New OWCN Staff Opening

As most of you know, Emily Whitmer, our technician extraordinaire, has been accepted into vet school here at UCD beginning this Fall. While we are happy for her, we are saddened to lose her as a permanent member of the OWCN team, and need to move forward filling this key role within the OWCN as soon as possible (but definitely before the end of the summer).

As such, please find this position description here. Please note that the role has changed somewhat in that this position will now take a greater role in supporting both field as well as facility aspects of the OWCN. The official University posting (as well as application procedures) can be found here.

If anyone has any questions about the position, I would be happy to speak with folks. Please email me at mhziccardi (at)  Thanks!

– Mike

Jam-Packed Week in the World of Wildlife!

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

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

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


Hero Beavers and Tarry Rivers

Two recent spills highlight the importance of preparedness, and remind us that not all spills are in marine environments.  The spill that Nancy mentioned in her blog last week involved a pipeline in Utah that leaked about 27,000 gallons of diesel into Willard Bay Reservoir.  Fortunately for the reservoir (and those that depend on the drinking water it provides), the spill was largely contained by a beaver dam.  Unfortunately for the beavers, they got heavily contaminated with diesel.  Six beavers –one adult and five juveniles–were taken into care at the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center of Northern Utah (

Diesel fuel is volatile petroleum product that causes skin burns and damage to sensitive tissues of the respiratory and gastrointestinal tracts.  The beavers were drenched in diesel and arrived at the center with damage to their skin, mouths, gastrointestinal tracts, and nasal passages. They are getting excellent care and all of them are now eating on their own, but they have a long way to go before they are back to normal.  That’s the thanks they get for building the dam that protected the bay! The Center’s website has links to various videos and articles about the spill:

A larger pipeline spill in Arkansas has gotten more press, perhaps partly for the dramatic photos of “rivers” of oil flooding the suburban community of Mayflower.  Twenty-two homes were evacuated and numerous species of wildlife have been affected, although total numbers of live animals in care have not been reported.  The pipeline was carrying a heavy product similar to that which is likely to run through the proposed–and highly controversial–Keystone XL pipeline. Inevitably, this spill has added fodder to the objections raised against the Keystone XL pipeline; one interesting article can be found here:

Over 200,000 gallons of petroleum were spilled in Arkansas, and they are still investigating the cause. If you want to follow the official news releases from the Mayflower Incident Unified Command, click on this link and look for the pdfs in the lower right hand corner:


Continue reading

Around the World with OWCN

I spent some time looking at the stats section of our blog-hosting site (and a little bit of time staring at the wall), in an attempt to procrastinate my workday today.  What I ended up finding (on the website, not the wall) turned out to be an interesting blog idea!

OWCN blog viewers by country

One of the newer blog features allows you to look at a map of the world and see which countries have had people view your blog.  I was actually surprised at how far reaching the OWCN blog has become.  Since the country identification creation for the blog on February 12, 2012, we have had viewers from 124 different countries visit our blog site!  Not bad, considering there are 196 countries in the world.  Of course the number of 196 countries is arguable, but that’s a topic for another blog.

Even more interesting was to see which countries had the most viewers to our blog.  While the U.S. predictably has a commanding lead, it was neat to see that we have a large number of viewers in Canada, the UK, Australia, India, New Zealand, and the Philippines.  I’m embarrassingly bad at world geography, so maybe this isn’t huge news to all of you, but I was quite excited to discover we even had blog viewers in countries I’ve never even heard of, and I had a great time looking them up on the map (Hello to our viewers in Vanuatu, Montenegro, New Caledonia, and Benin!!!).

One thing the OWCN strives for is continued outreach, to not only help spread awareness of oiled wildlife, but to also help prepare other groups for spill response.  So whether these viewers are just casual readers interested in the topic of spill response, or other groups looking to learn more, it is very exciting that we are able to reach so many people.  I would like to encourage our viewers around the world to continue viewing our blog, and to stop by our facebook page ( and like us.  We would love to hear from all of you and find out what you are doing for oiled wildlife response in your area.  And to all our viewers near and far, please share our blog so we can fill in those missing areas on our map!


Happy Anniversary Cosco Busan!

Exactly five years ago today, the OWCN received a call from OSPR about a small spill (approx. 140 gallons) in San Francisco Bay from a container vessel that had an “allision” (yes, I had to look that one up!) with the Bay Bridge. At that point, no oiled wildlife had been seen but, as a precaution due to the more than 1.6 million birds that come to the SF Bay each year, two teams were requested to do some initial reconnaissance. Our teams quickly mobilized to the area and observed what looked like a lot more than the original estimate of oil on the surface of the water, as well as a large number of shorebirds and waterfowl throughout the area. Later that afternoon, OSPR and the US Coast Guard developed their own estimate of the volume spilled – 58,000 gallons of intermediate fuel oil – and, as they say, the rest is history; history that has changed the face of oiled wildlife response in California since.

In the ensuing two months, the OWCN mounted its largest oiled wildlife response to date, ultimately collecting 1,083 live oiled birds and 1,854 dead ones before the conclusion of the event. It also mounted the largest field collection effort ever instituted, with more than 300 person-days of search effort and greater than 1200 miles of coastline directly searched (in addition to hundreds and hundreds of miles scanned by recovery and reconnaissance staff and volunteers). At the facility, more than 400 person-days of staff and 1500 person-days of volunteer effort was used, with volunteers giving more than 13,000 hours towards the effort. At the height of the effort, more than 740 live birds were in the never-before-used-for-a-large-spill San Francisco Bay Oiled Wildlife Care and Education Center, fully testing the purpose-built facility to close to its designed capacity with very challenging species such as surf scoters, grebes, waterfowl, and loons. The facility, as well as all personnel involved, responded admirably, ultimately releasing more than 420 clean birds to their natural environment.

This is not to say everything went smoothly – far from it on many fronts. There are many reports and reviews on these issues, so I will just concentrate on a few of those that impacted or related to the OWCN. First, it being a environmental disaster in the backyard of a region that is proud of their strong environmental stewardship, there was a demand from Day 0 from the public and governmental officials to get key information on who was at fault and what they were doing to fix it. Compounding this demand was a sense of distrust from the mis-reporting of the spill volume early in the response, as well as less-than-optimal reporting on response activities. Second, because the SF Bay is a very dynamic waterway, the oil quickly spread throughout the Bay from San Rafael south to Hayward, as well as outside the Bay from Palomarin to Pacifica – making cleanup and recovery challenging. Third, while the OWCN had participated in recovery of oiled wildlife in the past (providing experts to support the effort), it had not been given the mandate to lead such efforts, so training and recruitment of interested personnel was not at the same level as animal care efforts. This led to a sense that not enough field personnel were available and on the beaches. Confounding this was the newly-developed OWCN Hotline for reporting oiled wildlife – a hotline that crashed in the first weekend due to the massive numbers of people calling it to get any available information they could pertaining to the spill. Last (and certainly not least) was the huge number of individuals interested in volunteering to help respond to the spill. Traditionally, the Unified Command sends all of these people to wildlife operations to assist in rehabilitation but, since the OWCN has developed such a robust volunteer corps of more than 2,000 pre-trained individuals, the OWCN needed very few “convergent” or “spontaneous” volunteers. This rejection, coupled with early mis-information, lack of timely messaging, and a large spill area, created a “perfect storm” of public dissatisfaction with the response.

Since the conclusion of the Cosco Busan spill, many audits, reports and inquiries have been done to better understand the problems and flaws of the system to better improve readiness in the future. Several of these included information directly related to the OWCN and its operations. On the whole, the OWCN was highly praised for its animal care systems and capacity to quickly provide “best achievable care to oil affected animals”. However, two key elements in the Department of Finance audit of the response and the US Coast Guard’s Incident Specific Preparedness Review related directly to the OWCN:

  • It was noted that field operations in California needed to be significantly increased to provide a similar level of services to the OWCN’s animal care arm. In working with OSPR and the Legislature, AB 2911 (Wolk) provided additional funds “to officially  make the Oiled Wildlife Care Network responsible for the proactive search for and rescue of oiled wildlife, and improve the number of volunteers and capacity to train volunteers used in rescuing oiled wildlife”. The OWCN has since moved forward aggressively with a Recovery program (and, more recently, with a complementary Field Stabilization program), and now has more than 270 fully trained individuals throughout the state ready and able to respond to oiled wildlife on the beach.
  • It was also identified that volunteers from the public should be incorporated into the response effort if at all possible. Because of the breadth of the OWCN program in California, additional responsibilities for interested individuals needed to be found, as well as working out liability and training issues for such activities. OSPR, in concert with the OWCN and other non-governmental organizations, have since developed a “Non-Oiled Wildlife” Volunteer Plan that identifies a number of other tasks that interested people can take part in, as well as be available to the OWCN should additional volunteers be needed for animal care.

While not directly noted as necessary in the many reviews that occurred after the event, the OWCN has also beefed up other parts to its system post-Cosco, including (but not limited to): 1) a more responsive and robust wildlife reporting hotline that can be rolled to a live attendant or a system like San Francisco’s 211 program during spills; 2) a better communication flow directly from the OWCN, including this blog and other social media outlets; 3) more field stabilization units for deployment nearer to spill locations should the be at a distance from a primary care centers; 4) greater hazing capacities should oiled animals need to be kept from a spill zone; 5) additional recovery equipment such as ATVs, boats and a Mobile Command Post; and 6) increased supply caches at each primary care center.

These are just a few of the many “lessons learned” from the Cosco Busan response, and why it is important to not only do excellent work during the spill, but to critically evaluate the successes and changes needed after each spill to improve systems and capacities. While California is largely considered the most capable and responsive region in the world for oiled wildlife response, events such as these help to remind us that you can never be too prepared should another “allision” occur in the future!

– Mike

The Debate Over 25 Birds

In last night’s Presidential debate, Governor Romney, when making his point that oil production is down on Federal land but up on private land, provided the following quote:

Second Presidential Debate (Image: Getty Images)

“So where’d the increase come from? Well a lot of it came from the Bakken Range in North Dakota. What was (Obama’s) participation there? The administration brought a criminal action against the people drilling up there for oil, this massive new resource we have. And what was the cost? 20 or 25 birds were killed and brought out a migratory bird act to go after them on a criminal basis.”

After the debate, USA Today did fact checking on this information and provided the following info:

The U.S. attorney in North Dakota last year charged seven oil companies with misdemeanor violations of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which carries a $15,000 fine, in connection with the deaths of 28…birds. The birds reportedly flew into open oil pits that they mistook for ponds, or were poisoned by oil that spilled into nearby wetlands. Charges against three companies were dismissed in January. Three other defendants reached plea agreements, and the charges against the final company were dropped by the government.”

No matter how you feel about the value of wildlife, the definition of what constitutes “take” by industrial operations, or the responsibilities of society to address potential anthropogenic effects on the health of the environment, we as oiled wildlife responders must be conversant with the issues at hand, and provide factual information to combat five-second sound bites designed to promote a visceral response from undecided voters in key swing states (which also happen to be emerging energy producing states).

I encourage you to read this excellent article from PressAction, which clearly (though at length) discusses the details of the Federal case brought on by the US District Attorney to (primarily)  Brigham Oil & Gas LP, a company now owned by Statoil – the 13th largest oil and gas company in the world with gross profits of over $13 billion US in 2011. In contrast, I also direct you to this article from The Foundry addressing what they consider “(o)vercriminalization in environmental law” and quotes the Wall Street Journal as titling the District Attorney in question the “Dodo of the Year”.

Only by being aware of the facts in these situations can we be effective communicators. So when this debate dies down and people forget about the 25 birds in North Dakota, yet an oil spill hits our shores or inland areas and 250 birds are impacted, we can present facts related to the MBTA and its value/application in a rational way so that we can get back to the care to those animals in need. All of this without worrying about developing sound bites.

Off soapbox. Sermon ended.

– Mike

Oiled Penguins in South Africa

This guest blog on oiled African penguins, was provided by volunteer Nancy Neal Yeend.  Thank you Nancy, for providing such an interesting story to our readers!

African Penguins


Nancy Neal Yeend

What started as a research project soon turned into a rescue mission. For two weeks in late August and early September I participated in an EarthWatch[1] project, where volunteers assisted University of Cape Town researchers studying the impact of oil spills on the South African penguin population, and their nesting and chick-rearing habits.

Background: The site, Robben Island, located 13 miles northwest of Cape Town is famous for its prison, where Nelson Mandela was incarcerated for 19 years.  The island is now a UN World Heritage site. The island hosts a fur seal colony and in the 1600s the Dutch named the island: “robben” meaning “seal.”

In 2000 a major oil spill occurred when the Treasure, a Greek-owned iron-ore carrier, sank. The catastrophe prompted the world’s largest animal rescue. Over 40,000 penguins were oiled, and approximately 19,000 were saved through the Herculean efforts of SANCCOB, South African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds, and 12,500 volunteers.[2]

South African penguins are now an endangered species and are found primarily along the western islands and edge of the South African coast to Namibia. They stand about two feet tall, weigh about 8 to 10 pounds, and are distinguished by pink coloration above their eye.[3]

It is estimated that in the 1700s there were over 3.5 million breeding pairs of South African penguins. Because of egg collecting by sailors and early settlers, the population dropped to about 1.5 million pairs by 1900. Since that time overfishing and oil spills have dramatically reduced the population to approximately 40,000 pairs. Although sharks and fur seals remain the natural predators, man has had the most significant impact on the population decline.

Research: There are several research projects addressing a variety of issues faced by South African penguins. Dr. Richard Shirley headed the EarthWatch program and other researchers joined our group of three volunteers. Our tasks included weighing and measuring chicks, identifying abandoned nests, population counts, and related monitoring activities. There appears to be a connection between oil spills and a decline in penguin egg viability and an increase in nest abandonment.

Some nests are difficult to find in the wild, chest-high, canola that flourishes during the breeding season. Because much of this rocky island is capped with sand, artificial nests were constructed to decrease nest collapse. The old wooden A-frame style nests are being replaced by fiberglass “igloos.” Although most penguins still nest under the native brush, many of these plants have thorns, and penguins seem to like nesting in or near nettles, so access is a challenge.  There are a few abandoned World War II gun emplacements on the island, and some penguins have managed to nest amidst the debris.

Oiled Penguins: As I arrived in Cape Town on August 24th a storm rolled through the region, and the attendant wave action, coupled with the power of the Antarctic Current that runs along the coast, caused a 2009 sunken ship to break up. On September 1st, an oil slick, approximately 8 miles long and 30 yards wide, appeared in the channel between Cape Town and Robben Island. Oiled penguins began appearing the following day.

Over the course of the week, our team caught over 200 oiled penguins and took them to the SANCCOB facility for cleaning.  In addition to catching oiled birds, we had to check all known nests and rescue chicks whose parents had been oiled. Over 70 chicks were also sent to SANCCOB for hand rearing, and will ultimately be released after they fledge.

At the end of the week only three dead penguins were found. Although these numbers pale in comparison to the 2000 Treasure spill, this situation is replicated each July and August as winter rages in the southern hemisphere. The Robben Island penguin population has declined from 6000 breeding pairs in 2007 to fewer than 2300 now, and the numbers continue to decline.

[1] For detailed information go to

[2] For a fascinating, first-hand account, read The Great Penguin Rescue by Dyan deNapoli, published in 2010 by Free Press.

[3] The pink comes from blood flowing to a gland, located above the eye socket, that helps regulate the penguin’s body temperature.