REPORTING SEABIRD MORTALITIES TO ADRIFT LAB
In November, seabirds began washing up dead and dying on beaches from Byron Bay to Hobart. The death of 100s or 1000s of seabirds at one time is referred to as a #MassMortality or #wreck event. In Australia, the main species caught up in these events is usually the Short-tailed Shearwater (or 'muttonbird'), though some particularly bad events involve other species too.
***2024 UPDATE*** In February, another wreck event began, this time involving mostly Fairy Prions (a small seabird and with blue-grey feathers). However, early indications are that this event may also involve a few other seabird species, including some that look similar to each other (especially when the birds are water-logged or the carcass is starting to degrade). To enable correct identification by the Adrift Lab team, we ask that you take extra care with your photos. Ideally, take photos of every bird you encounter on the beach. In each photo, ensure the beak shape and colour of the feet is visible. Photos of the under-wing and back of the bird can be very useful as the colour/pattern is often used in identification.
WHAT CAN YOU DO?
- Take a photo of the scene and individual bird (so we can confirm ID)
- Record how far you walked (estimates are fine)
- Note how many people (we need this to calculate search effort)
- Record the number of dead/dying birds you observe
Our Adrift Lab team has written about this issue in the past, and made a number of important recommendations about what data to record, and how. The paper is titled "A proposed framework for reporting mass mortality (wreck) events of seabirds" and you can read the abstract here.
WHERE TO SEND YOUR PHOTOS AND DATA?
- Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- direct message via any of #AdriftLab's social media channels (you can also reply to one of our existing posts)
WHAT'S CAUSING THE BIRDS TO DIE?
We’re pretty disappointed to see reputable organisations suggesting this mass-mortality event is “normal” or “natural”. It isn't. Nor is it directly linked with the birds’ long-distance migration (which for the shearwaters, was completed more than a month before birds started washing up on beaches - and for Fairy Prions, they haven't even migrated yet as these are juvenile birds). Besides, if migration really was the cause, we’d see 100s or 1000s of dead shearwaters on our beaches every single year. Thankfully, we don’t. We should do everything we can to NOT normalise what’s happening right now, and instead, treat it like the alarm bell that it really is. Seabirds are the marine equivalent of the “canary in the coal mine” and we should be listening to what they’re telling us. What's causing the deaths is a large #MarineHeatwave off the east coast of Australia - here are some links to provide you with information about this (and below is a photo of of the sea surface temperature (SST) anomaly in February 2024, when Fairy Prions began washing up)
Here are a few explanatory sentences from the paper we published in 2021 (link above): "Ocean temperatures are rising due to climate change, and extreme events such as marine heatwaves are increasing in frequency, subsequently influencing the abundances of marine predators and their prey. Marine heatwaves, along with a broad spectrum of additional threats, are causing many seabird populations to decline. Most of these threats are synergistic or cumulative, and virtually all are increasing in their frequencies and intensities. Although storms and strong winds may increase the likelihood of birds washing up, the cause is most likely related to a shortage of food reducing the bird’s condition. Anomalous oceanic conditions and climatic phenomenon, such as El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO), have also been shown to impact seabird survival often resulting in wreck events. Seabird wrecks caused by environmental variables appear to have increased in frequency in some areas. Such events highlight the impact of environmental pressures that birds are facing globally, which are now exceeding the ability of many species to cope. Monitoring beach-washed seabirds, including those species that migrate, can provide insights into the spatial and temporal extent of wrecks and other anomalous events."
A substantial marine heatwave resulted in the deaths of an estimated 200,000 shearwaters that washed up from Brisbane to Hobart during the summer of 2013/2014. This photo of a beach in Newcastle is particularly harrowing.
Could these birds have died from Avian Flu (HPAI), as has been recorded for seabirds in the Northern Hemisphere, South America and Antarctica over the past 2 years? The answer to this question is not straightforward, unfortunately. Hundreds of shearwaters, shorebirds, and ducks have been tested in Australia this year and, thankfully, the results are good news (our paper will be published soon - stay tuned). That does not mean, however, that we are fully in the clear and we should continue to take precautions. Monitoring and testing is ongoing - we assure you multiple teams of exhausted (and sad) scientists are putting in some very long hours to keep on top of this as best they can.
Please be patient and kind.