A little bird with a BIG impact

Over the past two months you’ve heard a lot about the Pipeline P00547 oil spill. The spill has been featured in hundreds of news articles (local and national) as well as on social media and our very own OWCN blog posts. Thank you to Jennie and Danene for highlighting the hard work of our first and foremost VIP’s (very important people) of the spill, the 90+ field and care responders representing approximately 1/3 of our member orgs. I’d like to take this blogging opportunity to highlight the other VIP’s (very important patients) of the Pipeline P00547 spill, the western snowy plovers.


All about Our Western Snowy VIPlovers


The western snowy plovers (Charadrius nivosus) were the smallest patients in our care throughout the spill, weighing in at a whopping 35-40g, or roughly the size of a large chicken egg. The Pacific population of these little shorebirds can range from southern Washington, all the way down to Baja California, Mexico.

Western snowy plovers can be spotted year-round on coastal beaches, peninsulas, and even bays, estuaries or river outlets up to 50 miles inland. You might find them displaying the classic “run-stop-peck” in which they forage for crustaceans, worms, and other small marine invertebrates that they find in wet sand and kelp. When they are not running along the shoreline, snowy plovers seemingly disappear into their surrounding landscape. Western snowy plovers are masters of camouflage with their sand-colored feathers along the top part of their body and sand-speckled appearance of their eggs.

Masters of camouflage….

Snowy plover clutches typically contain 3 eggs and some plovers can lay two clutches per year. Females may breed with more than one male. In fact, after their eggs hatch they will often leave chick rearing duties to the male in order to re-nest with another male if there is adequate time left in the season. Snowy plovers display high site fidelity, and are often spotted at the same nesting locations year after year. Snowy plovers communicate to each other with “chirp-like” calls. They also use body language, such as drooping a wing or limping to signal the presence of a predator. Click here to listen to some common snowy plover calls.


Did you know that newborn snowy plovers leave their nest within 3 hours of hatching and immediately begin foraging on their own?


So, why was this little bird such a big deal? Well, in 1993 the Pacific population of western snowy plovers was listed as federally threatened under the Endangered Species Act of 1973. Factors such as human disturbance, predation, inclement weather and encroachment due to urban development have played a large role in the decline of active nesting sites, and subsequently reproduction. From March to September snowy plovers establish nesting sites in small depressions in the sand. Human activities such as walking, jogging, off-leash pets, horseback riding and vehicle use can disturb these sites resulting in nest abandonment. Goals of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Western snowy plover Recovery plan include: (1) achieving well-distributed increases in numbers and productivity of breeding adult birds, and (2) providing for long-term protection of breeding and wintering plovers and their habitat.

Left: Oiled western snowy plover; Center: Stabilization enclosure; Right: Western snowy plover being examined by veterinarian prior to release. Photo credits OWCN/UC Davis

Even though western snowy plovers don’t live in water, oil can still have a big impact on their ability to waterproof and therefore thermoregulate. Given their small stature and nearly non-existent fat stores, they rely on their feather structure to keep warm, especially during inclement weather. When western snowy plovers get cold they have to expend their energy getting warm, instead of foraging for food or running away from predators. They can quickly become emaciated and dehydrated, resulting in severe debilitation. During the Pipeline P00547 spill, our initial snowy plover care focused on getting these tiny patients warm, hydrated and eating. Once stabilized we were able to focus on secondary concerns including skin burns and minor injuries.

Fortunately all 7 of our VIPatients made a full recovery and were released back to their native habitats where they can continue to contribute to the recovery of the Pacific population of western snowy plovers!

Thank you to everyone who contributed to the safe capture, care and release of these special little birds!


For more information about the western snowy plovers we cared for during the Pipeline P00547 oil spill check out this video and article by UC Davis.


~ Jamie, owcn response veterinarian

Counting Penguins for Science

I discovered a love for citizen science projects a few years ago, when a friend got me hooked on Snapshot Serengeti. After creating an account on their website, I had the chance to click through trail cam photos from a national park and conservation area in Tanzania. My goal was to find, identify, and count the animals captured in those photos to help with a population survey and create the dataset that would support many studies–from how and where animals move and cluster in the park, to how that changes over time.

slp-cheetah-with-cubs

Snapshot Serengeti features many amazing captures, like this one, on their blog.

As bored grad students know, many trail cam captures are duds, when the camera is triggered by swaying grass or other non-animal movement. But every few photos I’d catch a glimpse of Tanzanian wildlife in their natural environment: elephants, antelope, lions, and so many more. Oh, and wildebeests. So many, many wildebeests.   I don’t remember much of that weekend, it is lost in a fog of wildebeests and concentration, but I do know I was on a mission to find and identify my very own aardwolf capture.

Since that weekend, I’ve come to love and support many crowd-sourced science projects (many of which I discovered through Zooniverse, a platform for participants and researchers interested in crowd-sourced data collection projects. Scientific American also keeps a running list of projects). You can spy on penguins, characterize bat calls, and map the hills of Mars. You can measure hurricanes, track snow cover, and transcribe nautical logs to advance our understanding of our weather and climate. You can participate in amazing and important things.

penguinwatch-photo-2

Penguin Watch is a currently running project similar to Snapshot Serengeti.

In this age when science is so often viewed as opaque, dated, scary, or irrelevant, citizen science gives me great hope. We need skilled science communicators, and there are many people out there doing great work–including organizations and individuals right here in the Oiled Wildlife Care Network. But citizen science goes one step further. In addition to providing another way to learn about how science is conducted, it actually asks people to participate and invest in real, current research projects. Making science so accessible and allowing volunteers to have such an important role in data collection lets people from all walks of life experience what scientists already know: how great science is, and how exciting it can be to contribute to humanity’s collective knowledge.

So check it out! And then get everyone you know to check it out too.

You won’t be sorry you did.

Steph

Destruction Isn’t Always Black and Slimy

A balloon drifts by a nesting colony of the endangered California least tern. Photo credit: Marie Travers

A balloon drifts by a colony of endangered California least terns.
Photo credit: Marie Travers

During the Refugio Incident oil spill, I had the honor of spending time at the field staging area with some of our field responders. These folks spent their 12-hour workdays trekking up and down beaches, searching for and responding to reports of oiled wildlife.

Trash collected from a 1000 ft stretch of beach, among nesting least terns and snowy plovers. Photo credit: Marie Travers

Trash collected from a 1000 ft stretch of beach, among nesting least terns and snowy plovers.
Photo credit: Marie Travers

But even when they didn’t find oiled wildlife on their outings, they never returned empty-handed. Instead, they brought back handfuls of trash and litter, everything from plastic bags and bottle caps to fishing line and wire.

At the time, our staging area was located at a closed campground near a protected beach – protected because of the endangered and threatened species that could be found there, including a least tern colony and nesting snowy plovers. I’d estimate hundreds of species called that protected bit of beach home – there’s always far more wildlife than you see, and we encountered mallards, ruddy ducks, scoters, stilts, avocets, horned grebes, pelicans, gulls, harbor seals, sea lions, and… well, you get the idea.

Twice a day, we would walk that beach, searching for oiled animals and picking up trash. We never left empty-handed.

This isn’t unusual, and it isn’t good. As icky as we find litter like this (and it does have negative effects on the economy and human health), it’s downright devastating to wildlife. Fishing line causes terrible entanglement issues, animals can get stuck trying to get the last smidge of food out of a poorly-shaped yogurt container, and bits of plastic and foil are mistaken as food and ingested by many species. These things can and do result in injury and often death.

Entanglement Photo credit: Marie Travers

Entanglement in particular causes severe damage that does not always respond to treatment, though there are plenty of uplifting stories as well.
Photo credit: Marie Travers

We like to think that litter like this comes from careless people who can’t be bothered to find a trash can, and I’m sure some of it does. But the truth is litter comes from all sorts of places – many of which you’d never think of.

Photo credit: Marie Travers Sad that a symbol of celebration and victory can cause such unintended destruction!

Sad that a symbol of celebration and victory can cause such harm.
Photo credit: Marie Travers

Balloons for example – how many times have you seen an escaped balloon floating away from a kid at a fair, and thought about the danger it poses to wildlife? It seems pretty innocent, but once those balloons are out of sight, they don’t cease to exist. They end up in beautiful places like our protected beach, where they stick around for a long time (especially the mylar ones; those things are nigh-indestructible). Then wild animals can encounter them.

So how can you help?

  • At home, dispose of items like balloons, plastic bags, yogurt containers, and fishing line properly.
  • Reduce the use of these items, and you’ll reduce their presence in the waste-stream – for example, use reusable shopping bags and washable containers.
  • You can consider volunteering with a beach clean-up program, like the California Coastal Cleanup Day on Saturday Sept 19, 2015 – but really, no need to wait, just pick up any trash you see when you go out to the beach!
  • Stop and help/report entangled or trapped wildlife; allowing permitted wildlife rehabilitation professionals to provide the care they need.

Be well, and thanks for caring about the animals!

Steph