Hundreds of migratory seabirds wash ashore in California

Sara Bogard stopped her dog as the two began to descend the cliff to Manchester Beach along the Mendocino coast.

Below, as far as she could see, dozens of dead and dying birds lay on the beach.

“The smell hit me first,” Bogard said, describing the musty, basement-like smell of the northern fulmars scattered on the beach that mid-December morning. The smell, she recalled, was “like a grandmother’s closet.”

What stranded these offshore birds is not yet known. Researchers and vets who examined them – both the injured and the dead – say they were rather young and emaciated. Many had lesions on their feet that vets have identified as papillomavirus — from the same family of viruses that give humans warts but are found only in fulmars.

“We don’t know if it’s the virus that’s making these birds sick, or if it’s the poor condition of these birds that’s causing the virus to bloom,” said Rebecca Duerr, a veterinarian with the International Bird Rescue Organization who works on rehab -Facilities has in San Pedro and Fairfield.

Resembling gulls to the untrained eye, fulmars are a subarctic species that spend most of their lives at sea. During the summer months, they congregate on rocky outcrops in arctic waters and the northern Bering Sea, where they breed, lay eggs, and raise their young while these frigid waters are teeming with nutritious prey—squid, fish, and crustaceans.

Two wildlife rescuers holding an ailing fulmar check its vitals.

Kelly Beffa, left, and Julie Skoglund of International Bird Rescue check the vital signs of an ailing fulmar.

(Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times)

For the rest of the year, the birds remain offshore – often hugging each other near fishing and whaling ships – and forage on the sea surface.

Over the past half decade, scientists have documented unprecedented deaths of birds, marine mammals and other creatures in the northern waters where fulmars nest each year, The Times reported in December. Researchers say the Arctic and subarctic marine food web has been drastically altered, possibly due to climate change that has melted the ice sheets and warmed the ecosystems of this vast region.

Whether this environmental change is contributing to the stranding of young fulmars in California is unclear, said Duerr and Corinne Gibble, environmental scientists with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Seabird Health Program. What is known is that the past two years have been particularly deadly for these seabirds.

In 2020, International Bird Rescue and other groups recovered 251 fulmars off the California coast, up from 262 last year. This compares to just 44 in 2019, according to Duerr and Devin Dombrowski with the Wildlife Rescue Medical Database.

“It’s not like 2003 when more than 10,000 were stranded on the California coast,” Duerr said. “But it’s definitely more than we usually see.”

Kelly Beffa captures one of seven fulmars ready to be released back into the wild.

Wildlife rescuer Kelly Beffa captures one of seven fulmars ready to be released back into the wild after rehabilitation at the center. They were found dead on Manchester Beach on the Mendocino coast in mid-December.

(Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times)

Last week, about 28 fulmars were seen recovering at Bird Rescue’s facility in Fairfield, northeast of San Francisco. The distinctly scented birds swam and swam in saltwater pools constructed outside the facility, while rehabilitating gulls and other birds flew back and forth in a large netted aviary nearby. A gray fulmar seemed to be enjoying the water pouring out of a drainpipe – it swam straight to the waterfall and then scooted to the side, only to repeat it.

Northern fulmars are of particular interest to ornithologists because of their longevity and biology. The average lifespan of these birds is more than 30 years, but researchers have observed birds older than 50 years breeding and nesting. They mate for life and begin breeding unusually late in a bird’s life, at 8 to 10 years of age, producing only one egg per year. Even when conditions are not good – when there is not enough food – they can go without it
egg production.

Two wildlife rescuers prepare to release seven fulmars in Bodega Bay.

Kelly Beffa, left, and Julie Skoglund, both with International Bird Rescue, prepare to release seven fulmars back into the wild at Doran Beach in Bodega Bay.

(Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times)

Although often mistaken for gulls, fulmars have stiff wings and nostrils on their beaks, identifying them as petrels and albatrosses. While they feed primarily on the surface, they have a keen sense of smell and can dive 10 feet to find food or escape predators.

According to the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s most recent report on breeding status and population trends of seabirds in Alaska, northern fulmar populations in the North Pacific are generally declining or stable, with one exception: the colony on St. George’s Island in the central Bering Sea seems to be to grow.

But according to Kathy Kuletz, a bird expert with the Fish and Wildlife Service, it’s difficult to assess the overall health of fulmars because they’ve had limited access to their colonies for the past two years.

Due to the pandemic, the Fish and Wildlife Service did not conduct fieldwork in 2020 and only a limited amount in 2021, with no report forthcoming, she said.

A fulmar is released back into the wild at Doran Beach in Bodega Bay.

A fulmar is released on Doran Beach in Bodega Bay after spending time in a rehabilitation facility.

(Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times)

Although it is not yet clear whether changes in the Arctic are contributing, it is clear that juvenile birds often have a harder time securing food than adult birds. As such, it’s not uncommon to find young, dead fulmars in the fall – when the juveniles are first attempting to forage for themselves.

Just not usually that many, Duerr said, noting that stranded fulmars have been found up and down the coast this year — as far away as San Diego and Long Beach.

The good news is that 28 birds rescued by BeachWatch volunteers at Manchester Beach survived and gained weight, she said.

On Tuesday, seven were healthy enough to be released, and wildlife rescuers with International Bird Rescue Kelly Beffa and Julie Skoglund drove the young birds in the back of a minivan the approximately 60 miles from Fairfield to Doran Beach in Bodega Bay.

As kayakers paddled by and curious beach walkers paused to watch, the bird team released the birds – two at a time – into the gentle surf. The birds hopped over the small patch of land before opening their wings and flying across the bay towards the ocean.

Julie Skoglund and Kelly Beffa release two of seven fulmars on Doran Beach.

Wildlife rescuers Julie Skoglund (left) and Kelly Beffa release two of seven fulmars on Doran Beach in Bodega Bay.

(Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times)

“It never gets old,” Skoglund said as she watched the last two fly toward the horizon. Hundreds of migratory seabirds wash ashore in California

Tom Vazquez

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