Environment

Why are seabirds covered in oil washing up on Central Coast beaches?

Oil-covered seabirds are washing up on Central Coast beaches

Large numbers of injured birds with oil on their feathers and legs have been found on Central Coast beaches in recent weeks, placing a high demand on clinics like Pacific Wildlife Care in Morro Bay.
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Large numbers of injured birds with oil on their feathers and legs have been found on Central Coast beaches in recent weeks, placing a high demand on clinics like Pacific Wildlife Care in Morro Bay.

Large numbers of injured birds with oil on their feathers and legs have been found stranded on Central Coast beaches in the last few weeks, placing high demand on animal emergency clinics like Pacific Wildlife Care in Morro Bay.

The wildlife rehabilitation organization on Wednesday reported an uptick in the number of wildlife treated this year. Of 185 cases, 75 were Clark’s grebes or Western grebes — ocean-living diving birds — and 38 of those were contaminated with oil, compared to eight treated for oil in the same time period last year.

A total of more than 100 birds contaminated by oil were rescued from Central and Southern California in the last few weeks, according to the Oiled Wildlife Care Network.

Without rescue, oil contamination can be fatal.

If even a tiny spot of oil seeps onto feathers, a grebe’s natural waterproofing is compromised and it’s unable to maintain internal temperature or hunt for food.

Many birds have come to the clinic ill or hypothermic, according to Marcelle Bakula, vice president of Pacific Wildlife Care.

She said some have arrived with open wounds or burns on their legs caused by contact with oil. An event like this is called a wreck, Bakula said.

Those that didn’t have oil on their bodies are still a concern to wildlife caretakers. Grebes spend their lives in water. They propel themselves with their feet and can’t take flight from a beach.

“They’re beaching themselves. They wouldn’t come on the beach if there wasn’t a problem,” Bakula said.

Many were found at Oceano Dunes State Park, she said, where rangers collected the stranded birds so they were not struck by vehicles.

Was there an oil spill on the Central Coast?

So, where is the oil coming from — is there a spill that hasn’t yet been reported?

Not likely.

Lab results from oiled feathers gathered from clinics suggest the contamination likely came from “seeps,” naturally occurring leaks of oil from the ocean floor that are common in the Santa Barbara Channel, particularly during strong storms like those that have been hitting the Central Coast.

“We have been doing some testing. ... Although it is an unusual number of animals, it appears that it is consistent with seeps up and down the coast,” said Curt Clumpner, deputy director of animal care operations at the Oiled Wildlife Care Network.

The network of wildlife care centers that includes International Bird Rescue, which covers Santa Barbara County, have recorded 107 birds with some oil on them, from 2 percent of the body to up to 70 percent covered, Clumpner said.

The Morro Bay-clinic took in a large number of birds in just the last few days. Clumpner said samples from the latest wreck have not yet been tested.

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Melinda Alvarado, left, and Kathy Duncan apply methyl soyate to an oil-covered grebe to loosen the oil before washing the bird with soap and water at Pacific Wildlife Care in Morro Bay in 2014. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

“There is a known natural seepage during stormy periods. There is a cap that gets blown off and oil leaks from the earth. It is actually fairly typical to get a larger number (of oiled birds) this time of year,” said JD Bergeron, executive director of International Bird Rescue.

The seeps mostly affect seabirds from Southern California to Central California.

Lab work can generally help scientists distinguish between seep oil and product from a vessel or an offshore drilling rig, which usually contains additives, because of the different chemical signatures, he said.

Some years, more birds are oiled from natural seepage than from oil releases or spills, Clumpner said. That changes with events like the Refugio oil spill.

No matter the cause, volunteers, interns and staff veterinarians at the donation-funded clinic are scrambling to clean, feed and prepare the birds to be re-released into the wild. That work is on top of caring for other wildlife in their custody, like opossums and owls.

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Rehabilitation technician Jackie Sanchez works with one of the recovering birds that has been cleaned of oil on Wednesday at Pacific Wildlife Care in Morro Bay. Joe Johnston jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

How to help

If you see a bird that looks sick, injured or oiled in San Luis Obispo County, call the Pacific Wildlife Care hotline at 805-543-9453.

In other Central Coast or Southern California locations, call the Los Angeles Center of International Bird Rescue at 310-514-2573. In the Bay Area, call the San Francisco Bay Center in Fairfield at 707-207-0380.

Volunteers are needed. Contact Pacificwildlifecare.org, or if you have interest in becoming an oil spill responder, contact owcn.vetmed.ucdavis.edu.

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Melinda Alvarado, left, and Kathy Duncan apply methyl soyate to an oil-covered grebe to loosen the oil before washing the bird with soap and water at Pacific Wildlife Care in Morro Bay in 2014. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

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Monica Vaughan reports on Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo County, oil and wildlife at The Tribune. She previously covered crime and justice in the Sacramento Valley, is a graduate of the University of Oregon journalism school and is a sixth-generation Californian. Have an idea for a story? Email: mvaughan@thetribunenews.com

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