October 29, 2013 at 6:26 pm #792MikeKeymaster
By JON W. GLASS, The Virginian-Pilot
© July 2, 2005
VIRGINIA BEACH — Wildlife officials are investigating the mysterious
deaths of hundreds of sea birds that have washed up on beaches along
the Atlantic coast since mid-June, including south of Sandbridge and
on the Outer Banks.
Most of the birds have been greater shearwaters , which are now
migrating north from their breeding grounds in the South Atlantic.
The birds, while fairly common, are rarely seen by beachgoers because
they typically stay 30 to 100 miles offshore, where they feed on
small fish and squid.
Some of the birds have washed up alive, unable to fly and appearing
weak, and later died. The number of dead birds has alarmed wildlife
officials, who are scrambling to pinpoint a cause.
More than 500 dead sea birds have been reported from Maryland to
Florida since June 12, said Emi Saito, a wildlife disease specialist
with the U.S. Geological Survey’s National Wildlife Health Center in
“It’s unusual to see so many,” Saito said this week.
Wildlife pathologists are examining the carcasses for exposure to
toxins, pollutants such as heavy metals and infections that might
indicate a broader environmental concern, she said.
During the past week, staffers at the Back Bay National Wildlife
Refuge in Virginia Beach have found about a dozen dead greater
shearwaters on the beach, said Dorie Stolley, a wildlife biologist.
Only a few remained in good enough condition to be examined, and the
others were incinerated by city animal control officers, she said.
Staffers used rubber gloves and took other precautions while
collecting the birds. People are advised not to touch dead birds they
find on the beach.
Reports of dead birds also have come from Ocracoke and Hatteras
Island on the Outer Banks.
Diane Duncan, an ecologist with the federal wildlife agency’s
Ecological Services Office in Charleston, S.C., said the first
reports came from Myrtle Beach, Hilton Head and several nearby
Nearly 200 birds have washed up since then in South Carolina, Duncan
“In 20 years here, I have never seen this kind of mortality event,”
Duncan said. “It certainly is a concern to us, and we’d like to know
Tests on two of the birds ruled out toxins found in red tide, a type
of algal bloom that biologists initially suspected as a culprit,
Will Post, an ornithologist and curator at The Charleston Museum,
said he had dissected six greater shearwaters that had washed up
alive, unable to fly, and later died.
The birds’ stomachs were empty, but they had varying levels of fat
reserves, suggesting that they did not die of starvation, Post said.
“They were below normal weight, but that’s normal when they’re in
migration,” he said.
The shearwaters fly nearly 5,000 miles during their annual migrations
to and from their nesting grounds on Tristan da Cunha, a chain of
volcanic islands in the South Atlantic, Post said. The cold-water
birds breed in April and May and then fly to their summer grounds off
New England and points north, he said.
Islanders in the South Atlantic are allowed to harvest about 50,000
of the young birds a year for food, which is controversial, Post
said. There’s an estimated 5 million breeding pairs, he added.
The birds resemble gulls in appearance and size, with brown to gray
heads and white undersides. They have webbed feet and dark, tube like
Since they spend their lives at sea, Post said, they are able to
drink salt water, excreting excess salt through special glands in
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