Biologists work to save massive number of sick sea birds

RODEO BEACH, Calif. (KTVU) -- Up and down the West Coast, thousands of starving sea birds are washing up on shore, dead or near death, as biologists are scrambling to save the ones they can.

"They should be feisty. They should be angry at being looked at," JD Bergeron told KTVU as he peeled back a drape to reveal a few murres huddled in a pen at the International Bird Rescue Center in Fairfield.

"When they start to get quiet, we have a problem," he elaborated. "But these are too weak to fight, even though they are wild birds."    

Outside the clinic, several pools are full of recovering murres, which resemble penguins, but can fly. They spend their lives far out at sea, only coming to land to nest.

"They are washing up extremely skinny. They're basically emaciated. They're starving to death," lead rehabilitation technician Isabel Luevano told KTVU. "And since they have no muscle, no fat, no reserves on their body, they're basically withering away."   

On a table outdoors, two workers examine malnourished murres one by one.   

"He's missing muscle here and here, " they observe, pressing around a bird's breastbone, which protrudes.

The International Bird Rescue Center started to notice the die-off in August, when more murres started arriving in one day, than they normally might see in a year.     

"It started happening every day, we were getting in five and ten, then every other day, 15," recalled Luevano. "And every facility is seeing hundreds of them come in, plus hundreds of them already dead on the beach." 

Ocean Beach in San Francisco and Rodeo Beach in the Marin Headlands are two beaches where dozens of lifeless or exhausted birds have been found.    

"I saw eight one day, seven or eight washed up," recalled beach goer Patrick Lepelch of Mill Valley. "And out in the water, they were floating real close to our surfboards, which was unusual. Normally, they kind of keep their distance, so maybe they were on their last legs." 

On Friday, 16 new avian patients arrived in Fairfield to be evaluated for injury and infection. Most go into a pool, where handfuls of smelt are thrown to them several times a day. 

The weakest birds receive liquid nutrition via a tube down their throats to gain strength. About half of the birds brought to the center have died.

"It's great that they find their way here, but sometimes its too late," acknowledged Bergeron. "And although populations sometimes go through this, this one is quite severe."

A healthy murre is so strong it can dive down hundreds of feet for fish; the suspicion is those fish are swimming deeper than ever because of ocean warming.         

"The warmth of the water is probably driving the favorite foods down," explained Bergeron. "Because the fish like the colder water and these birds are not finding food in places they normally would."  

It's labor intensive nursing them back to health. Careful notes are taken on each bird, and each is banded in case it comes in again.

With no end in sight, the center has more murres than any other bird species. Even adding extra pools, the murres have taken over all but one.    

"It's nothing but murres," smiled Luevano wearily.

With an El Nino weather condition forming in the Pacific, warm waters may also be challenging other young birds to find food.

More heron and egret hatchlings have needed care this summer as well, and the rescue center has treated 400 more birds so far this year than all of 2014. 

It is always in need of volunteers and donations to offset the costs.