7,500 bird deaths at gas plant unusual, expert says

7,500 migrating songbirds were killed by the flare at Saint John's Canaport LNG terminal.

A research scientist with the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center in Washington says he's never heard of flaring at a natural gas facility killing thousands of migratory birds before.

Peter Marra was responding to the deaths of an estimated 7,500 migrating songbirds at a gas plant in Saint John over the weekend.

It appears the birds flew into the gas flare, which towers 30 metres above the liquefied natural gas receiving and regasification terminal, some time between Friday night and Saturday morning, officials have said.

Marra says it's not surprising the Canaport LNG terminal's previous environmental impact assessments do not appear to have considered the impact of the flare on birds.

"I'm a person who really thinks about a lot of the threats that migratory birds face — cats, buildings, wind turbines — and I hadn't thought about the flaring that occurs at these natural gas facilities," he said.

"So, while it is probably something we need to go back and re-evaluate, I'm guessing that it was a natural oversight, unfortunately."

New Brunswick Department of Environment officials have declined to comment and referred all inquiries to federal officials.

The Canadian Wildlife Service is responsible for enforcing the Migratory Bird Act. Calls to the agency were responded to by an email from Environment Canada, stating it is "committed to the conservation and protection of migratory birds."

Environment Canada is aware of the incident, the statement said.

"Wildlife officials and enforcement officers are on site assessing the situation. As this is currently under investigation it would be inappropriate to comment further at this time," it said.

The Canadian Wildlife Service and the Atlantic Wildlife Institute are expected to make recommendations to prevent similar incidents.

Marra suggests limiting the flare to daylight hours might help.

Flaring is part of the standard operation at the east side plant, owned by Repsol and Irving Oil Ltd., and is designed as a safety release system. It is used to maintain normal operating pressure by burning off small amounts of excess natural gas.

Marra does not believe the incident will have a major impact on bird populations and says it's important to keep it in perspective.

Although he understands the shock many people felt about the deaths, there are far greater threats for such birds, he said.

"It pales in comparison to the numerous other, much more significant threats, such as free-ranging cats, buildings, wind turbines, electrocution," Marra said.

"There's a variety of other much more significant threats that these birds constantly have to battle with both in the fall and in the spring during migratory journeys."

Don McAlpine, the head of zoology at the New Brunswick Museum, is still examining several hundred of the dead birds to try to identify their species.

There were a large number of red-eyed vireos, several types of warblers, including parula, black-and-white, magnolias and redstarts, as well as a few thrushes and rose-breasted grosbeaks, he said.

It's possible there may have also been some endangered species, such as the olive-sided flycatcher and Canada warbler, which are on the federal government's species at risk registry, said McAlpine.

Several of the birds have also been sent to the Atlantic Veterinary College in Prince Edward Island for necropsies to determine if there were any underlying conditions or external factors that may have contributed to the bird deaths.