Monday, January 30, 2006
Scientists fear unusual weather behind massive seabird die-off
By ROBERT McCLURE
SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER REPORTER
Alone in the nest, the starving seabird chick looked a little woozy.
Then it collapsed.
Hours passed before the desperate mother bird returned, a fish tail
sticking out of her beak. Again and again she offered the fresh morsel.
But it was too late -- the baby bird was dying.
"It's an ugly, gut-wrenching thing to watch," said University of
Washington researcher Julia Parrish, who witnessed such a scene
repeatedly last summer, hidden amid the cacophony of 6,000 nesting
murres on Tatoosh Island off the Olympic Peninsula.
The murres' unusual mass starvation became a clue in a mystery
unfolding along the West Coast.
Weather, scientists know, is the key to the puzzle. For some reason,
winds and currents crucial to the marine food web just didn't happen on
schedule last year.
Seabird breeding failures in the summer were preceded by tens of
thousands of birds washing up dead on beaches in Washington, Oregon and
And Washington's largest colony of glaucous-winged gulls also
sputtered: Where 8,000 chicks normally fledge, 88 did last year.
"The whole process broke down," Parrish said. "We don't know what
Earlier this month, 45 researchers met in Seattle to hash out the cause.
Though they couldn't trace the source of the weird weather, many are
warily eyeing the coming spring, wondering: Was that just a blip, an
anomaly -- or is this what global warming looks like?
Recall that at this time last year, Seattleites were cooing about a
string of sunny winter days -- if they weren't complaining about the
lack of powder on the slopes at Snoqualmie. It was warm and dry. It
marked the third year of above-normal ocean temperatures.
Then rain started pouring in early spring. At a time when the birds
should have been making and feeding babies, a network of beachcombing
citizen-scientists run by Parrish instead found them dead.
"It was the birds that were the first harbingers of this whole
problem," said Bill Peterson of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric
Administration, which set up the Seattle meeting.
The dramatic downturns among certain bird species didn't happen in a
Researchers last year also recorded low catches of juvenile salmon and
rockfish, and there were sightings of emaciated gray whales. Those
findings were preceded by the first-time appearance in Washington of
thousands of squid normally not found north of San Francisco. And a
kind of plankton typically found near San Diego bloomed along Northwest
A scientist studying the longest-running set of indicators of Pacific
Ocean conditions says we can expect this kind of thing to repeat as the
planet warms and weather patterns are altered.
"There are all these unconnected reports of biological failures," said
John McGowan of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla,
Calif. "It's all the way up and down the coast. ... There's a lot of
evidence there are important changes going on in the Pacific coast
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