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!






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


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

OWCN’s Impact in CA and Beyond

Over the past few months, Mike, Kyra and I have been working with three UC Davis graduate students – Jenny, Mikayla, and Nick – in the Environmental Policy & Management program. They are working on an exciting project assessing OWCN’s influence on oiled wildlife care throughout California and globally. Their work thus far has been phenomenal, and I wanted to take this opportunity to share some of it with you. 

In this unique Master’s program, students must complete a policy project working with a real-world client, and they chose the OWCN!

After meeting with them initially, they decided on three goals for their project:

  • An independent review of how OWCN has impacted state, national, and international efforts
  • An impact assessment of OWCN competitive grants on generating scientific information and spurring policy change
  • A gap analysis to determine what areas would be most beneficial for OWCN to improve

To complete these goals, the team undertook two main tasks:

1. Literature Review

The purpose of the literature review is to help with all three of the above goals. By searching the literature, they can identify OWCN’s reach across the globe, determine what impact our grant program is having on the literature at large compared to other funding sources, and see which areas of oiled wildlife care are covered (and not covered) in the literature.

They embarked on this daunting mission by first identifying search terms related to oil spills, current OWCN participant organizations, and current OWCN facilities. This provided them with 30 search terms, which they then ran through the Web of Science and Google Scholar.

References picked up from the searches were added to a review software program called Covidence – an unfortunate name for these current times, as Nick points out.

References were then put through an abstract screening process to determine relevance to their scope of work. The team screened a whopping 410 journal articles, and found approximately 230 that would prove pertinent to the remaining work ahead of them. Then they did what every researcher dreads – they read each paper in depth to extract the useful information. That’s 230 papers!! They then coded their key findings into a spreadsheet and are currently incorporating them into a synthesis review to verify what areas are covered by the literature and which are lacking (i.e., the gap analysis).

2. Survey

The purpose of the survey is to capture OWCN impacts that might not be represented in formal publications – things such as on-the job knowledge that Network members could have received through our trainings or documents.

The survey process was way more intense than I would have imagined. They sought out advice from experts as well as from Kyra, Mike, and I (do we not fit into that category?) on how to formulate their questions and then had to submit a draft survey (including a confidentiality agreement and distribution template) to the IRB (Institutional Review Board) to ensure it complied with UC Davis standards as well as related federal laws and international conventions. Please note that in providing input into the survey questions, we took special precaution so as not to bias the questions towards putting OWCN in a good light.

Once they received approval (expedited at that), they distributed the survey to 1,800 people around the world! Some of YOU may have even received this survey! (Please be sure to fill it out if you did!)

The distribution went out to a smattering of the population hailing from 3 different groups:

  • Oiled wildlife response groups internationally, nationally, and within CA (either within OWCN or outside of OWCN but within the oiled wildlife response community);
  • The oil industry; and
  • A random selection of the general public.

The goal of including these different groups was to assess the awareness of OWCN by a variety of stakeholders and industries from both within and outside of (but adjacent to) oiled wildlife rehabilitation, and OWCN’s impact on these groups. Responses from the general public will allow for an assessment of the general awareness of OWCN and peoples’ general attitudes towards oiled wildlife rehabilitation.

Mikayla Elder, Nick Carter, and Jenny Cribbs – our amazing Environmental Policy & Management grad student team

Although their project won’t quite be wrapping up for another several weeks, they already have some pretty fascinating preliminary findings from their literature review.

The first is that rehabilitation of oiled wildlife is controversial. We’ve heard of this before, but it was interesting to see it evidenced in the literature, and to the extent that a team from a non-oiled wildlife background could pick it up so profoundly. If you haven’t read it already, a cool paper on this topic by Laird Henkel and our own fearless leader, Mike Ziccardi, can be found here:

The second finding was that there are some real limitations and challenges when it comes to research on oiled wildlife rehabilitation and release. And this is understandable. Outside of spill response it’s nearly impossible to appropriately replicate an oiled animal study, and conducting a study opportunistically amidst the chaos of an oil spill can be hectic (to say the least). But what can we do about this? Well, this brings us to finding number three.

The third finding in the literature was an emphasis on spill preparedness. This was great to hear, since this is our emphasis as well! And this goes for everything from the response itself, back to finding number 2- being fully prepared to jump on that opportunity for research when it arises.

The fourth (but certainly not the last finding that this group will discover) was that the OWCN is the most well-recognized organization in spill response. Now, keep in mind that we fund much of the literature out there with our competitive grants program, but perhaps once the survey results are in, this effect can be teased out.

This whole project has been such a fascinating process. Every two weeks since January, we have met with Mikayla, Nick, and Jenny, and they have impressed us with their organization, insights, and progress. We can’t wait to see their final product and to share it with all of you!


Oiled Wildlife Research: Our Pursuit of Knowledge Never Ends

The Oiled Wildlife Care Network spends much of its time focusing on Readiness, Response and Reaching Out. But sprinkled into our daily thoughts, and monthly projects include a healthy dose of Research. This aspect will be highlighted next week, as we virtually host our Scientific Advisory Committee for its annual meeting to review numerous full and small grant proposals. (Click here to learn more about our OWCN Competitive Grants Program)

The OWCN Scientific Advisory Committee includes scientifically qualified individuals from academia, the oil industry, rehabilitation organizations and other research institutions. The Committee reviews completed research and technology development proposals in advance, and then gathers annually to evaluate their scientific merit and quality. To date, the Committee has awarded over $4.5 million of grant funds to more than 190 scientifically meritorious studies.

The core goals of the Competitive Grants Program include:

  • Improve Animal Care
  • Assess Wildlife Health
  • Determine Wildlife Population Information that Aids in Caring for Oiled Wildlife
  • Develop New Technology for Oiled Wildlife Care

Projects supported by this program have included both basic research and applied research projects. The OWCN supports both large-scale research projects, which require more than $15,000 per year for up to three years, and small or pilot projects, which require less than $15,000 for one year of funding. Click here to see some of our previously funded grants.

And in the spirit of scientific research, we wanted to highlight a few recent publications and articles, our last OWCN Town Hall that focused on this very topic and a fantastic spring seminar series hosted by one of our Member Organizations, the Estuary and Ocean Science Center!

Lastly, we wish to provide a huge Thank You to our dedicated Scientific Advisory Committee members for lending us their expertise and support! Science is work in progress, and I can’t wait to see what we discover next.

Scott Buhl – Field Operations Readiness Coordinator

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:


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


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.


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!


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.


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.



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!


Lorraine and Duane

Best in Class: Amphibia

A Green Frog is washed during an oil spill. Credit: Tri-State Bird Rescue 2014

Today, February 19th marks my 1 year anniversary with the OWCN. The year flew by and I’ll be honest—I only know the date because Facebook was kind enough to remind me. So in recognition of my 1 year, I’d like to blog about one of my favorite topics… Amphibians!

Growing up, I spent many summer days watching and sometimes catching the Southern Leopard Frogs in my backyard in New Jersey. I was thrilled to get my first pair of hip waders on my thirteenth birthday. I got my first pet frog when I was 15—an albino


Kevin, my pet African Bullfrog

African Clawed Frog named Steve. He joined me when I attended college and lived to the ripe old age of 11. I’ve owned several species of frogs and salamanders over the years. Currently, my 5 year old African Bullfrog, Kevin, is buried deep in the substrate of his tank, hibernating for the winter. He was the size of a grape when I first brought him home, but now he’s roughly the size of a salad plate and eats a variety of invertebrates and occasionally a small rodent. There’s just something about amphibians that I find fascinating. They are the first ever tetrapods and they evolved almost 400 million years ago. What’s not to love?! Okay, so now that we’ve established that I’m a crazy frog lady…

Amphibians and Oil Spills

How often are amphibians actually affected by oil spills anyway? The answer… often enough. As you probably already know, thousands of oil spills occur in U.S. waters every year. Thankfully, most of these spills are a small volume and not all spills result in wildlife becoming oiled. You might not have heard of amphibians getting oiled. That could be because media attention surrounding small, inland oil spills tends to diminish after a day or two, but these spills still have the potential to affect a wide variety of species, including amphibians. But why should we care? Aren’t there enough amphibians out there? An oil spill couldn’t wipe out that many of them, could it? Unfortunately we don’t really know how many amphibians are directly or indirectly impacted by spills. Historically they comprise just a fraction of the total number of wildlife captured for treatment during spills. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they aren’t being impacted, however. While California’s response system is quite robust and the OWCN could be activated for amphibians alone, the rest of the country operates differently. Oiled wildlife responders outside of California might only be activated if a spill is large enough or affects more charismatic species such as birds and mammals. Amphibians can easily be overlooked in the field and someone unfamiliar with their life history may have a difficult time identifying their habitat.

Populations Are Declining

In 2004 the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) completed a comprehensive assessment of global amphibian populations. Their findings were alarming. The assessment found that 42% of amphibian species were in decline, 32% of species were threatened, and at least 159 recorded species have gone extinct. I’d venture a guess that things aren’t looking any better for our amphibian friends in the sixteen years since the IUCN’s assessment came out. The biggest threats to amphibian populations are habitat loss and pollution. Other threats include human disturbance, disease, and changes in native species dynamics. Oil spills have the capacity to contribute to each of the above.

Experience with Oiled Frogs and Salamanders

In 2014, California’s Office of Spill Prevention and Response (OSPR) expanded the OWCN’s response range from marine to statewide, including all California state surface waters. This means that inland spills affecting amphibians (and other taxa) now fall under the network’s umbrella. Several OWCN staffers, myself included, have experience handling oiled amphibians. In 2014, when I was working on Tri-State Bird Rescue, Inc.’s oil spill response team I gained valuable experience responding to a pipeline rupture in Ohio. I had the opportunity to collect, wash, and rehab several dozen salamanders and frogs. Unlike a traditional oiled wildlife event with birds or marine mammals, this response effort happened on a small scale—within a single wide trailer on a nature preserve. Each salamander and frog was house individually, but even dozens of these small patients didn’t take up much room.


Salamander housing during a spill. Credit: Tri-State Bird Rescue

Some of the unique challenges with amphibians during an oil spill include:

Their life history is quite different than other taxa.
  • The Ohio spill coincided with the salamander’s natural breeding season during which they congregate in vernal pools to spawn. The oil was in the vernal pool so there was an ongoing concern of new animals becoming oiled throughout the cleanup. This was mitigated with the installation of a drift fence and pit fall traps which allowed un-oiled salamanders to be collected and relocated.
Amphibians are ectothermic, meaning that the regulation of their body temperature depends on external factors.
  • The spill occurred in late March. Daytime temperatures fluctuated between 40-50°F with nighttime temps dipping below freezing. This complicated the overnight collection of the nocturnally active salamanders because there was a risk of them and other non-target species freezing in the pit fall traps.
  • The metabolism of amphibians varies with the season of the year. It was important to minimize disturbance to their environment in order to keep them in their winter state of lower activity=lower metabolism. One way that we addressed this was by maintaining the rehabilitation center (trailer) at a temperature close to the outside conditions.
Amphibians have a unique and delicate integumentary system.
  • Both gas and water are exchanged through their skin. This permeability potentially makes them much more vulnerable to oiling. They also shed their skin periodically as they grow or in response to irritation. Some species will consume their shed skin to conserve the nutrients it contains. We found that many of the oiled salamanders shed their skin after decontamination and when possible, we elected to remove the shed skin from their housing before it could be consumed.

Where Do We Go From Here

There is still so much to be learned about amphibians in oil spills. Until now, ecotoxicology research on them has been focused on larval development in the presence of petroleum products rather than the direct effects of oiling. We still have many questions.

What kinds of internal and external effects of oiling do amphibians experience?
Are there long term effects if they survive the initial oiling?
Are existing wash protocols sufficient? How can they be improved?
What can be done to better plan and prepare for amphibians before and during spills?

The OWCN is working to provide some answers. In 2019 the OWCN funded a research project to investigate “The short-term effects of petroleum exposure and the process of petroleum removal on Northern Leopard Frogs.” We look forward to sharing the project’s findings when they become available.

The OWCN sponsors up to $200,000 annually to support research and technology development efforts in order to ensure that oiled wildlife receive the best-achievable capture and care. Since 1996, over 170 projects have been sponsored, and over $4 million has been allocated to improve our understanding of how oil affects wildlife. Perhaps there will come a day when amphibians are as valued and protected as their more charismatic avian and mammalian counterparts. I am honored to be part of an organization that is helping to make that happen!

The OWCN also sponsors sessions at wildlife conferences such as the National Wildlife Rehabilitators (NWRA) Symposium. Curt and I will be heading to the NWRA Symposium in South Padre Island, Texas next week. Will we see you there? If you aren’t already sick of hearing me ramble on an on about frogs and salamanders, you can come to my talk “Considerations for Treating Oiled Amphibians” on Friday!

–Crazy Frog Lady



Sam and baby Kevin






A Day on Año Nuevo Island

It was 8:30 am on a crisp October morning when our boat reached Año Nuevo Island. Dipping into the frigid waters with my sleeveless 2 mm wetsuit was less than ideal, but it was only for a minute – the time it took to jump from the small zodiac, grab my dry bag, and wade over to the island shore. Stepping over piles of kelp, sending resting flies abuzz, the pungent smell of thousands of nesting birds filled my nostrils. I was on the island as part of a team led by UCLA veterinarian and disease ecologist Katie Prager, studying leptospirosis in California sea lions. Leptospirosis is a bacterial disease that can cause kidney and even liver damage and can affect virtually any mammal. It is shed in urine by infected animals and acquired through direct or indirect contact with that urine.

This was the final field season of a 9-year project based out of James Lloyd-Smith’s (project PI) laboratory at UCLA and in collaboration with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC), and The Marine Mammal Center (TMMC). The aim of the project is to understand the dynamics of leptospirosis in wild sea lion populations. My job was to assist with anesthesia of these animals, to keep them stable, safe, and asleep, while others on the team went about collecting and processing samples of blood and urine and other data points. Over the years many discoveries have been made, including that leptospirosis is endemic in wild sea lion populations, that large outbreaks of the disease occur on a 3 to 5-year cycle, and that in 2013 this disease seemed to disappear from the population altogether before re-emerging in 2017.


Ausculting a California sea lion under anesthsia

The day progressed quickly and before I knew it, I was back in the cold ocean and climbing into the zodiac on my way to the mainland. Learning about diseases in wild animal populations is extremely valuable as it could heavily impact oil spill response. An oiled sea lion is one thing but an oiled sea lion with leptospirosis is another. Because this disease is both infectious and zoonotic, water quality, water flow, and co-housing of individuals in the rehabilitation facility need to be strategically planned and carefully monitored to reduce transmission risk to other animals (including humans); not to mention the toll the illness can take on the animal and the increased intensity of care it will require. Additionally, it is always valuable to gain hands-on experience with our patients, whether it’s handling and restraint, sample collection, anesthesia, or even just behavioral observation. Every detail provides insight into our patients’ needs and adaptations for living in their natural environment, which is exactly where we want them to be!

Collecting a blood sample from a California sea lion under anesthesia
Note: These activities were performed under NMFS Permit No. 21422 and with funding from NSF (BIO-OCE 1335657) and DoD (SERDP RC-2635).



Learning From the Past

Recently we had the opportunity to necropsy birds that were released from evidence from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. You may be thinking; “Wait! He can’t mean Deepwater Horizon! That spill was 9 years ago!”  You’d be right to think that. However, it’s true. A little comparative pathology policy for you:

With marine mammals, all animals that are found dead or that die during an oiled wildlife event are necropsied. Pathologists are brought on early in the spill, samples are collected, and assessments are made regarding cause of death, impacts from disease, and effects of oil.  This is to provide evidence and guide treatment of animals impacted by the spill.

In the past, oiled birds during declared spills were not necropsied without specific dispensation from the Unified Command (UC) to do so. Instead any carcass was considered dead from oil, and immediately became evidence. By legal standards, an oiled bird is considered a dead bird. Those of us that work in the field, and anyone who’s read the research (see the references below) know that isn’t necessarily the case. The upside of this policy is a reduction in the up-front costs and logistics of hiring staff and setting up necropsy areas. The downside impacts however are much greater; there is a lot we can learn from carcasses. This information can guide rehabilitation and help us to understand and reduce impacts on animals in the wild. How much and what depends a lot on the condition of the animals when we get them.

If we are able to examine animals after they first die, we can find out the most about them. Fresh tissues give us the best chance to look for signs of disease exposure and infection, understand the physiological impacts of oil, assess injuries, and see the impacts of oil. If tissues are stored for a long time or frozen, they become harder to evaluate. Subsequent changes in microscopic structure of tissues introduces artifacts and reduces our ability to determine what changes are associated with disease or injury versus storage and post-mortem breakdown. Over time freezing and drying will cause the breakdown of bacteria, viruses, parasites, proteins, and other complex molecules. This decreases our ability to detect these important players in health and disease.

The goal of this recent work was to try and evaluate what we can learn from carcasses collected or stored under less than ideal conditions. The OWCN and OSPR along with a great group of dedicated volunteers necropsied over 100 animals including clapper rails, least terns, sanderling, Northern gannets, and other species impacted by the Deepwater Horizon Oil spill. We collected tissues and samples to start to answer the question of what we can learn from these animals, and how we can use that information to help the animals we care for in the future.

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Thankfully, our access to carcasses and our ability to evaluate them may be changing. During a meeting last week between the OSPR and the OWCN, we started to look into the possibilities of getting earlier access to carcasses, and even to do necropsies immediately once animals die. Generally, the opinion was that we have valuable information for research and animal care. Changing this paradigm would be a boon for rehabilitators and researchers alike, leading to a better understanding of the impacts of oil, the health of wild birds, and our ability to care for these animals.

I also wanted to take a moment to thank a lot of people who helped with this effort. There are a lot of logistics, equipment, and time required for a project like this. Thank you to Mike Ziccardi and Laird Henkel for moving this project along and providing the resources to make it happen. Thanks to all the fantastic prosectors from SPCA for Monterey County, Monterey Bay Aquarium and the MWVCRC for their assistance. Melissa Miller, OSPR Pathologist was (as always) a tremendous resource and a wealth of information. And extra thanks to Corrine Gibble for sorting samples, helping organize data, and generally keeping the project moving and on track.

– Greg Frankfurter


This Simple 5-Minute Task Could Change Your Life…So Do It TODAY!

Take a peek at this video to learn what simple 5-minute task you can do today that could change your life as well as the lives of the animals you work with!



The OWCN Mentored Research Program is open to all of our Member Organizations!

Filling out the 5-minute Project Concept Form and submitting it by July 5th to Lorraine Barbosa at will afford you the opportunity to be paired with an OWCN mentor to create and submit a Full Project Proposal in time for consideration for this year’s funding. But don’t worry! After July 5th, your Project Concept Form is not late, it just gives you and your mentor even more time to prepare a Full Project Proposal in time for next year’s funding!

For more information, visit the OWCN Mentored Research Program Webpage.


A holiday message from the ghost of oil spills past



In many of our training materials we talk about looking for the silver lining in the aftermath of a spill. Silver linings can be many things. For one spill it might be new methods to care for oiled wildlife, while for another it might be new legislation to increase prevention and preparedness. The Deepwater Horizon was a huge spill with many negative impacts – some of which we are still learning about. At least one of the silver linings from that disaster has been the array of scientific studies that have been done to measure impacts to wildlife, the environment and to the people who responded.

The wildlife response spanned coastal and offshore areas from Louisiana to Florida and included many of us from OWCN Member Organizations as well as from OSPR and CDFW. Eight years after the event, studies continue to be published and two came out recently that I read with interest and I feel are important to share. I share them not to scare anyone, but simply to remind us that the chemical products we work around during spills are hazardous materials, and that oil spills are traumatic events that can impact our mental health as well.  The OWCN and OSPR both work very hard to ensure the safety of our responders, providing required training and annual refreshers, safety officers, safety protocols and provided PPE during response but ultimately it is up to each of us to keep ourselves informed and safe.

Both of these papers are part of the GULF Study (Gulf Long-term Follow-up Study) and a detailed discussion of both are well beyond the scope of an OWCN blog. I hope you will take a look at both of them and read them completely if you are so inclined.

One looks at mental health indicators associated with oil spill response workers including some working with wildlife and can be found here.

The second looks at lung function and association with oil spill response and clean-up work roles and found an impact in those handling oily plants/wildlife or dead animals. A summary can be found here.

As with anything else you read on the internet please do so critically. Neither of these focused on what we consider “professional” oiled wildlife responders like many of you are with the training and experience to identify the hazards and recognize how to mitigate them. I present them simply in an effort to help you stay on the cutting edge of health and safety in oiled wildlife response.

While this may not be a typical “Happy holidays” type of message, the health and safety of all of our responders (and their families) comes into true focus at this time of year. Please enjoy a safe holiday season!