Birds Canada is asking B.C. residents to change their birdwatching habits from watching the sky to monitoring beaches for dead seabirds amid a current marine heat wave.
David Bradley, the B.C. program director with Birds Canada, said the pacific ocean is currently experiencing a heat wave that could cause mass deaths within the seabird population.
“Usually after there’s a temperature spike, that we see during a marine heat wave, there is a big die off of seabirds subsequent to that. Usually six to eight months after that,” Bradley explained.
He said the increased ocean temperatures can prevent nutrient-rich cold water from rising to the surface, reducing the food supply for the seabirds and causing them to starve.
Some marine birds that breed across Vancouver Island and off the B.C. coast, like rhinoceros auklets, terns, gulls and ducks, are of particular concern.
Bradley said the last time the Pacific coast experienced a mass seabird death was in 2016 during an El Niño year, adding we are currently in another El Niño year.
This means the warmer temperatures continuing into the fall will make it harder for the marine heat wave to cool down.
“This is likely to be larger than any other thing we have seen before, given the temperatures we have seen in the air,” Bradley said. “It’s likely the sea surface temperature is going to be quite large so we suspect that as a result the colony die backs will also be large.”
The BC SPCA Wild Animal Rehabilitation Centre (Wild ARC) hasn’t seen a spike in seabird admissions yet this year, but a normal number of gulls have been admitted for treatment.
“This past week we have received about 60 admissions and 20 of those were gulls,” Wallis Moore Reid, senior wildlife rehabilitator, said. “This time of year we do typically see quite a few of the young ones coming in, mostly from the downtown area, so it’s expected to see an increase in admissions.”
She said it’s hard to predict if there will be a spike in deaths, but given the heat, the centre is ready to treat birds in heat distress.
“We have oxygen on hand, fluids, temperature controlled rooms that can help in hypothermia cases,” Moore Reid said. “We also will adjust our release assessment and health check schedules so we are not potentially overexerting any of the animals who are living outside.”
She said residents can help keep the birds cool by putting out a small bird bath or planting vegetation in your garden that can provide cooler shade coverage.
Wild ARC asks residents to not bring any dead seabirds to the centre, but people can report injured or distressed birds.
Bradley said if there is a dead seabird on the shoreline, it should be left alone and reported to Birds Canada.
He said residents can also volunteer to monitor local beaches and contribute to ongoing research on seabird mortality.
Beached Bird Survey volunteers will be asked to monitor a local beach for dead seabirds.
Bradley said they will be given a kit from Birds Canada that includes a field guide, gloves and metal tags for the carcasses.