Another Bird-Related Item

To: Birding Aus <>
Subject: Another Bird-Related Item
From: knightl <>
Date: Tue, 31 Jan 2006 17:51:36 +1000

Monday, January 30, 2006

Scientists fear unusual weather behind massive seabird die-off

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 California.

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 happened."

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 vacuum.

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 beaches.

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 system."

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