EAST COAST – Beachgoers along the North Carolina coast have seen scores of shearwaters, a migratory seabird, washing up dead or barely alive on the beach this week.
Among the first to notice this was Ed Phillips, head of Beach Bird Stewards of Emerald Isle, a group that protects and tries to improve the habitat of a variety of birds found on and near city beaches.
He and others have worked with the NC Wildlife Resources Commission.
WRC waterbird biologist Carmen Johnson said on Friday it was not unusual to see shearwaters washing up on beaches at this time of year.
They are caught in storms and just before people start seeing the birds in large numbers, Tropical Storm Colin moved through parts of eastern North Carolina and South Carolina over the weekend of July 4 before setting sail. Since then, there have been other unnamed storms offshore.
“We see this every year to some degree, but the numbers are a bit higher right now,” Ms Johnson said on Friday. She said she expects the event to go on for some time.
Shearwaters vary in size and migrate long distances. They feed on fish, squid, and similar ocean foods. These birds, according to Ms Johnson, are great shearwaters. They are not the largest of the shearwaters, usually around 18 inches, but not the smallest. The birds are not listed under the Endangered Species Act.
Ms Johnson said the birds nest on islands in the South Atlantic and then make the long flight to the US east coast and arrive here in the summer.
They are usually not seen as they stay well offshore. But, Ms Johnson said, “we see some getting washed every year. They are like all living beings, they die.
She said there was no estimate of the number of dead birds in recent weeks. “But I will say what we’re seeing now is at the high end of the (mortality) scale,” she said.
The current mortality isn’t just in North Carolina, she said, it’s all along the East Coast.
A likely problem for birds is climate change, which is stressing them. They probably aren’t getting enough food on the trip, so by the time they arrive in the waters off North Carolina, many of them aren’t in good shape.
The WRC is sending some of the dead birds to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration experts for testing and necropsies.
Some will also go to a researcher in Georgia who studies the impact of climate change.
Brook Breen, manager of the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter off Highway 24 near Morehead City, posted a Facebook post earlier this week.
“This bird is a migratory visitor that we rarely see, as it prefers to travel in the open sea. They are migrating now and due to lack of food at their usual stops and offshore storms, they have washed up on shore en masse. from North Carolina,” she wrote. “These birds are completely exhausted and weigh less than half of what they should. Please bring them for care. We see this happen at least twice a year. Many cannot survive even with 24/7 care because it is already too late.
“Please at least give us a chance to help them recover,” Ms Breen added. “Other coastal rehabilitators are reporting the same. If we don’t have the chance to try to report, we will never have the opportunity to help.
Ms Breen could not be reached for comment on Friday.
Possumwood Acres Wildlife Shelter in Hubert near Swansboro in Onslow County also received shearwaters this week.
Contact Brad Rich at 252-864-1532; email email@example.com; or follow on Twitter @brichccnt.