It’s a different kind of bird watching.
Birds Canada is asking British Columbians to help monitor dead seabirds found on shorelines to help scientists better identify how certain events, such as climate change and oil spills, affect seabird health.
While help is needed year-round, conservationists are particularly worried this summer because of a Pacific marine heat wave that could cause mass deaths.
“These marine heat waves result in die-offs of bird populations, especially sea birds,” said David Bradley, the B.C. director of Birds Canada.
Pacific marine heat waves generally begin when summer temperatures spike and high Pacific winds slow, quickly heating up the surface temperature of the water.
This particular marine heat wave started forming about 1,600 kilometres off the coast in May but, in recent weeks, has migrated east toward B.C. and Oregon. The affected area of ocean is now about four million square kilometres in size, and over recent weeks, surface temperatures have been up to 5 C higher than usual.
Bradley, speaking to CBC’s On The Island Tuesday, said elevated ocean water temperatures prevent nutrient-rich cold water from rising to the surface, which can reduce food supply cause seabirds to starve.
A study published in July using research from Bradley and numerous other scientists along the Pacific coast from California to Alaska looked at approximately 90,000 surveys of dead seabirds and found there were five mass die-offs (more than 500 kilometres in extent, greater than 10 carcasses per kilometre) between 2014 and 2019 in the northeast Pacific and Bering Sea.
Scientists connected warm ocean events to disease or starvation in those five situations.
“When the heat wave happens, it suppresses that cold water upwelling and that often results in a reduction of food supply and that results, unfortunately, in seabirds dying,” said Bradley.
Marine birds that breed in B.C. are of particular concern, including rhinoceros auklets, terns, gulls and ducks.
To contribute to research on seabird mortality, all you need to do is walk the beach once a month and check for seabird carcasses along the shoreline after a high tide. Volunteers will be given a kit from Birds Canada that includes a field guide, gloves and metal tags.
The idea is to try to identify the species and tag it so that it won’t be double counted and, if found again, it can be determined how long it was on the beach.
Beached Bird Survey participants are important year-round, but the current heat wave has created an acute need this summer. To join the program, email [email protected] and identify what beach route you hope to patrol.
WATCH | How a marine heat wave is affecting the B.C. coast:
Data from the U.S.-based National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows some parts of the Pacific Ocean are experiencing a Category IV, or “extreme” heat wave — the most severe level in the organization’s ranking system.
Because this year is projected to be an El Niño year, this particular marine heat wave could take a longer time to cool down.
While it’s too early to predict the effects of El Niño, William Cheung, director of UBC’s Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries, said it’s critical to study what these conditions will do to our shores.
“One of the predictions and projections that scientists have made is that […] with climate change, these heat waves will become more frequent and more intense in the future,” he said.
Uptick in wildlife rescues
The arrival of the marine heat wave in B.C. waters is coinciding with a heat wave across the south of the province, prompting a warning from a wildlife rescue group about the risks to all animals.
Kimberly Stephens, hospital manager for the Wildlife Rescue Association of B.C., says there has been an uptick in the number of calls and admissions of animals affected by extreme temperatures.
She says some have heat exhaustion, others have been chased out by wildfires, or food and water resources have dried up because of heat and drought.
Stephens suggests people put out shallow water dishes for animals, allowing them to drink without drowning, but advises not to leave out food.
“Some species are a little bit more sensitive to those changes in the environment than other species are,” Stephens said in an interview.
As an example, she says bats are particularly sensitive to heat, as once their bodies reach a certain temperature, they go into heat stress, which lowers their chance of survival.
“For most of our birds and bats, of course, insects are a main part of their diet,” she says. “So, the decrease in the population of insects because of the extreme heat and the drought will also have an adverse effect on their on their well-being.”
More than 80 per cent of B.C. has reached Level 4 or 5 drought conditions, the highest rankings on the provincial scale.