Oil leak poses problems for birds

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Natural oil leaks off Santa Barbara have hurt local seabird populations. Photo by Jim Kenney, Santa Monica Bay Audubon Society.

Seabirds covered with

oil from a natural leak near Santa Barbara have been washing ashore in Malibu.

By Jimy Tallal / Special to The Malibu Times

Over the past three months, more than 50 seabirds covered in oil have been rescued from the shores of Malibu, and many more have unfortunately never made it to shore. Natural oil leaking from the ocean floor off the coast of Santa Barbara has been having its most detrimental effects on a newly established colony of common murres on one of the remote Channel Islands.

Officials from the California Wildlife Center (CWC), which is tasked with rescuing stranded seabirds in Malibu, told The Malibu Times that since Jan. 1 they have rescued 46 common murres, three western grebes, three pacific loons, three surf scoters, one common loon, one rhinoceros auklet and one brown pelican that have come ashore oiled.

Duane Tom, DVM, of CWC said the oiled birds started showing up in mid-December, and that they?re still coming in. He said the birds have been rescued from all up and down Malibu?s coast, ?from Will Rogers up to Zuma.? Reports have come in of birds being found all the way down to Orange County.

Sightings of oiled birds in Malibu were also confirmed by Chuck Almdale, who leads field trips for the Santa Monica Bay Audubon Society.

?At our last monthly Malibu Lagoon walk on Feb. 26, many participants noticed that there seemed to be an unusual number of dead birds on the beach,? Almdale said in March. ?I saw at least a half dozen cormorants and one coot.?

The oil found on some birds has been tested, and found to originate from the Coal Oil Point seep field offshore from Santa Barbara, where 100-150 barrels of liquid petroleum per day leak naturally from faults and cracks in the sea floor, rising to the ocean?s surface to produce a natural oil slick several miles long. When the oil is degraded by evaporation and weathering, it also produces tar balls that can wash up on local beaches.

Since the naturally occurring oil slick is always present, scientists and rescuers have been asking why so many more birds than usual are getting oiled from it this year ? and particularly why eighty percent of them are common murres, a species not generally seen off the shores of Malibu.

One possible answer comes from a group of researchers from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and National Park Service (NPS) who made an unexpected but happy discovery last July. For the first time since 1912, a colony of the black and white common murres had returned to Prince Island, a tiny island near San Miguel Island in the Channel Islands National Park. After the murres left the Channel Islands 100 years ago, their most southern breeding colony had been in the Big Sur area.

While positive conditions in terms of ocean temperatures and fish availability appear to be the reason for the birds? return, their historic nesting colony also happens to be near the ongoing Santa Barbara oil slick. Murres are very vulnerable to any oil on the ocean?s surface because they are pelagic seabirds ? diving birds that spend their entire lives on the open sea except when they come onshore to nest.

A bird that gets oil on its feathers literally cannot survive. Oil breaks down the feather structures that normally keep seabirds warm and waterproof, and makes them wet and cold. Many head for the nearest land once they get too cold, even though they are not particularly well-equipped for getting around on solid ground.

Birds rescued by CWC in Malibu are first stabilized and then taken to the International Bird Rescue facility in San Pedro for clean-up, long-term care and eventual release. Both nonprofit groups are members of California?s ?Oiled Wildlife Care Network.?

Rebecca Dmytryk of WildRescue points out that while the state provides funding and strict guidelines for the rescue and care of wildlife in the event of a manmade oil spill, when the oiling is caused by a natural seep, as this one is, ?There are no funds for search and collection efforts. The rescue of animals is left in the hands of the public?This is when an oiled bird is not an ?oiled bird?.?

Anyone seeing an oiled bird onshore, or any bird that wouldn?t normally be on land, such as a murre, grebe, loon or diving duck, is urged to contact the California Wildlife Center at 310.458.WILD (9453). The sooner a hypothermic bird is rescued, the better its chances are for a full recovery.