Biologists, residents watching marine bird populations as hundreds more found dead on southern Avalon

·3 min read
A dead gannet in Point Lance, N.L.  (Patrick Butler/Radio-Canada - image credit)
A dead gannet in Point Lance, N.L. (Patrick Butler/Radio-Canada - image credit)
Patrick Butler/Radio-Canada
Patrick Butler/Radio-Canada

Dead and dying sea birds have been showing up on the south coast of Newfoundland over the last two weeks — from the Cape St. Mary's Ecological Reserve to the public beaches in St. Vincent's, Point Lance and the southern Burin Peninsula.

Testing is underway to determine the root cause of the die off but Chris Mooney, an interpretation officer at the Cape St. Mary's reserve, told CBC News it certainly seems avian flu is the problem.

Mooney, who's been working on the reserve for the last 21 years, says there has been no update as of Thursday, but testing results should come back soon.

"I don't know how long it takes for it to spread, but hopefully it doesn't spread too much. Hopefully we don't lose a lot [of birds]," he said.

"It's not good because there's nothing we can do for them. All we can do now is watch, keep numbers, talk to the Canadian Wildlife Service, talk to the university, [biologist] Bill Montevecchi and talk to head office."

Signs point to the number of dead birds being in the thousands. Mooney suggests for every one bird found on a beach, there's six to 10 floating in the ocean. He's hoping the reserve isn't facing a similar situation where thousands died in early June on the Magdalen Islands in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

Patrick Butler/Radio-Canada
Patrick Butler/Radio-Canada

Peter Corcoran has lived in Point Lance for over 50 years. On Thursday he was on the 2.2-kilometre beach taking stock of how many birds had washed up over the last couple of days. Hundreds littered the sand.

"I'd say there's pretty close to 300 here now," Corcoran told CBC News.

"Some wash up, some come in alive. They'll be alive for about 10 minutes, I guess, and then they just roll over in the sand and die."

Corcoran said people in his community don't know what to make of the situation. He said some have spoken with federal environment officers who told them they've been tracking avian flu since the winter throughout Placentia Bay.

"I've fished for 35 years and I've never seen anything like this. Here in the winter you'll get maybe two, or three or four birds but that's about it," he said.

Watching the gannets

There's about 100,000 birds of varying species living on the St. Mary's reserve.

Mooney said most of the bird carcasses being found are murres with about one gannet being found for every 20. But authorities are keeping a close eye on the 15,000 pairs of gannets, since their migration period starts near the end of September, meaning they'll be huddled together still for two more months making possible spread of avian flu that much greater.

Murres being found on the beaches appear to be healthy and full of food, Mooney said, but research teams are going to be impacted because of the unknown origin of the die off.

Patrick Butler/Radio-Canada
Patrick Butler/Radio-Canada

"Nobody knows. You don't want to go down among the birds if it's the avian bird flu. Even though it's not easily contracted to humans, you still don't want to go down among them," he said.

Corcoran said puffins are also among the birds that are washing up and tourists are also popping by to enjoy the beach. He's been trying to get authorities to come clean up the mess.

"We get a lot of people that walk the beach. They're afraid to go on it now," he said.

"We always had seven or eight bald eagles here in the spring over in the seaweed, I've never seen one this year. Not one."

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