity to learn and grow. If you show respect, enthusiasm, and a good work ethic, that door will eventually swing wide open! If you are interested in hearing more about how I applied these principles to my career path, check out this Evotis article.

Jamie with her first bear patient who had a severe case of mange, but with treatment made a full recovery!


Thank you to everyone for submitting your questions! If you have any burning questions that weren’t answered, or were sparked by this blog post please leave a comment or connect with us on Facebook or Instagram!

Your new Care Vet, 

Jamie 

Celebrating Women in Oiled Wildlife Response – Julie Yamamoto

Julie Yamamoto is currently the Deputy Administrator for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. Her fascination with wildlife began at an early age. “As a kid I watched every episode of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, Jane Goodall TV specials, and read all the books about animals at my local library. My parents probably thought my obsession a little odd but (luckily for me) encouraged me, nevertheless. Fast forward 20 years-ish, I finished an MS in Avian Biology, then pursued a Doctorate in Environmental Toxicology from UC Davis, for which I studied pesticide impacts in raptors. Wildlife toxicology is a very cool blend of physiology, pharmacology and even ecology, and I thought I could do some good for the planet by pursuing a career in studying and trying to fix pollution issues. Once out of school, I worked for a time as a scientist at CalEPA and found it was not a good fit for me; I struggled to feel that my work was making a difference. I was fortunate to 1) realize it was not the job for me; and 2) to have been recruited by a supervisor that I knew at CDFW OSPR, Dr. Rob Ricker.”

OSPR’s mission to provide the best achievable protection of California’s natural resources by preventing, preparing for, and responding to spills of oil and enhancing affected resources really spoke to Julie’s passion for conservation, and she could not pass up the opportunity. “So, I jumped into a career in oil spill response in part because the opportunity presented itself, and it seemed exciting, but also because it allowed me to blend both my toxicology and wildlife expertise. It was also neat because most of my wildlife work had been in terrestrial systems (mainly birds) and at OSPR I had to learn about marine systems, seabirds, sea otters, etc – a whole new frontier for me!” So, in 2000, Julie was hired on with OSPR and began her career as a toxicologist supervisor. 

Seven years later, she accepted an executive appointment and has been filling that role with several different titles ever since. “I directly oversee the scientific and technical program in OSPR but also do a lot of work on fiscal, interagency coordination and legislative/policy issues. I have to say – when I was initially thinking about promotions, I had my doubts about whether I was cut out for management; but my early experience as a staff scientist with the state made me think about how important it was that the work of scientists be applied and used in decision making and policy. So that, plus some encouragement from colleagues, changed my mind. Even though I gave up the hands-on science, which was a big consideration for me, it has been a really rewarding path and I love the great variety of work I have on my plate every day. Some of the best times I can recall in my work are during big spill responses, admittedly exhausting and stressful affairs, working alongside really excellent professionals from inside and outside my organization, pushing ourselves to our limits, having each other’s backs, in pursuit of a common mission. You just can’t beat that!”.   

I asked Julie about what kind of struggles she faced as a young professional, and as it turns out she was quite lucky. Throughout her career she has been able to avoid discrimination. “I have felt, for the majority of my career, respected and able to do my work. I am aware of course that this has not been the case for a lot of women and some of my own colleagues. Still – there have certainly been times, especially starting out, when I have felt like a bit of an outsider, sort of not ‘belonging’ in the oil spill response, or even my own Department’s, culture. Also, I am a natural introvert and I think that can exacerbate feelings of “invisibleness” in certain situations.” In reflecting on what helped her overcome those things, she said “I think one of the biggest factors has always been the great colleagues that I have had. I came to be good at, and happy in, my work in large part because people around me supported me and were good teammates, mentors, and friends. Everyone feels self-doubt, fear, and frustration at some point in their jobs – having supportive people to turn to, and supporting them as well, is crucial to dealing with these feelings and to developing resilience. Also, I always focused on what my contributions could be to a specific incident or other problem, tried to bring the best science and creative thinking that I could. In other words, I tried to be very competent! And in the end, this allowed me to be a valuable contributor at work and find my place as a team member. It gave me confidence to push myself further.”  

Photo Credit: Julie Yamamoto

Other things that aided her in overcoming obstacles she faced were her persistence, dedication, and having examples of other women scientists and leaders along the way to inspire her. “Early in my career, there were not many such examples, but fortunately that’s changed for the better over the years. I hope by being where I am that I can help the women in my program and elsewhere envision themselves working at this level and beyond. As someone before me has said, ‘If you can see it, you can be it!’” In regard to what it is like to be a woman with a strong career, lots of responsibility and a family, Julie says that she has seen “definite improvements in workplace policies and cultures that promote greater diversity, the right to a respectful workplace for ALL, and accommodating the needs of various groups. I am a mom of 2 with an aging parent, so I know firsthand that family demands of all kinds are a factor for women and their careers. Workplaces with policies and investments that accommodate this reality is critical.  I was listening to a podcast about the challenges for working women during the pandemic and loved this quote: “Your job doesn’t understand you have kids, and your kids don’t understand you have a job”.  Which ties into a recent global poll of scientists I saw recently that was done by Nature and showed that there are declines in research activity across the board but most acutely for women researchers, early into their careers, with young kids.” I think this speaks volumes about the challenges working women face in their everyday lives, makes us grateful for the changes that have occurred in recent years to support working women, but also shows how much more work needs to be done to allow for the balance of work, family, and children.  

-Jennie

Celebrating Women in Oiled Wildlife Response – Barbara Callahan

Barbara Callahan is the Senior Director of Response and Preparedness Services for International Bird Rescue. She has been a part of oil spill response for the past 25 years and has seen a lot of growth in this industry since she first got started. In the mid 1990’s, there was a lot less acceptance for wildlife response in the broader oil spill response field than there is today, and that is largely due to the time, energy, and dedication of Barbara and others who have worked in this field for years to professionalize wildlife response. These efforts have encouraged the oil industry to be more accepting of the wildlife response component of spill response. 

When Barbara first set out in her quest for a career, she didn’t set out to be in the oil spill business, but she states that “as a biologist and wildlife rehabilitator, I was certainly drawn to the opportunity to help wildlife. It was clear to me that International Bird Rescue really knew how to care for oiled wildlife, particularly aquatic birds and I knew I could learn so much from being part of their team”.  Her first spill out of the U.S. was the Erika spill in France and it was quickly followed by the Treasure spill, which was the largest and most successful spill response ever, with over 20,000 oiled African penguins. She and her team were on that response for over three months. In reflecting on these incidents, she states that “this was the first time in my career that I realized the massive organization required to successfully respond to a spill and when I first became interested in the emergency management side of response. It’s just not enough to know how to care for the wildlife if you can’t merge that knowledge with being able to get the team on the ground, be able to support them well and provide all the equipment and supplies they need”. 

Treasure Oil Spill, South Africa June 2000 Photo credit: International Bird Rescue

When asked about the highlights of her career so far, and the memories that stick out the most, Barbara believes these two go hand in hand. It’s the people she says, and “getting to know colleagues from all over the world, many of whom have become friends I will cherish for life” is one of her favorite aspects. But it’s also the team dynamics that really stick out.  “I realize what an amazing team I got to work with and I’m not just speaking about the International Bird Rescue Team but the wider team including all those we work with in spills”. Furthermore, in respect to her career goals in wildlife rehabilitation, she states that “I know from experience that planning will help save wildlife impacted by oil and that’s what my entire career has been about, so I take a great deal of satisfaction in seeing those improved wildlife plans”. She also notes that she’s “never more proud of the International Bird Rescue team than when we’re responding to an emergency as the dedication and commitment to wildlife is amazing and shows in everything they do during a response.”

Barbara has had a diverse career thus far, and in the spirit of inspiring other women interested in this industry she encourages women to follow their passion and chase their dreams. “Women are present in all aspects of oiled wildlife response, as well as the wider field of oil spill response, including State On-Scene Coordinators and other IMT roles, wildlife trustees, planners and regulators so follow your interest and do good work if you want to help respond to wildlife in oil spills!”. 

Thank you, Barbara, for being such an incredible influence in this industry, and such a wonderful role model for everyone around you!

-Jennie

Women in Oiled Wildlife Response – Wendy Massey

Wendy Massey is currently the OWCN’s Field Operations Facilities Specialist. She has had a huge influence on me since I started here and has taught me an incredible amount about oiled wildlife, response operations, and been my guiding hand through every response I have been a part of. But aside from that, Wendy has been a prominent figure in wildlife response for decades and is a well-known and respected member of this profession. Here is her story.  

My late uncle was International Bird Rescue’s Jay Holcomb – so you might say I was born into the business. Jay was always involved in animal rehabilitation and as soon as I could walk I followed him everywhere. Because of that I have been surrounded by wildlife rehabilitation literally my entire life. Growing up in Marin County meant oiled birds were often in the mix. In the beginning I would help Jay care for and wash oiled birds while standing on a step stool, as I was too young to reach the exam table or sink. Oiled wildlife rehabilitation presents challenges that are much different from the norm so it was a specialty I was drawn to as I grew older. Helping these animals became very important to me so in 1992 I started responding to oil spills with the International Bird Rescue and Research Center.

Back in the early 90’s we were just starting to participate in all the different aspects of spill response we now take for granted in California. Before that we weren’t part of the Operations Group and no one in Planning or Logistics actively supported the wildlife effort. We often took care of the animals in some off-site warehouse away from all the “real” action. When I look back on my early experiences I think it’s important to mention not only was I a young woman but I was also seen as a “Hippy Tree Hugger” to boot. I remember being on site at the McGrath Lake spill, recovering oiled birds, and feeling pretty uncomfortable. Incorporating wildlife response into a spill event was new to the oil industry and not always welcomed or understood. This was one of the first times I worked at an actual spill site shoulder to shoulder with representatives of the responsible party, natural resource trustees, and oil spill response organizations. These were almost always men and I would hear them make a lot of casual sexual comments directed at or made about me. Comments mostly came during conversations carried out over open radio comms that I heard through the handset I was required to carry and monitor. Sometimes these were made face to face with the apparent goal of making me feel I didn’t belong there. Thinking back, it’s amazing to me that these guys felt entitled to just say anything they wanted! I never feared for my safety but definitely was very uncomfortable. If that happened today I certainly would report it, but back then we were lucky just to be there and be allowed to recover the affected animals.

For those who aren’t familiar with the history, the McGrath Lake Response happened before OWCN existed. Wildlife responders worked directly with the newly instituted California Office of Spill Prevention and Response (OSPR). For this response our OSPR partners were Dr. Dave Jessup and Tim Williamson. I’m not sure that OSPR knew what to think about working with rehabilitators, but we made it work and Dave and Tim remain friends of mine to this day.

Early in my career I wanted to expand my skills beyond the capture and care of animals. I transitioned to the facilities side of wildlife response where being a woman wasn’t necessarily a plus. Not having purpose-built facilities in California at that time meant we had to find and alter existing structures to suit our special needs. I often dealt with contractors needed to install critical systems. Oiled wildlife care facilities require specific and unusual infrastructure. When explaining my needs to the contractors I would often be met with condescension and comments like “little lady I don’t think you know how plumbing works, so let me try and explain it in a way you can maybe understand”. Although I often dealt with these men’s derogatory attitudes and comments, thankfully there were always other men who supported me along the way. From day one Tim Williamson was one of those men. He always did everything he could to help me succeed.

Some of my favorite memories from my response experiences revolve around the people I was fortunate to work with. I firmly believe you’re only as good as the people around you and I’ve been lucky to be surrounded by some very good people. Every spill event is different. The location, the type(s) of affected animals, product, time of year, how long after the event before you’re activated, etc. always varies and impacts your mission. Despite well-designed protocols, how you care for and recover animals also is very often different. Because of all these variables, and the lessons learned during past responses, I can’t overly emphasize the importance of thinking outside the box. For me the diversity of experiences, those new and constantly evolving challenges, and the reward of helping the impacted animals is what keeps me coming back for more. I learn something different on every spill response that helps broaden my view of what may be successful in spills that follow.

One of my favorite spills was the 1996 M/V Citrus spill. The spill was in the middle of the Bering Sea with oiled birds coming ashore on the Pribilof Islands. International Bird Rescue sent recovery groups out to the islands, but the animal care facility was in Anchorage. I was responsible for our wildlife care facilities which proved to be a big challenge. I believe we wound up with over 200 birds in care. Most of these were King Eiders. Because it was winter in Alaska we had to house operations indoors. I had limited space to work with and had to find a separate dry space for the oiled birds as well as pool space for the clean birds. You can’t discharge pool wastewater outside in an Alaskan winter because it simply freezes on the ground. I had to find a solution to supplying and discharging water without it freezing. That’s when I learned how important it is to be really innovative. That spill pushed me beyond my comfort zone and forced me to find ways to successfully solve our problems. Another reason this response is a favorite is because we worked side-by-side with the U.S. Coast Guard in the facility, all day, every day. At the outset they looked unfavorably on pretty much everything we did. By the end of the response their attitude changed, and they were just as invested and engaged in the wildlife response as we were. It was an incredible experience.

The California oil spill response industry continues to evolve. It’s now a more professional arena that provides a more equitable chance for all parties to succeed, but there are still improvements to be made. I no longer hear offensive comments made over open radio communications, but this doesn’t mean all instances of sexual harassment and inappropriate behavior have vanished. Men in the response industry are part of society at large and not divorced from its general problems. Also, wildlife response has matured and become a more professional undertaking. Those working in this field (both female and male) are more easily accepted by responders filling more traditional roles. Unlike in the past, if I encounter a problem today I feel comfortable coming forward with any complaints or concerns.

What advice would I give to women interested in this field? If you can commit to long hours, inconvenient work schedules, and passionately care about wildlife – I highly recommend it. It’s been a great ride and it’s not over yet.

Wendy’s career is definitely long from over, and I for one, look forward to our continued collaboration and innovation for years to come! All photos in this post were provided by Wendy Massey and Mike Ziccardi.

-Jennie

Do Rehabilitated Oiled Birds Survive?

Did the title catch your eye? I hope so! This question has plagued the public, researchers, and rehabbers for a long time. Back when the animal response to oil spills started and wildlife were collected and washed, many animals did not survive the process. Those that did and were returned to the wild were usually never seen again. Back in those days, the ability to track animals after release was dependent on bands (for birds) or tags based on VHF radio waves if animals were even marked before release.

But we have come a long way since then, and we have gotten better and better at treating the effects of oiling on animals through years of research, (and let’s face it: trial and error). These days it is fair to say that we are good at what we do. Yes, there is always more to learn and the likelihood of survival of a particular animal that gets oiled depends on so many things, just a few of which might be species, time of year they get oiled, how long it takes before they are captured, what the petroleum product is, where on the body they get oiled, how extensive is the oiling, and the list goes on and on. So it really is a very tricky business and not black and white, but a lot of grey.

And really, when we are discussing oiled and rehabilitated animals, there really are three distinct questions: (1) do the animals survive the process of being washed and rehabilitated, (2) how long do they survive after they get released, and (3) do they return to “normal” after being oiled and rehabilitated? These days, not only have we become much better at helping animals after they get oiled, but technology has become much more sophisticated (smaller, better, cheaper, among other advancements) and as a result, it is much easier to track animals after we release them post-wash and rehabilitation. One of the things that we try to do for each spill is to look at each of them as an opportunity to learn more and to get better at how we care for animals.

So, when approximately 100,000 gallons of oil spilled at Refugio State Beach, near Santa Barbara, in May 2015, and many animals were oiled, the OWCN jumped into action. Our effort was not only focused on providing the best capture and care of the affected animals, but also to follow the active efforts we employ during every incident to try to learn as much as we could on how to improve our protocols, our response efforts, and our knowledge on how oil (and oiled wildlife rehabilitation) affects wildlife.

California brown pelican wash at the Los Angeles Oiled Bird Care and Education Center

One of the species of birds that was particularly affected by this spill was the Brown Pelican, 50 of which were captured. Of these 50, 46 pelicans survived and were released. Not only was their survival to release high (92%), but of the released pelicans, 12 adults were fitted with solar-powered GPS satellite tags. As part of this study of post-release survival, we also captured eight adult non-oiled pelicans to serve as controls.

After 6 months, 9 of the 12 original oiled and release pelicans were still alive (and 6 of 8 controls), and after one year, the tags from 2 of the oiled/rehabbed birds (and 2 of 8 controls) were still transmitting. Now it’s worth mentioning here that there is no perfect piece of technology that doesn’t have the capability of failing. So just because there were only 2 tags still transmitting after one year does not necessarily mean that the other 10 birds had perished. Tags not only can fail, but they also fall off, so even though they give us very valuable data, they don’t give us the entire picture.

This is where the old-fashioned method of going out and actively searching for the pelicans comes into play. Since the beginning of this study we were fortunate to have Deborah Jaques, AKA “Pelican Lady” (I might be the only one that secretly calls her that, truth be known), as one of our collaborators. Deborah knows more about pelicans than pretty much anyone I know, so working with her has been terrific.  One of the aspects of this study that Deborah has really helped us with is to “ground-truth” the satellite tag data by doing active boat and land surveys for the past 5 years. The main goal of her efforts was to help differentiate between pelicans that may have died versus those that survived but either lost their tag or the tag stopped transmitting.

Deborah and Curt looking for banded pelicans on a jetty in Alameda,CA on Oct. 15, 2020.

As part of this effort, Deborah, Curt (remember him?), and our very own Wendy Massey (Facilities Specialist) have spent the past few days in a boat (following COVID protection guidelines) off the central CA coast looking for banded pelicans. Oh yes – I forgot to mention that not only did we fit the oiled and control pelicans with satellite tags, we also banded them with bright green bands, which are easy to spot from a distance.  These tags also have large numbers, starting with the letter “Z”, so if you do happen to see one of these birds, please report them here or to the Bird Banding Lab. Thanks to the efforts of folks like Deborah, Bart Selby (a citizen scientist that has spotted a record number of these pelicans), and many others, we have been able to compile a list of all the Refugio pelican sightings. Since 2015, more than half of the 46 pelicans that were oiled and rehabilitated from the Refugio spill have been spotted, some of them multiple times!

Curt doing a last-minute boat inspection before heading out to look for pelicans.

So, getting back to the question, do oiled birds that are captured and rehabilitated survive? The answer to this question is much more complicated than a simple “yes” or “no”, because as you know, it depends on many many factors.  However, for many of the oiled animals the answer is a resounding “yes!”.  And not only is the answer a Yes with a capital Y, but we can add that not only do they survive, but they thrive, as the pelicans in this study have shown us and will continue to show us into the future.

To read past blogs on the pelican study, click on the links below:

Kyra.

From left to right: Nancy, Tim, Colleen, Mike, Winston, Chris, Kyra, Curt. Photo taken in 2015 during control pelican capture.

New and Improved Wildlife Recovery App!

BREAKING NEWS!!! We are happy to announce the newest version of the Wildlife Recovery App (WR App 2.1.0)!  This cool Apple application was originally created by the Dept. of Fish and Wildlife, Office of Spill Prevention and Response (CDFW-OSPR), for the purpose of data collection by field teams deployed for spill response.  The WR App has gone through a series of changes over the past few years, based on feedback from people testing it or using it in the field. With each new version, it has gotten better and better! 

Most recently, and thanks to the hard work and dedication of Phil Stone, who is a programmer for the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, we now have a freshly enhanced version of the WR App. Some of the aspects that make this newest version so amazing is that it is more user friendly and allows us to gather a lot more information, such as hazing, pre-emptive capture, release post-rehabilitation, and trail camera usage. The data recorded in the app gets uploaded to the OSPR server, where it is accessed by OWRMD (see blog).   This means that for each animal captured, the data collected in the field can be accessed at the Primary Care Facility. 

Sounds pretty great huh?! Well don’t take my word for it, go check it out yourself! Just search “Wildlife Recovery” in the app store on your Apple device (this app is only compatible on apple devices), hit the download button, and get started. You are more than welcome to try it out, but just make sure that you select the “Test” spill ID and don’t transfer your data.

Again, a HUGE thank you to CDFW-OSPR for their original creation of this app, and to Phil Stone for making the changes for the new version! We’re very excited about these updates and hope you are as well! 

Questions? Please contact Jennie Hawkins, Field Operations Specialist, a jlhawkins@ucdavis.edu

Jennie Hawkins, Field Operations Specialist

Oh, WRMD!

With most of you being associated with the wildlife rehabilitation community, the Wildlife Rehabilitation Medical Database (WRMD) is probably very familiar.  Its foundation came from Devin Dombrowski and Rachel Avilla while working at Lindsay Wildlife Museum.  During this time, there was no standard database for wildlife rehabilitation.  There were a few that existed but none that met the community’s needs as a whole, prompting some to build their own simple database as something that could get them by, but with no interoperability to other organizations.

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Devin and Rachel

“…it became clear to me, through my rehabilitation work and discussions with other wildlife rehabilitators, that there was a need for a proper database that any wildlife rehabilitator could use.” (Devin Dombrowski)

In 2013 the program went public, providing wildlife rehabilitators a database designed to meet their specific needs.  Since then it has continued to grow, currently being used in 48 states in the US and 19 countries around the world.  I (Duane) was thrilled to find it being used at Belize Bird Rescue (BBR) in Belize when I spent time there!

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Coati (BBR)

Some people (myself included), initially had difficulty moving away from paper-based records, but the advantages were so substantial that I knew it had to be done sooner rather than later.  It not only allowed us to easily input, update and query patient data, but the fact that it automated those end-of-year reports to US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) was reward enough!  Additionally important is that it allowed rehabilitation facilities to permit CDFW to access patient data, permitting identification of disease trends in real-time,  and thus allowing for more timely action to address such trends.

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Western Toad

For several years, Devin and Rachel have been working with OWCN to modify WRMD for use with oil spills, and this year, the Oiled Wildlife Rehabilitation Medical Database (OWRMD) made its big debut. So far, OWRMD has been used for two single-animal spills, and the recent Cuyama River Incident.  The very first spill patient input was a Bell’s Sparrow.  Cuyama was the first “big” test of the system, with patients including a Belted Kingfisher, Western Pond Turtles, Mallard ducks, Baja California Tree Frogs, California Red-legged Frogs and a Western Toad.  This was a relatively small inland spill but 20 patients were a great christening for our new database program.

The basic use of the program is very similar to WRMD, with additional features that allow us to track our patients’ specific oil-treatment care during a spill event.  It will provide us a detailed record of patients all the way from Recovery (communicating with the Wildlife Recovery App), through Field Stabilization, Transport, Processing, Pre-wash, Wash, Post-wash, Conditioning and Release.  In the upcoming months you’ll be hearing and learning more about its use as it becomes an integral part of our patient data collection moving forward.

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For each spill we will maintain an enormous amount of data such as initial exam information, morphometrics, types of treatments, final dispositions, release information and more.  Similar to how WRMD stores valuable information that can be used to help more than just animals at a single facility, the data we can collect electronically through OWRMD will greatly enhance our ability to evaluate our protocols and continue to improve care for oil-affected animals.

The conversion is quite an involved undertaking and like all new programs will take some time to get accustomed to; however, just like the conversion from paper records to WRMD, the advantages are just too substantial to resist!

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Lorraine and Duane

Refugio Beach Oil Spill Recap: 5 Year Status Update

A little over 5 years ago on May 19th, 2015, an underground pipeline running parallel to Highway 101 ruptured near Refugio State Beach (just north of Santa Barbara). As a result, 123,000 gallons of crude oil was spilled, 50,000 of which ran down a ravine under the freeway and entered the ocean.

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The Oiled Wildlife Care Network was activated and our responders sprung into action to rescue oiled wildlife in need of assistance.  As you can see in the summary table below, this was a significant wildlife response, especially considering the high number of marine mammal patients. Over 90 responders joined the effort from 21 different OWCN Member Organizations, logging over 1600+ hours!

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To summarize the large response operation, lessons learned and heroic efforts of many, the OWCN created a Refugio Incident Report, which you can view here. This document summarizes our responder hotwash hosted at UC Davis after the incident in 2015. In reviewing such documents years later, it is always reassuring to see that many of the challenges listed have been addressed operationally. This ensures that we learn and improve from every response, maintaining our ability to provide the best achievable capture and care of oiled wildlife.

And while the focus of OWCN is to provide top notch oiled wildlife response operations from capture to release, there is another aspect of our efforts that does not come to fruition immediately.  The wildlife data we collect, including the summary of both live and dead oiled wildlife, all factor into the Natural Resource Damage Assessment, led by California Department of Fish and Wildlife Office of Spill Prevention and Response (CDFW OSPR). Want to learn more about the Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA) process?  Click here.

We are excited to share that just two weeks ago, the draft restoration and assessment plan for the Refugio Oil Spill was presented to the public. You can view the May 13th presentations and FAQs on the CDFW OSPR website here:

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Thank you to all our OWCN responders, CDFW OSPR and everyone involved in responding to this incident.  While we will never forget, we were able to grow from this response and apply lessons learned toward our new and improved operations of present day.

The OWCN Management Team

 

 

Cuyama River Incident: Notes from the Field

“Hey, wait…listen”. I whispered. “Did you hear that?” Wendy and Danene were on the opposite bank, directly across from me. Dressed in Tyvek, a safety vest, lifejacket, a raincoat and a hard hat on, an N-95 mask and safety glasses covering their face, a spotlight and net in hand, the two of them looked like something out of a cartoon.

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Our Field Team: Wendy, Danene, Jennie

They stopped walking and listened. The rain was still coming down, but the birds were just beginning to chatter, and the first rays of sunlight could be seen on the horizon. And then there it was again, that throaty vocalization (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P4xTYkG8fM0). “What in the world is that?” I asked. “Is that a red-legged frog?” We knew there was a possibility that this threatened species could be in the area and had listened to their calls online, but none of us had ever heard them in the wild before. I turned on my spotlight and scanned the bank near where they were standing. “I don’t see any eyeshine, but it sounds like it’s coming from behind you guys, up near the trees”. I crossed the river and joined Wendy and Danene on the other side. The three of us started heading back toward the newly created dam that had been erected to contain the oil, but also acted as a nice path across the river where we could easily get back to the truck.

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A Western Toad

We each took a different path through the trees in hopes of catching sight of this odd sounding species. Just before reaching the dam, I shined my flashlight into a little cave in the rock face we were passing. “Guys!” I shouted in excitement “I found something!”. I placed my net over the entrance, shined my light into the cave to make sure there were no other occupants, and then with Wendy’s help, slowly coaxed the Western Toad out of the cave and into the net. Realizing we needed to get going if we were going to make the morning safety tailgate briefing, we placed our new friend in a container we had brought, entered the data into the Wildlife Recovery App, and boogied back to the truck.

 

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Searching for Wildlife

This spill response was very different than any others I have been involved with. California was (and still is) under quarantine due to COVID-19, so this spill response was limited as far as staffing numbers to make sure people were kept as safe as possible. In addition, everyone was required to wear an N-95 mask at all times. No exceptions. There were numerous port-a-potties and hand-washing stations set up at each staging site, including several pink “women only” ones. There were people stationed at the river access points that would wipe down your vehicle door handles for you. Lunch was individually bagged and delivered to reduce the potential for germ spread. A six-foot separation was required when working in the field, unless it was absolutely necessary to be in closer contact. All of this made the response slightly more difficult, but the hardest part was with everyone wearing a mask it was a lot harder to hear what they were saying! Despite all the challenges that we were facing during our first COVID-19 spill response, keeping people safe was always our top priority.

Because we suspected we had red-legged frogs in this specific area, challenges or no challenges, the search was on! With the energy level spiked, onto the riverbank we went, determined to capture any affected wildlife. After much searching, I grabbed onto some old wood debris that was pushed up against the bank.  As I did, I heard a plop and saw a frog jump into the water. I scooped it up with my net and, with Wendy’s help, we examined it to see how oiled it was. Based on how much oil was in the water where we captured it, we expected it to be very visibly oiled. However, while it didn’t appear visibly oiled, substantial product came off onto our gloves, so we carefully boxed it up and transported it back to our staging area.

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A CA Red-Legged Frog

Upon getting it back to our Mobile Animal Stabilization Hospital (MASH), we did a more thorough examination. While its hind legs were more yellow than the tell-tale red that is common, it turned out to in fact be a red-legged frog (but probably a young one). We provided it food, water, and some rest, and the next day gave it a Dawn(r) bath, a new home to recover in, and lots of earthworms. It turns out they really like earthworms! We continued to house and feed our threatened patient until it was able to be released back into the wild.

Overall, this response was a great experience for all of us. There were so many nuances (and some significant challenges), but we further refined our response procedures during unique circumstances, continued to develop more inland-specific techniques, and found ways to improve our field data collection tools. In total, we collected 21 animals (9 Western Pond Turtles, 3 Mallards, 1 Belted kingfisher, 1 fish, 4 Baja California Tree Frogs, 1 Western Toad and 2 California Red-legged Frogs) and successfully released almost 90% of the live ones collected. It just goes to show that pre-planning, adaptability, resilience in the face of uncertainty, and having and working with a great team leads to great success!!

-Jennie

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