An adult rhinoceros auklet returns to Protection Island, west of Port Townsend, with a bill full of sandlance to feed its chick. Since May, scientists have been trying to figure out why hundreds of the birds are washing ashore dead in the eastern part of the Strait of Juan de Fuca. (Peter Hodum)

An adult rhinoceros auklet returns to Protection Island, west of Port Townsend, with a bill full of sandlance to feed its chick. Since May, scientists have been trying to figure out why hundreds of the birds are washing ashore dead in the eastern part of the Strait of Juan de Fuca. (Peter Hodum)

Scientists consider starvation or illness in eastern Strait of Juan de Fuca bird die-off

About 400 emaciated birds have washed ashore on beaches west of Port Angeles, near Victoria, and as far east as Whidbey Island since May.

PORT TOWNSEND — Scientists are getting closer to understanding why hundreds of rhinoceros auklets, a seabird closely related to puffins, have been found dead in the eastern part of the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

They may have starved.

About 400 emaciated birds have washed ashore on beaches west of Port Angeles, near Victoria, and as far east as Whidbey Island since May, said conservation biologist Peter Hodum, an associate professor at the University of Puget Sound.

Possible pneumonia

Necropsies of some of the birds performed by the U.S. Geological Survey National Wildlife Health Center showed the birds may have died from bacterial pneumonia.

What isn’t clear is whether they first caught pneumonia then starved, or if the birds couldn’t find food and then became more susceptible to pneumonia, Hodum said.

Hodum, one of the scientists looking into the deaths, originally believed the birds’ breeding on the Protection Island National Wildlife Refuge west of Port Townsend was going as usual.

“Everything led us to believe it was going to be a perfectly fine season,” he said.

Last week, Hodum visited the island to check on the growing chicks and found this year was anything but normal.

“Most chicks were three to four weeks behind their typical development,” he said. “That suggests a shortage in the food supply.”

He also found a high number of dead chicks, he said.

It appears to be the lowest chick survival rate Hodum has seen in the past several years.

An estimate of the chicks’ survival rate on Protection Island for this year falls between 54 percent and 77 percent. The lower estimate is “much more realistic,” Hodum said.

“Even under the optimistic fledging success scenario, 2016 ranks as the worst fledging success recorded since we began monitoring in 2006,” he said.

When Hodum was on Protection Island last week, he found that the fish the parents are bringing to their chicks are much smaller than they normally would be this time of year.

Typically at this time, parents would be bringing large sandlance and medium to large herring for their chicks to eat, he said.

“This suggests they are struggling to find their preferred food to feed their chicks at this stage of the season,” he said.

What is unknown is if the chicks’ mortality is related to the adults dying, he said.

Hodum said members of the public should use caution if they see the birds on the beach, whether they are alive or dead.

It isn’t yet known if the bacterial pneumonia can be transmitted to humans. The birds are being tested for avian influenza.

The Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team has asked the public to allow its hundreds of trained volunteers who monitor beaches along the Strait of Juan de Fuca to deal with the birds.

Discovery Bay Wild Bird Rescue in Port Townsend is asking people who find live birds to contact them at 360-379-0802 if they find live birds.

Cindy Daily, a licensed rehabilitator who runs the bird rescue, said she may be able to rehabilitate the seabirds.

Daily said earlier this week that she had rehabilitated a sickly rhinoceros auklet found in Port Angeles about two weeks ago.

“It was just very very skinny, but now it’s doing great,” she said. “It’s going to recover and be released.”

________

Reporter Jesse Major can be reached at 360-385-2335, ext. 5550, or at jmajor@peninsuladailynews.com.

The auklets’ burrows on Protection Island, west of Port Townsend. (Peter Hodum)

The auklets’ burrows on Protection Island, west of Port Townsend. (Peter Hodum)

More in News

Able seamen Doug Reader, front, and Brandon Melville drive forklifts as they offload equipment from the ferry MV Coho after its return to Port Angeles from annual dry dock maintenance in Anacortes on Wednesday. The ferry is scheduled to resume regular service between Port Angeles and Victoria today. (Keith Thorpe/Peninsula Daily News)
Preparing for service

Able seamen Doug Reader, front, and Brandon Melville drive forklifts as they… Continue reading

Dr. Suzanne Ames.
Peninsula College adapting to next generation of students

Aim is to engage, meet workforce needs

Officials: Combine Simdars, Johnson Creek road projects

Clallam County, Sequim, tribe urge coordination

The Swiftsure, a whale-watching tour boat operated by Port Townsend-based Puget Sound Express, is the first vessel to take advantage of the early reopening of the Point Hudson Marina on Wednesday after four months of closure to rebuild its north jetty. The marina will close again after the Wooden Boat Festival ends Sept. 10, when rebuilding the south jetty will start with a scheduled re-opening in March 2024. (Steve Mullensky/for Peninsula Daily News)
Point Hudson marina reopens

The Swiftsure, a whale-watching tour boat operated by Port Townsend-based Puget Sound… Continue reading

Amy Miller has been appointed to a seat on the Port Angeles City Council to fill a seat vacated by Mike French, who resigned to become a Clallam County commissioner. (Keith Thorpe/Peninsula Daily News)
Amy Miller tapped for Port Angeles City Council

Appointee fills seat vacated by Mike French

The MV Coho, pictured in dry dock at the Anacortes Ship Yards, will be back in service Thursday. Yearly maintenance began Jan. 3. The maintenance is taking a few days longer due to COVID-19 the past two years, Black Ball Ferry Line officials have said. The ship returns to twice-daily round trips across the Strait of Juan de Fuca between Victoria and Port Angeles at 8:20 a.m. Thursday. (Dave Logan/for Peninsula Daily News)
Coho maintenance

The MV Coho, pictured in dry dock at the Anacortes Ship Yards,… Continue reading

East Jefferson Fire Rescue town halls focus on lid lift

Ballot measure to go before voters on Feb. 14

Planning work priorities to be discussed

Jefferson County’s Board of County Commissioners and its Planning… Continue reading

Trimming an Italian plum, gleaners Scott Swantner, left, Seth Rolland and Tim Lawson devote their Sunday to trimming and pruning the Blue Heron orchard at Blue Heron Middle School in Port Townsend, to promote growth and health of the fruit trees, some of which were planted in 2010. The fruit goes to the school and is available to students. (Steve Mullensky/for Peninsula Daily News)
Pruning fruit trees

Trimming an Italian plum, gleaners Scott Swantner, left, Seth Rolland and Tim… Continue reading

Most Read